In 1926, the British government was ready to shoot its first film in Nigeria. The camera, light, costume, sound, makeup, and props were all checked and set. Shooting earnestly began after the director had given the go-ahead. And that’s how the first ever film, Palaver was shot in Nigeria.
After a few months, Palaver, Nigeria’s first feature film was ready and though not a box-office success. It would later change the course of Nigerian cinema and would pave the way for indigenous filmmakers who now moved from the theatre productions to the screen.
Though being Nigeria’s first feature film, Palaver was written and produced in its entirety by George Barkas, a British filmmaker, and would later come under heavy criticism for being amongst the list of colonial films that were used by the British to convince their subjects that their colonial presence was a blessing.
Palaver, which portrays conflicts between a British District Officer and a local tin miner that lead to war, was filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria.
The main protagonists of the 107-minute movie included Yilkuba, the witch doctor of the Sura tribe who is seen in the introduction warning his king, Dawiya, to beware of war.
Mark Fernandez, a tin miner, also receives a letter warning him that he will be replaced if his work does not improve.
A young English nurse, Jean Stuart, has also had her car broken down and so she spends the night in the hut of Captain Peter Allison, the British District Officer. Fernandez visits Allison the next morning and finds Jean in his room in her pajamas.
Here’s how colonialfilm.org.uk captured how Jean would later be caught in a love triangle between Allison and Fernandez, and how this would lead to the local chief calling for war after being influenced by Fernandez.
“Fernandez is next seen bribing Dawiya with alcohol (‘medicine’) in order to get more men working in his mine, and then appears drunk at ‘the social event of the year’ at Vedni. Here he attempts unsuccessfully to dance with Jean and ‘cut out’ Allison. Allison, in his role as District Officer, subsequently ‘holds court’ and hears complaints against Dawiya. He visits Dawiya and discovers him drunk on ‘unlawful liquor’.
“Allison suspects Fernandez, and on visiting him discovers the same type of liquor in his house. A drunk Fernandez visits his tin mine and strikes one of his workers. He then pays ‘the penalty of excess’ and collapses. During his illness, he is nursed by Jean, who pleads with him to take control of his life.
“Meanwhile, Allison receives a letter revealing that Fernandez was deported in 1920, but has since changed his name. Jean asks Allison to help Fernandez, but Allison – aware of Fernandez’s past – refuses. The two men fight and Fernandez with his hopes and plans shattered, ‘plays his last card’. He convinces Dawiya that Allison is planning to arrest him.
“The misled Dawiya prepares for war – ‘with strong liquor’ – and Allison almost single-handedly holds off the attacking ‘pagans’. After much fighting, Allison is wounded but victorious. Dawiya goes to Fernandez’s house, kills him, and is then caught by Allison.
“The film ends with Allison sitting with Jean and asking her to marry him. They embrace in the final shot.”
The opening title of the movie was a short subtext showing that it was shot “among the Sura and Angas tribes on the Bauchi Plateau”…“less than ten years ago, these tribes were cannibals”.
But in contrast, “the culture of the Sura tribe is rich; before westernization interfered,” according to a critique of the movie in an article on news site Pulse Nigeria, adding that “the people mostly got around on horses in small villages. They built large communal structures on avenues bordered by cactus plants with vast, open fields for each family.”
Unfortunately, those were not portrayed in the movie, rather, the film sought to depict the Nigerian tribe as crude and uncivilized.
This was the agenda of the British colonial masters in the early to mid-20th century – to use movies to convince Africans of white racial superiority.
It has been documented that leaders of the governors of the British colonies then believed that movies could be used to persuade and educate their subjects, as highlighted by excerpts from a resolution passed by the Conference of Colonial Governors in 1930:
“The Conference is convinced that the cinematography has very great possibilities for education purposes in the widest sense not only for children but also for adults, especially with illiterate peoples. The Conference also considers it is desirable to foster in every way the market for good British films.”
Thus, in terms of education, the objective was to encourage Africans to embrace the cultural norms of the British and convince them of white supremacy in the sense that they deserved to be oppressed.
The Americans had in the period after World War I, dominated the international film market with their Hollywood movies and the British felt that this would hurt them economically, apart from ruining their efforts to assert their authority on the colonies.
“The British feared that if Africans could see white actors committing criminal and unsavoury acts in Hollywood films, convincing them of white moral superiority would be a much more difficult task.
“Thus, the British saw, in film, the opportunity to make money for their homeland while convincing their subjects that the British colonial presence was a blessing,” according to an article on ATI.
And that is what Nigeria’s Palaver clearly exhibited, a validation of Briton’s so-called civilization of Africa.
The local leader, Dawiya was only convinced to declare war by Fernandez who falsely tells him that Allison is planning war against him. Dawiya is subsequently shown drinking large quantities of alcohol to gather courage.
Clearly, the native leader has been declared as one who can easily be misled; he is a coward and has to drink in order to go to war. This is a direct contrast and an insult to the roles played by African indigenous leaders who fought strongly against colonialism.
Further, depicting the natives as unsophisticated people who only resort to violence to solve issues has been described as unfortunate.
As chronicled by the critique on Pulse Nigeria, “the only thing Nigerian about ‘Palaver’ was the location and the actors. The movie is told completely from the perspective of British actors. It never strays from the conventional depictions of what the World expected from ‘A Romance of Northern Nigeria’”.