By Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes
One of the significant visual components of British colonial culture is represented by amateur film practice, which until recently has been largely neglected in terms of its historic relevance in the construction of British imperial identity. The study of British colonial amateur films offers reliable counter-narratives to the conventional, official and commercial visual historiography of the British Empire. Most colonial amateur filmmakers documented in detail their travel and/or lives across the empire, their cultural experiences, jobs, sports, and private and official events. Moreover, recent interest in amateur cinema studies, as well as the online access to many amateur films, reinforces the importance of exploring the documentary merit of this filmmaking practice, distribution and reception patterns. Such scholarship also contributes to the examination of imperial gender politics with a particular focus on the films made (mostly in colour) by British women who lived overseas during the late colonial era. The study of their films contributes to the re-examination of imperial gender politics and of colonial women’s histories that are not necessarily evident in governmental or commercial productions such as documentaries, newsreels and feature films. Either born into the privileged expatriate lifestyles of diplomatic families, or marrying or moving into such circles, these women’s colonial amateur films of domesticity abroad, public service and imperial ceremony offer remarkable informal insights into the workings of late British colonialism. Their amateur films trace their surveillance upon childcare and domestic life, servants, child-minders, gardeners and drivers, as well as informing their proximity to influential colonial figures and their semi-informal gaze upon state occasions, imperial educational programmes, medical organisations and missionary work.
Since the late nineteenth-century onwards, women have been targeted as a profitable market for photographic and film equipment, both as consumers of high-technology leisure devices and as subjects of new social and gender networks. For instance, The Cosmopolitan promoted the newly established photographic practice by announcing it as an “appropriate physical activity for women, an incentive to good health and suitable for the feminine traits” (Hirshler 2001:56). Also, George Eastman’s Kodak-Girl campaign launched at the turn of the twentieth century employed slogans meant to inspire and empower women: ‘Hunt with a Kodak’, ‘Keep Kodak Story of the Baby’, ‘Keep a Kodak Story of the Children’, ‘Modern Girls Need a Modern Kodak’, ‘A Vacation without a Kodak is a Vacation Wasted’. In addition, Konishi Roku launched the Pearlette in 1925, the first Japanese all-pressed metal photographic camera targeted to women amateur filmmakers – the original advertisement showed a woman operating it as an indication that the Pearlette “is easy to use for [by] anyone” (Ross 2015: 44). Alongside such campaigns claiming to secure women’s empowerment through access to, and use of the new photographic equipment, there was the occasional slip of the pen that confirmed stricter gender hierarchies, and the old dyad of locating female identity at the junction of enchantment and sorcery – the advertisement ‘The Witchery of Kodakery’ from 1913 offers a case in point (West 2000).
In the early twentieth century, women experimented extensively with photographic and filming equipment, at first with 16mm and then, from 1932, with 8mm – the latter being Eastman Kodak’s revolutionary film stock and equipment that allowed greater freedom of movement and hence a more reliable recording proximity to events, places and people. For instance, most British colonial women amateur filmmakers living or travelling across India during the 1920s and until the late 1940s used 16mm and 8mm film (black and white, and colour) equipment. Some of them, like Eleanor Dalyell in the early 1930s, or Rosie Newman between the mid-1930s and early 1950s, also experimented with rare and expensive technologies such as Kodacolor lenticular film and with Kodachrome. Others, like Wilma Gladstone, Eileen Healey and Audrey Lewis, used colour film to record exceptional events such as Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957, the international all-women expedition on Cho Oyu in the autumn of 1959, or Methodist missionary work in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau Emergency.
‘Still from Rosie Newman’s amateur colour film Britain at War (1946)© IWM. Screengrab via YouTube.’
The use of film cameras by women belonging to various social and cultural networks, both in Britain and across the empire, reflected the rapid technological and cultural shifts in Kodaking their biographies within specific times and changing worlds (Pasternak 2015). Their exercise in visual autobiography – the home movie-making mode and amateur photography – their intergenerational memory transfer, and their gendered visual histories of the Self require a scrupulous critical framework consisting of, at least, three investigative pathways. First, the films themselves as image-texts are open to cross-disciplinary analyses. Second, a comparative discussion that takes into consideration, when available, the films’ written counterparts such as the amateur filmmaker’s diaries, journals, and private or official correspondence. For instance, Eileen Healey’s colour films and expedition diary about the tragic ascent of the Cho Oyu summit in 1959, and Rosie Newman’s books complementing her colour films such as Glimpses of India (1935), Britain at War (1946), or The France I Knew (1943) are exceptionally rich examples of such comparative frameworks. Finally, the third possible line of inquiry is found in some of the feminist new media artists’ digital and ideological repurposing of British women’s colonial amateur films in an attempt to raise provocative questions about post/neo-colonial interpretations of British imperial and private visual literacies. This identity and gender dialogue between colonial/post-colonial amateur films made by British women and some of the twenty-first-century women artists and documentary filmmakers, such as Erika Tan, Catherine Moore and Alison Louise Khan, offers pertinent examples of past and present lieux de mémoire of gendered visual rhetoric – places where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself” across several historic times and narratorial voices (Nora 1989:7).
