Family on film: teaching resources and weekend watching

Today, in a roundabout way, I have a few suggestions for resources that you might want to add to syllabi or to your weekend plans. This all begins in England, where I spent part of July doing the summer temperature shuffle between air-conditioned archives and sweltering tube rides. At the latter end of my trip, I attended the Connected Histories of Empire conference in Bristol, which was excellent and thought-provoking and very lovely all-round.

The conference included a plenary talk by Lee Grieveson (UCL), who is co-director of the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire project. If you aren’t familiar with the site, do check it out. More than 6000 films related to the British Empire are catalogued there, with more than 150 digitized and available to be watched; some include analysis from members of the research team, too. (The site is also very well organized and easy to navigate, which is an extra bonus.)

I have used a number of resources from the Colonial Film Project in my teaching in the past, and it occurs to me that there are a number that could be especially useful for a course or class on family and colonialism. So, for those of you who are spending these months writing syllabi, planning assignments, and looking for primary sources to integrate into these, here are three examples to consider. I’d love to hear if and how you use them, or if you have other recommendations.

Mr. English at Home

Mr. English at Home is a 1940 production of the Colonial Film Unit—the first film of the unit, in fact. Directed by Gordon Hales, it follows “a day in the life” of a “typical” English family, celebrating particular family values in a 27-minute black and white silent film. The Colonial Film website notes that the film was controversial, even denounced by officials in the metropole, but that it “proved enormously popular on the mobile cinema circuit in Africa”, especially Kenya, Nigeria, and the Gold Coast. Reports from Africa seemed to suggest that the film challenged some perceptions of British family life, rooted in what William Sellers called “the very artificial lives we officials and others live in the colonies”. The film offers an opportunity for students to consider how metropolitan family life was represented for African audiences. In so doing, they might pick up on key issues related to histories of colonial film, propaganda, and moral education; perceptions of African audiences and representations of Englishness; and hygiene, gender, domesticity, and the everyday. For more, see the analysis by Tom Rice.

In Rural Maharashtra

In Rural Maharashtra is a 1945 film produced by the Prabhat Film Company, and sponsored by the Department of Information and Broadcasting in the Government of India. Running at 12 minutes in black and white, and sound, it charts “[s]cenes of the life of a farmer and his family in Maharashtra” in the context of significant changes in India. As the Colonial Film site notes, this might be considered a film that both depicts and idealizes lives in rural India, set against a propagandic backdrop given a need for military recruitment. Students can consider how families are depicted in this film, and for what purpose or audience; in particular, they might consider how the wartime context mattered for representations of rural Indian families. For more, see the analysis by Richard Osborne.

Wives of Nendi

Wives of Nendi is a 1949 film—20 minutes long, in colour and in sound. Produced in Rhodesia by the Central African Film Unit, it purports to tell “the true story of Mai Mangwende, the wife of Chief Mangwende of Southern Rhodesia and the African women’s clubs she founded all over the Mangwende reserves”. This film raises some big questions about colonial discourses on race, gender, and civilization as they were filtered through filmic representations of household and family life. Students could “read” what is idealized through material appearance in the film; for example, what visions of domesticity, hygiene, and femininity are depicted, and how? For more, see the analysis by Tom Rice.

– Laura Ishiguro

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