Costumes primitivos dos indígenas de Moçambique [Primitive Customs of the Indigenous People of Mozambique] (1929) – dir. João Fernandes Tomaz*

Dancers at Tete, masked as Europeans. ‘Costumes primitivos de los indígenas de Moçambique’ (1929) – dir. João Fernandes Tomaz

15 mins., b&w, silent (Portuguese intertitles)

Production : Agência Geral das Colonias.

Source : Cinemateca Digital Portuguesa, viewable on-line here

One of several films made in Mozambique by the Brigada Cine-Portuguesa led by João Fernandes Tomaz. This team was one of three such teams dispatched to the Portuguese colonies in Africa in 1929 by the Agência Geral das Colonias, a department of the Ministry of the Colonies, in order to produce films to be shown at various colonial exhibitions that were due to take place in Europe, including in Seville in 1929, Antwerp in 1930 and also in Paris in 1931.

These films mostly concerned the Portuguese and their modernising colonial activities, but this film, unusually, is exclusively concerned with local customary life.

Content : This film mostly consists of a series of set-up shots of craft activities within a village, filmed in a competent but mostly unimaginative way. However, towards the end of the film there are some sequences of dancing, supposedly of war-like character, accompanied by drums and marimba players, first at Angonia and then at Inhambane. This is cinematographically more interesting, and also seems more authentic, not only in the vigour with which the dancers are dancing, but also in that quite a number of the participants are wearing a mixture of European and traditional African dress.

There then follows a very awkward set-up shot of a chief, seated on the grounds, with his many wives, who, as the camera pans across them, all look very ill-at-ease.

The film ends with what is perhaps the most interesting sequence of all, which is identified by an inter title as having been shot at Tete. This shows a group of masked dancers dressed as Europeans (see frame grab above)

Text : De Rosa 2018

Scenes and Crafts in Uganda (1950-51) – dir. Diana Powell-Cotton

31 mins. , b&w , silent. Shot on 16mm at 16fps.

Source : Powell-Cotton Museum

Background and Content : In making this film, Diana Powell-Cotton may have been assisted by her younger brother Christopher, then a colonial administrator in Uganda.

It offers a series of sequences of everyday life and crafts in Uganda. \

On the same trip, Diana Powell-Cotton also made a film about the Kumam of Teso District.

Texts : UNESCO catalogue, p.258, Nicklin 1981.

Kumam, The (1950-51) – dir. Diana Powell-Cotton

available in a short version variously estimated between 33 and 50 minutes, and a long version, between 62 and 80 mins, b&w, silent. Shot in 16mm at 16 fps .

Source : Powell-Cotton Museum

Background and Content :  This film by Diana Powell-Cotton provides a general ethnography of the Kumam, a people who live in the Teso district of Uganda.

On the same expedition, Diana Powell-Cotton also made a more general film about everyday life and craft activities in Uganda.

Texts : UNESCO catalogue, p.257; Nicklin 1981.

Angolan films – Chokwe, Ganguela, Dombondola, Ovambo-Kuanyama (1936-37) – Diana Powell-Cotton and Antoinette Powell-Cotton

total duration variously estimated as between 240 and 405 mins., b&w, silent. 16mm, shot at 16fps

Sources : Powell-Cotton Museum, British Film Institute

Background and Content :  these films were shot during an expedition to the then Portuguese colony of Angola by Diana Powell-Cotton and her younger sister, Antoinette, known as ‘Tony’. They were shooting 16mm film at 16 fps. The films are usually jointly attributed to them both, though in the British Film Institute listing, they are all erroneously attributed to their father, P.H.G. Cotton-Powell.

In the UNESCO catalogue of ethnographic films shot in sub-Saharan Africa, each of their films is given a separate entry, but here it is more convenient to present them all together. Duration times vary in accordance with the source

(1) Chokwe Potter (aka Vatchokwe Potter) 18-24 mins. Shows firing and varnishing of pots.

(2) Ganguela consists of two parts, each 12-19 mins: one shows a man making bark cloth, the other a woman preparing honey and making beer

(3) Dombondola. Contrary to the suggestion in the UNESCO catalogue, this title does not refer to an ethnic group, but rather to a village close to the Angola-Namibia border, within the territory of the Ovambo-Kuanyama. This film is also generally divided into two parts, with a total duration estimated as being between 30 and 55 minutes. The first part concerns daily life in a Dombondola household, while the second shows a woman making a small pot for brewing beer.

