Aubrey Singer’s Basuto Boy (1947) is a British colonial film that follows Basuto-native Lesaoama, a young herdsman boy who is entrusted to look after the village cattle. While guarding the cattle, he’s ambushed by a group of cattle rustlers, who steal them. He then must make the perilous journey back to his village in order to plead for help from his fellow village elders, so they can take down the cattle hustles and regain their livestock. In order to further understand the film in its socio-political context, we will analyze it from both a colonial and contemporary perspective.
The Colonial Perspective
According to Tom Rice,“BasutoBoywas(…)intended as an educational film for children, teaching geography, as the advertisement later noted, but also moral lessons. (Rice)”. One of the moral lessons found within this film is present through the advice (And reoccurring motif) spoken by the narrator, “‘Don’t lose heart Lesaoama. It is as important as not losing your head.” This piece of wisdom bestowed upon Lesaoama aims to teach children the importance of doing the right thing and staying calm in any situation. Moreover, “you lose your heart”, which could be interpreted as losing one’s way/breaking the law or giving into hatred. Drawing particular attention to breaking the law interpretation, one could argue that the film promoted an “obedient” British (And potential South African) citizen. It is also through this sharing of wisdom that places Lesaoama, and children as a whole, as naive beings who are still developing their morality and critical thinking.
Through a geographical lens, The film aimed to educate British children on Basutoland, as a colony of the British Empire. However, the film didn’t provide great detail about the location. Rather, it was shot on location (Rice) and highlighted the various fauna and flora through the film’s setting (foreground imagery). Such as the icy slopes of mountains and valleys. Thus, children could be captivated by foreign lands on screen. In addition, the film also briefly presents a Basutoland village and its people, in the scenes where Lesaoama asks the villager elders for help defeating the cattle hustlers and when they celebrate their victory at the end of the film.
The Contemporary Perspective
Basuto Boy is not a film that would be acceptable in the 21st Century. The film fails to highlight much of the Basuto culture and instead uses the Basuto people to serve a British agenda. The presence of a British, caucasian male narrator also demonstrates the oppression of the African people during the colonial period. For, it demonstrates how it was falsely believed that African peoples weren’t capable of self-governance, and needed the guidance and instruction of the British man in order to thrive (Which is also evidence of the dominant patriarchal mentality of the time, since it wasn’t the voice of a woman providing the narration). Thus they were seen as lesser than the white man, child-like even, which goes against the contemporary belief in diversity and equality. This film was also released one year before the Apartheid was enforced by the National Party, which enforced racial and tribal segregationalism in order to reduce the political power (Through division and lack of unity amongst the people), rights and freedoms of the African peoples who occupied South Africa. However, this film still highlights the white supremacy and racial segregation that was present during the time through the absence of racial mixing on screen and the British narrator. This also plays into the idea presented by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in the text, “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation,” “The sensitivity around stereotypes and distortions largely arises, then, from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups, to control their own representation” (Shohat and Stam, 806). And within this film, the Basuto people had no say in how they were being represented.
Continuing on this strain of thought, The film also assigned British values to an African boy instead of highlighting his own South-African cultural values. This was done, in order to make him more “relatable” to the British child in order to further enforce the dominant hegemonic message of the film (Discussed earlier). Also placing further emphasis on the already stated points, in using the African peoples as a vehicle to convey a British message/agenda and provide entertainment to a white audience. This is a derogatory, superficial representation of the African peoples of Basutoland, and provides very little context to their culture and lifestyle outside of raising cattle and traditional village wear. Thus, this film goes against “The dominant of preferred meanings [of the contemporary period by presenting] new, problematic or troubling events, which breach our expectancies and run counter-to our common-sense structures” (Hall, 84). For, if this film were shot today in adherence with the dominant social-political meanings of western society, this film would be shot with sound and feature the South-African language/dialect of the Basuto people and have English subtitles. It would also highlight more of their culture, and not impost British ideals and values.
Therefore, Aubrey Singer’s film Basuto Boy demonstrates the control the British had over South Africa, in particular, Basuto during the colonial period. In addition, it serves as a great example of the lack of proper representation and the lack of control over the narrative in the media the African peoples had during the colonial period. Which, one could argue, is still an ongoing issue in mainstream media today.
Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation,” in Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj eds., Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2011. Pp 800-822. Accessed Nov. 11, 2020.
Singer, Aubrey, director. Odman, Frank, producer. Basuto Boy,Gaumont British Instructional. 1947. Online.<http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/64>. Accessed Nov 5, 2020.
Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj eds., Critical Visions in Film Theory. Boston, New York. Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2011, pp 77-88. Accessed Nov. 11, 2020.