Central African Film Unit

In 1945 the Central African Council, a non-political administrative body, was established to co-ordinate activities and generate closer ties between the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, and those of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which were still run through the Colonial Office). One of its first steps was to approve the establishment of an inter-territorial film unit, primarily intended to produce and distribute 16mm instructional films to African audiences within its territories. Southern Rhodesia would contribute 50% of the unit’s operating costs, with the remaining funds derived from the Colonial Development and Welfare Funds on behalf of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Burns, 2002, 66).

The Central African Film Unit began its operations in September 1948, with Alan Izod, who had formerly supervised the colonial productions at the Central Office of Information in London, assuming the title of ‘Producer’ (others that were considered for the role included Geoffrey Barkas, Norman Spurr and, it is claimed, John Grierson) (Burns, 2002, 68). Izod employed Stephen Peet to head a field unit in Salisbury as ‘director/cameraman’, while Louis Nell, the one man with filmmaking experience in Africa having previously served as film officer with the Northern Rhodesian Information office, assumed the same role in Lusaka. The three men were joined by Oxford-educated scriptwriter Denys Brown, who was based at the unit’s new headquarters in Salisbury. These headquarters initially housed a couple of offices, and an editing room in what was formerly an RAF training camp, which CAFU shared with the Southern Rhodesian Film Unit (Smyth, 1983, 134; Nell, 1998, 105).

Over the next fifteen years, the Central African Film Unit would grow to a staff of over a hundred, becoming ‘the most prolific colonial filmmaking unit ever created’ (Burns, 2002, 105). By the time of its disbandment in 1963, it had produced a total of 625 films, including newsreels, amounting to 1060 reels (Nell, 1998, 193). An examination of the unit’s policies and indeed the audience responses to its films shows how they responded to the enormous political changes within the territories over this period. A study of the films produced for African audiences also allows colonial historians, as James Burns argues, ‘to gaze on the colonised through the eyes of the colonizers – to see Africans and their societies as the filmmakers saw them and as the filmmakers desired them to be’ (Burns, 2002, 61). For film historians, CAFU illustrates the didactic uses of film within Africa as a means of social administration and control. Furthermore, it follows and extends a tradition of colonial filmmaking, which catered specifically for the perceived difference in the cognitive capabilities of African audiences, and which can be traced from William Sellers’ health films in the 1920s, to the BEKE productions of the 1930s and the more contemporary work of the Colonial Film Unit from the 1940s.

In its first five years of existence CAFU produced 77 films. The majority of these were silent 16mm Kodachrome films, which played to African audiences usually in rural areas at outdoor mobile cinema shows (with a live commentary provided in the local vernacular), at urban welfare centres, in missions or at mining centres. Many of the films were also bought by foreign governments and organisations, including the governments of the Belgian Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, British Honduras and even Australia (for use in Papua and New Guinea) (Burns, 2002, 68; Smyth, 1983, 141).

The techniques employed within these films followed those pioneered by William Sellers, catering for the specific ‘requirements’ of the ‘primitive’ African audience. The settler newspaper, Rhodesia Herald, outlined these theories on hearing news of the unit’s establishment in 1946. ‘Films for Africans require a very different technique to those for Europeans’, it claimed, ‘simple photography, long shots to allow plenty of time for assimilation, a plain straightforward approach to the subject with repetition of the main point, some slapstick humour, and so on’ (Burns, 2002, 67). Alan Izod reaffirmed these assumptions in 1948, when he stated that ‘The greatest problem the Unit has to face is that its audiences are not yet capable of assimilating information put over in a film of a straightforward educational or documentary type’ (Izod, 1948, 28).

The first film produced by CAFU, Mulenga Goes to Town, indicates CAFU’s adherence to Sellers’ ideas. The first in a series of slapstick comedies (which would also include Mulenga Gets a Job), it highlights both the unit’s propensity for easily recognisable stereotypes (Colonial Cinema described Mulenga as a ‘born buffoon’), and the dangers of modern urban life (Nell, 1998, 104). These urban tales reflected widely held government fears of African agency and social mobility within urban centres. However, the majority of CAFU productions were rural in setting, invariably emphasising a farmer’s progress and prosperity after following a government scheme.

In describing its productions, a CAFU catalogue explained that ‘although the primary object of the Unit’s films is education, the nature of its audiences makes it essential that the lesson should be presented in an entertaining form. This method is a feature of all the Unit’s films’ (‘CAFU Catalogue’, 10). These story films often followed the ‘Mr Wise and Mr Foolish formula’ – a format pioneered by Sellers and widely used by the BEKE and the CFU – as they contrasted the hero, embracing modern government schemes, with the villain, following traditional and superstitious ideas. ‘This model’, Burns explained, ‘made colonial films into simple morality plays, dividing the colonised world into modernisers and traditionalists, winners and losers’. A notable early example of this is The Two Farmers (1948) (Burns, 2002, 80). Other titles served as cautionary tales often presented within a traditional African story (for example, The Thief), or highlighted the authority of the colonial state in showing that crime doesn’t pay (for example, The Box). Many promoted ‘self-help’, while the unit also produced ‘profile’ films illustrating the work and success of individual Africans who had embraced an aspect of colonial life. It was within this genre that CAFU addressed the role of women within colonial society (women were deemed by Izod to be a significant and ‘most educable’ element of the audience) (Burns, 2002, 91). A prominent example of this is The Wives of Nendi (1949).

