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Monday, December 6, 2010

Civilization On Trial in South Africa (ca. 1950)

In honor of Human Rights Day 2010 (December 10), the Human Studies Film Archives recognizes the Reverend Michael Scott, creator of the edited film, Civilization On Trial in South Africa (ca. 1950).

Around 1949, Rev. Scott, an Anglican clergyman and tireless campaigner for human rights, secretly documented the appalling and oppressive conditions for the majority African and colored (Indian) population of South Africa. The film dramatically demonstrates the reality of harsh conditions by using contrasting shots of “the minority whites’ lifestyle” with Johannesburg township areas and government housing, and by capturing such scenes as overcrowding and the lack of public services, street life in Sophia Town, and intertribal fights organized by police to control the African population and entertain white spectators.  (Text drawn from Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (2008) edited by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann.)

Rev. Scott  returned home to Britain with multiple rolls of 16mm film.  The footage was edited together by Clive Donner, who also recorded Scott’s voice-over commentary and added it to the film.  Donner (who died this year) was a well-known film and television director and editor.  Among the many films he directed  are What’s New Pussycat (1965) and – in a surprise seasonal twist - the 1984 TV movie A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. 

The film came to Human Studies Film Archives as part of the  larger "Colin Turnbull and Joseph Towles Collection" from the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston (South Carolina).

According to University of Vermont anthropology professor Robert Gordon, Rev. Scott's film could be to be the very first "protest" film made in South Africa.  As a result of his activities on behalf of human rights, Rev. Scott was ultimately declared a Prohibited Immigrant and banned from the country.

This year, the focus of Universal Human Rights Day is recognizing the work of human rights defenders worldwide who act to end discrimination.  The official UN website states:
Acting alone or in groups within their communities, every day human rights defenders work to end discrimination by campaigning for equitable and effective laws, reporting and investigating human rights violations and supporting victims.
While some human rights defenders are internationally renowned, many remain anonymous and undertake their work often at great personal risk to themselves and their families. 

Karma Foley, Daisy Njoku, and Pam Wintle, Human Studies Film Archives 

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