Colonial Film Unit

From its formation in 1939 to its formal disbandment in 1955, the Colonial Film Unit produced well over 200 short films, which were exhibited primarily to African audiences. The Unit was hugely influential in formalising and legitimising a film technique specific to African audiences, in foregrounding film as a pedagogical device for colonial administration and, in particular, in establishing a network for the distribution and exhibition of film throughout Africa (primarily through mobile cinema vans).

The history of the Unit also reflects the broader changes in British colonial policy during this period. The CFU was originally established under the aegis of the Ministry of Information to produce ‘propaganda’ films, encouraging African support for the war effort. After the War, the CFU came under the direction of the Films Division of the Central Office of Information and, with funding through the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, now produced instructional films for African audiences. These films endorsed the Labour Government’s new African policy, which promoted community development and welfare programmes. In 1950, the Colonial Office finally assumed full control of the CFU. It largely ceased film production, instead supporting and sponsoring the establishment of local film units and training schools. In promoting decentralised film production and a policy of ‘Africanisation’, the CFU mirrored the Government’s broader moves towards ‘gradual’ self-government. Throughout this most dramatic period in British colonial history – from the coming of war to the last rites of Britain’s African Empire – the Colonial Film Unit responded to, and reflected, the Government’s shifting attitudes towards Africa. It positioned film as an integral means of shaping, defining and controlling imperial citizens and, while widely criticised and readily dismissed within histories of African cinema, was also at the forefront of the early development of an African cinema culture. 

While the coming of war provided the stimulus for the Colonial Film Unit, the Colonial Office had displayed an increasing interest in using film within Britain’s African colonies throughout the preceding decade. Its influential and oft quoted 1932 report, The Film In National Life, produced with the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, outlined the need for ‘some form of central administration’ to arrange the distribution and development of film within colonial territories (The Film In National Life, 1932, 134). The Colonial Office also closely followed the progress of the Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment (1935-1937), which was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, and produced and distributed 35 instructional films to African audiences through its mobile cinema vans. The project’s work certainly influenced the CFU – in terms of its film techniques, its didactic function, and its exhibition contexts for African audiences – while its final report proposed a scheme ‘for putting the production of films for backward races on a permanent footing’ (see Bekefilm topic entry). Press reports supported the proposed scheme in 1937, but no financial support was forthcoming.

A year earlier, S. A. Hammond, an education commissioner in the West Indies, had presented a detailed proposal (with the assistance of Donald Taylor and brother and sister, John and Marion Grierson) for a ‘Colonial Film Unit’. This Unit would administer a library of films for the colonies, produce films on health and agriculture and encourage and assist in local production. Hammond presented his proposals to the BFI’s ‘Dominions, India and Colonies Panel’, which had been set up ‘to consider means for improving the machinery for the distribution and display of educational films in educational and similar institutions within the British Empire’. In rejecting the proposal, the committee again explained that funds simply weren’t available (‘it had to prove itself more desirable and more urgent than numerous other schemes – education, public health etc’) (CO 323/1356/3). However, with the coming of war, this soon changed and imperial funds were now assigned to meet the full cost of a new Colonial Film Unit.

An official report on the history of the CFU explained that the Unit was ‘established in 1939 by the Ministry of Information in order to make films, mainly about the British and the colonial war effort, for audiences in the Colonies’ (CO 875/52/3). The Unit was headed by William Sellers, who in his role as a Government health official in Nigeria, had made a series of instructional films, including Anti-Plague Operations, Lagos. These films were partly funded by the Colonial Development Fund and were exhibited non-theatrically in schools, halls and at public functions throughout Nigeria. Sellers was assisted at the nascent CFU by veteran filmmaker George Pearson. Pearson recalled the early days of the Unit, working with a staff of four in Soho Square, the spiritual home of the 1930s documentary movement. ‘I have a fond memory of that humble beginning, a passive acceptance of a wartime job, probably brief, but interesting and even exciting’, he wrote. ‘I had no conception that the tiny staff would increase tenfold, nor that the work would continue for over fifteen years to help towards a closer understanding between the Motherland and her Colonial Children’ (Pearson, 1957, 203).

