Jamaica Film Unit

The Jamaica Film Unit was formed as part of a drive by the Colonial Film Unit to decentralise colonial film production, and produced films specifically tailored for local Jamaican audiences. Its films served as ‘visual education’, instructing local audiences through film, but also increasingly as part of the local government’s broader propaganda campaigns. While its films provide a valuable historical record of pivotal moments in Jamaican history, the Unit’s work is equally significant in understanding the emergence and establishment of a Jamaican film culture.

On 3 November 1949, William Sellers, the head of the Colonial Film Unit, arrived in Jamaica in order to investigate the ‘possibilities of the development of local film production with the object of “helping the people to a fuller life”’ (Daily Gleaner, 4 November 1949, 12). At the end of his month-long tour, which included visits to British Guiana, Trinidad, Barbados and the Bahamas, Sellers announced that a film training school would be set up, opening its doors on the campus of the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica on 6 March 1950 (Evans, 1952, 131).

The 12-month course, which was run by R.W. Harris and Gareth Evans, who had set up the first colonial training school in Accra in September 1948, contained six students selected by Sellers from various government departments. Three came from Jamaica (Martin Rennalls, Milton Weller, Trevor Welsh), and one each from Barbados (Isaac Carmichael), Trinidad (Wilfred Lee) and British Guiana (R. L. Young) (Colonial Cinema, June 1951, 40). Evans explained that the ‘purpose of the School was to train West Indians in the art of film production so that they can make films ofand fortheir own people in an environment that they alone thoroughly understand’ (Evans, 1952, 131). The school was criticised though by Martin Rennalls, who would head the Jamaica Film Unit over the next two decades, for its failure to cater specifically for the ‘cultural characteristics of the local audiences’, and to ‘relate the methods of production to the customs and ways of life’ of the West Indians (Wilkinson, 1994, 68). In some respects, the school followed existing conventions of colonial filmmaking, both in its emphasis on producing instructional 16mm films and in promoting parables that followed the ‘Mr Wise and Mr Foolish’ format, popularised by both the CFU and the Central African Film Unit. The school differed however from the Gold Coast model in its approach towards the local audiences. In Africa the film school had catered for what Evans referred to as ‘the ignorance of cinema convention’, following the approach of William Sellers in arguing that African audiences possessed different cognitive responses and required ‘extreme simplicity’ in their films. However, Evans noted the influence of American and British ‘sophisticated pleasures’ within the ‘cosmopolitan’ West Indies and suggested that no dispensation was required for the local audiences. A ‘familiarity with the medium [cinema] helped by the absence of any language barrier, has’, Evans argued, ‘enabled them [the West Indians] to understand all the tricks and conventions of the commercial film’ (Evans, 1952, 134).

As part of the course, the trainees produced short instructional films including Farmer Brown Learns Good Dairying (1951), which would become the first release from the Jamaica Film Unit. The unit, which was attached to the Central Film Organisation, was established in 1951 with Martin Rennalls at its head (supported by his fellow trainees, Weller and Welsh). Rennalls, a former primary school headmaster who had studied audio-visual education at the Institute of Education in London, was particularly interested in film pedagogy (Daily Gleaner, 16 June 1960, 3). While studying in England in 1948 he had delivered an address to the Scientific Film Association, outlining the ‘value of the cinema in educational work’ within Jamaica and describing his efforts in building a community centre in which he could show educational films to school children (Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 34-35). In writing about the Jamaica Film Unit in 1953, Rennalls emphasised its importance in bridging a ‘great gap’ in Jamaica’s Visual Education Service. ‘Educational films from foreign sources are shrouded in an atmosphere of strangeness where our local population is concerned’, he argued, suggesting that in contrast, when audiences see local productions ‘they cheer, they sympathise, they comment, they lament – seeing themselves for the first time, as others see them’ (Colonial Cinema, March 1953, 16). Rennalls also recognised the broader political value of these films in ‘building a “new Jamaica”’ and in keeping the ‘forward movement of the country toward self-government’ (Colonial Cinema, March 1953, 17).

Initially the Jamaica Film Unit was housed in premises above the racecourse. It operated 4 cinema vans and 12 sound projectors, which Rennalls further developed (for example designing a rear projection screen to close the light out during daytime screenings) (Daily Gleaner, 16 June 1960, 3). Its production resources were also limited as the unit was forced to send all post-production work to England. This not only delayed the release of ‘news’ films as all film processing took place overseas, but also ensured that the productions retained a strong colonial influence. For example, initially the soundtrack was prepared and recorded in England, prompting some critics to label the music and voiceover as ‘inauthentic’.