These early productions, in particular in their assumptions about African audiences, reflect the dominant racial attitudes of settler society within the territories, and this is also evident in the organisational structure of the unit. While other Colonial Film Units, for example in Malaya, the Gold Coast and Jamaica, set up film schools and ostensibly sought to train and develop local filmmakers, CAFU ‘did not pursue a policy of Africanisation’ (Smyth, 1983, 140). CAFU employed African actors, interpreters and cinema van operators (Geoffrey Mangin noted that the ‘indigenous peoples kept very much to themselves’), but there was seemingly no attempt to prepare an African-run unit on the expectation that the Africans would achieve self-government (Mangin, 1998, 29). David Kerr, referring in particular to Stephen Peet, suggested that CAFU was comprised of ‘liberal filmmakers’ but added that ‘in reality the basic ethos of its filmmakers was paternalistic’ (Kerr, 1993, 24). Certainly as the political situation intensified in the late 1950s, CAFU’s promotion of government ideology, and a traditional racial order, became all the more explicit.

At the formation of the Central African Federation in 1953, responsibility for CAFU shifted to the Federal Department of Information. Rosaleen Smyth suggested that with this ‘the whole character of the CAFU changed’ (Smyth, 1983, 134). The unit absorbed the Southern Rhodesian government film unit and, as Alan Izod acknowledged in 1957, now worked ‘almost exclusively’ on producing 35mm sound films for ‘European audiences and particularly for overseas audiences’ (Burns, 2002, 97). Filmmaker Geoffrey Mangin suggested that ‘only about five new films a year’ were directed towards the African audiences (Mangin, 1998, 29). The films catering for the European audience promoted the formation and work of the Federation overseas (e.g. Two Generations), celebrated and romanticised colonial rule (See Saw Years), or encouraged tourism and immigration (e.g. Fairest Africa). It also produced a newsreel for European audiences, Federal Spotlight, which ran until 1963. In its almost complete failure to address the social and political changes within the Federation, Federal Spotlight (eg. 87, 167) further illustrated the Unit’s (and indeed Government’s) increasing dislocation as its idealised vision of the Federation became ever more anachronistic.

In later years CAFU did seek to re-engage with its African audiences, although its motives were now more defensive and reactionary. James Burns argued that the Unit now ‘became an integral part of the Federal Information Department’s campaign to “put over Federation and to allay fears” among Africans’. A memo from the information department in 1959 urged CAFU ‘to keep the lines clear, so that the unit can concentrate on the production of a series of films to put the Federation over’ to audiences at home and overseas (Burns, 2002, 101). While the unit had earlier focussed predominantly on promoting modern agricultural methods to rural Africans, it now sought to generate support for the Federation by highlighting the ‘benefits that the government bestowed on its subjects’ (Burns, 2002, 98). From 1957 until its disbandment it produced an edition of Rhodesia and Nyasaland News every month for its African audience, intended (often unsuccessfully) to highlight racial cooperation and African advancement. Films like Free From Fear sought to promote the legacy of white rule in Nyasaland to combat, in the words of the director of the Federal Information Department, ‘the insidious development of Congress movements’ within the territories (Burns, 2002, 131).

As CAFU’s ties with the Federal government became more pronounced, African audiences (particularly in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland) became increasingly critical of the propaganda it presented. Vernon Brelsford, head of the Federal Information Department, noted in 1958 that mobile cinema vans were stopped on ‘several occasions’ by road blocks, and by 1962 mobile cinema reports were noting this opposition. ‘This show was a failure. Village people were kept away’, stated one report from Nyasaland. ‘We do not want Sir Roy’s pictures here… after one and a half hours showing we closed down as crowd looked dangerous’. A further report a couple of months later noted that ‘A good number of leaflets were torn up. One could hear them say “Sir Roy is dead”, “Federation is finished”’ (Burns, 2002, 133)

In promoting the Federation, the unit was effectively fighting for its future as the demise of the Federation would mark the end of CAFU. Although some employees hoped that the Southern Rhodesian government would maintain the unit, it was rapidly disbanded in 1963 as Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland achieved independence. ‘The staff would now disperse far and wide’, Louis Nell recalled, ‘a tremendous team whose spirit and energy had created a film unit second to none. For all of us, it was a sad end to a happy association… the end of an era and a poignant moment as the Central African Film Unit now witnessed its own final fade-out’ (Nell, 1998, 193). Many of its filmmakers moved to other companies in Africa, while its laboratory was sold to a local commercial company, Dragon Films. However, CAFU’s influence was perhaps most keenly felt over the next two decades in the propaganda work of the Rhodesian Front which, in making government films for African audiences, utilised many of CAFU’s methods, ideals and personnel.

Tom Rice (January 2010)


Works cited

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

The Central African Film Unit Catalogue, accessed at the BFI.

‘Central African Film Unit’, Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 27-28.

Izod, Alan, ‘Some Special Features of Colonial Film Production’, The Film in Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (London: British Film Institute, 1948).

Kerr, David, ‘The Best of Both Worlds? Colonial Film Policy and Practice in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland’, Critical Arts, Volume 7 (1993), 11-42.

Mangin, Geoffrey, Filming Emerging Africa: A Pioneer Cinematographer’s Scrapbook – from the 1940s to the 1960s (February 1998).

Nell, Louis, Images of Yesteryear: Film-Making in Central Africa (Harper Collins (Zimbabwe), 1998).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Central African Film Unit’s Images of Empire, 1948-1963’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 3, No.2, 1983, 131-147. 

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