31 October 2022

Around the World in 80,000 Frames: How Seven 1930s Amateur Films Conquered the World


    By Keith Johnson, Professor of Film & Television Studies, UEA

    In November 1935, seven amateur films achieved what most mainstream commercial films of that time could not, voyaging around the globe and being screened in multiple venues in Europe, Africa, India, China, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. The World Tour initiative was created and sponsored by the UK-based Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC), which celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2022. In the early 1930s the IAC was a young organisation with a big aim: bring together the international community of filmmakers to promote the diverse world of amateur cinema to a wider general audience.

    Amateur cinema had been in existence for over a decade by 1932, its growth spurred on by the introduction of 9.5mm film stock (in 1922) and 16mm film stock (1923). Unlike traditional understandings of the ‘home’ movie, the development of amateur films meant they could be complicated narrative-based dramas or comedies, documentaries, or experimental movies. The IAC aimed to represent the range of amateur filmmakers in the UK and other countries around the world; it was aware of the ‘soft power’ that moving images could have on the world stage, hoping to foreground British talent alongside other countries. The World Tour was central to that plan, with seven films from four countries chosen to represent the best that amateur film could offer. The package of films was planned to be sent from city to city where an IAC contact (often the local cine-club) would publicise and screen it to an audience before sending it on to the next club in the chain. In this way, a single package of seven 16mm films would wind its (often erratic) way around the world.

    The seven films were made by “lone worker” filmmakers or wife-and-husband teams:

    • Ruth Stuart was one of the most acclaimed women amateur filmmakers of the 1930s, winning awards in America, Britain, and across Europe. The travelogue To Egypt and Back with Imperial Airways (1931-32) was her second film, made when she was 15-16 and allegedly on a holiday she took without her parents’ knowledge! 
    • Matthew L. Nathan was a London-based lawyer and filmmaker who specialised in city-based documentaries, winning awards for Westminster in Winter (1933_ and other 1930s documentaries Venice (1934) and colour film Paris (1939). 
    • Agnes & John Thubron’s first film, Her Second Birthday (1932) plays with expectations of the ‘family’ film. It appears to be a traditional home movie before it shifts to include home-made stop motion animation of toys coming to life. Their second film, Transport (1934), shows scenes of different modes of transport from across the world (including South Africa, India, and England); it was voted the best film of the World Tour at the 1936 Vienna screening.
    • Hans Figura: a Vienna-based filmmaker, Figura was an active member of his local amateur cine club. His film Ein Sommer Geht zu Ende (1933) is a picturesque record of his two daughters playing in and around the landscape of the Danube during their holidays. 
    • Delmir de Caralt: Memmortigo? (1934) is the first of two fiction films in the World Tour. This experimental reflection on depression and suicide received an Honourable Mention at the 1934 American Cinematographer Amateur Movie Makers Contest.
    • Kichinosuke Takeuchi: the most obvious narrative film of the package, Sister (1933) is a tale of loss and childhood. Takeuchi was also an active cine-club member, writing screenplays; and serving on the board of the Japan 8mm Film Association.
    photographer in the desert
    'To Egypt and Back with Imperial Airways' by Ruth Stuart, Image courtesy of East Anglian Film Archive

    Our international research team has reunited these seven films for the first time in 90 years, taking the ‘The IAC World Tour’ programme back on the road.

    The research and curatorial work spanned academic and archive colleagues in the UK, Canada, Italy, Japan and Spain; part of a 3-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant. We were led by a central question: how did the creative and industrial development of interwar amateur cinema (1919-1939) differ across nations? 

    Based on one brief reference to a 1930s World Tour organised by the IAC we began to put together a fuller picture: four British films were involved, and three from other nations. 1930s reports confirmed the films were all IAC award winners from the 1933 and 1934 competitions, identified three of the British films and those from Austria, the Catalan region, and Japan. The final British film came down to three contenders: one was ruled out due to film gauge (too complex to show one 9.5mm film when all the other films were on 16mm) but with no firm evidence, we took an informed guess about the final film. And we got it (partly) wrong...

    The final piece of evidence didn’t fall into place until months later. A report on the first World Tour screening in Belgrade revealed the final title and running order. Based on this, we curated the full restored programme with the world premiere at the internationally renowned silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone, Italy) in October 2022.


    two young children in black and white
    'Ein Sommer Geht zu Ende' by Hans Figura, Image courtesy of East Anglian Film Archive

    The films had an erratic journey around the world. The Tour ran to a tight schedule: reports from early screenings in Belgrade and Vienna show that there was demand for a second public presentation – but the IAC distribution timetable didn’t allow for that. The films played to packed houses: 800 people in Vienna, and full halls at Budapest’s Academy of Music and Belgrave’s YMCA Hall. After Europe, however, the picture is less clear. After leaving Budapest in May 1936, the films were meant to travel to South Africa, Kenya, India and beyond; instead, the World Tour disappears from the historical record for almost two years, possibly waylaid or presumed missing along the way. Finally, in March 1938, a report from Japan’s Sakura Kogata Eigo Kyokai (Cherry Amateur Film Society) confirmed the package had reached Japan; with later reports showing it then travelled to Shanghai, New Zealand, and Australia. 

    Despite plans for the films to complete their circumnavigation back to Britain via the United States, the condition of the prints and the impending Second World War meant the films were instead donated to the Australian Amateur Cine Society. Even with this curtailment, the IAC estimated that 250,000 people would have seen the films on their journey.

    Curating and recreating this unique package of films, including new high-definition digital scans, was only possible with the support of project partners. Our thanks to the SSHRC, the IAC, the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA) and Filmoteca de Catalunya.