(4) Ovambo-Kuanyama footage. This is the most substantial part of the material, and is reported to include the following films:

  • A Day in the Life of the Kuanyama  (aka Kuanyama Fishing), 33 – 50 mins.
  • Kuanyama Medicine Woman Initiation. 25-37 mins.
  • Kuanyama Potter’s Methods (aka Pot-making, Lower Cunene River). 13 mins.
  • Kuanyama Skinning and Dressing Skins. 28 mins.
  • Kuanyama Mining and Smelting of Iron. 40-60 mins.
  • Kuanyama Marriage Ceremonies : Efendula (aka Eve of the Efundula), 37-64 minutes. The UNESCO catalogue also mentions another 28-minute film under the title, Ceremony: preparation of costumes.

Texts : UNESCO catalogue, pp.47-49, Nicklin 1981, Castro 2016, pp.102, 104.


Italian Somaliland (1933-34) – dir. P.H.G. Powell-Cotton and Diana Powell-Cotton

variously reported as being between 96 and 140 mins in total, b&w, silent. 16mm shot at 16fps

Sources : Powell-Cotton Museum, British Film Institute

Background and Content : Italian Somaliland is the collective title given in the UNESCO catalogue of ethnographic films in sub-Saharan Africa to a series of short films shot by P.H.G. Powell-Cotton and his daughter, Diana in the course of an expedition in 1933-34 to what was then the Italian colony of Somaliland. Diana stayed on for eight months after her father left, so while some of the films are credited to them jointly, others are sometimes exclusively credited to her. However, at other times, all the films are attributed exclusively to the father – for example in the British Film Institute listing.

The films are given various different titles in the different sources, but the topics that they cover would appear to include the following:

(1) footage attributed jointly to P.H.G. Powell-Cotton and Diana (variously calculated between 29 and 45 minutes):
– Bread-making by both Arabs and Somalis at Gobuen
– Somali-Darod pillow-making at Afmadu
– Bowstring-making

(2) footage attributed jointly to P.H.G. Powell-Cotton and Diana (variously calculated between 33 and 60 mins):
– Miau woman making a winnowing basket
– Somali woman weaving a mat
– Beard-trimming
– Koranic school

(3) Somali footage sometimes attributed solely to Diana (15 mins):
– butter-making
– drawing blood from cattle
– watering of cattle and camels

(4) Pottery footage sometimes attributed solely to Diana (each film approx. 10 mins):
– Eile male potter
– Bimal female potter

Texts : UNESCO catalogue, p. 291;  Nicklin 1981

Some Tribes of the Southern Sudan (1933) – dir. P.H.G. Powell-Cotton

variously described as being 29 or 40 mins, b&w, 16mm, silent. Shot at 16fps.

Source : Powell-Cotton Museum, British Film Institute

Background and Content : This film was made by P.H.G. Powell-Cotton,  a hunter and explorer who made a series of self-funded expeditions to Africa, almost annually between 1920 and 1939. He had no formal training as either ethnographer or film-maker, but on a number of these expeditions, he took a Bell & Howell Filmo 70 and shot some ethnographic footage.

In 1933-34, he visited the Southern Sudan and shot the material for this film. According to the UNESCO catalogue of ethnographic films about sub-Saharan Africa, it includes the following sequences:

  • Lango – enacted war-dance, manufacture of spear shafts, washing of beads, making of a spoon, rope. A potter at work.
  • Bari – construction of a house, hair-styles
  • Didinga – men making roof thatch
  • Latouka – warriors in costume, pounding of millet, ploughing, blacksmith, woman potter
  • Azande – drums and dances, hair-styles, potter
  • Dinka – women pounding millet, ploughing, beating grain, making roof thatching, man setting a trap, man making a pipe, woman potter
  • Jur – woman potter at work

Texts : UNESCO catalogue, p.302; Nicklin 1981

Journey in Southern Angola (1929-30) – dir. Wilfrid Dyson Hambly

20 mins., b&w, silent (English intertitles)

Production: Field Museum of Chicago.

Source: Some 15 minutes of fragments of the film are available on the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford here.

Background: The film-maker, Wilfrid D. Humbly (1886-1962), was the then Assistant Curator (later Curator) of African Ethnology at the Field Museum in Chicago and the leader of the Frederick H. Rawson – Field Museum expedition to Angola and Nigeria in 1929-30.

