Foreigners See Our Films
A SYRIAN with a small capital and five large boxes of motion-picture equipment used to travel round the villages of the Cameroons in West Central Africa. He could show his films only by special permit from each district officer whose territory he visited. Moreover, he had to give a private showing to these harassed officials — who combine the activities of prime minister with those of chief of police, commander in chief, censor, civil registrar, and endless other functionaries — before he was allowed to present any particular masterpiece. Permission obtained, he would hire and clear the largest hut he could find and therein install his creaky apparatus. No advertising was required, for news travels fast in Africa, and the natives, both old and young, would crowd into the hut until there was no floor space left for an extra flea. For two hours they would howl with glee, quite undisturbed by the not infrequent periods of utter darkness while films were rewound or mended.
An eighteen-year-old boy, invited to express his opinion about houses seen in a film located in New York, said, ‘They looked very big in the pictures, but I suppose they are made of clay.’ When asked why, the lad replied that they obviously weren’t real because they had holes in them like those in white men’s bungalows, and if these holes were supposed to be windows no bungalows could be as big as that. The African mind lacks nothing in pure logic, whatever may be its shortcomings in mere education.
An ancient man, when asked what he thought of the show, simply pronounced it to be ‘very terrible.’ Pressed for an explanation, he stated heatedly that people couldn’t possibly live like that in reality, so why did white men make such silly pictures and then ask him to pay for seeing them? When it was suggested that the pictures might have been made to be ‘silly’ and so to entertain, his only observation was that the makers should in that case have had the decency to employ real children and not men and women who were quite obviously already well fitted to bear children.
Women who could be induced to give an opinion stated flatly that a line of chorus girls danced very well indeed, but that the music — which did not accompany the film, for it was silent — had obviously been quite inferior to their own village drums. When asked why, they very succinctly pointed out that several of the girls got out of line and lost the time, and that if the music had been good this could not have happened. Dancing in Africa goes straight from the drums to the legs without the intermediary stages of encouragement from producers and mental efforts on the part of the dancers.
Inquiries among the less-educated section of cinema audiences in Haiti elicited some surprising information. After a showing of a French film depicting the life of Napoleon, it was found that the majority were of the opinion that the action as depicted was supposed to have taken place in Haiti. The identity of Napoleon Bonaparte was fairly well known to all those who had attended school, but, with what appeared to be a misplaced patriotic stubbornness, his existence had been transferred to the earlier history of their own country and become strangely fused with that of their own Toussaint L’Ouverture. One inhabitant of the capital town of Port-au-Prince actually expressed some amazement that a white man should have played the part of Napoleon.
In smaller towns in Mexico, illiterate country people were able to give a full and detailed account of films they had seen only once and to describe with astounding penetration the intricacies and finer points of the plots. How this was possible is something of a mystery, for they could read neither the local newspaper criticisms nor the Spanish subtitles to the films. One of the films discussed, moreover, was a purely North American comedy having nothing in common with the everyday life or experience of these people. It seems, indeed, that the Mexican peasants have unusual mental acuteness.
The most interesting and unexpected outcome from viewing American films is to be found in the colonial territories, English, French, and Dutch. This is immediately apparent to anybody visiting the West Indies.
In English-speaking territories, audiences are customarily so uproarious that it is wellnigh impossible to hear the film through. The smaller the colony and the cheaper the cinema, the greater the row, but even the largest and most palatial houses in Kingston, Jamaica, and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, are a distinct shock to visiting Americans who are accustomed to orderliness and quiet during their entertainment. In these countries audiences are always restive, but at points of excitement, and more particularly during any form of fight shown in the film, the row becomes deafening — front-seat occupants rise to their feet, sides are taken, and half the auditorium enters into the scrap, sometimes even to the point of throwing hats or exchanging blows. It is not unusual for the film to be stopped and the most belligerent evicted by ushers, police, or the management. A few years ago a certain film had to be banned in one French colony because every time a scene was shown wherein a gangster clouted a rival on the head one or more of the audience was carried out with a battered, bleeding scalp. In their enthusiasm some people could not resist fitting their motions to those of the actor.
This peculiar habit of stopping the film is also something that unnerves the uninitiated American. To us a film is a window into another world through which we view the progress of some other people over a set period. To the South American, the West Indian, or the Oriental, a film is a purely make-believe puppet show, having practically no connection with reality. His total ignorance of the world and the life of the people shown therein — combined with his natural mistrust of civilized Europeans and the unpredictability of the projection machine, which so often and unexpectedly cuts the make-believe and brings the audience down to the earth floor of the house — causes him to view the whole thing as a pretense. Motion pictures to him are like artists’ canvases to us. For this reason patrons in tropical countries will often demand that some scene that happens to take their fancy be run through twice or three times.
In tropical picture houses it is by no means unusual for the film to be suddenly stopped after a notable outburst of enthusiasm and for the scene to be run through again and again before there is another longer break and the show continues. The audiences in these countries learn by heart the sequence of the pictures that they like, as well as the actual spoken words leading up to favorite scenes. A murmuring precedes all scenes of action and rises into a crescendo shortly before the gunman draws his weapon or the offended party takes off his coat.
The largest yearly producers of actual film track are not, as is customarily supposed, the American moguls, but the overworked Japanese companies. These companies specialize in stories of the utmost simplicity and employ not only the same actors but the same settings, backgrounds, and properties time and time again. Distributed to the more outlandish provinces of the Pacific and the Orient, these films have the most profound effect upon the less educated or traveled natives. Although intensely boring and unfinished to our eyes and ears, they are magnificently suited to the audiences to which they are shown, and withal most intelligently produced. The lessor Orientals usually understand them fully, the stories being often well known locally, the characters acting their parts with intensity and obviousness, and everything being done to concentrate attention on one simple action at a time.
The mind and eye of the American public have become accustomed to a staccato succession of ‘shots’ in films, especially at those junctures where fast and widespread action is explained. Foreign audiences, particularly in outlandish places, have not developed this habit. Thus in battles and in sea fights, wherein the camera leaps from one combatant to another, the foreign audience is usually uncertain upon which the camera is focused and not infrequently of the decided opinion that it is concentrated unwinkingly upon but one antagonist throughout. This makes the whole fight incomprehensible and consequently kills the moral, which is so often meant to be the principal outcome of the scrap. Questioning very frequently discloses the fact that the foreigner is wholeheartedly with the ‘wrong side,’ not so much by choice as through misinterpretation of some simple shot — this, moreover, despite subtitles.
The propaganda value of films, for tropical countries in particular, is directly dependent upon the capacity of the audience to follow the show. This they cannot be induced even to attempt to do unless it contains a maximum of action of the violent variety that they prefer and appreciate. Finally, the worth of this action is entirely lost unless the ’right’ and ‘wrong’ sides are clearly defined throughout by a noticeable difference in garb or some other simple trick. The Germans have scored notably in this respect with the swastika, and the Russians by simply showing only one side — that which they wish to be known as the right one.
Lastly, it must be borne in mind that the psychological make-up and outlook of the ‘foreigner,’ particularly of the tropical breed, are radically different from those that the American public likes to suppose are its own. Actions of criminals and nations that are horrific to us are a positive delight to many millions of people. It is thus useless to attempt to damn the villain by showing him indulging in wholesale butcheries. Such activity is heartily cheered throughout half the world.
IVAN T. SANDERSON