Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report

Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report


A very receptive audience for a tour of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum with Phil Wickham!


It was a pleasure to recently welcome a range of experts to discuss aspects of the depiction of empire and trade in British and French film culture in collaboration with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Tom Rice (St. Andrews) kicked off proceedings with a paper which discussed the role of film in imperial education in the UK considering the significance of the Empire Marketing Board and British Instructional Films, as well as figures such as William Sellers and Mary Field, in promoting colonial instructional films. As Rice notes, such figures are often overlooked- with significantly more critical attention paid to (atypical) ‘prestige’ films such as Grierson’s Drifters. Patrick Russell (BFI) explored the changing culture of industrial films over the longue duree highlighting connections between documentary networks and trade. Russell the need for more study of the relationship between industrialists and film-makers in understanding the production of these films. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of the ‘golden age’ of industrial film production between 1945 and the early 1970s and the challenges of understanding how such films became ‘Africanised’ through processes of decolonisation and the internationalisation of production.


Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter
Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter

Image from current exhibition on empire and trade at the BDCM curated by our SCP intern Katy Moon


The second panel focused on film-making in Southern Africa. Jacqueline Maingard (Bristol) explored the idea of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in Donald Swanson’s films, considering the networks he operated in within Britain and eastern and southern Africa, and how they affected his depiction of race and colonial space. Emma Sandon (Birkbeck) focused on documentary films produced in South Africa between the 1920s and 1940s, exploring the role of African Film Productions in promoting trade with Britain. Sandon considered the various audiences for such documentary films, both in Britain but also in South Africa where they played an important role in promoting an English-speaking South African identity at a time of Afrikaner cultural revival.


In the final panel David Thackeray (Exeter) discussed the connections between imperial documentary film networks and the rise of internationalist development projects in the 1940s, focusing on the activities of John Grierson and Norman McLaren at UNESCO. Berny Sebe (Birmingham) offered comparisons between the depiction of French and British imperial heroes in film culture during the inter-war years, and Will Higbee (Exeter) explored ideas of imperial memory and the problematic nature of the colonial past in contemporary France through a study of Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors-la-loi (2010) and its popular reception.


Over the course of the day, a number of common themes emerged such as-


  • the importance of non-fiction educational/trade films and their relevant neglect in academic literature
  • the need to interrogate more thoroughly issues of circulation and viewership (in imperial networks) in terms of understanding the reach and appeal of individual documentary productions, but also the very varied practices of viewership (particularly in colonial contexts)
  • the contested nature of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in film-making, and the need to interrogate the role of the film-maker and industrial/ government sponsors in shaping film production
  • the value of using documentary film sources to understand ideas of ‘imperial modernity’ (eg. promoting modern techniques of industry, agriculture and education)
  • the value of these sources for understanding processes of decolonisation and nation forming


The workshop was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Katy Moon which will provide a basis for teaching with Exeter WP Residential and International Summer School classes and is currently on display at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.


David Thackeray