This film is held by the BFI (ID: 243738).


A drama of tribal life in Central Africa.

'Nionga, a chieftain's daughter, is induced by a vindictive witch-doctor to persuade her betrothed lover, Kasari, to plot the destruction of a neighbouring tribe. During the wedding celebrations, Kasari reluctantly acts upon the witch-doctor's advice, but is killed after setting fire to the fated village. In accordance with the custom of her tribe, Nionga is burned alive.' (Bioscope, 28 May 1925, 35)



Reviews for Nionga noted that this was a ‘good novelty booking’, a ‘novel type of film entertainment’, ‘curious and extremely interesting’ and ‘an interesting experiment in film production’. The film’s novelty stemmed largely from the fact that it was shot in Africa, and was, Rachael Low suggested, the first British film using Africans as actors to play in London, although Dean Rapp and Charles Weber argued that Livingstone claimed this title by a few months (Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1989, 17). The African actors were a source of interest within the reviews. Kinematograph Weekly discussed the film as a ‘story of Africa, entirely played by natives, no white man appearing in it at all’, and further noted that ‘all the parts are played by natives, and there is a great deal of interest in their methods’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 21 May 1925, 42, 56). The Stoll press book emphasised the ‘fascination that comes from the fact that all the actors are Savages’.

A poster for Nionga stated that this was ‘not a travelogue but a throbbing drama of native life’, yet Rachael Low argued that Nionga contains ‘all the paraphernalia of the primitive travel film’ (KW, 21 May 1925; Low, 1971, 290). Reviews certainly noted the ‘interesting scenery of the lakes, country and native villages’ and referred less to the film’s narrative than to the ‘many interesting native customs, which are well depicted’ (KW, 21 May 1925, 56). Bioscope similarly noted the ‘many characteristic shots of native dances, fishing sequences, toilet methods, etc.’ but suggested that in its ‘effort to picture the life customs and characteristics of these natives in the form of a coherent story based upon actual tribal traditions’, Nionga offers ‘great improvement upon the conventional patchwork travel productions’ (Bioscope, 28 May 1925, 85). Close Up, in an article entitled ‘London and the Negro Film’, further noted this merging of fiction and non-fiction, but suggested that the ‘dramatic moulding was never obtrusive enough to parody the natives’ psychology and rob us of their naivete and simple charm’ (Close Up, August 1929, 128).

Film scholar Emma Sandon discusses Nionga as a ‘compilation’ of ‘strategies and subject matter drawn from earlier short films, held together by a more or less coherent narrative framework’. She considers this ‘composite’ film as an extension of ‘pre-existing cultural practices’ – for example live ethnographic shows, exhibitions, museum displays and early actuality films – but also as indicative of a shift from non-fiction to narrative and fiction cinema. Sandon considers Nionga, along with Stampede (1929), in terms of genre and argues that ‘these films also point to the consolidation of a distinctive European documentary film practice that runs in parallel with the narrative feature film’ (Sandon, 2002, 204).

Nionga played at trade shows in May 1925 – for example at the Palace Theatre in London on 22 May – and was presented to the public at the Polytechnic Cinema, along with ‘the continental production, Warning Shadows, and the Russian film, Morosko’, in November. The Times suggested that this ‘interesting drama, based on the customs and superstitions of savages living in almost inaccessible regions of Central Africa… entirely acted by natives’ is ‘well worth a visit’ (Times, 10 November 1925, 12). The Polytechnic specialised in ‘ethnographic’ productions, and Close Up suggested that ‘The Poly has been making box-office successes of these films to the extent of record runs… This is proof to the world that in London alone exists a large white public interested in the life of his coloured brethren’ (Close Up, August 1929, 128).  

The critical and popular response to Nionga engages with a widespread interest in the ‘primitive’, which is evident in fiction, in scientific and expedition films and in exhibitions throughout the 1920s. This response rarely positioned Nionga within a specific locale or historical moment, but rather used the characters and location as representations of ‘Africans’ and ‘Africa’. The film responds less then to specific tribes and scenes within Central Africa than to the popular imagination of ‘Africa’ in the 1920s. While colonial officials, speeches and public displays (most notably the Wembley exhibition of 1924-25) sought to offer a reformed imperialism, promoting a message of duty and development, rather than one of conquest and expansion, popular readings often deviated from the official line. As Daniel Mark Stephen recently argued, the Wembley exhibition ‘coincided with the emergence of “blackness” and “the primitive” as powerful British cultural commodities’, while the promotion of British ‘development’ within Africa was invariably dependent on this image of the ‘primitive’ in order to highlight the ‘necessary’ work undertaken by the British. 



