Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Nigerian Movie Stars in "Palaver" and "Sanders of the River"

"Palaver" was one of the first films shot in Nigeria in the first quarter of the 20th century when the country was a colony of the British Empire. It was the first feature film that gave speaking roles to the natives and in fact they got good reviews for their natural acting skills. And they were the first Nigerian movie stars who should be recognized as we celebrate the Nigeria Centenary of 1914-2014. They may no longer be here with us since they have passed on decades ago, but "Palaver" is their legacy and an important part in the heritage of the history of Nigeria.

The living survivors and successors of their lineage should be proud of them.
They and Orlando Martins (1899–1985) who acted in "Sanders of the River" the 1935 British film directed by Hungarian-British director, Zoltán Korda should not be forgotten.
As we sing in our national anthem:  
The labour of our heroes past 
Shall never be in vain.

To remember these first stars of Nigerian cinema, we are bringing "Palaver" to the big screen after 88 years with a public screening on the Lagos Island before the end of the year. So that we can see these stars as they were seen at the cinemas in 1926 and captivated their audiences in the British Empire. 
The two principle supporting actors, the tribal King, Dawiya (Yiberr), and the witchdoctor, Yilkuba - whose contribution was lauded in contemporary reviews as "the most amazing performances in the film" (Bioscope 1926). ~Ann Ogidi
~ By Ekenyerengozi Michael Chima, Founder/President of Zenith International Film Festival (ZIFF), CEO, Screen Outdoor Open Air Cinema (SOOAC), Founder/Executive Director, Screen Naija One Village, One Cinema Project.

 Directed by Geoffrey Barkas (born Geoffrey de Gruchy Barkas, 27 August 1896 – 3 September 1979), an English film maker active between the world wars. Barkas led the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate in the Second World War. His largest "film set" was Operation Bertram, the army-scale deception for the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. He won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 1936 for his "Wings Over Everest".  

Technical Data  
Year: 1926  
Running Time: 108 minutes  
Film Gauge (Format): 35mm Film  
Colour: Black/White  
Sound: Silent  
Footage: 7329 ft  
Production Credits Production Countries: Great Britain  
Director BARKAS, Geoffrey  
Producer BARKAS, Geoffrey  
Script BARKAS, Geoffrey  

Filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria, where the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner leads to war.
The film introduces the main protagonists. Yilkuba, the witch doctor of the Sura tribe, warns his king, Dawiya, to 'beware of war', while Mark Fernandez, a tin miner, receives a letter warning him that he will be replaced if his work does not improve. Meanwhile, the car belonging to nursing sister Jean Stuart breaks down and she spends the night in the hut of Captain Peter Allison, the District Officer.

The next morning Fernandez visits Allison and finds Jean there in her pyjamas. Fernandez is next seen bribing Dawiya with alcohol('medicine') in order to get more men working in his mine, and then appears drunk at 'the social event of the year' at Vedni. Here he attempts unsuccessfully to dance with Jean and 'cut out' Allison. Allison, in his role as District Officer, subsequently 'holds court' and hears complaints against Dawiya. He visits Dawiya and discovers him drunk on 'unlawful liquor'. Allison suspects Fernandez, and on visiting him discovers the same type of liquor in his house. A drunk Fernandez visits his tin mine and strikes one of his workers. He then pays 'the penalty of excess' and collapses. During his illness, he is nursed by Jean, who pleads with him to take control of his life.

Meanwhile, Allison receives a letter revealing that Fernandez was deported in 1920, but has since changed his name. Jean asks Allison to help Fernandez, but Allison - aware of Fernandez's past - refuses. The two men fight and Fernandez with his hopes and plans shattered, 'plays his last card'. He convinces Dawiya that Allison is planning to arrest him. The misled Dawiya prepares for war - 'with strong liquor' - and Allison almost single-handedly holds off the attacking 'pagans'. After much fighting, Allison is wounded but victorious. Dawiya goes to Fernandez's house, kills him, and is then caught by Allison. The film ends with Allison sitting with Jean and asking her to marry him. They embrace in the final shot.

Context Throughout August 1926, Bioscope ran a series of editorials and articles assessing the state of the British film industry and emphasizing the importance of presenting British films throughout the Empire.

The Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had called for action in 1925 after noting the ‘danger to which we in this country and our Empire subject ourselves if we allow that method of propaganda [film] to be entirely in the hands of foreign countries’ (Royal Society of Arts, Journal, June 3 1927, 685).In August 1926 Sir Phillip Cunliffe-Lister, President of the Board of Trade, proposed in the House of Commons that ‘the whole question [of British films] should be discussed at the Imperial Conference’, after the Joint Trade Committee failed ‘to to find a solution to the British film problem’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1926).

