Rob Eagle: Unsettling White Colonial History

When I first saw the trailer for the film Victoria and Abdul, I felt a bit sick. It looked like yet another nostalgic, royalist whitewashing of Britain’s oppressive colonial history. Such films seek to romanticise the racist, global, imperial project and legitimise modern Britain’s ongoing delusional sense of superiority.

In making ‘Harding & his camera’, I wanted to undermine such nostalgia of the British Empire. Two academics paint an ambiguous portrait of archaeologist Lankester Harding, who enjoyed white, colonial male privilege in 1930s British Mandate for Palestine. Focusing his camera often on his young Bedouin assistants and companions, Harding created the only known example of queer colonial home movies in this era. We don’t know exactly what sort of relationships he had with these younger men, as his diaries and letters are cryptic and the men themselves don’t ‘speak back’ in the archive. They are subject to his gaze.

But this is where things get interesting. To what extent were Harding’s young male companions able to use his access to power for their own advancement? It is entirely possible that they were able to benefit from him as much as he used them in his orientalist desires.

Victoria & Abdul is based on a book by Indian-born writer Shrabani Basu that seemingly plays all too well into a quirky, rose-tinted mythologising of British colonialism that we see time and again. In these films, classism, racism and violence are treated as minor challenges that ‘progressive’ leaders like Victoria were able to sidestep or overcome. (Queer British-Iraqi writer and director Amrou Al-Kadhi has written a brilliant take-down of the film.) It’s worth noting that Victoria & Abdul was written and directed by straight, white, British cisgender men.

I view my role as a white male director to challenge narratives that turn the leaders of Empire into sweet, benign figureheads. British colonial administration, whether in 19th century India or 1930s Palestine, was anything but benign. Films like Victoria & Abdul need to stop treating historical figures as socially progressive or visionary when they embodied and perpetuated the colonial power structures and orientalist attitudes of the times.

We, as white directors, cannot leave it only up to people of colour, and other people our ancestors oppressed, to question the Empire; we must actively unsettle white colonial history ourselves. I hope ‘Harding & his camera’ provokes some much-needed discussion and debate over the moral ambiguities of these people, like Lankester Harding, and inspires people to ask more about the untold stories of the local people under their administration.

Rob Eagle’s short film Harding & his camera is screening at CCA Glasgow on Friday 29th September at 1.45-2.40pm as part of SQIFF Shorts: The Gayz, which critiques male-centred and patriarchal movie-making. It is an ambiguous ‘love story’ documentary told through the 1930s archive of a British archaeologist who took a camera on his digs in the British Mandate for Palestine and fell in love with his Bedouin assistant.

ACCESS: Level access at entrance of CCA with Cinema space on ground floor. Accessible toilets available. Various languages with English subtitles/captions. Hearing loop. Duration of this screening is maximum 1 hour.