Rose of Rhodesia (1918) – an aside for truth

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Bawa Falls, or the "Bawa Falls" ?From the introduction to the Screening the Past Special on that first South African fiction film, and that familiar confusion of values in silent fiction films:

Since all these were documentaries, The Rose of Rhodesia has the distinction of being the first representation of Rhodesia in a fiction film. And yet, as can be seen from a reviewer’s recommendation that “preliminary titles should be added to stress the genuineness of these scenes” (The Bioscope, 6 November 1919, 98-9), the boundary between fiction and documentary was anything but clear-cut at this time. The Kinematograph Weekly’s comment that “‘The Rose of Rhodesia’ has the qualities of an educational and of a ‘scenic’” (6 November 1919, 115) illustrates the paradox that early feature films could also be valued for their factual authenticity. Indeed, in the private collection donated to Nederlands Filmmuseum, The Rose of Rhodesia had been grouped with travel features such as The Bavarian Alps, Windsor Castle, Japan Today, and Sarajevo, The Capital of Bosnia.
Conversely, The Rose of Rhodesia also incorporates formal elements found in earlier, non-fictional films about Rhodesia. The sequence in which Ushakapilla dreams about his ancestors fighting resembles the Ndebele warriors in Savage South Africa: Attack and Repulse (1899), the Warwick Film Company’s dramatic footage of the “Savage South Africa” show staged by Frank Fillis at Earl’s Court in London.[6] The scene aboard a train in which audiences are presented with views of the “Rhodesian” veldt echoes Lauste’s A Trip on the Rhodesian Railway (1908). And The Rose of Rhodesia’s panoramic shots of the Bawa Falls recall several films about the colony’s best-known tourist attraction: The Great Victoria Falls (dir. Emile Lauste, 1907); Victoria Falls and the Zambesi (dir. Cherry Kearton, 1911); Holiday on the Zambesi (dir. Frank Butcher, 1911); and Victoria Falls and the Zambesi Gorge (dir. Walter Tyler, 1911). Perhaps with these cinematic precursors in mind, The Kinematograph Weekly’s reviewer declared confidently that “much of the grand scenery (crags, precipices, and waterfalls) is of a kind which could only be taken in Rhodesia” (6 November 1919, 115).

Not convinced that this confusion concerns only “early fiction films” — indeed I would contend that this “confusion” is part of what still makes cinema attractive if one starts analyzing it through the prism of the “suspension of disbelief” rather than through the prism of “truth”. Such reality-seeking gazes directed onto fiction films are part of audiences’ basic viewing strategies: a thrill enhancement that consists in colliding the educational and the make-belief.

Yes, a book on that, someday.

Meanwhile, all about the history of cinema in South Africa.

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