On 5 August 1926 beneath an article entitled ‘British Industry in Hopeless Position’, there was a further article announcing ‘Three British Films in Three Days’. E. Gordon Craig, the managing director of New Era Films described this as ‘an epoch in the resuscitation of British production’ as the company announced that Nelson, Palaver, and Mons would be trade-shown on consecutive days in September. ‘Three British pictures in one week – three pictures which will convey the best of British ideals and sentiments’, wrote Bioscope (Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19). The Times similarly discussed the release of Palaver within an article that began ‘the attempt to find an agreed scheme for the rehabilitation of the British film industry has failed’, as the press presented Palaver as part of a broader attempt to rehabilitate the British film industry (The Times, 31 August 1926, 10).

In its review of Palaver, Bioscope stated that ‘it is a welcome sight to see the Union Jack in a film of this type’, further noting that ‘the narrative is inspiring, showing, as it does, the heroic work of those young Englishmen, who seek danger and hardship in the outposts of the Empire’ (Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37).

The film’s press book further promoted the ‘heroic’ work of the British within Nigeria – ‘of this colonizing genius and skill in the handling of native races Nigeria is a shining example’ – and attempted to validate historically the actions within the film. ‘Here, as elsewhere’, the publicity stated, ‘men of our race have plunged into the Unknown, and set themselves to transform chaos into order and security. Battling against slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism, against torture and devil worship, against famine and disease, they have worked steadily on, winning the land for the natives under the Imperial Crown’ (‘Palaver Pressbook’). Such writing characterised the publicity reports on the film.

When the film – advertised as ‘a marvellous story of Empire conquest in Northern Nigeria’ – played at the Stoll Picture Theatre for three nights at the end of April 1927, the programme stated that ‘Northern Nigeria is not a nice country to have to colonise’ as ‘slavery, human sacrifice, cannibalism – particularly devil worship – have been the chief obstacles, but gradually chaos has yielded to order’ (Stoll Herald, 24 April, 1927, 5). Palaver was produced by Geoffrey Barkas and photographed by Stanley Rodwell.
The pair had previously worked together filming the Prince of Wales’ Tour of Africa in 1925 and, when working on Palaver during the following year, secured local assistance through the Nigerian government, who helped in providing transport and in ‘obtaining suitable pictures of native life’ (CO 323/985/23).  Barkas, who would subsequently film material in Africa for Rhodes of Africa (1936) and King Solomon’s Mines (1937), wrote a two-part account of his experiences producing Palaver in Bioscope. He initially outlined the personnel involved in the six-month production, beginning with himself (‘running the show. Selecting my native cast from cannibal pagan tribes. Finally producing the film’) and including his ‘assistant’, and soon to be wife, Natalie Webb. Barkas explained his methods of story writing – ‘I made a point of meeting as many actual District Officers as possible’ – of finding suitable locations and in particular of casting. Barkas stated that ‘it was a laborious business for the whole thing [filming] was entirely outside their [the locals] comprehension’. He suggested that the locals were particularly reticent when gun shots were fired and noted ‘the possible danger of so many raw savages entering into the spirit of the thing [attacking the District Officer within the film] with too much abandon’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 22). The language he uses – he quotes one local as saying ’”Master, you are wise and powerful. You are our father and mother. We believe everything you say”’ – largely echoes the rhetoric within the film and he concludes by commenting on the ‘blind savagery from which they [the Africans] are so slowly emerging’ (Bioscope, 12 August, 1926, 20).

Palaver played at the Marble Arch Pavilion in March 1927, and a letter from a member of the Crown Agents to the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in July 1927 stated that Palaver, ‘as far as is known, is being booked extensively by the cinema theatres’. The letter suggested, in light of the commercial failure of the short instructional documentaries within British Instructional’s Empire Series, that Palaver ‘would appear to be the type of film which is most likely to appeal to cinema audiences in this country’ (CO 323/985.323). However, the film was not a great commercial success, although it did enjoy a life beyond its initial release. For example, it played for a week at the Imperial Institute in January 1930 as part of a free programme of films provided by the Empire Marketing Board (The Times, 14 December 1929, 8).  

Works Cited
‘Look to the Imperial Conference’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 2.
‘Three British Films in Three Days’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19.
‘The Joys of Filming in West Africa’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 22.
‘The Joys of Filming in West Africa (Part II)’, Bioscope, 12 August, 1926, 20.
‘Three Big British Productions’, Bioscope, 9 September 1926, 23.
‘Palaver’, Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37-38. Holbrook, Arthur R.,
Colonel Sir, KBE, MP, ‘British Films’,
Royal Society of Arts Journal, 3 June 1927, 684-709.
‘Letter from the Crown Agents to the Under Secretary of State, Colonial Office’, dated 11 July 1927, accessed at National Archives, CO 323/985/23.
‘Palaver Pressbook’ available at the BFI. ‘Palaver’, Stoll Herald, 24 April 1927, 5. ‘
The Film World: Many New British Pictures’, The Times, 31 August 1926, 10.
‘Palaver’, The Times, 8 March 1927, 14.
‘Films at the Imperial Institute’, The Times, 14 December 1929, 8.

COPYRIGHT: Colonial Film Office of the Royal British Empire..

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