Watching old films is always a bit of hunt for buried treasure, particularly if you stray away from a narrow list of classics. But few of these treasure hunts turn as literal as what happens if we investigate the 1949 documentary ‘Daybreak in Udi’, an Oscar winner you’ve probably never heard of.
Shot in Nigeria by Britain’s Crown Film Unit, the film won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1950. This was the British Government’s fourth Oscar. During the Second World War, the Academy had saluted Roy Boulting, Harry Watt and Carol Reed’s work on Desert Victory, Target for Tonight and The True Glory (made with the US). These films were the award-winning tip of a wonderful iceberg: documentary films of extraordinary quality and significance, paid for by successive British taxpayers for the 20 years since the creation of the Empire Film Unit in 1929. There was nothing unusual about the international perception of Daybreak in Udi as an outstanding film. It was well understood that (whatever other mean stuff people might say about the British film industry) we knew how to make a documentary. In fact the only unique thing about Daybreak’s win was that it received an Oscar statuette, which had not happened during wartime.