Gold Coast Film Unit

In September 1948, the Colonial Film Unit set up its first ‘school of instruction’, at Accra in the Gold Coast. The school was intended to train six local film workers in the hope that ‘these trainees will form the nucleus of production units’ in West Africa (Colonial Cinema, December 1948, 80). The school was part of a drive, outlined at ‘The Film in Colonial Development’ conference of January 1948, to develop and encourage local film production within the colonies. These emerging units were often closely aligned to the ideology and established operating practices of the Colonial Film Unit. However, the Gold Coast Film Unit developed along different lines, ultimately rejecting the ‘specialised’ film techniques championed by William Sellers, the head of the CFU, and working increasingly as a local unit, largely independent of the Colonial Office in London.

In 1949, the Gold Coast Film Unit, which consisted of director Sean Graham, cameraman George Noble and three ‘willing but inexperienced African assistants’, began work on its first production, Amenu’s Child. Graham acknowledged that this first film ‘helped to shape the basic principles which govern our approach to film-making’ (Graham, 1952, 84). From this first production the filmmakers deviated from colonial film orthodoxy in the formal techniques that they used in addressing their African audience. G.B. Odunton, an African member of the Unit who had trained with the CFU after leaving Oxford, criticised the ‘whole theory of the Colonial Film Unit’ and praised Amenu’s Child for dismissing the ‘Specialised Technique’ adopted by Sellers and the CFU (West Africa, 26 August 1950, 770).

This technique was based on a notion that African audiences did not possess the cognitive capabilities to understand established western film techniques (such as close-ups, camera movement, cross-cutting and excessive activity within the frame). The journal West Africa, in praising Amenu’s Child, noted that ‘The imaginative sequence, brilliantly photographed and edited, where the distracted parents of a sickly child consult a fetish-priest, uses techniques which by Colonial Film Unit theory make the film incomprehensible to audiences for whom it is intended’ (West Africa, 20 May 1950, 435). While recognising the need to present subjects and characters that appealed directly to his local audiences, Sean Graham did not believe that a specific film language was required, instead following ‘my highly unscientific hunch that a good film is a good film, no matter where it is shown’ (‘Letter dated 8 August 1952’, BCW 1/16/1).

The ‘specialised technique’ adopted by the CFU also defined the structure and narratives of its films. Odunton argued that the CFU avoided ‘Anything more intricate than a rudimentary and simple plot…the moral was always painfully obvious’. In contrast, the Gold Coast Film Unit was ‘determined not to make our films dull’ and developed the ‘campaign-film telling a story in the idiom of the country’. ‘We want to appeal to the emotions of our audiences’, Odunton explained, ‘rather than their reason, for what is art if it fails to appeal to the feelings?’ (West Africa, 26 August 1950, 770; Graham, 1952, 884). Speaking recently, some 60 years after joining the Unit, Sean Graham reiterated this aim, explaining that ‘I was a disciple of [John] Grierson, who believed in changing the world through film’. Graham viewed himself ‘as a storyteller’, in contrast to Sellers and Lionel Snazelle, the head of the neighbouring Nigerian Film Unit, who were ‘educators really’ (Personal interview, 5 March 2010). ‘If so many of the films made for and about technologically backward people have failed in their power of impact’, Graham wrote in 1952, ‘it has been because the missionary, the teacher and the “uplift” influence have tended to oust the story-teller’ (Graham, 1952, 78).

George Noble, a veteran of the British documentary movement who joined the Unit in April 1949, outlined this distinction between the GCFU and other colonial units. ‘Mostly, the films made by other units in the Colonies were small, single-reelers’, he wrote in 1952, ‘Graham decided to make longer films, story films, films about the Africans themselves, played by themselves, in their own land, about their own people’ (Noble, 1952, 36). Graham used all-African casts, employed African musicians and artists and mixed both socially and professionally with local Africans. Indeed Graham’s attempts to bring out European writers and filmmakers to assist the Unit invariably ended in disaster, as he deemed that these men – including Ray Elton, Louis MacNeice, and Montgomery Tully – did not understand the local culture. Writing in 1952 to Basil Wright, who worked from London as an Associate Producer on The Boy Kumasenu, Graham complained about Tully’s failure ‘to make any friends among the Africans’. ‘The man is so sensitive that I cannot push him out into the village and tell him to make friends with the locals’, Graham wrote, ‘Yet I cannot see what good it will do our scripts for Tully to swap confidences with the Europeans in the club’ (Letter dated 28 July 1952, BCW 1/16/1). Speaking recently, Graham rejected the suggestion that this was a colonial unit. ‘No, ‘colonial’ was a dirty word in my vocabulary’, he stated, ‘we were a local unit’ (Personal interview, 5 March 2010).

