Nigerian Film Unit

The Nigerian Film Unit was established in 1949 as part of a drive to decentralise colonial film production. Initially a national unit, the NFU was reorganised into regional units in accordance with the constitutional changes in Nigeria in 1954. These re-organised local units, united here under the broader term ‘Nigerian Film Unit’, continued to work closely within the framework and conventions of their predecessor, the Colonial Film Unit. Throughout the decade, the NFU (and its offspring) exhibited health and educational films to local audiences through its fleet of mobile cinema vans and produced newsreels and short documentaries depicting celebrations and colonial achievements to domestic and overseas audiences. Despite repeated talk of ‘Africanisation’ within the NFU, the local personnel continued to occupy junior positions and it was not until 1965 that the management of the Unit was handled entirely by Nigerians (Smythe, 1992, 168).

Colonial filmmakers had produced films for local audiences within Nigeria since the 1920s. The Nigerian health official William Sellers produced and exhibited non-theatrically through mobile cinema vans, a series of films, such as Anti-Plague Operations, Lagos (1937), which sought to instruct local audiences in better sanitation and health care. He extended this work when he became head of the Colonial Film Unit in 1939. After the war, the CFU sent units to West Africa, primarily to produce instructional films to rural Nigerian audiences. Alongside agricultural training films, like Good Business (1947), the CFU produced records of constitutional events (Towards True Democracy, 1947) and a series of films promoting local community development programmes within Nigeria. One of these films, Community Development in Awgu (1949) lists as its producer ‘A.A. Fajemisin (Nigerian Film Unit)’. Alex Fajemisin was one of three Nigerians – alongside J.A. Otigba and Malam Yakuba Auna – sent to Accra in September 1948 to attend the CFU’s first ‘school of instruction’. Initiated as part of a move to promote local production within the colonies, the three men returned after their nine-month course to work within a newly formed Nigerian Film Unit.

The Colonial Office’s annual report noted the establishment of the Nigerian Film Unit (often referred to as the Federal Film Unit) at the end of 1949. ‘The year 1949 also saw the formation of the [Public Relations] Department’s own Film Production Unit’, the report began, ‘staffed partly by Nigerians recently returned from a special course of instruction at the Colonial Film Unit School at Accra. Films will be produced for display both in Nigeria and overseas’ (Annual Report, 1949, 107). Despite the purported moves to ‘Africanise’ film production, the NFU endorsed established colonial film practices, and retained a strong colonial influence throughout the decade. As film historian Ikechukwu Obiayarecently noted, the NFU ‘remained very much in the pragmatic mould of the CFU in terms of the kind of films produced’ (Obiaya, 2010, 3).

This extension of earlier colonial film traditions is perhaps unsurprising as the NFU was headed by Lionel Snazelle, who had directed many of the recent CFU films in Nigeria. Snazelle was now employed by the Nigerian government, as the local governments in West Africa assumed responsibility for their units. The CFU did though send out an additional cameraman, Sydney Samuelson, to support the nascent unit during its first year and to supervise the three local trainees. Samuelson had filmed for the CFU in East Africa and British Cameroons during 1948 and had more recently worked with the CFU’s Home Unit (for example filming Nigerian Footballers in England in September 1949) (Interview with Sir Sydney Samuelson, 2010).

