Moving film by UWE academic commemorates fate of SS Mendi soldiers at exhibition in the Somme

Issue date: 10 July 2015

A film directed by UWE academic Dr Shawn Sobers and media producer Rob Mitchell commemorating the responses of communities to the fate of the SS Mendi is currently showing at an exhibition at the South African Memorial Museum at Delville Wood, Somme. The 23 minutes film is entitled 'African Kinship Systems: Emotional Science – Case Study: The Fate of the SS Mendi' and describes the fate of South African troops who died on the SS Mendi. It can be viewed here.

The film commemorates the fate of the SS Mendi, transporting South African Labour Corps troops to join the WW1 war efforts on the front lines in France. On 21 February 1917, just 12 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight from leaving Cape Town, the SS Mendi was accidentally hit by a meat container ship and sunk within 25 minutes. 646 lives were tragically lost, 607 of which were Black South African troops. This film explores this story from multiple angles, and raises ideas about forms of remembrance.

Dr Sobers said, “I was inspired to make the film after hearing about the SS Mendi at a meeting at English Heritage about four years ago. No one else in the room had heard about the SS Mendi so I vowed to myself there and then to make some work about the Mendi at some point, so when I got this commission it was the perfect opportunity. This film asks: how do communities respond to personal memorial and the fate of the SS Mendi?”

The work includes underwater portraits of former soldiers of African-heritage and one member of the Army cadets. Each was invited to have their photograph taken in the water as a means of personal commemoration and remembrance along with reflective audio interviews.

The interviews are very poignant as the soldiers featured in the beautiful photograph narrative have all faced death and identify with the South African troops and the horror of drowning. Each photograph of the participating soldiers is featured as they are interviewed. One soldier, Raymond J Fielding says, “Forget about colour, remember that we are soldiers willing to fight for Queen and Country.”

Also included are coastal and water landscapes of the Isle of Wight at the land point nearest to the SS Mendi wreckage; recitals of official documentation from the time; a commissioned poem by Rob Mitchell; and an underwater dance piece by Remi Tawose, creating an audio/visual work which resonates on this tragic event in history from multiple viewpoints.

The film was commissioned the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and RWA funded by Arts Council of England, for WW1 art works.

Shawn's film is part of a wider exhibition at Delville Wood titled, 'We Die Like Brothers', brought together by Graham Scott, Senior Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology and Susan Hayward Director of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. The exhibition tells the wider story of the SS Mendi and South African involvement in World War One, and a formal commemoration of those who died.

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