As a ‘local unit’, the GCFU received relatively little input from London, and did not appear to work closely with other colonial units. Sean Graham did visit the Nigerian Film Unit – ‘They are a rather unhappy lot, mainly because of personalities there. I don’t think much can be expected from them’ – and shared equipment with them on occasion, but he personally clashed with its head, Lionel Snazelle, and saw himself in ‘ferocious competition’ with them (Letter dated 8 August 1952, BCW 1/16/1). Graham further claimed that he had no contact ‘whatsoever’ with London, and while this isn’t entirely accurate (all laboratory work was carried out in London and three local members of the Unit were sent over to England in 1952 to work at a commercial studio for six months), he was largely left to carry out his work without interference from overseas. ‘I learnt on the job’, he explained, ‘There was no-one to show me how to do things. I discovered filmmaking as I went along’ (Personal interview, 5 March 2010).

To a large extent then, the GCFU worked independently of other colonial units and, in producing ambitious feature-length films such as The Boy Kumasenu, challenged the established conventions of colonial film. Yet despite adopting different methods, the GCFU’s goals were ostensibly similar to those of other colonial units. Graham wrote in 1952 that ‘The function of the Gold Coast Film Unit – which is part of the Government Public Relations Department – is to interpret the wider aims or specific point of Government policies and activities; an enormous and fascinating task, since the country today is in a state of transition from the age-old tribalism of the past into modern nationhood on the Western model’ (Graham, 1952, 81). These productions imagined a modern African identity, negotiating western and African ideals and promoting self-development and modern citizenship as an integral part of the nation-state building process. A rhetoric of transition and development runs throughout the films, which were for the most part shown domestically by travelling mobile cinema vans and were directly related to specific government policies as part of a mass education programme. Some of the films also projected this image of West Africa to an overseas audience (for example, The Boy Kumasenuplayed not only in Accra’s commercial cinemas but also overseas, gaining international recognition at film festivals). 

The government had established the film unit, at an initial cost of £129,581 (with a further £13,440 assigned for new cinema vans), primarily to produce ‘educational films’ to support its existing campaigns (Ghana Today, 25 December 1957, 4-5). To this end, the Department of Information in Accra would hold regular Saturday morning meetings, at which departments would propose topics to film (Graham noted that only a tiny proportion of these requests could be met). The completed films were then supported by additional government material, talks and demonstrations. In the case of Amenu’s Child, the film was used both as an instructional picture for midwives at training courses, and as propaganda legitimising these modern methods to local female villagers. Two mass education officers, who travelled with a trained midwife and the cinema crew, would display stills from the film, stressing pertinent points (‘Wash your Hands always’) and would discuss its narrative before the film screening. After the film, the team would lead a discussion encouraging village leaders to sign up for courses and to adopt their methods (Prosser, June 1951, 52-53).

Progress in Kojokrom, a comedy promoting local government, was part of ‘a vigorous and prolonged campaign [that] was launched to educate the people in election registration and voting procedure’. It was supported by government literature (for example, a pamphlet entitled ‘Your Council and Your Progress’) and would often involve a discussion with a local council member after the screening (Report on the Gold Coast, 1954, 120). Sean Graham noted the importance of these films to the government. ‘In an illiterate society they [films] are the only means government has of speaking to the people with authority and understanding’, he explained, ‘far from being a luxury, [films] are in the forefront of the drive to help Africans to help themselves’ (Graham, 1952, 81). However, ‘speaking to the people’ through film was often problematic. Sean Graham noted, in particular, the difficulties of using local commentators, who would talk over the films in the local dialect. ‘I was appalled at the divergence, what was on screen and what they said’, he stated, illustrating the difficulty for colonial authorities in delivering their message to such a diverse audience (Personal interview, 5 March 2010).

By 1955 government reports claimed that the Unit had visited 12,281 towns and villages and, with its 21 new vans, given 11,343 cinema shows and 3,535 talks to a total audience of over 3½ million (Ghana Today, 25 December 1957, 4-5). It had, by now, produced 36 films, which included short instructional films, such as I Will Speak English (1955), lengthier comedies (Mr Mensah Builds a House) and 13 issues of its newsreel, Gold Coast Review (‘Gold Coast Film Catalogue, 1949-1954’). The most significant news event, the independence of Ghana, was marked in 1957 with the release of Freedom for Ghana. Sean Graham would leave shortly thereafter. Graham claimed that President Nkrumah invited him to stay on and continue in the same role, but he had ambitions to be a feature film director in Britain. His struggles in England upon his return, where he secured only sporadic work on sponsored documentaries, is entirely typical of the difficulties facing even the most experienced documentary filmmakers in post-war Britain. Graham would ultimately move away from filmmaking, while still fondly remembering his time in the Gold Coast. ‘I was in a hugely privileged position’, he said recently, ‘in retrospect I had a honey of a job’ (Personal interview, 5 March 2010).

