‘Assignment Africa’: Donald Swanson's colonial imaginary and Chisoko the African (1949)

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African Jim (1949) and The Magic Garden (1951), both directed by Donald Swanson, have a unique place in the history of film in South Africa as amongst the first films to place black identity and experience at their centre. While there is considerable scholarship on the films, there has been little consideration of Donald Swanson’s varied career and output. This article shows how he participated in a network of documentary and colonial filmmakers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, first in Gaumont-British Instructional (GBI) and subsequently in African Film Productions (AFP). It builds on my earlier research and the recent recovery of two colonial films that he scripted and directed, Chisoko the African (1949) and Mau Mau (1954). Tracing Swanson’s beginnings with the GBI series on British Railways for which he wrote two scripts, I identify key characteristics of his style and aesthetics. This leads into a discussion of the contexts within which GBI established its Africa office in Johannesburg; it was GBI’s expertise in making films specifically for British audiences that led to the commission for Chisoko the African. I analyse the film, touch on its reception and consider evidence of Swanson’s colonial imaginary which was characterised by a binary opposition between African primitivism and western civilisation. Finally, I note key aspects of his later work before drawing conclusions about the connected colonial film histories between Britain and Southern Africa; individual colonial film figures and their networks; and the importance of film in relation to histories of the late 1940s and early-mid 1950s. These contexts offer new perspectives on the appeal of African Jim and The Magic Garden for African audiences in South Africa.

Translated title of the contribution‘Assignment Africa’: colonial imaginaries and Donald Swanson’s African Jim(1949) and The Magic Garden (1951) in South African film history
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)701-719
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Bibliographical note

In Part Special Issue 'South African on Film', 29 (3), 2013


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