Cinema and Media Studies Colonial Educational Film
Nadine Chan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0319


The “colonial educational film” goes by many names. Recent scholarship in this emergent field has identified these films as “official film,” “official documentary,” “colonial documentary,” “empire film,” “colonial film,” and “imperial propaganda film,” among others. Crossing a variety of genres including dramatic, documentary, instructional, amateur, newsreels, travel, and ethnographic films, these films shared a common objective—they were films made by the state (or individuals and institutions associated with the state) that sought to teach audiences the fundamentals of good colonial citizenship. The sheer number of terms that have been used to reference this mode of cinema indicate the diversity of genre, address, and audience concerning cinemas of colonial education. For example, colonial educational films ranged from being fictional to nonfictional in format. The Griersonian mode of documentary filmmaking influenced a nonfictional style of colonial filmmaking that was later inherited by the film units of Britain’s colonies. Humanist in outlook and poetic in aesthetics with a strong ideological leaning toward narratives of progress and modernity, these films educated audiences both within and beyond the empire about the industries, natural resources, and cultural practices of colonial territories on the path to modernity. Other films, including many that were produced by the Malayan Film Unit in the 1950s, were scripted as dramatic and fictional narratives that featured both professional and nonprofessional local actors. Intended specifically for local nonwhite audiences, these latter films sought to educate people to adopt specific practices and beliefs on topics such as thrift, personal hygiene, and anticommunism. Indeed, many filmmakers adopted specific formal modes of address that accounted for perceived racial differences in visual literacy between European and non-European audiences. Colonial educational films in the colonies circulated to audiences via traveling mobile film units and were shown in nontheatrical settings—schools, community centers, cultural centers, churches, plantations, mines, and trade exhibitions. They would also often be screened in movie theatres along with dramatic feature films. Hence, while the emergent field of nontheatrical film is aligned with the work that is being done in colonial educational film, the former certainly cannot encompass the range of ways in which cinematic education would have been encountered in colonial contexts. It is moreover, a field that moves beyond colonial/postcolonial binarisms. For example, the Films Division of India emerged from colonial educational filmmaking practices that would later become part of the production of postcolonial and national visual culture. Whatever their form, these films invariably seek to present a vision of empire that speaks to its project of modernity and capitalist governmentality. In that sense, colonial filmmaking was more of a practice, or an agenda, than a genre. This entry is limited to sources in English and citations have as a result been limited to those pertinent geographical regions. Non-English language sources have been cited where possible.


As an emergent field, much of the scholarship on colonial educational film appears in several recent anthologies. In particular, Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe established the terrain with their two anthologies Grieveson and MacCabe 2011a and Grieveson and MacCabe 2011b, and the accompanying website that catalogues and digitized British colonial films. Essays in these anthologies are largely historically driven, presenting a wealth of archival and bibliographic material, while also each providing a significant conceptual contribution to the history of British colonial film and the theorization of colonial film more broadly. Aitken and Deprez 2017 is a recent collection of essays that speaks to colonial documentary film in South and Southeast Asia in the colonial, late colonial, and immediate postcolonial period. This anthology discusses diverse colonial contexts including British, American, and French empires in Asia. Select chapters from each of these anthologies are given separate entries in the subsequent sections, organized by region.

  • Aitken, Ian, and Camille Deprez, eds. The Colonial Documentary Film in South and South-East Asia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

    This anthology focuses on official and colonial filmmaking in South and Southeast Asia including Hong Kong, covering a broad range of genres: newsreels, amateur film, missionary, nature, propaganda, and educational film. The introduction by the editors contains a useful overview of French, British, Dutch, and American colonial filmmaking traditions. Part 2 of the anthology features essays on missionary films. Its publication is affiliated with the Documentary Film in South and South-East Asia Research Programme (cited under Online Resources).

  • Grieveson, Lee, and Colin MacCabe, eds. Empire and Film. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011a.

    Published on behalf of the British Film Institute with its companion volume Grieveson and MacCabe 2011b alongside the cataloguing of 6,200 films representing the British colonies accessible at the Colonial Film website (cited under Online Resources). Comprises essays written about the early cinema period to the late 1930s. A strength lies in connecting the emergence of documentary and educational films across multiple geopolitical areas and contexts. Diverse genres of colonial films are studied including travelogues, amateur films, newsreels, documentaries, and instructional films and non-image-based media.

  • Grieveson, Lee, and Colin MacCabe, eds. Film and the End of Empire. London: Palgrave MacMillan and British Film Institute, 2011b.

    Published with its companion volume, Grieveson and MacCabe 2011a, alongside the cataloguing of 6,200 films representing the British colonies accessible at Colonial Film. Focuses on the period from 1939 to 1965, locating how shifts in statehood, industry, and ideology during and after the Second World War led to the establishment of colonial filmmaking. Local film units in the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Central Africa, Jamaica, and Malaya marked both the continuation of colonial processes as well as political independence.

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