This film is held by the BFI (ID: 2702).


A doctor tells a personal story about an encounter with the disease bilharzia and shows how it can be prevented.

A white doctor's sister and her two daughters have recently arrived from England. The daughters discover a dry fish pond and the doctor agrees to fill it with goldfish, as long as they provide the necessary vegetation. The girls visit Don, a young white boy, and spot some water lilies. Don calls out for two black boys to get the water lilies for him. The girls then plant the lilies in their pond, but the doctor is concerned that 'certain trespassers' may be living in the vegetation. The doctor collects snails from the pond to test for bilharzia and takes his sister and the girls back to his laboratory. The film then offers a scientific description of bilharzia, with shots from textbooks and microscopes. His sister is treated with copper sulphate, while the girls receive injections.

The doctor then visits Don's farm, where he finds Don feeling unwell.The doctor sends an African orderly to search the water for snails, while another rounds up the African workers. The doctor inspects the arms of the Africans and deduces that '90% are infected'. He is suddenly called away as Don has appendicitis. Don subsequently recovers and returns to the farm. Don's father now outlines the measures he has taken to remove bilharzia; Africans spray copper sulphate into the pool; there is an improved water supply for the Africans; African women wash clothes in fresh clean water; an ox cart carries water to the compound. The film concludes by urging parents to protect their children, as it shows white children playing in water.



Sight and Sound, in considering the work of the Government Film Production Unit in 1948, commented that the nearly-completed Still Waters:  the Menace of Bilharzia ‘coats the pill of warning against Africa’s worst disease with the sugar of an appealing story pleasantly acted by local talent’. The article explained that ‘the film will be shown widely in the Colony, and also to would-be immigrants overseas’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1948, 8).

However, Geoffrey Mangin, who assisted Frank Goodliffe in the production, noted that ‘the local cinemas would not show’ either Still Waters or a concurrent production on the perils of malaria. ‘According to the regional director of the cinema group’, wrote Mangin, ‘their patrons “paid to be entertained, not educated”, and anyhow “their agreements with their overseas distributors did not allow them to screen films from any other source”’. The government instead had to show 16mm prints of Goodliffe’s films ‘in clubs, schools and by means of the mobile cinema’ (Mangin, 1998, 18-19). The film had its British premiere ‘before a distinguished audience at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’ on June 30 1949 and was subsequently available from the Public Relations Office of the Government of Southern Rhodesia in London (Lancet 2, 20 August 1949, 335).

An editorial in the medical journal, The Lancet, discussed Still Waters and suggested that ‘it cannot fail to be well received and to be effective propaganda among the residents of Southern Rhodesia who can understand it’. The editorial was evidently implying that some sections of the audience – specifically the Africans – would not be able to comprehend the film, and this notion was supported by Goodliffe (Lancet 2, 20 August 1949, 335). As films officer in Southern Rhodesia, Goodliffe showed Still Waters to a class of African schoolchildren in 1948 and ‘asked them to answer questions about what they had seen’. A Rhodesian Herald article explained that he sought ‘to ascertain whether the African mind is receptive to the conventions and techniques of modern film production especially as applied to propaganda’ (Burns, 2002, 96).

The experiment was ‘pronounced a failure when only 64 per cent of the children successfully answered the questions put to them’. This conclusion supported the popular opinion within much of white Rhodesian society and amongst influential filmmakers such as William Sellers that Africans and Europeans possessed different cognitive abilities. According to W. D. Gale, an officer of the Southern Rhodesian Public Relations Office, ‘the Department, after years of experience, is well aware that a film for European consumption is not necessarily suitable for Africans, who need a simpler technique’ (Burns, 2002, 96).

