Donald Swanson

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Donald Swanson (1917 – 1977) was a film director, producer and writer.


Donald Andrew Swanson was born on 27 January 1917 in Willesden, Middlesex, the son of Charles Swanson, a sometime actor and theatre dresser, and his wife Orpah Bailey. According to the 1939 Register, he was a farm assistant in Oxfordshire, but during World War II he served in the Merchant Navy and upon discharge found employment with Gaumont-British Instructional, working in various capacities on a number of documentaries. In 1949 he was seconded to Gaumont-British Africa and directed Chisoko the African for the Roan Antelope Copper Mines in what was then Northern Rhodesia.

After moving to Johannesburg, he directed two short features that became milestones in the South African film industry. Both had all-African casts and were made outside the commercial framework. The first was Jim Comes to Jo'burg (1949), made for Eric Rutherford’s Warrior Films. It had its premiere at the Rio Theatre in Market Street, Johannesburg at which the guest speaker was Dr. A.B. Xuma, then President of the African National Congress. For screenings overseas the title was changed to African Jim. The second film was The Magic Garden, also known as The Pennywhistle Blues (1951), made for Swanson’s own Swan Film Productions. This was based on a story by James Ambrose Brown, received an excellent review from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times and was shown at the 1951 Edinburgh Film Festival.

In 1951 there was a report that Swanson would be joining Italian explorer/filmmaker Attilio Gatti as scriptwriter on a film project, but it is not known what became of this. Before and after his two semi-features he made some more documentary shorts for Gaumont-British Africa, as well as for his own company, but eventually he found more permanent employment with African Film Productions, both as writer and director. In 1955 he worked on the feature film Paul Krüger, but had to abandon his involvement because he had committed himself to the production of a television series for Dominion Films and Associated-Rediffusion in Great Britain.

After 1955 he devoted himself entirely to scriptwriting, including a number of features. Writing seems to have been his first love and back in 1942 he had read his short story Blackout at Sea on the BBC Home Service, a tale probably based on his experiences in the Merchant Navy, including two trips to Murmansk. He also found time to write the autobiographical Assignment Africa (1965), as well as a number of novels, one of which was banned by the Publications Control Board. In 1949 he married Gertrude Cravos (born Newport) in Roodepoort. Usually known as Gene, she often handled continuity on his early films. He died in November 1977 and his wife in April 1990.

African Credits

1949 – Chisoko the African (documentary short) (Director) (G-B Instructional / Gaumont-British Africa for Roan Antelope Copper Mines),

1949 – The Mystery of the Snakeskin Belt (children’s serial) (Script with Mary Cathcart Borer) (Director: Frank Cadman) (Gaumont-British Africa for Children’s Entertainment Films),

1949 – Jim Comes to Jo'burg / African Jim (semi-feature) (Director) (Warrior Films),

1949 – Mining Centre, Johannesburg (documentary short) (Directed with S.G. (Guy) Fergusson) (G-B Instructional),

1950 – The Future of One Million Africans (documentary short) (Research Writer & Administrator) (Producer: Sergei Nolbandov) (This Modern Age Ltd. for General Film Distributors),

1950 – Temba (documentary short/advertising film) (Directed with Ken Taylor) (Swan Film Productions for Dettol),

1951 – The Magic Garden / The Pennywhistle Blues (semi-feature) (Director, Producer & Scenario) (Swan Film Productions),

1952 – South African Cavalcade / Suid-Afrikaanse Kavalkade (documentary short) (Commentary) (Director: Errol Hinds) (African Film Productions for South African State Information Office),

1952 – Daar Onder in die Mielies (documentary short) (Director & Screenplay) (African Film Productions for Mielie Industry Control Board),

1953 – The 1820 Settlers / Die 1820-Settlaars (documentary short) (Written & Directed) (African Film Productions for South African State Information Office),

1953 – More Precious Than Gold / Kosbaarder as Goud (documentary short) (Commentary) (Director: Emil Nofal) (African Film Productions for South African State Information Office),

1954 – The Call of the Karroo (documentary short) (Written with Emil Nofal) (Director: Emil Nofal) (African Film Productions for South African Wool Board),

1954 – Mau Mau (documentary short) (Writer & Director) (African Film Productions),

195* - South Africa’s Lifeline / Die Slagaar van Suid-Afrika (documentary short) (Script with Frank Secker) (no director credited) (African Film Productions for Caltex?)

1955 – By an African Campfire (British TV series) (Associate Producer) (Director: Darcy Conyers) (Dominion Film Productions for Associated-Rediffusion)

1972 – Lokval in Venesië (feature) (Uncredited Script Contributor) (Director: Ivan Hall) (Kavalier Films)

1972 – Five Star Hotel on Wheels (documentary short) (Script) (Directors: Geoff Tucker & Seth Asch) (RPM Film Studios for South African Railways)

1973 – Patterns for Progress / Die Weg na Welvaart (documentary short) (Script) (Director: Adrian Steed) (RPM Studio for South African Bureau of Standards)

1973 – Die Voortrekkers (feature) (Script) (Director: David Millin) (DeeMillin Productions)

1974 – Those Naughty Angels (feature) (Script) (Director: Neil Hetherington) (Hetherington-Anderson Productions)

1974 – Suster Teresa (Script) (Director: David Millin) (DeeMillin Rolprentproduksies)

1977 – Call me Kelly (TV series) (Contributing Scriptwriter) (Directors: Bernard Buys, Percival Rubens & David Shreeve) (Heyns Films for SABC)

Besides the titles mentioned above, Swan Film Productions was responsible for the production of a number of other shorts, but with no surviving prints accessible it is not possible to check the credits. These include Tropical Forest Village (documentary short) (1948), Everyone Likes to Smoke (advertsing film) (1950), I’ll Leave it to You (documentary short) (1950) and Black Diamonds (1953). In addition a project called Coon Carnivall, which started shooting in 1950, may not have been completed, though footage survives in the NFVSA. Interestingly, Swan Film Productions was also responsible for the sound on the Jamie Uys film Daar Doer in die Bosveld (1951).


Sunday Times, 24 October 1948

Rand Daily Mail, 30 June 1955

Swanson, Donald - Assignment Africa (1965)

Assignment Africa': Donald Swanson's Colonial Imaginary and Chisiko the African (1949) - Paper by Jacqueline Maingard (2013)

Journal of Southern African Studies, 39(3):701-719.

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