This film is held by the BFI (ID: 19821).


Dramatised propaganda film, in which a villager refuses to be vaccinated by the visiting sanitary inspector and contracts smallpox.

'Alabi, a young man, refuses to be vaccinated by the Sanitary Inspector. A few days later he goes to visit his friend Tijani, in another village, and finds him very ill, lying in a native doctor's hut. He recognises the symptoms of smallpox, but does not report it to the Health Officer. He feeds Tijani and goes home.

Fourteen days later, Alabi sitting outside his sister's house, feels ill. He and his sister go to the Hospital to see the doctor and Alabi tells him about his visit to Tijani, two weeks ago. The Doctor suspects smallpox and puts Alabi to bed, under observation. Meanwhile, an ambulance and vaccinators are sent to Tijani's village to deal with the outbreak. Search is made for any case of smallpox; Tijani is kept hidden in the bush to avoid being taken to hospital.

Alabi stays at hospital until he is cured. Then he goes to Tijani's village to find out what has happened to his friend: Tijani, led by a boy, feels his way towards him with a stick - he is blind.' (P. Morton Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 1952, 16).



Smallpox was shot in Agege in the Yoruba part of Nigeria and has been widely described as the ‘first major production of the Nigerian Film Unit’. The Nigerian unit had taken over production from the Colonial Film Unit in July 1950 and while it still had a dominant British influence, Commonwealth Survey reported that ‘two Nigerians worked on the technical production of this film as assistants to the director and cameraman’ (Commonwealth Survey, July 1951, 28).

The Colonial Office’s Annual Report on Nigeria noted in 1950 that Smallpox‘has achieved a notable success. Critics in London described it as one of the best documentaries of its kind ever to be produced by a Colonial Unit’, adding that the film has ‘stimulated interest in vaccinations’ throughout Nigeria. ‘Public Relations Departments in many other territories have asked for copies of the film’, the report noted, while the Public Relations Department’s mobile cinema vans showed films all over the country to audiences of ‘well over one million’ during 1950 (Annual Report, 1950, 109).

Smallpox also played outside of Nigeria. C.Y. Carstairs, writing in the Journal of African Administration in 1953, claimed that it had been ‘shown all over Africa (as well as winning critical laurels elsewhere)’, while William Sellers, in a discussion at the Royal Society for Arts in 1953, stated that ‘it is rather interesting that a film made in Nigeria on smallpox, which is perhaps one of the best films that have been made by any unit connected with the Colonial Film Unit, has been highly successful in Tanganyika’ (Journal of African Administration, 1953, 4, and Sellers, 1953, 835). Norman Spurr noted the film’s success in Tanganyika, which he measured by the ‘marked increase in voluntary vaccination’. This was achieved ‘despite the differences in locale and custom’ and was used, by both Sellers and Spurr, as a rare example of a film that resonated beyond the local areas represented (Community Development Journal, January 1966, 30). Smallpox also played at the Edinburgh Film Festival in September 1953 as part of a programme on public health films (The Times, 22 August 1953, 9).

In 1950, the Annual Report of the Medical Services registered 19,663 cases of smallpox, and 3,128 deaths, but claimed that with around four million vaccinations carried out in the year, ‘the opposition to vaccination appears to be slowly decreasing’ (Annual Report, 1951, 9). C.Y. Carstairs, in particular, illustrated the manner in which the film was used to support vaccination campaigns. ‘In one place, in Tanganyika’, he explained, ‘a showing of the film brought forward a crowd for vaccination larger than the number of people who according to the census ought to be living there at all’. ‘Against that, I am told’, he added, ‘that it has been shown in Northern Nigeria, without there being a vaccinator handy. The people clamoured for vaccination but were disappointed’. Cairstairs concluded that ‘Here is a moral. Do not show a film – or indeed engage in any other form of persuasion – unless practical action can follow’ (Journal of African Administration, 1953, 4).

