Accepted paper:

“Civilisation on Trial”: Michael Scott and Early Political Documentary in South Africa


Darren Newbury (University of Brighton)

Paper short abstract:

Paper long abstract:

In the late 1940s, Michael Scott, a campaigner for social justice in Southern Africa and an opponent of the South African government, produced what has been described as “the first ‘protest’ film made in South Africa” (Gordon 2005, 457). Yet the film, “Civilisation on Trial in South Africa,” which was shown at the United Nations and to British Members of Parliament, has received little attention in the literature. Neither is much known about its production or dissemination. Based on archival research, this paper is able to shed further light on the context within which the film was conceived and produced, and the networks and personal connections that made it possible. For example, although not acknowledged for his contribution, established South African photographer Leon Levson collaborated with Scott to shoot several sections of the film. The paper discusses the significance of the film as an early example of political documentary, a form that would become an important facet of opposition to apartheid in the years ahead. Although at first it might appear to be an isolated example, the film was produced at a point when South African society was becoming the object of intense international scrutiny; and its black African population the subject of representation by photographers and filmmakers from both inside and outside the country. An adequate analysis of the film therefore depends on an understanding of the visual conventions and developments of the period as well as the ostensible political concerns that are its subject. “Civilisation on Trial” represents an early example of the articulation of photography and film with social and political activism, which was beginning to take place in South Africa in the mid to late 1940s, and which would be a enduring feature of visual culture under apartheid.

Reference: Gordon, Rob. 2005. “Not quite cricket: ‘Civilisation on Trial in South Africa’: a note on the first ‘protest film’ made in Southern Africa”, History in Africa 32: 457-466.

panel A6
Documentary film, Music and Volunteering