After independence, President Nkrumah nationalised film production and distribution and funded the construction of the Ghana Film Industry Corporation, described by African film historian Manthia Diawara as the ‘most sophisticated infrastructure of film production in Africa’ (Diawara, 1992, 6). The influence of the Gold Coast Film Unit continued in various ways; in the types of films made, in its methods of production and in the personnel employed. In particular, Ghana was still reliant on foreign directors which, in many respects, can be viewed as a failing of the Gold Coast Film Unit.

Writing in 1952, Sean Graham stated, ‘We hope that in the Gold Coast Film Unit we shall one day gather together a small group of promising African talent determined to experiment with new techniques and bring recognition to the African film on the world’s screens’ (Graham, 1952, 87). Yet, despite employing ‘about 20 African junior technical staff’ by the mid 1950s, the directors (and writers) remained almost exclusively European (‘Gold Coast Film Catalogue, 1949-1954’). This would continue when Sam Aryetey, an original member of the GCFU who had attended the film school in 1948 and worked in England in 1952, became head of the Ghana Film Corporation in 1969. Aryetey again employed Europeans, rather than Africans ‘to make films for Ghana’, a policy that Diawara argued ‘set back the progress of film production in Ghana to where it had been when the Colonial Film Unit left’ (Diawara, 1992, 6).

Tom Rice (June 2010)


Works cited

‘The School of Instruction, Accra, Gold Coast’, Colonial Cinema, December 1948, 78-80.

Noble, George, ‘Cameraman on the Gold Coast’, Colonial Cinema, June 1952, 36-39.

Colonial Office, Report on the Gold Coast for the Year 1954 (London: H.M.S.O., 1954).

Diawara, Manthia, African Cinema: Politics and Culture (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1992).

‘The Impact of Information Services on the People of Ghana’, Ghana Today Vol.1, No. 22, 25 December 1957, 4-5.

Gold Coast Film Unit, ‘Gold Coast Film Catalogue, 1949-1954’ (1954).

Gold Coast Today, Vol. 1 No. 7, 11 April 1956.

Graham, Sean, ‘The Work of the Gold Coast Film Unit’, Visual Aids in Fundamental Education: Some Personal Experience (Paris: U.N.E.S.C.O., 1952), 77-87.

‘Letter from Sean Graham to Basil Wright, dated 28 July 1952’, accessed at BFI Special Collections, BCW 1/16/1.

‘Letter from Sean Graham to Basil Wright, 8 August 1952’, accessed at BFI Special Collections, BCW 1/16/1.

‘Personal Interview with Sean Graham’ conducted by Tom Rice, Emma Sandon and Peter Bloom, 5 February 2010.

‘A Gold Coast Experiment’, West Africa, 20 May 1950, 435.

‘Pupils Teaching Teachers’, West Africa, 26 August 1950, 770.

‘Gold Coast Film Men Train in Britain’, West Africa, 22 March 1952, 261.

‘Film Production in the Gold Coast’, West African Review, September 1952, 888-889. 

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AMENU'S CHILD (1950) enhanced entry

'"How better ways of feeding children came to an African village".

A Story told in the traditional idiom of an African ...



Expert advice given to villagers to plant and grow vegetables for better yield and produce. Very similar to IT PAYS ...


BLACK POD (1955)

Cocoa plantations in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and how they are affected by insects and the negligence of farmers.


BOY KUMASENU (1952)has video enhanced entry

A story of transition within the Gold Coast, as the boy Kumasenu moves from a small fishing village to the ...



Progress in the territory, showing schools, universities, buildings, education and political development.



DOCUMENTARY: Independence Day celebrations in Ghana, including ceremonies and pageants and the opening of the Ghana Parliament by the Duchess ...



Native is instructed on irrigation by local Agricultural Assistant.


GOLD COAST REVIEW NO. 2 (1949) enhanced entry

Cinemagazine chronicling the change and progress taking place in the Gold Coast.

"Consists of the following items:- 'Number, Please!' The Story ...


GOLD COAST REVIEW NO. 3 (1949) enhanced entry

Cinemagazine chronicling the change and progress taking place in the Gold Coast.

"Consists of the following items:- Governor meets Chiefs at ...


I WILL SPEAK ENGLISH (1954)has video enhanced entry

An instructional film made on behalf of the Department of Social Welfare, demonstrating a new technique to teach English to ...



Ceremonies surrounding the installation of the Queen Mother of Enyeresi.



A farmer in the Gold Coast (Ghana) learns how to increase his yield of cocoa through the use of insecticides.