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.











Musical performance in French West Africa and Angola, footage (c.1934) – Laura Boulton *

Dogon women dancing to the sound of calabashes – Musical performance footage, French West Africa (c.1934) – Laura Boulton

40 mins., b&w, silent

Source : NAFC

Technically accomplished but mute footage of music-making, first in Angola, and then in French West Africa. Includes some remarkable images of xylophone players in Angola, and of dancing among the Dogon of Sangha in present-day Mali, including not only their well-known masked dancing, but also a particularly interesting sequence of women dancing with calabash gourd drums, a form that to the best of our knowledge does not appear in the later films of Marcel Griaule and Jean Rouch.

Text : Boulton 1969


Hadza, The : the Food Quest of an East African Hunting and Gathering Tribe (1966) – dirs. Sean Hudson and James Woodburn

40 mins, b&w, voice-over narration and intra-diegetic local music.

Production : Hogarth.

Source : distributed by Concord Media. An extract is viewable here.

James Woodburn

A television version of this film, under the title Hope for the Hadza?, produced by Brian Branston, was broadcast in July 1967, as indicated in the television schedule of the period here.

Rattray, Robert Sutherland (1881-1938)*

Robert Sutherland Rattray – more commonly known  as ‘R.S. Rattray’ and sometimes simply as ‘Captain Rattray’ – was a British colonial civil servant who wrote a number of important early ethnographic works on the Ashanti, the most illustrious of the traditional states within what was then the British colony of the Gold Coast and is now Ghana.

Rattray also shot some modest black and white footage, probably in 1921, of an adae ceremony, in which the spirits of deceased Ashanti rulers are propitiated and asked for favours. He also shot footage of people on mpadua rafts on the sacred Lake Bosumtwi.

This footage is viewable via the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford here. A more detailed description of the footage is given here.


Bushmen in the Kalahari {Buschmänner in der Kalahari} (1907-1909) rushes – Rudolf Pöch *

A San man speaks and laughs with the person behind the camera, presumably Rudolf Pöch himself

30 mins., b&w, silent

Source : Filmarchiv Austria

These are the rushes from Rudolf Pöch‘s expedition to southern Africa. Notwithstanding the formal title in the archive catalogue, they appear all to have been shot in 1908, in what is now Namibia and northern Botswana. They include not only more extended versions of the circular dance and technical process sequences extracted by Paul Spindler for his 1959 film of the same name, but also the original silent footage that appears in  Buschmann spricht in den Phonographen post-synchronised in 1984.

These rushes  also include some additional sequences that Spindler seemingly thought did not merit inclusion in his edited film. These include a shot of one of his subjects looking directly into the camera, smiling, laughing and apparently speaking to Pöch, perhaps the most intimate shot in all of his fieldwork (see above).

There are also two interesting shots of a boy running into the bush and back up to the camera, and finally, several shots of Pöch’s assistants wrangling the oxen that pulled his supply cart, which although of limited ethnographicness are the most cinematically striking shots in the rushes.

It seems likely that Spindler would have excluded these shots because they were all in some sense reflexive, and therefore in conflict with 1950s ideas about the need for ethnographic film to be ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’.

Text : Spindler 1974


© 2018 Paul Henley