Not Quite Cricket: "Civilization on Trial in South Africa": A Note on the First "Protest Film" Made in Southern Africa

By Gordon, Rob | History In Africa, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Not Quite Cricket: "Civilization on Trial in South Africa": A Note on the First "Protest Film" Made in Southern Africa


Gordon, Rob, History In Africa


I

Michael Scott, the long-term Gandhi-esque opponent of the South African government, was a man of many talents and one of his ignored skills was using a cine-camera. Between 1946 and 1948 as he worked in Tobruk squatter settlement near Johannesburg and environs and traveled to Namibia, in addition to his powerful writing, he also filmed scenes he encountered. The purpose of this note is to share the delight of viewing "Civilization on Trial in South Africa." It is, as far as I can ascertain, the first "protest" film made in South Africa, yet is not mentioned in the standard histories of film in southern Africa (Cancel 2004, Davis, 1996, Botha/van Aswegen 1992, Tomaselli 1988). While working on another project I fortuitously came across a copy in the Smithsonian Film Archives that I had copied and have deposited in the Namibian Archives.

The Smithsonian catalog dates this 24-minute edited black and white film to ca. 1950, and believes that it was shot between 1946 and 1952, prior to the implementation of the Group Areas Act, although it seems likely that shooting was completed earlier, before Scott was declared a Prohibited Immigrant in the late 1940s. Certainly, reading the documents on Scott's travels to Namibia, it seems likely that portions of his film was shot before 1948. In his autobiography, A Time to Speak, Scott mentioned showing the film in 1949 (Scott 1958:248). The Smithsonian obtained the film from the late Colin Turnbull, an Oxford educated Africanist anthropologist (J. Homiak, personal comment). The entry summarizes the film as follows:

Opening panoptic shots of Johannesburg and the "civilisation intended for whites only" are contrasted with township areas and government housing. Visual documentation of the color bar and its social and economic impact includes overcrowding, lack of pubic services and the proliferation of squatter habitations that accompanied mass urbanization in post-War South Africa. Film also includes; street life in Sophia Town, a tribal ceremony, a "beggar band" in Tobruk performing for pennies, the little-known bare-knuckle fights which were organized by the police to "keep Africans off the street"' and for the entertainment of white spectators, and separate facilities for Europeans, Africans and Indians. Final sequences document scenes from the British Protectorates of Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland within the Union of South Africa. Herero sites outside of Windhoek are shown with women in dress that was introduced by German missionaries at the turn of the century. In Bechuanaland Herero are filmed in an annual procession to pay tribute to ancestors who died fighting the Germans. As an advocate for the continued independence of these peoples [sic], Reverend Scott presented a petition to the United Nations from the Herero of Bechuanaland stating their opposition to incorporation within South Africa [sic]. Herero are shown gathering to hear news of the United Nations response to their petition (Wintle/Homiak 1995:23).

II

The purpose of the film was clearly to generate international support for dealing with the plight of the African and Indian population in South Africa and South West Africa. Indeed, the very title, "Civilization on Trial" is a direct take-off of Arnold Toynbee's influential 1948 book of the same title. The footage was edited into a film by Clive Donner (Peter Davis, personal comment) and distributed by the Africa Bureau in the early 1950s. Clive Dormer (1926-1994) might not be a name familiar to southern Africanists, but to cinéastes he is an important figure. Having learned editing from, among others, David Lean, the first big-name movie Donner edited was Scrooge (1950). During the "auteur"-happy 1960s and 1970s, Donner was regarded by many as the sole 'author' of such films as The Caretaker (1963, script by Harold Pinter) and Nothing but the Best (1964, script by Frederick Raphael). His largest commercial success was undoubtedly What's New Pussycat? …

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