Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire

Lead Research Organisation: Birkbeck College
Department Name: English and Humanities

Abstract

The last fifty years of the British Empire coincided with the first fifty years of cinema. The camera was used to record images of Empire for a wide variety of purposes: travelogues to amuse and entertain, educational films to instruct, documentaries to propagandize, home movies to memorialize, feature films to invent. For the last fifty years the vast majority of these images have gone unwatched, preserved but unseen. The aim of this project is to make this rich treasure trove of material visible both to specialist scholars and the general public.
The films are distributed between three organizations. The major holdings of films produced for public exhibition are in the British Film Institute, while the hundreds of home movies produced by district officers and other servants of empire are in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. There is a specialized collection recording the participation of colonial troops in the Second World War at the Imperial War Museum.
The project has four aims:
1) The cataloguing of these three collections with a rich interpretive field, which will
aid the historical understanding of both specialized researcher and interested
amateur.
2) The digitization of the most interesting images so that they can be made widely
available on the web.
3) The stimulation of a wide range of academic research to use these rediscovered
images to improve our specialized knowledge of empire, colonialism and cinema
history.
4) The use of these images in popular and educational forms to encourage a national
re-memoration of Empire. The project's ultimate ambition is to use the immediacy
and force of the image to allow a genuine re-working of national memory. When in
the forties, fifties and sixties, the flag was run down on the Empire, it was
immediately categorized as the distant and forgotten past. Many now argue that it
was a failure to think through the history of the Empire at that moment which is at
the root of many of our current racial and religious problems. These forgotten
images offer a tremendous opportunity to rethink empire from the point of view of
the colonizer and the colonized.

Publications

10 25 50