Most colonial amateur films made by women would routinely represent the empire from a marginal perspective that was mostly defined by domestic or leisure activities – a standpoint defined by the women’s social contexts. However, in spite of being considered an innocuous pastime activity, amateur filmmaking enabled women to bypass their immediate social network in an act of gradual gender self-liberation, a step toward modern times and often a valid exercise in visual ethnography. For instance, Wilma Gladstone’s (1914–2000) colour amateur films made in the Gold Coast (Ghana) are persuasive and equally unique ethnographic visual records. An educationalist from Edinburgh who joined the Gold Coast Education Department in 1945 as part of the Government Teacher Training College in Tamale, Wilma played a crucial executive role in later years when she set up a Curriculum Development Centre in Saltpond. In 1962, she left the Ghana Education Services and returned to Edinburgh where she joined the Moray House College of Education. She often used colour film stock when recording key instances of local craftsmanship, fishermen communities, Krobo chiefs, including Oklemekuku Azzu Mate Kole Mate Kole II – the Kornor of the Manya-Krobo Traditional Area – attending the annual Ngmayem harvest festival, Asante boys pointing their flags at the camera, Asafo company men wearing triangular headdresses featuring the Union Jack, or women and young girls celebrating their country’s independence from Britain in March 1957 while wearing white dresses with imprints of Kwame Nkruman’s portrait – Ghana’s first prime minister at the time of independence and also its first president, in office from 1960 until 1966. Perhaps the most important feature of her amateur colour films of the independence celebrations was her proximity to the participants and their almost unanimous at-ease acknowledgement of her filming – Wilma knew how to become one with the celebrating crowd, assimilated, simultaneously placed at the centre and at the margins of the racial and imperial network. She acted as a professional visual ethnographer in her own right, immersed in her topic of study, allowing for the least interventionist impact on her subjects’ behaviour, while retaining the autonomy to document it according to her specific ideological and culturally driven interests.
Just like Rosie Newman and Wilma Gladstone, other British women amateur filmmakers played key roles as visual ethnographers, as social vectors of British national or expatriate ethos, and as independent mediators of gender emancipation and social commitment, whether filming across imperial or post-colonial outposts, during political demonstrations or at their children’s birthday parties. Importantly, in their often unrecognised (even by themselves) role as culture and media makers, they promoted progressive visual literacies while acting as unique and valuable ambassadors between worlds, cultures, classes and often racial networks. In recent years, several British film archives have started vigilant campaigns for collecting, restoring and promoting films made by women amateur filmmakers, while media theorists, anthropologists and social scientists are now equally committed to explore this new field of visual and identity “staging of the self”, and the ways in which women have used amateur filmmaking to create and communicate novel views on constructions of female selfhood, whether in black in white or in colour (Doy 2005). This is timely and encouraging news.
 An excerpt from Rosie Newman’s amateur colour film Britain at War is available here:
Doy, Gen (2005), Picturing the Self: Changing Views of the Subject in Visual Culture, London: I. B. Tauris.
Hirshler, Erica E. (2001), A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870–1940, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
Nora, Pierre (1989), ‘Between memory and history: les lieux de mémoire’, Representations, no. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, Spring, pp. 7–24.
Pasternak, Gil (2015), ‘Taking snapshots, living the picture: the Kodak company’s making of photographic biography’, Journal Life Writing, 12, 4, pp. 431–46.
Ross, Kerry (2015), Photography for Everyone. The Cultural Lives of Cameras and Consumers in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
West, Nancy Martha (2000), Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes is Visiting Lecturer in new and digital media at the department of Social Anthropology; Official Fellow and Tutor at Clare Hall; Member of the Cambridge Digital Humanities and of the Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Visual Histories of South Asia (with Marcus Banks, 2017), British Women Amateur Filmmakers: National Memories and Global Identities (with Heather Norris Nicholson, 2018), Amateur Media and Participatory Cultures. Film, Video and Digital media (with Susan Aasman, Routledge, 2019), and has written extensively on the theme of colonial amateur film practice and imperial studies. She is also the founder of the Amateur Cinema Studies Network.