A Cinema Under the Palms: The Unruly Lives of Colonial Educational Films in British Malaya


Nadine Chan

PhD defended at: 

University of Southern California



"A Cinema Under the Palms” studies films as instruments of empire from the colonial period to the present. In Malaysia and Singapore from the 1920s until 1957, the colonial British government used films to teach audiences the fundamentals of good colonial citizenship. These colonial educational films sought to bring various aspects of private life under colonial rule through the visual education of topics such as venereal disease prevention, financial responsibility, and loyalty to the Commonwealth. As the seat of experimentation with films for “native” education, film programs in Malaya initiated pedagogical schemes that were later implemented throughout the British Empire. In spite of films' disciplinary intentions, this dissertation argue that colonial educational films were unruly objects whose malleable material forms interrupted their “official” trajectories as tools of governance. As mobile objects, film reels chartered errant paths across international borders while, as ephemeral projections, films were received by Malayan audiences in ways that troubled their disciplinary intentions. As films journeyed from the reel to the byte in the digital age, present-day communities continue to endow colonial educational films with afterlives beyond their original purposes as imperial instruments. The “unruly” is thus a structuring framework for a materially splintered medium whose unpredictable yet powerful influence the colonial government struggled to control.

Through in-depth archival research in sources uncommon in film studies, oral history interviews, and on-location film screenings that the author conducted in rural settlements in Malaysia, this research presents a history of nontheatrical film rooted in the particular experience of colonialism in Southeast Asia. This counters Eurocentric media histories that situate early cinema within the contexts of turn-of-the-century Western commodity culture. While Africa and South Asia figure prominently in the field of colonial cinema, Malaya is an understudied yet important region in our understanding of global film history. Challenging technocentric media archaeologies that often resist cultural politics, my project compels the field to contend with histories of colonialism by rethinking film not just as a natural outcome of technological development, but as an instrument of power.

The introduction of this dissertation establishes a theoretical framework for a postcolonial historiography of film as an “unruly” medium. Chapters are then organized as chronological case studies that trace the divergent paths of colonial educational films as cultural-things-in-motion. Chapter One reveals how moral outrage over unforeseen screenings of venereal disease educational films to “native” audiences in 1920s Singapore led to the establishment of the first comprehensive censorship laws in the British colonies. Demonstrating how visual education became central to colonial governance, Chapter Two follows the operations of mobile film units that traversed the Malay Peninsula in the 1930s displaying films on financial education to rural communities. In Chapter Three, film is a “time-lagged” medium that could not keep up with the violent racial upheavals that fragmented the region. The final chapter draws from film screenings and interviews that the author conducted with former actors and film audiences from the 1940s and 50s. It shows how Malayan audiences repurposed films toward their own ends while endowing films with unexpected afterlives in the postcolonial present. The conclusion of this dissertation considers the resurrection of colonial educational films in digital archives and databases where these films do not “die” but can be rescued from dormancy, shedding their brittle material bodies to live again as immaterial objects in virtual places.

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