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Nionga (1925)


Main image of Nionga (1925)
35mm, 4811 Ft, silent
Production CompanyStoll Film Company

The doomed love of chief's daughter Nionga for a member of a neighbouring tribe.

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Advertised by Kinematograph Weekly as "a drama from the heart of Darkest Africa" enacted by "cannibals turned into screen artists of stellar merit!", Nionga is a film of uncertain origins. Its opening intertitles claim it took three years to make and, according to Bioscope, it was made by Jesuit missionaries. Certainly the story has a religious theme, and could have been made by any one of a number of missionary societies attempting to venture into commercial cinema as a means of propagating their evangelical work in east-central Africa in the 1920s.

Nionga was released by Stoll Picture Productions as one of its 'high class productions'. The appeal of the film lay in its "curiosity and novelty value", its travelogue style shots of scenery, and its portrayal of "striking native types" and their "customs, rites and superstitions" (Kinematograph Weekly). Long sequences of ceremonial and everyday activities are interweaved into a story of a romance between Nionga (Honey of the Tribe), daughter of an African chief, and her betrothed, Masari (Lion's Paw) from a neighbouring tribe, which is doomed due to the mischief of the 'witchdoctor' Katoto.

This popular ethnographic film's scenes of dancing, drumming, battles, sport, and craft making were typical of the kinds of representation of so-called 'primitive' people to be found in the live staged ethnographic shows at theatre halls, the colonial shows and museums in London and other cities in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Location footage of this sort was used in later colonial adventure films such as Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935). It also provided an opportunity to show naked bodies and 'dusky' women with bare breasts on the screen when similar images of white women would have been inconceivable.

Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating record of the early encounter of traditional African societies with film production. The staging of action is elaborate, with the mobilisation of many local people, and set villages built on location. As the contemporary reviews acknowledge, many of the performances are impressive for non-professional actors. The people are adorned in traditional beaded jewellery, wear animal skins and their costumes and props are used to symbolise a 'primitive Africa'. What is missing from the screen is the influence of Western values and any evidence of the colonial rule and missionary life the film's protagonists surely lived under.

Emma Sandon

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:09:27)
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