UWI Lecturer Dr Rachel Moseley-Wood writes:
A field trip to the University Museum has become a regular activity for students in my film classes. I introduced students in my first-year course, “Introduction to Film”, to the Museum last year, and returned last week, September 9, with the current batch of first-years. I have found the trip to be such a productive and worthwhile exercise that I’m also planning a visit for students in my second-year course, “Reggae Films: Screening Jamaica”.
One of the objectives of the field trip is to enhance students’ knowledge of the institution they attend. Many of them, I’ve found, are ignorant of the UWI’s rich history. The museum trip not only exposes them to information about the UWI’s past, it also allows students to see themselves as an active part of an important and on-going tradition. They too are involved in the process of making history.
Our visit to the museum focused on the viewing of an old film on the University College of the West Indies in its first decade of existence. The Museum holds one of the few surviving copies of this film which is both something of a miracle as well as a little bit of a mystery. What is miraculous is that the museum’s copy of the film exists at all. As Museum Curator, Suzanne Francis Brown, tells the story, the film went through a journey of many fortuitous twists and turns, including rescue from a trash heap, before it finally arrived at the museum where it is now safely preserved for posterity. The mystery lies in the film’s origins. The film has survived with no title, and if memory serves correctly, no credits. How then does one definitively determine the production history of the film? Who made it, and when?
The film’s subject facilitates the task of solving this mystery. The persons in the film are all connected with the UWI; many are easily identified, still alive and able to give witness about the experience of being filmed. The museum’s exhibition “Freeze Frame and Annotate” which displays frames from the film, mainly close- ups of individuals, facilitates this process. Graduates are encouraged to come in, identify themselves or friends in the display and talk about their experiences at UWI. The film has thus become an occasion for graduates to revisit the institution and tell their stories about student life.
Newspaper reports have also helped solve the mystery of the film’s origins. Displayed near the monitor on which the film is shown is a framed report from The Gleaner, dated October 5, 1953, with the headline, “Colour Film of UC for Early Showing”. The report describes a colour film “produced by the Jamaica Film Unit with the co-operation of the University College of the West Indies which was shot earlier this year.” The report’s further description of the film’s contents coincides with that of the film held by the Museum; it would appear, therefore, that they are one and the same.
The film then is a testament to some of the different ways of investigating history – through oral narratives and personal testimonies, as well as through scribal, more official accounts. Some uncertainties remain, however. A report in a 1951 issue of the journal, Colonial Cinema, refers to – and therefore dates – a film on the University College of the West Indies that was shot in Jamaica, but this date conflicts with the reference in The Gleaner. Dr. Francis Brown and I agree that more research and detective work on the origins of this film need to be done. The production history of the film is not only fascinating but vital to the process of understanding the true importance of the artefact. It is likely that the untitled film is the first locally made film about the UCWI and possibly one of the earliest films made by Jamaicans in Jamaica. It certainly appears to be one of a group of films from the decade of the 50s that represents one of the earliest attempts at systematic indigenous filmmaking in Jamaica. These films were not made entirely in and by Jamaicans; some aspects of the production process was done in London. They do, however, represent an important period in local cinema when we started to create , exhibit and export moving images of ourselves.
For me, and I certainly hope for my students, the film is an important part of a living history: a fascinating glimpse into a past that continues to unfold before our very eyes. It is a reminder of how the medium functions to record and preserve what is essentially the fleeting and unstable identity of place. The University as it was recorded in the film no longer exists. Some students smiled at what the film described as the latest technology used at the University College but which is now obsolete; the wide open spaces of the Mona Campus that the film refers to and shows are quickly shrinking as the institution expands. The accent of a Jamaican student in the film who was participating in a debate sounded positively English to our ears.
Alas, but perhaps not surprisingly, a few of my students described the film as boring, a reflection perhaps, of how tastes and expectations have changed. Others found it fascinating: a step back in time when UCWI students wore gowns to class and had dinners in hall. Their task now, as students of film, is to analyse their responses to the film. I look forward to reading their assignments and discovering their views on this important piece of Jamaican film history.