Women, Empire, and British Cinema History

Article excerpt

The notion of the transnational has challenged the national focus of cinema histories and has shifted the way we conceive of contemporary film and cinema industries and cultures.1 To what extent, however, is it pertinent to our understanding of the contribution of women to British cinema history? Colonial historians and postcolonial critics have long alerted us to the importance of empire to British film policy as well as British national identity in cinema.2 Film emerging at the height of the British Empire arguably links the history of British cinema inextricably with that of empire, an issue that is currently being addressed.3 By bringing the empire into the frame of British cinema, debates around national film policies, production, distribution, and exhibition become more complicated, particularly in relation to how cinema circulated internationally. British men were filming all over the world from 1896, and throughout the first half of the twentieth century film was used widely in the empire. While commercial imperatives drove a lot of these activities, British policy documents on the use of film in the empire from the mid-1920s to the 1950s show that government officials, policy makers, educators, missionaries, conscious of the effect of American films on British subjects in the empire, promoted film as an instructional and educational medium and as a form of propaganda. We know a lot about British players in the colonies: from R. W. Paul filming the South African War (1899-1902) (formerly known as the Anglo-Boer War), Basil Wright's documentary work for the Empire Marketing Board, and Alexander and Zoltan Korda's empire feature film productions. There were also those working for the Colonial Film Units operating in Africa, the West Indies, Jamaica and the Caribbean, and other parts of the empire, with the Colonial Film Unit in London headed up by William Sellers and George Pearson, who developed what became known as a primitive style of filmmaking for "adults who cannot read or write, primitive in customs and environment."4 A women's film history project in Britain and Ireland therefore needs to take these histories into account and assess what opportunities, if any, the British Empire afforded women and how British women used film to advance the colonial project.5 Revealing the extent of filmmaking activities of women in the empire is not an easy task and will require the dedication, innovative historiography, and inventive research methods that researchers have already developed for the Women and the Silent Screen and Women's Film History Project.6 But in spite of the difficulties of tracing and identifying sources and attributing authorship, it is possible to find in existing historiography evidence of women working in film within the colonial space.

One of the main openings for women to work in film was with film companies in Britain producing educational, documentary, and instructional film. In the 1920s and 1930s companies such as British Instructional, then Gaumont-British Instructional, produced film not only for the home country but on a large scale for the empire. Mary Field, education manager and then a producer for British Instructional, moved to the educational unit of Gaumont- British Instructional, which made educational films, particularly for schools. While better known for her work on the Secrets of Nature (GB, 1922-33) and Secrets of Life series (GB, 1934-50), Field also counted among her credits the Secrets of India series (GB, 1934, reedited and released as the Indian Town Studies series [GB, 1937]) and the Empire Story in Cartoon series (GB, 1939), the latter made for children. She was awarded an OBE for her work in educational and children's entertainment film in 1954.7 Natalie Barkas also worked for Gaumont-British Instructional with her husband, Geoffrey Barkas, in Africa and India. They made educational films, including some produced by Mary Field in India, and they shot location footage for feature films, including Palaver (Geoffrey Barkas, GB, 1926), shot in Nigeria, Rhodes of Africa (Berthold Viertel, GB, 1936), filmed in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and King Solomon's Mines (Robert Stevenson, GB, 1937), located in South Africa, the latter starring Paul Robeson. …


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