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  • Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the preservation of the British Empire by Tom Rice
  • Peter J. Bloom
Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the preservation of the British Empire
By Tom Rice. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

Film in the Colonies is the most comprehensive and detailed study of the British Colonial Film Unit (1939‒55) and its extensions. The CFU, as it was known, was part of a complex array of nonfiction film initiatives in Britain and throughout empire that the author carefully disentangles and traces in illuminating detail. The volume positions the colonies at the center rather than in the margins of British film history. British colonial cinema is an academic subfield with its own wide-ranging critical histories, but the author's remarkable access to films and documents is unique. While other researchers in this area such as Rosalind Smyth have excavated the history of the CFU in segments and others have probed intersecting geographical areas, this monograph is synthetic and greatly enhances our understanding of an interrelated network of nonfiction film production and underlying debates at the Colonial Office, Films Division and Ministry of Information (MOI) about the effects of the films themselves. It brings together an extensive array of primary documents from a network of international archival sources, incorporates a discussion of the key films, and cites an extensive secondary literature that draws on colonial media as a site of education, propaganda and documentary. As Tom Rice explains, the project began with his appointment as a postdoctoral fellow for the Colonial Film Project that was directed by Colin MacCabe and Lee Grieveson. Rice not only led the effort in selecting films that are now part of the colonial film website (, but became immersed in a community of archivists and researchers that led him to extend the scope of the research presented in this remarkable book. Several important conferences were organized as part of this project, and contributions by many of the participants have been published in two volumes by the British Film Institute, and edited by MacCabe and Grieveson in 2011, under the titles Empire and Film and Film and the End of Empire.

Film for the Colonies points in other significant directions. The author unifies a historical and methodological context for how the CFU functioned and its origins. Not only does the work trace the CFU to the history of nonfiction film in Britain, the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (1924‒25), and the film unit associated with the Empire Marketing Board (1926‒33), but examines the history of the major figures associated with the CFU, most notably William Sellers. Sellers and George Pearson were appointed as directors of the CFU, and Rice's detailed account of Sellers' trajectory serves as an important point of reference. Sellers is perhaps best known in the more recent critical literature about colonial modernity through Brian Larkin's Signal and Noise (2008). Rice reframes Sellers' approach to filmmaking and the context for the CFU within the terms of "educationalism" that is contrasted with the documentary storytelling approach associated with John Grierson and the filmmakers associated with the British documentary film movement.

For Rice, Sellers serves as a defining figure for a particular type of government-sponsored film that points to larger questions about the uses of film in relation to colonial prerogative and shifting policy objectives. Increasingly, Griersonian documentary film has been more carefully scrutinized within the context of publicity, Soviet cinema and persuasive storytelling techniques, thus deflating the celebration of its politically left-leaning rhetoric and aesthetic appeal. Rice's address to Sellers explains how the discourse of educationalism may in fact be akin to what Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson1 have described as "useful cinema," illustrating techniques of better hygiene, building techniques, juvenile justice and local government. Colonial developmentalism and policy prescription thus becomes adapted to a set of filmmaking techniques. The CFU is a less than well-known context for British nonfiction film that is perhaps better understood as pedagogical film, or through the contemporary idioms of how-to and DIY media. Rice demonstrates how Sellers and Pearson's approach to mass education as film technique were...


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