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) www.villonfilms.com

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.

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