The dawn of Zulu film

2013-10-24 00:00

IT’S been described as the first-ever all-black feature film, a 60-minute film shot in Zululand in 1927, titled Siliva the Zulu.

The film was made by an Italian team that included director Attilio Gatti and anthropologist Lidio Cipriani. Much of the background to the making of the film came to light via Peter Davis, an internationally famous documentary film-maker with a particular interest in South Africa. Davis came across the production while researching his documentary and book Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the jungles of cinema’s South Africa.

“In the annals of African cinema, Siliva the Zulu is a landmark,” says Davis. “Gatti took the standard Western romantic theme of ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl’, etc. and stirred it together with ideas of ‘the tribal’. He added a generous dose of witchcraft, and the result is a heady melodramatic stew. But he chose to shoot in a rural community, and, as a result, Siliva stands virtually alone as an authentic record of Zulu life and culture at that time.”

From the beginning of the century, there had been a flourishing film industry in South Africa, but the films made were all about whites, with blacks featured either as savage enemies or faithful servants. “Siliva is unique as the first fiction film made in South Africa, and probably in the whole of Africa, to be exclusively about blacks,” says Davis.

“Gatti chose his actors from among the local people, and was delighted with the performances he got from them. He is never condescending or demeaning towards his actors. They are fully the equals of their counterparts in white cinema.”


Cipriani, Gatti and their crew arrived at Durban on the SS Perla on May 17, 1927. According to documents from the South African immigration department, they had come to “the Union for the purpose of securing films, particularly of Native Life”.

Other members of the party included cameraman Giuseppe Vitrotti and his assistant Carlo Franzeri. There were also several actors, including Chilean mother and daughter Prax B. de Tornero and Alizia de Tornero, both actors in Italy’s silent cinema. Gatti had intended to make an adventure film — “full of exciting adventures and hair-breadth escapes”, according to the Natal Mercury — combining white actors with Zulu extras.

“Apparently, the authorities would not allow a film to be shot that mingled blacks and whites in the same scenes,” says Davis, “so Vitrotti suggested that they make the blacks-only film.”

The unit based itself at the Royal Hotel in Eshowe and spent three months filming in the surrounding area. On August 6, 1927, the Natal Mercury reported that they had “exposed about 80 000 feet of film and taken over 2 000 pictures of still life. Most of the film has been devoted to picturesque Native pictures, but there are many fine game photographs. In conjunction with the cinema pictures, Professor Cipriani is making an anthropological study of Zulu types”.

Cipriani was professor at the National Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology of Florence, Italy, and this trip to Zululand was the first of the many field trips he made around the world that established his international reputation. As well as taking photographs, Cipriani also made over 50 plaster casts of faces. The photographs and casts made in 1927 are now held by the University of Florence as well as a few at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

After filming was completed in Zululand, Cipriani went to Johannesburg where he met anthropologist Raymond Dart, famed for his work on the Taung Skull. This meeting was instrumental in setting up the Italian Scientific Expedition that visited Portuguese East Africa, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and the Transvaal in 1929. Cipriani was scientific director of the expedition that was led by Gatti, who wrote of the trip in his book Hidden Africa.

Gatti went on to become an adventurer, film-maker and author, publishing a slew of titles including Tom Toms in the Mist, Here is Africa, The Wrath of Moto, South of the Sahara, Africa is Adventure and Sangoma. The latter book, published in 1962, chronicles his return to South Africa to make a “talking version” of Siliva the Zulu called Bitter Spears. Gatti was assisted in the casting by Harry Lugg, chief native commissioner of Natal, who may also have been involved in the making of Siliva the Zulu in 1927.

As the title of the book suggests, a key character in Bitter Spears was a sangoma and Gatti notes that he “badly wanted a ‘witchdoctor of snakes’.” Through Lugg’s good offices, Gatti was able to cast Zizwezonke “Khekhekhe” Mthethwa, famed for his affinity with snakes.

According to Lugg, writing in A Natal Family Looks Back, Mthethwa was employed to film stunts with his snakes. “One of these was to suspend a number by holding their heads between his teeth, and to do a sort of fandango dance.”

Mthethwa, a lineal descendant of Dingiswayo, the mentor of King Shaka, and who died in 2005, consulted from his homestead at Gilubuhle in the Thukela valley, south of Eshowe. Mthethwa is featured in several books on Zulu culture, including Paul Faber’s Group Portrait South Africa — Nine Family Histories, where he is described as “KwaZulu-Natal’s pre-eminent traditional healer … the first stop for post-1994 visitors in pursuit of an older Africa”.

In fact, he had been filling this role for many years prior to 1994, on one occasion demonstrating his power over snakes to the main architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

Bitter Spears was broadcast on Italian television as a three-part series, but today only exists in a few fragments held by the Gatti family. Davis, during his research into the making ofSiliva the Zulu, came across a film can marked “Siliva II” — alas, it was empty.

Davis subsequently transferred the 1927 Siliva the Zulu to a digital format and in a unique cultural event “premiered” this silent film at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver in 2004, with a new music score plus an accompanying photographic exhibition.

The original music score, performed live during the projection of the silent film, had been lost, so Davis commissioned a new score from Themba Tana, a South African Canadian.

The accompanying exhibition featured photographs taken during shooting of the film in Zululand. “These were photographs not only of the crew and their experiences,” says Davis, “but also ethnographic studies of a Zulu way of life that is now virtually extinct.”


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