By: Kedmon Hungwe
Images of Yesteryear: Film-making in Central Africa
Louis Nell’s book provides a first hand account of pioneering film-making in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland through the Central African Film Unit (CAFU) over the period 1948-63.
Initial support for the project came from the British government through the Colonial Development welfare funds. The original objective of CAFU was to make films for African audiences. With the establishment of the Central African Federation in 1953, control of CAFU was assumed by the Federal Department of Information and the priorities shifted to the making of propaganda and publicity films to promote the federation locally and overseas.
The author, Louis Nell, was appointed to CAFU as a director-cameraman, being part of the CAFU team made up of Allan Izod (producer), Denys Brown (script writer), Stephen Peet (director-cameraman). Nell’s work primarily covered Zambia, but also Malawi and Zimbabwe. His book is the first comprehensive account of CAFU activities produced by one of the participants. It therefore fills an important gap in the historiography of film making in Central Africa.
The book provides important information on the technology of film making in the 1950s. The work was primarily based on small budgets and individual enterprise. CAFU laid the ground work for the modern day film production in Zimbabwe. Sadly, some of the gains of the pre-independence era have been lost. The country has not been able to build on the pioneering base of knowledge, skills and facilities established during the colonial period.
CAFU films were made during an era where the majority African population was discriminated against socially, economically and politically. These problems were played out in the work activities of the unit. There is some hint of these difficulties in Nell’s account, but the author chooses to be largely detached from the political context of his work. This is unfortunate, as a more deliberate engagement of the problem of film-making in the colonial context would have enriched his narrative. Such an account was all the more necessary because the professed goal of the unit was to promote African development, particularly rural Africans. This goal became increasingly elusive because of discriminatory land tenure policies that relegated African farming to marginal and over-crowded land.
My own research indicates that CAFU instructional films were in some ways uplifting to local communities, particularly in the early years. The audiences embraced them when they judged them to be consistent with their social and economic aspirations. However, there is evidence that in later years CAFU activities were resisted by some communities, who challenged the political assumptions on which they were based. For example, Africans in Northern Rhodesia became openly hostile to CAFU films that promoted the Central African Federation which they considered to be detrimental to their political aspirations for self-determination. Interviews that I have conducted with African assistants to CAFU crews indicate some resistance to CAFU films that promoted land resettlement and re-location of African peasant farmers in support of the Land Apportionment Act.
Another area of difficulty for CAFU were the controls imposed by the state on the production and marketing of crops. There were selective bans on cash crop production by Africans (e.g. tobacco in Southern Rhodesia) and discriminatory commodity pricing policies in order to promote white farmers from African competition. Given these policies, CAFU films that promoted enterprise and wealth accumulation through hard work ran into obvious contradictions that the audience came to increasingly discern. Nell’s book overlooks these problems. He chose to confine his discussion of audience reaction to the early days of the CAFU when audience reaction was positive and the locals were spellbound by the magic of the ‘moving images’.
CAFU promoted a limited vision of African development in a segregated society. Nell’s account fails to break out of that world-view. In the end, as the political tensions rose, leading to the break-up of the federation and UDI, CAFU lost some of its staff through emigration, and those who remained were largely absorbed by the Rhodesian government as part of its propaganda machine.
The shortcomings in Nell’s account notwithstanding, his book is an important, account to the history of film-making in Zimbabwe.