The film was also shown extensively throughout Nigeria in 1952 as part of Peter Morton-Williams’ study into audience reactions in rural Nigeria. Morton-Williams provides detailed notes of individual screenings, interviewing audience members, analysing essays written on the film by schoolchildren, and examining the variations in commentary – ‘issued in typescript as a guide to commentators and recorded on the soundtrack’ – when delivered in different languages (Morton-Williams, 1952, 57). Brian Larkin argues that Morton-Williams’ work ‘makes clear the gap between British and Nigerian conceptual universes and potential that the meaning of film could always spin out of control’ (Larkin, 2008, 95). In particular, Morton-Williams indicates that many of the audiences ‘had a belief that there was a spiritual factor in the disease’, which was not addressed within the film, while many communities avoided even discussing smallpox and ‘felt it was dangerous to direct attention to the disease through a film’ (Morton-Williams, 1952, 27-28). ‘Ignoring spiritual causation’, Larkin notes, ‘meant that all the health films were greeted with “great sceptisim”’ (Larkin, 2008, 95). Furthermore, the audience reports indicate a continued fear of hospitals and of vaccination within some communities, which was fuelled by a ‘few instances’ of patients contracting fever and a septic arm from the unprotected wound, which then ‘become notorious over a wide area’ (Morton-Williams, 1952, 57). 



Smallpox is an early, prominent example of the work of the Nigerian Film Unit. The film largely follows the established conventions of colonial filmmakers in Africa. In its representation, the film endorses the role of the British in improving health and sanitation within the colonies, while the film served as part of a broader health campaign, mirroring the earlier work of William Sellers. The narrative is presented in the form of a parable – common particularly within the productions of the Central African Film Unit – while the film displays in detail the symptoms of the disease, and through the British voiceover directly, and informally, addresses the African audience.

The film’s close parallels with earlier colonial productions are hardly surprising, as this nascent unit was borne out of the Colonial Film Unit – which was headed by William Sellers – and there were still only a couple of local technicians working on the production. Peter Morton-Williams’ research into audience responses to the film indicates the broad cultural differences between the filmmakers and those viewing the film, which further highlights a dislocation between the producers and the audience. Yet, Morton-Williams also draws attention to an important local influence not present within the production, and not evident to the modern viewer. The local commentator, while working from a typescript of the English commentary, often interpreted and adjusted aspects of this colonial message for the local audiences and served as a conduit between the film text and the audience.

Smallpox illustrates the use of film as a tool for governance and social change. For example, the film presents an African man carrying a sandwich board – with a finger on the poster image pointing at the viewer – reading ‘to escape smallpox you must be vaccinated’. It shows the mobile vaccination van in operation, with smiling patients on each occasion, and reiterates, as the commentator aligns himself with the African viewers, the personal dangers to each audience member – ‘We all know the dangers of smallpox, but we never believe we will get it’. The film may also be interesting as a comparison with the early work of other emerging African film units, in particular, the Gold Coast Film Unit, which was far more ambitious, modern and challenging in the ways in which it projected its message to an audience. Smallpox, in contrast, appears more closely aligned with William Sellers and does not, as yet, offer much evidence of an emerging Nigerian voice.

Tom Rice (February 2009)


Works Cited

Carstairs, C.Y., ‘Information Services as an Aid to Administration’, Journal of African Administration, 1953, 4

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies. Nigeria, 1950 (London: H.M.S.O., 1950).

Commonwealth Survey, July 1951, 28.

Larkin, Brian, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).

Morton-Williams, P., Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental-Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria (Lagos: Federal Information Services, 1952).

Nigeria Medical Department, Annual Report on the Medical Services, 1950-51 (Lagos: Federal Government Printer, 1951).

Sellers, William, ‘Making Films in and for the Colonies’, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 829-837.

Spurr, Norman, Multiplication: The Use of 8mm. Film In Community Development, Community Development Journal, January 1966, 29-32.

‘Venice Awards For British Films Winning Productions For Edinburgh’, The Times, 22 August 1953, 9.




Technical Data

Running Time:
25 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
2122 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit
Production Company
Nigerian Film Unit







Production Organisations