The main purpose of the expedition was to make a collection of artefacts and to take anthropometric measurements. At the same time, Hambly also took photographs and shot the material for this film.

Unknown Race, An (1924) – dir. John A. Haeseler and Melville William Hilton-Simpson

John A. Haeseler shooting ‘An Unknown Race’, watched by M.W. Hilton-Simpson. Photograph probably taken by Helen Hilton-Simpson.

36 mins., b&w, silent (intertitles in English)

Production: the original film appears to have been a private production, but it was also distributed by Pathé under a different title, L’ Aurès.

Source: AMNH film collection, no. 283

Background: this film is the result of a collaboration between Melville William Hilton-Simpson (1881-1938), an independent scholar based in Oxford, and John A. Haeseler (1900-1990), a US film-maker who had studied at Harvard and later for a Diploma in Anthropology at Oxford. The film was shot when Haeseler joined Hilton-Simpson and his wife Helen on what was their sixth field trip to the Ishawiyen (aka Chaoui) Berber people of the Aurès mountains, Eastern Algeria, in 1923-1924.

After editing the film, Hilton-Simpson and Haeseler showed it to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in November 1924. This occasion as well as the film itself is described by Hilton-Simpson in the journal of the society (Hilton-Simpson 1925). Hilton-Simpson also collaborated with Haeseler on a short, more popular article about the practical circumstances of the shoot, which has been much cited in the visual anthropology literature (Hilton-Simpson and Haeseler 1925).

Haeseler went on to a long and distinguished career as a maker and producer of educational and ‘family’ films.

Content:  the film has been very well shot by Haeseler with many fine images of craft and subsistence activities, as well as of the natural environment. It offers a largely descriptive account of Berber life, structured around a series of intertitles, though towards the end of the film, a narrative line emerges, contrasting the very heavy work carried out by the women (notably in carrying water and wood up the steep slopes to the village) with the eased way of life of the men.

The following description, available on the web here, follows closely the description given by Hilton-Simpson himself in the RGS journal.

“This film depicts the geography of the Aures, Roman ruins at Timgad, the Tighanimine gorge, and the villages built on the tops of escarpments overlooking the Sahara with only a narrow, tortuously steep access route.

Women of the fair-skinned Shawiya tribe of Berber stock, are seen grinding grain on a quern stone; combing, carding, and spinning wool; making pottery; and scrubbing laundry on stone by “dancing” on the cloth. They are also seen involved in the difficult task of fetching water up to the village. Children are depicted playing knucklebone, a jacks-like game, and what appears to be hockey.

The men are seen irrigating their gardens by means of a water “clock,” a copper bowl with a minute hole in its bottom, which is placed on top of water in a large bowl. It takes about fifteen minutes to sink. The number of sinkings is determined by the individual irrigation rights. After the alloted amount, the irrigation ditch (seggia) is dammed to divert the flow of water to another garden. The granaries are seen with their defensible facades. A man fashions wooden door locks with an adze (a cutting tool), while others tend goat herds, prepare snuff, and braid cord … The film is rich in detail, particularly in the weaving and pottery sequences”.

Texts : Hilton-Simpson 1925, Hilton-Simpson and Haeseler 1925, Griffiths 2002: 301-304.

In German Sudan {Im Deutschen Sudan} (1916) – Hans Schomburgk*

65/76 mins., b&w, silent

Source : IWF/TIB

This film was distributed for a period by the IWF but since the IWF collection was incorporated into the German National Library (TIB), it has not been available for distribution, due to copyright restrictions. It can, however, be viewed at the TIB itself.

As it was not possible to view the film, the descriptions offered here are derived from secondary sources.

Background – This film is made up primarily of material shot during an expedition led by Hans Schomburgk  to northern Togo in 1913-14, but also incorporates some material shot on a previous expedition that he had made to Liberia. The material was shot by professional cameramen: James S. ‘Jimmy’ Hodgson in the case of the Togo footage, Georg Bürli in case of the Liberian footage. Schomburgk had a very low opinion of Bürli, but Hodgson had previously worked for Pathé and Gaumont and would go on to develop a distinguished career as a newsreel cameraman.

Another prominent member of the expedition was the German actress Meg Gehrts, whom Schomburgk had invited along to play the lead role in a number of fictional melodramas, notably The White Goddess of the Wangora, but also Odd Man Out, The Outlaw of the Sudu Mountains and The Heroes of the Paratau – all seemingly now lost.

