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Palaver (1926)


Main image of Palaver (1926)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7329 feet
DirectorGeoffrey Barkas
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films
ScenarioGeoffrey Barkas
PhotographyStanley Rodwell

Haddon Mason (Captain Peter Allison); Reginald Fox (Tin Miner Mark Fernandez); Hilda Cowley (Nursing Sister Jean Stuart); Yiberr (King of the Sura Dawiya)

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Northern Nigeria among the hill tribes. A District Officer falls in love with a nurse at the bush hospital. But a tin prospector is also attracted to the nurse and in his quest to defeat his love rival he precipitates a battle amongst the tribes.

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Palaver (d. Geoffrey Barkas, 1926) portrays the efforts of the British civil servant and the adventurer to make their mark on the untamed African continent. Captain Peter Allison (Haddon Mason) and Mark Fernandez (Reginald Fox) are the archetypal hero and villain: the one bravely flying the British flag in the midst of danger, the other venal, self-seeking and unprincipled. The two extremes fight for both the love of a woman and for control of a people and a country.

In most respects Palaver fits the profile of the classic American Western, except that for the rugged frontier of the late nineteenth century America we have the rugged landscape of Colonial Africa, and rather than myth-making and nostalgia, the struggle is tantalisingly real.

Director Barkas, in his production diary (published in film periodical Bioscope), vividly describes the challenges of working in an inclement location and with supporting actors for whom a camera or film meant absolutely nothing. He has a gift for description - this is his account of watching a battle charge:

"the noise, the dust and smell, the wild leaping figures and the sun flashing on the spearpoints as they came along..."

Cinematographer Stanley Rodwell captures some of this excitement despite the inflexibility of the equipment and primitive narrative technique. However the film is rather more interesting because it represents a juncture in history. Barkas and his audiences saw themselves as witnesses to the evolution of a race of people, out of what they saw as barbarism. For modern audiences, once we set aside the uncomfortable reminders of slavery and exploitation, we are given a rare glimpse into Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.

Rodwell and Barkas had previously worked together as official photographers of the Prince of Wales' (Edward VIII) tour of Africa and South America in 1925. Moreover, Barkas started his career as a nature documentarist. This experience was invaluable when it came to transposing the landscape of Northern Nigeria onto film. The filmmakers show an unusual naturalness and lack of self-consciousness in photographing the tribespeople in their villages, whether preparing for war or cooking, and in eavesdropping on the interactions of the two principle supporting actors, the tribal King, Dawiya (Yiberr), and the witchdoctor, Yilkuba - whose contribution was lauded in contemporary reviews as "the most amazing performances in the film" (Bioscope 1926).

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Yilkuba's omens (1:59)
2. Fernandez and Stuart (4:24)
3. Battle scene (5:40)
British African Stories