Rejoice Abutsa

Personal Statement


  • A Gathering from Colonial Cinema in Nigeria

I.This mini archive is a digital space for films made by the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) in the Nigerian colony between 1926 – 1959. I gather four films titled Palaver (1926), Black Cotton (1927), African Conference in London (1948), and Giant in the Sun (1959). I briefly analyse all of them, and draw five stills with annotations from Palaver, to show the co-optation of the black Nigerian natives into the vision of British civilization. I question the choices that led them to be there or not[1]. The films, the analysis I make, and the stills complete my gathering of twelve items. By tracing and making these films, information, and photographs alive and accessible on a digital platform, I attempt to open them for further interrogation, both within and outside of Cinema and Media scholarship.

In my experience gathering these films, I have been met with similar challenges that scholars working with archival resources on colonial histories experience. Due to this, I am guided by the need to understand how a traumatizing archive can become a space for opening-up and engaging with the past. How can we approach the colonial archive by applying what bell hooks (1999) has theorized as the “oppositional gaze” that allows us to critically see to disrupt what it says about us? How do we deal with the presences and absences that live through whatever becomes available in our need to understand the questions that often live with us about these histories?

I call this space Fragments because my quest to find specific resources have been met with pauses, breaks, shifts, and I never fully achieved what I sort to find. In other words, these Fragments led to what Sadiya Hartman calls the “impossibilities” of the archive (2008, p.2). By entering this space, I was able to look at what was made available, but it only amplified my limitations in seeing. I experienced the vulnerabilities of absences, and instead of leaving it alone, it only constructed an obsession and anxiety to find more.

Like Hartman, I looked for this archive out of curiosity and with persistent questions about the people and the nature of history that are refused historical context when cinema scholars write about the history of cinema in Nigeria. To give an example about how this obsession and anxiety fuels me, I think of my work in Nollywood[2]. My research is complicated by the fact that many scholars looking from the outside-in, have tried to dissolve Nollywood’s agency and the counter-colonial motive of the industry. They do this by imposing colonial thoughts on what Nollywood makes available, while they also avoid citing Nigerian scholars that write about Nollywood from the inside-out. These scholars pull from historical orientalists to map present moments that trap Nollywood as a continuity of colonial encounters – and its filmmakers as indirect subjects who continue the colonial work. Through Nigerian scholars that study Nollywood, such as Ikechukwu Obiaya (2011) Onookome Okome (1999, 2007, 2012), Samantha Iwowo (2018, 2020), Frank Ukadike (1999, 2001) Paul Ugor (2011, 2019), Charles Novia (2011), I can re-emphasize that Nollywood’s black made content has been sustained by its rejection of colonial funding. Nollywood’s subtexts critic the histories that render themselves in the collection of films I gather.

So, what is it about colonial cinema that inspires the need to look, so that I can intervene in how the past and present of filmmaking in Nigeria is written about? I believe that until now, these disappeared films have caused a limitation in knowing about Nigeria’s film history. I refer to these colonial films as part of Nigeria’s film history because Nigeria is an identity formed by the British colonizer in 1914. Therefore, this archive reflects on how colonial cinema sort to alienate the ways the native people that form modern Nigeria knew themselves.

To apply Sadiya Hartman’s words in the context of colonial cinema, I identify the purpose of this type of cinema as a form of “… violence, excess, mendacity, and reason that seized hold of their (colonized people) lives, transformed them into commodities… and identified them with names tossed as insults and crass jokes” (2008, p.2).  This is evident in all the films I collect – the natives featured in these films were depicted as simpletons, they were submissive, subjects of labour extraction, or those who must be taught British “civilization”.[3]

Civilization is a ploy of “Western Humanism”. Several of Sylvia Wynter’s essays focus on making “Western Humanism” legible, so that we may attempt to approach history with an anti-colonial lens. In Rethinking Aesthetics, Wynter (2002) intertwines aesthetics with humanness – arguing that humanness is an aesthetic presentation, and an aesthetic presentation is humanness. Wynter tells us that what has been put forward by western sciences, politics, histories, culture, and in this case, cinema, were aesthetic practices that were formed to present a rationality that we must question.

In “Anthropos and Humanitas” Nishitani Osamu draws a similar distinction when he writes about a certain way that Anthropologists know or read people. He argues that Anthropologists use terms such as the” humanitas” or “humanitat” to “…designate human being(s) or human nature” (2006, p.4). Although Osamu’s focus is academia, his use of ‘designate’ or ‘designating’ human nature resonates with Wynter and what several scholars argue is the use of the cinematic medium to construct subjectivities.

In this gathering, I observe the aliveness of Nishitani Osamu’s notion of designating human nature, Sylvia Wynter’s “Western Humanism”, and Hartman’s “Impossibilities”, all at once. The colonial films I gather project the British as the model for Western humanity, while the native subjects are taught to aspire towards British civilization. Making this space available is an attempt to disorganize this central humanity and bring to fore how today, it catalyses issues of underdevelopment, reductionism, geographical racism. Until now, people from Africa and the aesthetics they produce are often perceived through the lens and the rigidity of the past.

