Mining the Film Archive to Reckon with the Colonial Past

by Grazia Ingravalle

The 2016 Brexit referendum has recast discussions about Britain’s identity, migration, and economic and cultural relationships with former colonies and Commonwealth countries. It has intensified debates about the violent legacies of the British Empire and the absence of Empire and colonial histories from school curricula. Calls for greater historical awareness of Britain’s colonial past and its global as well as local ramifications, along with widespread demands to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, have highlighted the need to hold public conversations about this inheritance, urging universities to devise new ways to teach Empire. Film and broadcast archives hold some of the most vivid and rare audiovisual records – some of which date back to over 120 years ago – whose value as historical documents could play a key role in this process of reckoning with the colonial past.

Think of the 1899 film Panorama of Calcutta, India, from the River Ganges, displaying a rapid succession of views of what was marketed to early audiences as Calcutta’s riverbanks, but are in fact Varanasi’s. Shot at a ‘safe distance’, from a boat sailing the river Ganges, this film – the oldest surviving film of India – shows us natives washing robes, fishing dhows and local crafts amidst the temples. Or take the case of the 1912 film Delhi Durbar, shot in December 1911 by the newsreel production firm Gaumont on the occasion of the Delhi durbar, a grand celebration of the British Empire and its subjects at the presence of King George V and Queen Mary, visiting India for the first time. Through its scratched and partially damaged images, we travel back in time and see the monarchs sitting on the throne in full regalia, India’s ruling princes parading by and paying their homages, as well as a march of hundreds of mostly Indian veterans, who had fought on the British side during the 1857 mutiny.

On the occasion of the ‘2017 UK-India Year of Culture’, the British Film Institute National Archive (BFI) recently digitised and disseminated these titles, along with around 250 other films shot in colonial India between 1899 and 1947. These films, including propaganda, home movies, travelogues, educational films and newsreels, are all available for free on the BFI’s on-line player and YouTube channel. They flash out historical figures and textbook events, depict folkloric rituals and, as in the case of the 1940 amateur film Indian Life, take us to cities such as Lahore and Karachi, which are now part of Pakistan. Beyond the factual information, however, these films also show us colonialist attitudes and hierarchies, stereotypical imageries and exoticizing representations – in short, the ‘colonial gaze’ embedded in the images themselves and in the way they were conceived and shot.

The aforementioned amateur film Indian Life, shot by research chemist John C. Jewell during a family trip around Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), is a good example of how colonialist attitudes were unconsciously incorporated in the act of filming. In a section of the film titled ‘Indian Types’, we encounter a series of ethnographic portraits of locals: a close-up of a seemingly piqued man speaking straight to the camera, overexposed shots of perplexed young men wearing pagri and shots of a father standing with his two children in front of his car. Later on, in a brief colour sequence in the film, we see the son of a shepherd approaching the camera with a basket on his head and a cane in his hand, when Jewell instructs him to move further to the right so as to capture him at the centre of the frame, as we gather from the boy’s hasty but cheerful repositioning.

While Jewell reportedly disliked ‘posed’ pictures, as we learn from correspondence with the BFI, the staged nature of these images is apparent. Without seemingly realising it, the Jewell family choreographed and shot these sequences according to their camera’s vantage point – a central perspective that placed the camera in control of both the field of vision and the human object of its gaze. As such, Indian Life is a testimony of the objectifying, taxonomic and stereotyping logic embedded in the way in which the coloniser pointed the camera towards his subject.

The historical value of these films extends further as we examine their material histories, from the moment they entered the archive to their current recirculation online. From the BFI’s 1938 catalogue, for instance, we learn that the archive acquired a nitrate print of Panorama of Calcutta from the Paisley Philosophical Institution, active in the western Scottish town of Paisley since 1808. The Paisley Philosophical Institution had expanded from a small cultural organization into a museum, an observatory and a technical and art school, thanks to the generosity of philanthropists such as the Scottish thread manufacturer Thomas Coats – himself a major beneficiary of the cotton trade with India under the British Empire. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Paisley’s thread mills had become such a leading manufacturing centre and worldwide textile exporter that the popular Indian-inspired elongated leaf motif (commonly used as a pattern for shawls) has since come to be known as ‘Paisley’. Given the town’s long history of cotton trade with India, we can speculate that films like Panorama of Calcutta might have held particular interest for a variety of audience members in Paisley. Once it entered the BFI’s archive – which had just been created with the purpose of conserving films as historical records and educational instruments – it turned from a local institution’s entertainment into a document of ‘historical and national value’. A common thread holds together the destinies of the Paisley Philosophical Institution, Panorama of Calcutta and its transformation into an archival record: their links to the British Empire, its history and long lasting legacies.

The value of films like Panorama of Calcutta, Delhi Durbar and Indian Life as historical documents stretches across multiple levels, as factual records, testimonies of colonial and orientalist attitudes, and material archival objects. Their layered historical significance demands that Western audiovisual archives confront the ‘difficult heritage’ held in their vaults, by using the possibilities for access and circulation offered by digital media and technologies as an opportunity to interrogate the colonial past. A number of archives have already begun doing this, as exemplified by the BFI-commissioned archival compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera (2018), which critically reuses and repurposes some of these same colonial films. At the same time, these films lend themselves to being incorporated in a variety of teaching contexts – in History, Politics, Sociology, Media, Film and Heritage curricula – encouraging new and innovative ways to interrogate Britain’s colonialism and its continuing legacy informing current domestic politics, international relations and multicultural society.

About the Author:

Grazia Ingravalle is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Film and Media at Brunel University London. Grazia’s work appeared in The Moving Image, for which she also coedited a special issue about digital humanities and film archives in 2017, and in Screen. Her latest article, titled ‘British or Indian film heritage? The material life of Britain’s colonial film archive’, will appear in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies in the Spring of 2020. She is currently working on her book manuscript Museums of Cinema: Archival Film Curatorship from Analog to Digital.