Peter Morton-Williams: Anthropology & Mobile Cinema

Numerous assumptions about the inferiority of African mentalities proliferated among colonial officials; therefore at the beginning of the 20th Century, as part of the civilizing process of colonialism, specialized cinematic techniques were used in making African development films. The most illustrious proponent of the “specialized technique” was the head of the Colonial Film Unit, William Sellers. In 1954 he wrote in the Colonial Cinema magazine on the physiological differences between Africans and Europeans, “illiterate people, unaccustomed to seeing pictures of any kind, do not focus their eyes on the screen as educated people do. Educated people usually focus their eyes at a point a few feet from the screen and by doing so appreciate the entire screen at a glance. The illiterate, on the other hand, scans each scene and his eyes travel from one part of the picture to another. For this reason, films for illiterate people contain scenes which are much longer than is usual in film making.” (“Mobile Cinema Shows in Africa” Colonial Cinema 1954 12(4): 75-81)

Sellers’ racist assumptions were accepted by the colonial government, thus the British Colonial Film Unit produced simply constructed films with basic cuts and long takes in an effort to insure that African audiences would be able to understand their development goals. Sellers’ fallacious observations went without researched proof until the Colonial Office hired British anthropologist Peter Morton-Williams (at Sellers’ suggestion) to conduct scientific observations on the effectiveness of colonial development cinema on African audiences.

The publication date for "Cinema in Rural Nigeria" is something of a mystery as several leading scholars have cited a variety of dates: 1952 (Tom Rice), 1953 (Birgit Meyer, James Burns), 1954 (Brian Larkin). I couldn’t find a date on this copy of the report that I viewed at University of Ghana’s Balme Library except for “1956” handwritten across the cover. However, based on the project timeline Morton-Williams gives in the report the most probable publication date is 1952.


Morton-Williams’ definitive report, Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria is often cited as the symbolic “nail in the coffin” of William Sellers’ “specialized technique” (see Larkin 2008, Burns 2002 and Meyer 2003). Morton-Williams writes, “It seems quite evident that the physiological aspect of the problem can be ignored; that all audiences can see what is projected on to the screen, after a very short period.” (Morton-Williams 44) Later in the report he denies the necessity for simple transitions and a specialized film language: “The means by which the transition from shot to shot is accomplished do not seem important for the audience’s understanding. Mixes, fades, cuts are all acceptable, provided that shot succeeds shot in the order dictated by the logic of the events in the action. Within this condition, audiences were not baffled by rapid changes of scene that took them over long distances or that compressed time.” (Morton-Williams 45)

Morton-Williams’ conclusions—by refuting Sellers—helped lead the development of new cinematic methods for filmmaking in the colonies. However his report did not provide a straightforward solution to the problems colonial filmmakers were facing in terms of making effective educational films. Throughout the report there is a tension between Morton-Williams’ anthropological inclinations and colonial realities. On the one hand suggesting films should be made culturally specific for particular ethnic audiences, and on the other hand acknowledging the impossibility of colonial administration to make culturally specific films for such wide and diverse imperial audiences.

While Morton-Williams’ report gives film historians insight into how audiences reacted to mobile cinema screenings we can not assume as anthropologist Birgit Meyer does “that audiences would have reacted in similar ways” in the Gold Coast or in other British African colonies (Meyer 2003). Amenu’s Child (1950) is a clear example of a film shown by mobile cinema vans that inspired very different reactions in the Gold Coast and Nigeria.

Morton-Williams finds that many of the films screened in Nigeria by mobile cinema vans were unsuccessful at changing social habits because their stories were not specific to the cultural/social norms of Nigerian audiences. According to his study, Nigerian audiences received the Gold Coast Film Unit film Amenu’s Child poorly because the film’s story gave no cultural reference points for non-Ghanaians watching the film. According to Morton-Williams this resulted in awkward laughing at emotionally charged segments of the film and the misinterpretation of cultural references such as a Ghanaian yam festival and the traditional clothing of the actors. His solution is to avoid cultural detail when showing a film to multiple audiences. He writes, “If the problem concerns people of the most varied culture, one such as overcoming a reluctance to be vaccinated, it must be treated in terms which can be understood by them all. This suggests that the treatment of the theme must be broad, and that the background which is likely to be full of all sorts of unfamiliar and distracting detail, must be very much subordinated to the actors whose behaviour is to communicate the message of the film.” (Morton-Williams 38)

However, the Gold Coast Film Unit touted Amenu’s Child as an appropriate African alternative to Sellers’ simple and didactic Colonial Film Unit films precisely because it was made to be specific to African culture. G.B. Odunton, an African member of the Gold Coast Film Unit, described the new technique used by the Gold Coast Film Unit in the making of Amenu’s Child as employing “the local idiom of the people” and using, “the story-telling technique.” He goes on to write, “By casting films in the traditional pattern of story-telling we hope to speak in a manner which is familiar to indigenous African culture, and is traditionally a form of instruction and entertainment.” (G.B. Odunton, “One Step Ahead” Colonial Cinema 1950 8(2): 32-33) But according to Morton-Williams’ study the “African” story-telling techniques in Amenu’s Child where not familiar to indigenous African audiences in Nigeria.

Nevertheless, the failure of Amenu’s Child to elicit social change in Nigeria may have had more to do with the how the film was screened than the cultural specificity of its content. In the Gold Coast the film was screened as part of comprehensive multi-media training sessions. A team of educational trainers were gathered from the Medical, Public Relations and Social Welfare Departments to conduct courses on the care and feeding of newborn babies. As a supplement to the training, Amenu’s Child, pamphlets and photo displays were used to reinforce lessons from the health courses to participants. This extensive contextualization was not provided at Nigerian screenings and perhaps explains why the film was less effective.

Discussion of "Amenu's Child" in a course on child care and nutrition in 1950.

Somewhat contradictorily, Morton-Williams writes later in his report, “In deciding what weight to give to the various aspects of his material, the film-maker should dissociate it from its context in his own culture, and try (as in the discussion of the reactions to the film Mixed Farming) to see it in the new environment in which he is attempting to plant it; it is otherwise unlikely to take root.” (Morton-Williams 41) Here he seems to be expressing the very necessity of culturally specific filmmaking techniques. He also writes, “With more knowledge of the people themselves, it should be possible to explain to them why they must come into new relationships with the world, to make them aware of whatever benefits they may expect and how to get them. But it will need much careful research before ways can be found of transforming their societies.” (Morton-Williams 39) Therefore, according to Morton-Williams, if we recall his earlier critique of Amenu’s Child, filmmaking must be broad in its address and limit distracting detail, but should also be culturally specific to the group being addressed.

By the end of the report the problem of how to make colonial development films more effective is not resolved. Perhaps we must accept that the difficulty of laying out the terms for colonial filmmaking is due to the combative relationship between the general and the specific within the Imperial itself.

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