A resonating theme that pulls all the films I gather is the transformation of the Nigerian people into the aesthetics of “Western Humanism”. In Palaver (1926), the story trails the “civilization” of native Nigerians; Black Cotton (1927) uses an aerial view to observe the resources within the Northern colony and it emphasizes industrialization as “civilization”; The African Conference (1949) focuses on situating the superiority of the British and the London metropole, so that African leaders can aspire and assimilate this; and Giant in the Sun (1959) tracks the progress of such surveillance and assimilation, to emphasize that British civilization was successful.


This archive was not gathered without pushbacks and delays from the British Film Institute. Due to issues of ownership and the location where these films are currently held, I have travelled in between countries to ensure that I am able to get access to them. Although the BFI insists that to watch these films, one would need to visit their London Southbank centre, my experience has not been as straight-forward. After six months of attempting to gain digital access to these films, I visited the Southbank centre in London on the 17th of March 2022 and asked for help in locating these films. Upon my arrival, I received help from the BFI librarians and archivists, who led me to a desktop where I could watch these films. However, I experienced “impossibilities” in watching these films, because the catalogue of colonial films only provides details about these films, not the films themselves. The librarians were uncertain why this was the situation and after hours of trying, I left.[4]  Although I am unable to recount the full details and struggles of trying to access the archive due to the limitation of time and space, I consider these challenges an orchestration of absences that fuel the meanings I make from what I eventually gain access to.


While access to the four films I list and describe here now privilege the presence of this digital archive, I invite everyone looking through this mini archive to exploratively question where films from colonial cinema belong, how we should be able to access them, and why thinking about them is important at all. Film distribution experts insist that the ownership of film rights is based on the terms of agreement between the filmmaker and the distributor. However, I see the colonial archive as one that should not be owned by terms of agreements. To own or have terms of agreement in this case, is to extend histories of exploitation into the present. My access to these films is because of several pushbacks (some of which I choose to keep out of this writing due to space).

In this section, I summarize the thematizations of these films. Although I have not been successful in locating those who were featured in and forced to project a stereotypical image of blackness within this archive, by making this available, I want us to take note of them: The ways their faces register – the ways the camera subjugates their cultural activities – and yet, the ways that the camera insists that they had to be part of these processes.

            Below, I summarize some of the themes that resonated with me as I looked through these works.

The Black ‘Disappearing’ Woman

My decision to return to these archives, despite the silence that surrounds them from Nigerian media and cinema scholars stems from the need to partake in the rebellious act of looking, as bell hooks encourages black women to do (1999, 166). In her critical work in film studies, bell hooks invokes the “oppositional gaze” as a means of accessing power and agency. When we interact with cinema and its representations, we experience multiplicities in the production of subjectivities. It is through looking – as a violation – as authority on the moving image – as a form of engagement and resistance. To hooks, resistance, allows black women to pull back, disengage and resist “complete identification” with the sorts of representations that are depicted on screen (1999, p.117). My decision to look at colonial films is an act of living with these contradictory acts of engaging and disengaging. It constitutes what hooks argues is bringing a presence where it is refused (p.117).

When I sit to watch Palaver (1926), I especially embody the “oppositional gaze” when I experience the violation on the black woman. The black female character whose face is rejected by the camera, but whose body is depicted as a site of interest to her white oppressor returns me to the Invention of Women where Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s (1997) reminds us that black women in colonial Nigeria were placed at the bottom of the colonial ladder. It also enforces the words of Senegalese novelist, Awa Thiam, who insists that women are the “blacks of the human race”.[5] The camera’s rejection of the black woman’s face in colonial cinema maps the absences that trail the entire film. She is the only black woman that appears, but the camera insists to look at her body in ways that are scopophilic. The director refuses to credit her, as he refuses us the opportunity to know the other black native characters. The woman lacks the same screentime as the white woman. Through this, the film erases black women as contributors to even the labour forced upon the black men in this film.  They become absent to colonial societies, but at the same time, their bodies are fixed for exploitation by their white oppressor.

Disappearing Communities

Giant in the Sun (1959) encapsulates the themes of disappearance that all the films in Fragments share. The film begins by mapping the diverse regions that have been pulled together to form a common identity for Nigeria. Giant in the Sun focuses on the reconstruction of the lives and society of the natives, a year before Nigeria gained its independence. The anxieties and shifts are documented through the reformation of education, health sectors, government, and leadership. It slowly moves us from native aesthetics into the Western. Giant in the Sun particularizes how locals were transformed from ways of cultural mobilization into political ones, from being communities to identifying as a nation, from co-existence to individualism.

Northern Nigeria: The Zone of Producing Subjectivities

I am from the North Central geographical region of Nigeria. The anxieties I experience with this archive also stems from the fear of trying to know how my ancestry or people of my lineage were subjects of these colonial moments.  Several historians of Nigeria’s colonialism point to the active presence of the British in the North. In Signal and Noise, Brian Larkin (2008) tracks this presence across media and shows how the Northern region became the site for active colonial presence and for media production and distribution. Larkin maps how the North was the territory to conquer, and so the colonial government experimented, reformed, and enforced itself in the North (p.17).