Pearson and Sellers espoused a traditional, paternal imperialism. ‘From Sellers… I learned the story of the backward peoples he knew, of their sufferings, their poverty, folklore, fear of change in their traditional heritage, and their trust in us, problems he hoped to solve through the motion picture’ (Pearson, 1957, 203). Sellers wrote and theorised extensively on African audiences during his time with the CFU, publishing his ideas in 1941 in a paper entitled ‘Films for Primitive People’ (DNL, September 1941, 173-174). He championed a specialised film technique, based on racial and cultural assumptions about the cognitive capabilities of African audiences, which would come to dominate colonial filmmaking over the next twenty years. This technique, which precluded the use of close-ups, cross-cutting, short scenes and excessive movement within the frame, was deployed in the CFU’s first production, Mr English at Home. Described by Sellers as a ‘lesson in the presentation of a subject to illiterate Africans through the medium of the cinema’, the film illustrates the ways in which the CFU would seek to address its African audiences (Sellers, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 831)

Mr English at Home was the first of a number of CFU wartime productions, which represented British life to African audiences. Some films, such as Springtime in an English Village (1944), showed Africans embraced within this British idyll, linking Britain and Africa and presenting Britain as the ideological heart of the Empire. The Unit also produced 39 issues of a monthly newsreel, British Empire at War (followed after the war by Colonial Cinemagazine), but it faced sustained criticism throughout this period for the poor technical quality of its films and, in particular, its scarcity of African footage. The CFU attributed this problem to a lack of manpower within the colonies and attempted to counter this by establishing the Raw Stock Scheme in 1943, which provided basic equipment, new film stock and technical and advisory services to Colonial Information Officers working within the territories. Amongst the ‘African’ productions produced or distributed by the CFU during the War were Plainsmen of Barotseland (1943), Africa’s Fighting Men (1943) and Basuto Troops on Active Service (1945).

After the War, the CFU was taken over by the Central Office of Information and now focussed primarily on ‘instructional’ films. By the end of 1946 it had units out in East and West Africa, producing films that, according to the CFU quarterly Colonial Cinema, ‘helped to develop self-reliance and to break traditional ground so that the seeds of progress in health, industry and agriculture could be planted’ (Smyth, 1992, 166). Films like Weaving in Togoland (1946), Nigerian Cocoa Farmer (1948), Better Homes (1948), and Why Not You? (1950), sought to directly instruct local African audiences in modern agricultural and building methods. The CFU also promoted government welfare schemes (Community Development in Awgu Division, Nigeria, 1949) and recorded constitutional developments within East Africa (Towards True Democracy, 1947; Nairobi, 1950).

While filming extensively within Africa, the CFU continued to produce films that depicted Africans within England. The Home Unit now accounted for no more than 20% of the CFU’s output and was financed separately as an allied service from the vote of the COI. However, it remained an important means of highlighting to African audiences the British public’s support and interest in its African colonies and, in particular, the prominent position now afforded to Africa within a modern post-war Empire. The films depicted African troops (Victory Parade, 1946), sportsmen (Nigerian Footballers in England, 1949), musicians (Colonial Cinemagazine 9, 1947), and leaders (African Conference in London, 1948). They celebrated British interest in the Empire (Colonial Month), showed Africans working with, and learning from, their British counterparts and welcomed to Britain at a moment when immigration and definitions of citizenship were prominent in public discourse. In their formal structure, many of the films mirror the conventions of early colonial travelogues, imagining a world that is deemed ‘exotic’, and remote to its viewers. While those earlier films of foreign spaces represented the ‘primitive’ to British viewers, these British travelogues inverted this, granting a form of ‘civilisation’ to their African audience.

The closure of the Home Unit (which ceased production after 1949) was indicative of a broader move to decentralise the work of the CFU and to promote film production within the colonies. Speaking in January 1948 at a conference on ‘The Film in Colonial Development’, sponsored by the British Film Institute, John Grierson outlined the need to create ‘a genuine African Unit that can work with native units in other colonies’, a ‘Colonial Film Unit with true regard for decentralisation and the part which natives will play in it’ (The Film In Colonial Development, 1948, 13). While the Conference trotted out, as West Africa termed it, ‘the old rusty arguments about primitive, illiterate peoples… ad nauseam’, speakers also acknowledged a shift in colonial film policy, closely aligned to broader political developments (West Africa, 24 January 1948, 59). ‘Throughout our Colonial Office policy we are working at one main thing’, explained K.W. Blackburne, the Director of Information Services at the Colonial Office, ‘trying to teach the people of the Colonies to run the show themselves and doing precisely that thing in the film world as in every other field’ (The Film In Colonial Development, 1948, 35).