Emma Sandon referred to Nionga as a narrative of ‘racial difference’, yet as reviews constantly emphasised the film contains an all-African cast, and so this division is enacted between the African characters on screen and the British audience viewing the film (Sandon, 2002, 193). This division is apparent from an opening title – ‘the story to be unfolded is their own’ – as the titles directly address the British viewer. In urging ‘our patrons’ not to look for ‘skill and artistry’ in this drama of the ‘crude life of simple people’, the titles serve to privilege the ‘civilised’ British viewer over the ‘primitive’ Africans on screen.

The position of the viewer within the film further highlights this division. Initially the ‘phantom ride’ down the river positions the viewer as a traveller visiting ‘the heart of Central Africa’, showing panoramic scenes of landscape and nature. Once in the village, as Emma Sandon notes, the theatrical staging ‘offers an observational viewpoint that does not introduce the spectator into the narrative space of the characters’ (Sandon, 2002, 194). The film purports to offer a ‘glimpse into the minds of savages’ – the italics further dehumanising the Africans by questioning the notion of Africans possessing ‘minds’ – but the framing primarily presents the Africans as exotic spectacles. This representation is directed by the titles, which initially transform familiar shots of natural landscape into something more threatening – ‘the great silence of the primeval forest is broken by the roaring torrent of Victoria Nyanza falls’, while ‘early morning finds the dark rivers already peopled with dusky savages’. The titles, providing a British voice, subsequently relate and compare the ‘primitive’ activities on screen with modern British life. This is often intended for comic effect – for example, as the locals sit on the floor and eat with their hands from a shared bowl, a title reads ‘Dinner is informal!’ – but it also serves once more to distance and privilege the spectator over the Africans on screen.

This tactic is common in other films of this period, such as British Instructional Films Empire Series and The Prince of Wales’ Tour of Africa (1925). Certainly Nionga uses established representational tropes when depicting African life. The Africans are ‘filled with superstitious awe’, ‘oppressed by superstitious fear’ and controlled by witchcraft and superstition. They are presented as inherently violent – ‘war was a game in which all Molunga natives excelled’ – and depicted through stereotypical ethnographic shots. For example, the film includes numerous scenes of dances – ‘the dance of the fetishes’, ‘the dance of the warriors’, ‘The saribanda dance of the women’ – while also, as Sandon noted, including images which draw on ‘evolutionary notions of the scientific lineage from apes to man’ (Sandon, 2002, 196). The film includes scenes of village life, of rowing and fishing, and also, in showing the preparation of food, draws on the industrial process films (‘the palm oil is drawn off’). Nionga thus incorporates a wide range of cultural and generic traditions, which thereby produces a largely familiar and ‘composite’ feel to what was promoted as a ground-breaking production.

Sandon described the narrative as a ‘Christian morality tale’, but of perhaps greater interest are the discourses surrounding the film. An early title emphasised that Nionga featured players who ‘were, until recently, cannibals, and are still unlettered, cruel and warlike’. Publicity materials for the film went further, as posters advertised ‘cannibals turned into screen actors of stellar merits’, while the press book stated that the ‘savages have become cinematograph actors’. This transformation of ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ into actors supports a discourse of British ‘civilisation’ within Africa, with the ‘civilisation’ process in this case enacted by the film producers themselves.

Tom Rice (June 2008)


Works Cited

‘Nionga’, Bioscope, 28 May 1925, 35-36. 

Chowl, Hay, ‘London and the Negro Film’, Close Up, Vol. 5, No.  2, August 1929.

Kinematograph Weekly, 21 May 1925, 42.

Kinematograph Weekly, 28 May 1925, 56.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1918-1929 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1971).

Nionga Pressbook’, held at the BFI.

Rapp, Dean and Charles W. Weber, ‘British Film, Empire and Society in the Twenties: the ‘Livingstone’ Film, 1923-1925’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1989.

Sandon, Emma, ‘Representing ‘African Life’: From Ethnographic Exhibitions to Nionga and Stampede’, Young and Innocent? The Cinema in Britain 1896-1930edited by Andrew Higson (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002).

Stephen, Daniel Mark, ‘”The White Man's Grave": British West Africa and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-1925’. The Journal of British Studies 48, no. 1 (January 2009), 102-128.

‘The Film World’, The Times, 10 November 1925, 12.




Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
5800 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Stoll Film Company





Production Organisations