Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Silent film in translation: Siliva Zulu (Gatti, 1928)

To my great excitement and anticipation, I have research leave coming up in 2016, and I'm planning a series of archive trips to view prints of re-titled and subtitled films of the 1920s and 1930s. This is for a research project on translation in the silent and early sound periods. The compilation of the corpus so far has been a fun and rewarding experience, with helpful and much-appreciated support from the BFI where I found the first few prints for my study. Translated versions by their very nature aren't the versions of films that tend to be preserved (spoiled as they are by the target-language titles); the aspiration of distributors seems always to provide the 'best', most definitive version, and variant versions don't have high status. I've come across lot of the films in my corpus in more or less degraded versions available online, or DVDs and VHS tapes of eclectic provenance.

One of the films is Siliva Zulù (in English, Siliva the Zulu). I came across this via a splendid screening at the Watershed in Bristol on 1 November 2014, with a live accompaniment by Juwon Ogungbe, who had composed a new score for the film.

The film is a fascinating interplay of fiction and documentary - a sort of docudrama - with an entirely African cast shot by an Italian director, Attilio Gatti, an anthropologist, Lido Cipriani, and an Italian crew in Eshowe, South Africa in 1927. Some useful information about the filmmakers and the problematic production context of the film can be found here.

I was particularly struck by the title cards. They are in English, and look of the period, though a colleague from Bristol Silents in the audience commented that they had more of a look of the 1930s than the 1920s. The title cards are distinguished by a series of line drawings, almost cartoons, which have a very contrapuntal relationship with the footage of the characters/actors. The live action footage has an apparent preoccupation with 'accurate' ethnographic representation, and frequently foregrounds the physical attractiveness of the characters. My memory of the cartoons, on the other hand, was that they have a comic and irreverent tone at odds with the rest of the film. If they were produced at the time of the film's original release then they constitute interesting evidence of the complexity of the attitudes of the filmmakers to their ethnographic subjects.

The images on the title cards have traces here and there of Italian language, suggesting that they were copied directly from the Italian print of the film while the titles themselves were redone in English. My understanding is that there are versions of this film extant with Italian and with Spanish title cards, which I look forward to running to earth during my archive trips.

I thought I would use this chance to try out Lantern, the search tool of the wonderful Media History Digital Library, in the hope of finding reviews of the film from the time of its release. It came up with two results, only one of which was a review, from La revue du cinéma of February 1928:

The review doesn't mention language anywhere, nor the title cards with their equivocal comic drawings, and doesn't give any indication of where A.D. saw the film, but it might be worth keeping an eye out for a version with French titles too...

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