With this in mind, the CFU set up its first training school at Accra in 1948. This was followed by a 12-month course in Jamaica during 1950 and in Cyprus in 1951 (which had nine students from Cyprus, Mauritius, Hong Kong and the Sudan). It also arranged short training courses in London, which catered for 51 Colonial students by the end of 1951 (CO 875/52/3). In describing the work of the first school of instruction in Accra, Colonial Cinema stated that ‘One of the long-term objectives of the Colonial Film Unit and perhaps its most important one is the creation of an organisation in each colony to produce its own films’ (Colonial Cinema, December 1948, 78). The CFU achieved this, with varying degrees of success, in West Africa and the West Indies. After 1950, the local governments would assume responsibility for the funding of these Units, with the CFU working now in an ‘advisory role’ and as an agency for their post-production work (see topic entries on Gold Coast Film Unit, Nigerian Film Unit and Jamaica Film Unit).

However, the situation in East Africa was more problematic. The CFU scrapped tentative plans for a training school at Makerere College in Uganda in August 1949, after East African officials argued that no suitable students could be found and that the ‘proposed training course may be overloaded beyond the capacity of African trainees’ (Smyth, 1992, 170). The CFU did send out three 16mm and one 35mm mobile units to operate in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and later Zanzibar, at the start of 1949. Briefed with the task of founding a Government Film Service in the East African territories and of training Africans to ‘make educational films themselves for their own people’, the Unit shipped out ten technicians under the control of H. L. Bradshaw (CO 875/52/2). Within a year the Unit was shut down.

Geoffrey Innes, the Unit’s senior director, criticised this decision in the East African Standard, upsetting the Kenyan government in the process. ‘It is a great pity’, he wrote, ‘that we have to close down now before we see the fruits of our labour’ (only a handful of the 35 films sent to London had yet been shown in East Africa) (East African Standard, 7 March 1950). An anonymous letter in the Manchester Guardian in March 1950 complained further. ‘Surely the Colonial Office might have been credited with sufficient foresight to have refrained from launching this ambitious scheme if it was so early to be abandoned … One can hear the ghostly voice of the Unit inquiring, “I wonder what I was begun for if I was so soon to be done for?”’ (Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1950). Members of the Unit sent a petition rallying against the closure, and threatened legal action against H.M.K. Howson, the Films Officer of the COI. Howson was equally unimpressed, complaining about the poor standard of the Unit’s work and their ‘low reputation’ at home and overseas (CO 875/52/4).

At a Conference of Information Officers in Nairobi in June 1949, ‘the territorial delegates unanimously expressed a lack of confidence in the London Administration of the Colonial Film Unit’. Colonial Cinema added that ‘in certain respects this organisation was cumbrous, unsuitable, and not as efficient as it might be. It was proposed as a first essential (sic) that the Colonial Film Unit should be removed from the control of the COI and placed under that of the Colonial Office’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1950, 27). This happened in March 1950, but it was still too late for the East African units (as the East African governments were unwilling to take on their financial upkeep). By the end of 1950, the CFU had ceased all production, and over half of its 29 staff had been made redundant. It did however continue with its raw stock scheme, providing film in areas that were too small to have their own units, such as Somaliland, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Malta.

Between 1939 and 1950, the CFU had 12 production units working in eight territories. It had produced a total of 339 reels, and distributed 12,344 ‘show copies’ throughout the Empire (Smyth, 1992, 174). Yet, the CFU was not merely a production and distribution unit, but was also at the forefront of discourses surrounding the use of cinema within the colonies. In 1952, it conducted major research into African audience reactions (with a grant from the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund of £9,105). Led by an anthropologist, Peter Morton-Williams, the project screened a series of films – predominantly CFU, Crown and Central African Film Unit titles – to local audiences throughout Nigeria. The CFU also continued to produce its quarterly magazine, Colonial Cinema, which ran from 1943-1955. By 1950, 1200 copies were distributed every quarter to 35 colonial territories. The CFU used Colonial Cinema as a means to direct, determine and disseminate the theoretical and practical approaches to film production and exhibition within the colonies. The magazine reported on local developments, outlined the completed CFU films and shared information and practical advice on producing and exhibiting film within the colonies.