Palaver (1926) was shot within the Bauchi-Plateau region where half of my family now lives. Therefore, in looking through these films, I trouble every older family member to tell me things that they choose to remain silent about. In my own reflection of what the film makes available, I see the violation on native lands and how today, the north continues to be the location for several terrorist attacks. In trying to see beyond these films, I cannot look past these conniving histories and how the grounds where my family now stands has been met with histories of invasion.

Because of this history, I experience several pauses while watching these films. I ask questions about the types of connections that may have existed between me and the people who were forced to perform these notions of humanhood – or those who were forced to shred their ways of knowing, so that they could enter and partake in the ways of British humanism. I reflect on the connections my family may have had with the natives in these films, or me, with their descendants.

I wonder if the grounds they stood, the hours they were ‘asked’ to work on this project, enforces some of the generational pains that families in the North continue to grapple with. I question how those exploited, as shown by these films, have been depicted in western media as those whose geographical deficiencies amplify the trouble with humanity.


This personal statement, an act of reflecting alongside the theorists that help me write my thoughts is an act of defiance. In gathering these works, I realize that it has only opened new directions and has led towards new questions. By documenting these films, by making available the analysis, and stills, I aim to continue in my search for histories that are subjugated in many ways.


“Colonial Film”, accessed on May 1, 2022:

Hartman, Sadiya. (2008). Venus in two Acts. Indiana University: United States of America: Indiana University Press.

hooks, bell. (1999). Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press: Boston.

Iwowo, Samantha. (2018). Colonial Continuities in Neo-Nollywood: A Postcolonial Study. Thesis (PhD), University of Bristol. 

Iwowo, Samantha. (2020). ‘The Problematic Mise En Scène of NeoNollywood’. Communication Cultures in Africa, 2(1). 94 114.  

Larkin, Brian. (2008). “Signal and Noise”.  Duke University Press: Durham.

Obiaya, Ikechukwu. (2011). “A Break with the Past: The Nigerian Video-film Industry in the Context of Colonial Filmmaking”. An International Journal, 23, (2), pp. 129 -146.

Okome, Onookome. (1996). “The Context of Film Production in Nigeria: The Colonial Heritage”. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 24, (2-3), pp. 42-62.

Osamu, Nishitani. (2006). Anthropos and Humanitas: Two Western Concepts of “Human Being”. In: Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference. Ed. Naoki Sakai and Jon Solomon. Hong Kong University Press.

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí. (1997). The invention of Woman: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.  

Palaver, Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37-38.

Rice, Tom. (2019). Films for the Colonies. Cinema and the Preservation of the British Empire. California: University of California Press.

Smyth, Rosaleen (2006). “The British Colonial Film Unit and sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945)”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8:3, 285-298.

Wynter, Sylvia. (2000). “Africa, The West and the Analogy of Culture: The Cinematic Text After Man.” In: Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema: Audiences, Theory, and the Moving Image. Ed. June Givanni. London British Film Institute. 25-76. Print.  

Wynter, Sylvia. “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics.” In Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, edited by Mybe Cham, 238–79. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1992.

[1] While the conditions that led these actors to engage in these films may remain speculative to us, I draw attention to how their characterizations produce subjectivities to anchor the British modernization of Nigeria.

I italicize several words within this personal statement because I use italics to imply and reflect on the definitions that I am unable to include or expound on, in this personal reflection.  

[2] My mini archive does not focus on Nollywood. However, I find this reflection important because part of putting this space together is to make colonial projects available, and I believe that in the future, its availability can help Nigerian scholars studying Nollywood to counter the stereotypical narratives about the colonizer being alive through Nigerian filmmaking. In the Cinematic Text After Man, Sylvia Wynter (2000) tells us that cinema was a western invention and while it may subject us to the terms and services of inventing more “Western Humanisms”, African filmmakers must use this medium to reconstruct how they have been represented in film. Nollywood, although less political than other forms of African cinemas, insists on telling stories from the Nigerian point of view. Its subtexts carry critiques of colonialism, capitalism, and in some cases, gender. Having interacted with the colonial films that I include in this archive, I see that many of them are documentaries and the only fictional narrative available, validates the fact that Nollywood does not approach storytelling in the same way that the colonial filmmakers did. In fact, the subtlety and polite racism of the British are rejected by Nollywood, although it often partakes in the ambition for the modern life, by the ways it forfeits the rural for the urban.

[3] In many ways, contemporary Nollywood deviates from these practices. Therefore, the presence of the archive, although existing independent of Nollywood in Fragments, begins to shift age-long narratives.

[4] I left the space and not the ambition to gain access to these archives. I continued in my search for them and would regularly write multiple emails to several BFI centres, although they requested that I pay over £20 per film. I eventually gained access to four of the films. However, after this archive is accessed for this class, the page would return to private until full permission is gained to allow the public to engage with these films.

[5] Awa Thiam’ made this statement in Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa (1986).