In contrast to another bilharzia film, The African Schistosomiases, which was for medical audiences, Still Waters was intended for ‘lay audiences’, and predominantly, it would seem, white people (Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Health v. 12 (1949), 321). Yet, bilharzia was far more prevalent amongst black Africans. Lancet, in writing about Still Waters, claimed that ‘a fifth of the population of Southern Rhodesia is now believed to be infected’, but earlier records from the Public Health Department in Southern Rhodesia had shown that 8% of the European population was infected, compared with 35% of the African population (African Affairs, July, 1945, 135-136). This division was probably even greater as diagnosis – as well as treatment – was far less common amongst black Africans.

John Farley has argued that tropical medicine was ‘fundamentally imperialistic in its basic assumptions, its methods, its goals, and its priorities’. Treatment was dictated by the demands of white inhabitants and investors, so that, according to Farley, the health needs of the Africans ‘became a priority only when their diseases were felt to threaten the health or profits of the white man, or when imperial policies demanded that the health needs of the indigenous populations be addressed’ (Farley, 1991, 4). 



The narrative of Still Waters highlights the dangers of bilharzia to white children. The film shows the effect of the disease on a young white boy, Don, while the story, narrated by a white doctor, revolves around the arrival of the doctor’s two young English nieces. There are two important points to note here.

First, while this story in its narrative and tone – for example, showing an ‘insect that looked just like a twig’ – may appear to be aimed predominantly at children, this film is intended as much for their parents. The commentary states that ‘proud parents, admiring their children swimming in rivers, might well pause to consider that the health that they admire so much is being imperilled for life’, while the film also includes scientific facts and details about the disease. In the film’s final line, the doctor addresses the parents directly – ‘we doctors need your cooperation. You want healthy, happy children don’t you? It’s entirely up to you’.

Secondly, and of most significance to colonial historians, is the film’s emphasis on white society. At one point after ‘rounding up any available Africans’ on the farm, the doctor inspects the farm workers and states that 90% are infected. The narrative immediately shifts back here as Don, the young white boy, is taken ill and the doctor – along with the audience – leaves the Africans to focus on this one individual. As an additional example, when Don initially contracts the disease while standing ankle deep in contaminated water, he calls out to two African boys. The commentary explains, while reflecting clearly defined racial divisions, that ‘remembering the depth of the mud he [Don] called out to some piccaninnies who were cooling off on the far side of the pool. Happy to oblige they floundered over and pulled up the plants and carried them to the shore’. The film does not address the problems subsequently faced by these African boys, and in relating the disease directly to the white settlers, the film would appear to support John Farley’s notion that tropical diseases were only of concern when they impacted on white society.

The farmer – with a financial interest in the welfare of his employees – does respond to the spread of bilharzia and improve conditions for his African employees, but only after the disease has directly affected his own son. The film uses racial stereotypes in its descriptions of the Africans, claiming that ‘these Africans showed their usual faith and interest in the mysterious actions of the white man. How were they to know that the injections I was to give them were harmless?’ This also indicates the film’s paternalistic attitude towards the Africans, as it is the white farmer who is able to help the Africans, and it is he, rather than the Africans themselves, who is responsible for their welfare.

Tom Rice (March 2008)


Works Cited

Burns, J. M., Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Ohio: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2002).

Connolly, Brian M., ‘Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country?’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1948.

Farley, John, Bilharzia : A History of Imperial Tropical Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Health Vol. 12 (1949), 321.

‘Bilharzial Films’, Lancet 2, 20 August 1949, 335-336.

Mangin, Geoffrey, Filming Emerging African: A Pioneer Cinematographer’s Scrapbook – from the 1940s to the 1960s (Cape Town: G. Mangin, 1998).

Watson, Malcolm, ‘Review of The Control of Bilharzia in Southern Rhodesia by Alan Mozley’, African Affairs, Vol. 44, no. 176. (July, 1945), 135-136.




Technical Data

Running Time:
17 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
1568 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
cast member
Bowles, Charles
cast member
Gale, Michael
cast member
GRISEWOOD, Frederick
cast member
Jacobs, Peter
cast member
Miles, Tedo
cast member
Paling, Anne
cast member
Paling, Roberta
Production Company
Film Production Unit
Production Company
Southern Rhodesia. Public Relations Department.