Kabinet čudes: Baron in Bela boginja
Meg Gehrts rehearses as ‘The White Goddess’, while a local person, acting as a her servant, fans her. Photograph taken by Hans Schomburgk.

Schomburgk planned to make these fictional films alongside the more ethnographic footage, hoping to pay for the expedition as a whole through later box-office takings. Shortly after their return, in 1915, Gehrts published a memoir about the expedition that is interesting, though often irritatingly prejudiced to a modern reader. It includes some good photographs mostly taken by Schomburgk but also some by Gehrts herself. This is available on the web here.

The principal expedition film appears to have been released in various versions. A first version was premièred at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in London in 1914 under the title “Treks and Trails in West Africa”, but the material then appears to have been re-edited and presented under the title Im Deutschen Sudan for the first time in 1916 with a running time of 65 minutes. Other sources refer to a 76-minute version released in 1917. Either way, this was exceptionally long for an expedition film of ethnographic interest made prior to the First World War in Africa.

Content – Although some of the footage concerns wildlife, notably the sequence showing the capture of a pygmy hippopotamus which was filmed during the earlier expedition to Liberia and which is inserted in the middle of the film, most of the footage concerns the indigenous groups of northern Togo, particularly the Kotokoli. This material includes market scenes, cotton harvesting, spinning, men weaving on a treadle loom and women weaving on a vertical loom, selling of the cloth, games, basketry, making of belts from palm nut shells, men fishing collectively, equestrian games, and a visit to a traditional ruler (Uro Dyabo Bukari IV).

Market scenes recorded at Sansane-Mango mainly show the making of leather goods by the Hausa, but there are also scenes of salt and kola trading. Childcare and the preparation of food were filmed among the Tyokossi. Also important are iron processing among the Bassari and Konkomba archers shooting their bows and arrows. The film as a whole is framed by scenes of expedition life.

Texts: Gehrts 1915/1996Zwernemann 1978.

Siliva the Zulu (1928) – dir. Attilio Gatti *

Currently available two versions : 60 mins. and 96 mins., both  b&w, with English intertitles and an extra-diegetic music track.  The music track of the original 96 minute version is lost, while a music of modern African music has been added to the shorter version by the distributor.

Source : DVDs distributed by Villon Films (Vancouver)

This film is an ethnodrama shot over two months in June and July 1927 in a Zulu community in the region of Eshowe, then the administrative capital of Zululand. The ‘artistic director’ and person generally in charge of the production was Attilio Gatti (1896-1969), an adventurer from a wealthy Milanese family, with a distinguished First World War military record but few qualifications. The film was shot by a professional cameraman, Giuseppe Vittroti (1890-1974), who is credited as ‘technical director’. There was also a ‘scientific director’, Lidio Cipriani (1892-1962), a professor of physical anthropology from the University of Florence, whose role appears to have been to act as a guarantor of the scientific probity of the film.

Gatti had originally intended to make a fictional adventure film involving the capture of a white woman by Zulus, and had even brought two white actors to South Africa with him for this purpose. When this was prohibited by the South African censor on account of the on-screen contact between black and white people that it would entail, Gatti resolved to make  a film involving an all-Zulu cast instead,  even though most of the actors would have had little or no contact with urban society and would therefore probably never have been to the cinema.

The film that eventually emerged  is structured around an entirely fictional melodramatic ‘love-triangle’ story, but this is interwoven with sequences of everyday life and custom, including the daily work of tending the herds,  the construction of houses, plus a variety of sequences of family life, divination, public oratory and stick-fighting. Particularly impressive is the sequence of a marriage ceremony close to the beginning of the film.

Although the film was enthusiastically received by critics when it was first released in Milan in 1928, box office returns were poor and it closed very quickly. As a silent film, it was difficult for it to attract audiences excited by the recent release of the first ‘talkies’. The film disappeared and was considered lost until it was rediscovered in the 1990s by the film-maker Peter Davis, director of Villon Films which now distributes the film.

Although it is very difficult to disentangle the authentic elements from the superimposed European fantasy elements, in the almost complete absence of any other films from that time  (the brief sequence in Chez les buveurs du sang being one of very few exceptions), this film, provided it is interpreted critically, represents a very valuable ethnographic record of Zulu life in the 1920s.

Texts : Davis 2006, Davis n.d.

This entry is a stub and will be developed later.











© 2018 Paul Henley