Colonial Sujets

Panorama of Calcutta
K: John Benett-Stanford. P: Warwick Trading Company. UK 1899
The title is wrong: the film has been shot in Varanasi, India
Print: BFI

“Moving pictures were able to bring the Empire closer to home for British audiences than ever before. India was a popular subject for travelogues through its status as ‘the jewel in the crown’, but also because of its exoticism. The ‘otherness’ of the activities of the people of the riverbank and the architecture would have been of huge appeal to contemporary western audiences.
This is essentially a ‘phantom ride’, and its dynamism was an important attraction to audiences, with the bustle of people on the riverbank paired with the rocking, forward motion of the camera.”
Jez Stewart
Screen online

Warwick, under the stewardship of Charles Urban, were famed for their foreign travelogues, bringing these distant places to British audiences. Yet while Panorama of Calcutta positions the viewer as a tourist in India, it also maintains a sense of distance between the viewer and the subjects depicted on screen. The images – ‘the many temples, oriental architecture, fishing dhows, and other native craft’ – are shown, as the Warwick catalogue noted, in ‘rapid succession’, and are filmed from a constantly moving position on the water (Warwick Film Catalogue, 1901, 5260a). Furthermore, the catalogue noted the novelty of these films and especially their distance from British life, in offering ‘pictures in this far distant country’, and ‘a striking contrast to views of English station scenes’.”
Tom Rice
Colonial Film

A Trip Through North Borneo
K: Harold Mease Lomas. P: Charles Urban Trading Company. UK 1907
Sponsored by the British North Borneo Company

A Trip through British North Borneo serves both as an example of the early film travelogue – featuring familiar types of shots, such as the ‘phantom rides’ shot from a train – and also of the sponsored, industrial documentary. In representational terms, the film is a rare and valuable record of the development, industries, and customs of the local communities, showing local sites (such as the Padas River and the Darvel Bay tobacco estates) and in particular, the relationship between the local – as workers, convicts and at leisure – and the colonial administrators. As a film sponsored by the British North Borneo Company, it promotes the company’s administration and seeks to encourage further investment. This is achieved first through the film’s emphasis on travel – following the expedition by train, and across the river – which affirms an ideology of colonial exploration, adventure and discovery and encourages the viewer to identify with those developing the country.

Secondly, the film shows the social work of the company – reports noted its role in bringing peace and order and it is shown, for example, providing food to convicts – and thirdly, it emphasises the commercial possibilities and ongoing development within the area. The varied industries of the region are shown, including rubber, tobacco and manganese, and this chimes with both the company’s own emphasis on increasing the export trade, and with the broader imperial rhetoric of increased productivity within the colonies.
The British North Borneo Company evidently recognised the pedagogical and commercial value of film in promoting the company’s development plans and in generating further investment. Indeed the company’s engagement with film is an early example of a colonial administration using film, not only as a tool for imperial governance, but effectively as advertising, as a means of encouraging direct investment from the viewer.”
Tom Rice
Colonial Film

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