Samuelson arrived in Nigeria in November 1949 and worked primarily on the NFU’s first major production, Smallpox, a health parable screened by mobile cinema vans throughout Nigeria. The film followed the ‘Mr Wise and Mr Foolish’ format popularly adopted by colonial filmmakers and was widely credited with ‘stimulating interest in vaccination’ (there were contrary claims that the film was often discredited because it failed to respond to the ‘spiritual causation’ of the disease). Smallpox became the example of the NFU’s work, widely referenced in government reports throughout the decade. Smallpox is indicative of the NFU’s acceptance and continuing enactment of established colonial film conventions, but it is not entirely typical of the Unit’s output. While the NFU did produce educational and health films for local audiences – such as Back to the Community, a film on leprosy – it had other stated aims. Official publicity material explained that the NFU also sought to ‘publicise the goals and activities of government’ in order to generate popular support for official policies, to present ‘newsworthy events’ and to ‘promote the nation’s culture both locally and internationally by dwelling on its achievements’ (Obiaya, 2010, 15). Indeed, throughout the decade the NFU celebrated civic developments within the country (Nigeria’s First Women Police, 1956) and recorded royal visits and ceremonies (nearly all of the 13 films released by the Federal Unit in 1957 covered official, formal ceremonies and state visits). These many films endorsed colonial policies and the moves towards gradual self-government. For modern viewers, theyserve as historical records of the major constitutional developments within the last few years of colonial rule.

From 1954 the NFU was reorganised, as regional units were established alongside the film unit of the Federal Information Service. By 1957, the Governments of the Eastern, Western and Northern regionsall had production units, recording newsreel items, films for local audiences and official records of significant events (for example the Western region’s ambitious 85-minute colour documentary, Self-Government for Western Nigeria, 1958) (Federal Report, 1957, 143-144). Distribution and exhibition had already been organised along regional lines. In 1954, the Federal Information Service and Western Regional Government operated two mobile cinema units each, while the Eastern and Northern Regional Government each operated five units (Annual Report, 1954, 188). Describing the exhibition of NFU films in 1952, Colonial Cinema explained that the Public Relations Department organised ‘two varieties’ of show. The first was ‘official and request performances’ that played to visiting delegations and members of the House of Assembly or Houses of Representatives. The second was those screened in ‘towns, villages, districts, schools, centres and institutions’ (Colonial Cinema, December 1952, 93). Official reports claimed that the mobile cinema vans played to 3.5 million people during 1954, while NFU films were also supplied for free in the 44 commercial cinemas within Nigeria (Annual Report, 1954, 188).

In utilizing and developing non-theatrical mobile cinema exhibition, the NFU extended the work of earlier colonial filmmakers such as William Sellers and, more broadly, the Colonial Film Unit. Cultural historian Brian Larkin eloquently examined the establishment and popularisation of mobile cinemas within Nigeria, arguing that the mobile cinema provided ‘a very different mode of exchange between image and spectator – one governed more by politics than commodity’ (Larkin, 2008, 80). Larkin outlined the impact of this mobile cinema circuit in ‘training citizens’, organising urban and rural spaces and also in shaping Nigerian film culture. Yet, despite their evident popularity, these screenings certainly did not always succeed in conveying the government’s message.  Sydney Samuelson recently recalled attending a number of screenings of Smallpox in 1950. ‘In most cases the showings of the film were useless’, he concluded. With such a culturally diverse population, the role of the commentator assumed heightened importance as he was charged with translating the English script into different local dialects. Samuelson suggested that the commentators were often ‘showmen’, adding their own interpretation to the film or generating comedy by responding to the action on screen (Interview with Sir Sydney Samuelson, 2010). Other colonial filmmakers ­­­– ­­for example, Sean Graham of the Gold Coast Film Unit ­– expressed similar concerns, highlighting one of the difficulties of disseminating government propaganda through film.

As Independence approached, federal and local film units were on hand to record the official ceremonies and to outline the developments achieved through recent collaboration between British and local interests. This is most neatly realised in Giant in the Sun (1959), which, while exceptional in its quality, is in many respects emblematic of film production in Nigeria at the end of the colonial era. Giant in the Sun was a British production, filmed by Sydney Samuelson (who had witnessed the origins of the Unit while seconded to the NFU in 1950 and who had also worked on the film of Western Nigeria’s celebrations in 1957) with assistance from the local units. It highlights once more that Nigeria’s moves towards independence were still represented and conceived by British, rather than local, filmmakers. Furthermore, while the film was supposedly intended for local audiences on the mobile cinema circuit, in its mode of address and content, it serves primarily to introduce northern Nigeria to an international audience. Colonial influences and interests remain at the fore.