By the time of the Colonial Film Unit’s closure in 1955, the British Empire had changed beyond all recognition. The role of the CFU had shifted accordingly, from generating support for the imperial war effort, to promoting development within the colonies and finally to paving the way for self-government. The CFU was no more prepared for these changes than any other government department and, while it sought to react to the rapid moves towards decolonisation, the traditional paternalism and ‘specialised techniques’ espoused by Sellers and Pearson appeared increasingly anachronistic by the 1950s. Yet, for all its failings, the CFU provides a fascinating insight into government filmmaking, highlighting the ways in which the Colonial Office sought to use cinema (and adapted its uses of cinema) to educate and instruct imperial subjects, and showing professional filmmakers’ interpretation of these aims in practice. The CFU brought film to African audiences, it developed a network of mobile cinema vans and promoted local film production (albeit under European supervision). It remains a rich and vastly untapped resource for both colonial and film historians, who have too often neglected to examine the colonial antecedents in the cinema of modern African states.

Tom Rice (August 2010)


Works cited

British Film Institute, The Film In Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (1948).

Colonial Cinema, 1943-1955, accessed at the BFI National Library.

Colonial Film Unit files at the National Archives, including:

‘Staffing and Organisation: Colonial Film Unit Personnel: October 1949-March 1950, INF 12/368.

‘Reorganisation of the Colonial Film Unit’, INF 12/505.

‘BFI – Colonial Film Unit and the Machinery for the Circulation of Educational Films in the Empire’, CO 323/1356/3.

‘Colonial Film Unit. Expansion of Activities’, CO 875/26/2.

‘Colonial Film Unit: Audience Research’, CO 875/51/7.

‘Colonial Film Unit: Long Term Policy’, CO 875/52/1.

‘Colonial Film Unit: Estimates of Expenditure 1950-1951 and 1951-1952’, CO 875/52/2.

‘Colonial Film Unit: Report for 1951’, CO 875/52/3.

‘Colonial Film Unit: East African Project; Possible Abandonment of Educational Film Production’, CO 875/52/4.

‘Colonial Film Unit: East Africa Project: Proposal to Establish a Film Training School at Makerere’, CO 875/52/5.

‘They Made 35 Films: Colonial Office Unit Leaves Soon’, East African Standard, 7 March 1950.

‘The Cinema and the Empire’, The Film in National Life (London: G.Allen and Unwin, 1932).

‘Colonial Film Unit’, Manchester Guardian, 11 March 1950.

Manvell, Roger, ‘The Colonial Film Unit: Colonial Films and Film-Makers’, Journal of the British Film Academy, Summer 1955, 13-15.

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).

Pearson, George, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Filmmaker (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957).

Sellers, William, ‘Films For Primitive People’, Documentary News Letter, September 1941, 173-174.

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

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Development of British Colonial Film Policy, 1927-1939, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1979), 437-450.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The British Colonial Film Unit and sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8 (1988), 285-298.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Post-War Career of the Colonial Film Unit in Africa: 1946-1955’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 12, No.2, 1992, 163- 177.

‘Film Talk… African Outlets… Non-White Britons’, West Africa, 24 January 1948, 59. 

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At Loughborough College colonials study co-operative methods.



Nigeria: Palm oil mill. A modern method of palm oil extraction. Gold Coast: Houses to last. A quick and inexpensive ...



Gold Coast. A new fish-canning industry which has been started at Osu.London. African students visit the Fire Brigade H.Q. and ...



'Nigeria - Akeredolu the Woodcarver' Mr Akeredolu carving human figures using thorn tree wood. Small heads and models. Larger heads ...



Cinemagazine for African distribution. This issue contains items on portraits of colonials in London, the rehabilitation of African soldiers in ...



Cinemagazine for African distribution. This issue contains items on road building in Kenya and on animals from Kenya at London ...


COLONIAL CINEMAGAZINE NO.9 (1947)has video enhanced entry

'London: This magazine is devoted to the activities of the Gold Coast Band during their visit to the U.K. The ...


COLONIAL MONTH (1949)has video enhanced entry

Coverage of the Colonial Exhibition in Oxford Street held during Colonial Month in the summer of 1949 to 'spread the ...



A survey of various community development projects, connected with housing, health, irrigation and transport organised by individual villages with the ...



INTEREST. This appears to be part of a film contrasting scenes in an English village with African village life.

A woman ...



Kenya. The work of District teams in combatting disease and increasing food supplies. Town refuse and animal manure are made ...



Kenya. A District Development Team tackles disease, bad farming methods and ignorance.