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  • Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe
  • Charles W. Weber
Burns, J. M. 2002. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe. Athens: Ohio University Press. 278 pp. $28.00 (paper).

This impressive study analyzes seventy years of public discussion regarding the appropriate role of motion pictures in colonial society. While focusing on this issue in colonial Zimbabwe, a strength is Burns's efforts at placing this case study into the larger context of the usage of film in colonial Africa and British colonialism worldwide. These topics are well researched, based on a treasure trove of numerous archival sources, many film viewings, oral interviews, and published materials.

The book's core deals with the Central African Film Unit (CAFU), "the most prolific colonial filmmaking unit ever created," which between 1948 and 1963 produced "hundreds of films, most of which were intended for Africans living in rural communities." In addition, it was regarded by its leaders, the governments that employed it, and the European settlers, as an agency that "had perfected a powerful technique for influencing Africans" (p. 105). The films it produced, while specifically produced for Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland, were nevertheless viewed throughout Africa and overseas.

CAFU productions were not of high quality; however, they proved instructive of race relations in colonial context, of colonial intentions, and of power relations and social change. Burns's intention involves careful analysis of how Africans themselves perceived these films, and explains the "African mind" in response to the colonial purposes of these films. The colonialists' aims included using cinema as "a potent vehicle of social change, one that would assimilate Africans into a new cultural, economic, and political order" (p. xiii).

Burns carefully explains the European beliefs and intents in producing films especially for Africans. First, Europeans felt Africans would be detrimentally influenced by films intended for Europeans because they were susceptible to messages that might promote violence, political disorder, and sexual immortality. Second, they felt that Africans had a different level of comprehension, and, since they took film more literally than Europeans, they would be unduly and negatively influenced by any portrayals of antisocial behavior. Therefore, special films needed to be produced for African mentalities and needs, and the CAFU was created for this purpose.

The main contribution of Flickering Shadows is its account of how Africans responded to these films, often with unintended consequences [End Page 129] from the colonialist perspective. Burns contends that Africans were first introduced to the world outside their villages and formed their own independent understanding of European culture via these films. He argues that there existed a "profound disconnection between the official vision of the state and the realities of its perception at rural cinema performances" (p. 108). These films even "inspired nationalist feelings" (p. 139). The CAFU's productions introduced Africans to "novel views of their colony, their continent, and their world," and thus they "first saw the world outside of the village and began to construct their own vision of the occidental 'other'" (pp. 208-209).

Burns successfully employs colonial cinema as a means for providing "insight into the complicated relationship between ruler and ruled" in Central and Southern Africa (p. 208). In exploring the complexity of the issues, he provides a lucid perspective into colonial society and the respective and often unintended perceptions of Africans and Europeans.

Charles W. Weber
Wheaton College


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pp. 129-130
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