The Nigerian Film Unit, and the earlier practices of the CFU, would continue to shape filmmaking and cinema culture in independent Nigeria. The units helped develop a network for non-theatrical exhibition across the country, formalised the pedagogical value of film (particularly as a tool of governance) and brought images of Nigeria to an international stage. They also, to an extent, introduced cinema technologies into the country, although throughout the 1950s most of the NFU’s post-production work was carried out overseas. However, as Ikechukwu Obiayahas recently argued, the legacy of colonial cinema within independent Nigeria was also hugely restrictive. The process of ‘Africanisation’ within the NFU was far from complete, while long-held assumptions about audience capabilities prevented the development of more challenging film narratives. In contrast to the Gold Coast Film Unit, which looked to develop fictional dramas and which was, as Sydney Samuelson recently acknowledged, ‘way ahead of us’, the NFU continued to prioritise traditional forms of documentary and developmental film. Obiaya argues that ‘The Nigerian Government’s inherited ideological conception of the cinema led to a certain neglect of feature film making’, and further noted that distribution channels remained under the control of foreign organisations with no ‘interest in promoting African films’. While these legacies may be deemed negatively, Obiaya ultimately concludes that a modern Nigerian film culture – most notably the video-film boom – developed as a response and reaction to these inherited problems (Obiaya, 2010, 34). The legacy of the NFU, and of the colonial filmmakers before it, is therefore not only in what it achieved and introduced, but rather in how modern day filmmakers have responded to its failings and restrictions.

Tom Rice (August 2010)


Works cited

‘Vans Carry Visual Education to Rural Areas in Nigeria’, Colonial Cinema, December 1952, 92-94.

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies. Nigeria, 1949 (London: H.M.S.O., 1949).

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies. Nigeria, 1950 (London: H.M.S.O., 1950).

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies. Nigeria, 1953 (London: H.M.S.O., 1953).

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies. Nigeria, 1954 (London: H.M.S.O., 1954).

Colonial Office, Federal Nigeria: Annual Report, 1957 (Lagos: H.M.S.O., 1957).

Government of Western Nigeria, An Appraisal of the Development of Western Nigeria, 1955-1960 (Ibadan, Western Nigeria: Government Printer, 1961).

Larkin, Brian, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).

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).

Obiaya, Ikechukwu, ‘A Break with the Past: The Nigerian Video-Film Industry in the Context of Colonial Filmmaking’, forthcoming in Film History.

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

Personal Interview with Sir Sydney Samuelson, conducted by Tom Rice and Emma Sandon, 15 June 2010.

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.

Browsing: Production Company / Nigerian Film Unit
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IJU (1960)

The river Iju, Lagos. The source of the water and how the water is purified before it reaches Lagos, via ...


GIANT IN THE SUN (1959)has video enhanced entry

A study of Northern Nigeria as it prepares for self-government.

The commentator introduces Africa as the 'continent of the future' before ...



Celebrations, attended by the Princess Royal, to mark the introduction of self-government in Western Nigeria in November 1957.

The film opens ...



The recruitment, training, and passing out parade at the Southern Police College in Nigeria.



General picture of the country showing its economic, political and social progress.



Film of the visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to Nigeria.


NIGERIA'S FIRST WOMEN POLICE (1956)has video enhanced entry

The passing out parade of the first Nigerian women's police. Also shows the policewomen on duty.

The commentator introduces 'this historic ...


THIS IS NIGERIA (1956) enhanced entry

Survey of the peoples, customs and economy of Nigeria.

Travelogue of Nigeria. Includes Kano airport, Kano town - the mosque and ...



The operation of a mechanical workshop (PWD IJORA) which repairs government machinery and property in Nigeria.



The election and appointment of the new archbishop of West Africa, James Lawrence Horstead of Freetown, Sierra Leone who replaced ...



The planning and building of the University College of Ibadan and its opening ceremony.



INTEREST: Deals with the work of the Lagos Executive Development Board which was formed in 1946 to plan and develop ...