The unit’s early 16mm films included instructional pictures, such as Farmer Brown Learns Good Dairying, that were tied directly to government schemes and departments, and news films, such as Churchill Visits Jamaica(1953). It also produced travelogues and historical pictures (Historic Jamaica, 1956) and semi-fictionalised documentaries, such as Let’s Stop Them (1953), a tale of praedial larceny, featuring “Slipper Sam” that was ‘entertaining enough to be shown in the regular commercial cinemas’ (Colonial Cinema, March 1954, 24). Rennalls viewed Let’s Stop Them as a landmark production for the unit, establishing its reputation at home, while also gaining international recognition as it played, for example, at the 1954 Berlin Film Festival.

By 1957 the unit had updated its equipment, introducing synchronous sound recording and dubbing equipment. It employed further staff, produced increasingly on 35mm, and was now able, in theory, to assume control of all phases of production (Daily Gleaner, 20 February 1967, 6). However, with the unit now integrated into the Jamaica Information Service, its work was increasingly directed and dictated by the demands of the local government. Helen-Ann Wilkinson argued that there was ‘limited creative autonomy for the filmmakers in the unit’ as the government outlined the topics and formats of films, reducing the involvement and creative input of the filmmakers (Wilkinson, 1994, 98). Furthermore, Rennalls noted the politicisation of the unit, as government ministers assumed leading roles within films, which he argued undermined both the unit’s integrity and its appeal to local audiences (Wilkinson, 1994, 92). Despite these failings, the unit, and the films it produced, remain of great historical value. A study of the Jamaica Film Unit reveals the ways in which local government used film as part of its broader propaganda programmes before and after independence. It offers insights into the emergence and development of a film culture within Jamaica, as the unit employed filmmakers who would go on to shape Jamaican cinema and in some cases, such as cinematographer Franklyn St Juste, achieve international acclaim. It also recorded some of the pivotal moments in Jamaican history, allowing modern viewers to witness both the moves towards independence (for example, Independence Conference in London) and the celebrations and early days of independent Jamaica (A Nation is Born, 1962).

Tom Rice (May 2010)


Works cited

‘Visual Education in Jamaica’, Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 34-35.

‘West Indies’, Colonial Cinema, March 1950, 19-21.

‘The West Indies Film Training School’, Colonial Cinema, September 1950, 66-69.

‘Colonial Film Unit Training School in the West Indies’, Colonial Cinema, June 1951, 40-44.

‘Let’s Stop Them’, Colonial Cinema, March 1954, 23-24.

Rennalls, M.A., ‘Visual Education in Jamaica’, Colonial Cinema, March 1953, 15-19.

Sellers, W., ‘Film Production in the West Indies’, Colonial Cinema, December 1951, 91-93.

‘Colonial Film Unit Man from London on Survey’, Daily Gleaner, 4 November 1949, 12.

‘Local Films a Year Hence says Film Head after Survey’, Daily Gleaner, 2 December 1949, 8.

‘Elected to UK Kinematograph Society’, Daily Gleaner, 16 June 1960, 3.

Evans, G., ‘The Colonial Film Unit’s West Indian Training Course in Jamaica’, in Visual Aids in Fundamental Education: Some Personal Experiences (Paris: U.N.E.S.C.O., 1952), 130-139.

Hayes, Michael L., A Pioneer in Jamaican Film-Making’, Daily Gleaner, 20 February 1967, 6.

Wilkinson, Helen-Ann E., ‘Limited Core Technology Transfer: The Case of the Moving Image Industry in Jamaica’ (unpublished thesis, York University, Ontario, 1994).

See also

Martin Rennalls, ‘Development of the Documentary Film in Jamaica’, (unpublished thesis, Boston U, School of Public Division of Broadcasting and Film, 1967).

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CHURCHILL VISITS JAMAICA (1953)has video enhanced entry

The visit of Winston Churchill to Jamaica in January 1953.

The film opens with the arrival of Winston Churchill at ...


FARMER BROWN LEARNS GOOD DAIRYING (1951)has video enhanced entry

The care and management of dairy herds in Jamaica in order to maximise milk yields.

Over agricultural shots, a Jamaican voiceover ...