Katrien Pype on Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies
Nollywood is a Lagos-based film industry that has been captivating wide audiences in Nigeria and its diasporas, and beyond. For more than a decade, Nollywood has attracted much popular and academic attention — even to the extent that one might speak of “Nollywood studies.” Less well-known is the fact that Nollywood’s story of origin can be traced back to video film production in neighboring Ghana. Zinabu, a film shot with a video camera in 1985, was commissioned by William Akuffo, a Ghanaian entrepreneur who since then has become a major voice in Ghana’s media world. Zinabu (and its sequels Zinabu II, III and IV) already depicted the major features of Nollywood films: the plotline speaks about the tensions between witchcraft and Christianity, while visualizations of occult workings make up the majority of the scenes.
In Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana, Birgit Meyer traces the historical development of Ghanaian video films between 1985 and 2010. Meyer teaches religious studies at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, but has been trained as an anthropologist. She situates the films’ developments within larger transformations of the “sensory fabric” of society in southern Ghana. As in many regions all over the world, Christianity has introduced historical and cultural optical regimes, that is, modes of looking and showing, which inform sociality, subjectivity, and personhood. In her ethnography, Meyer explicitly moves out of the video world and attempts to unravel how the Ghanaian movie industry ties in with a Christian control and reorganization of the visual field.
Given Meyer’s long-lasting engagement with the study of Ghana’s film culture, many of us have been waiting for this book. Since the late 1990s, Meyer has been a devoted researcher of these films. But Sensational Movies is far more than a mere retake of her numerous writings on the topic, as Meyer devotes various chapters to thematic and technological innovations that she has observed since 2005: in particular, the temporary decline of witchcraft as a main theme (between 2003 and 2005) and then again its resurgence; the usage of new digital technologies in the manipulation of the images; and, finally, the emergence of the “epic” genre, in which “tradition” is positively valued and becomes labeled as “heritage.” The relevance of Sensational Movies extends well beyond the Ghanaian or Anglophone West African media world. My own research (between 2003 and 2007) on the production of television serials in (Francophone and Lingala-phone) Kinshasa shows many similarities with the Nigerian (and Ghanaian) films in terms of aesthetics and plotlines.
This timely book is set in an already historical epoch (1985-2010). Media worlds are rapidly evolving, and the technologies in use are changing with incredible speed. While Sensational Movies begins with VHS-tapes and ends with digital software, African film and video makers have continued to use innovative technologies in the most recent years as well. One of the exciting new platforms of film production is the internet. In various African cities, youth produce films with their cell phones, which are then immediately posted online, while professional filmmakers shoot clips and footage with digital cameras. These smartphone and digital films are, content-wise, far removed from the Pentecostal films and the “epic” genre, though they still need to be set within the long history of popular filmmaking on the continent. In addition, along with new technologies for producing and consuming films also come novel forms of media entrepreneurs, new types of wealth creation, and an ever-expanding celebrity scene. In Kinshasa, la comm, or the advertisement industry — that other dream-making machine — has become one of the most attractive industries. Media and communication studies are very popular at the undergraduate level, because they figure prominently in youth’s aspirations of leading a successful life. Sensational Movies has something to contribute in this situation because it describes to us in very eloquent and engaging ways the minutiae of twenty-five years of film production in one African city, thereby paying attention to the producers’ and spectators’ dialogues with larger fields of meaning production (Christianity), social background (the city; ethnicity; Christianity as regulator of social relations) and the world of film production (state-sponsored films vis-à-vis commercial entrepreneurs).
One of the major questions anthropologists of media grapple with is the relationship between the image and “reality.” Phenomenologically inspired media scholars such as Vivian Sobchack and Laura Marks have drawn our attention to the “zones of mutuality” in which spectators and images are embedded, or even “the carnality of images” — reception is an embodied act and sensations also guide the new knowledge that one acquires through the reception of audiovisual footage. Sobchack and Marks have thus shown us how films and images can generate new ways of being and understanding the world beyond the mere discursive level. Meyer combines this perspective with a more ideational theory of “trans-figuration” in order to analyze how Christianity has produced new ideas of thinking about and experiencing evil, the world, and the person. Trans-figuration “places center stage the practices through which an imaginary expressed through sermons and other narratives, including dreams and visions, is pictorialized in movies and feeds back into narratives and the inner imagination.” Trans-figuration then has a vertical and horizontal axis: in its vertical mode, trans-figuration “refers to a process of transformation through which the ordinary — the mundane, human, or ‘physical’ — is revealed to involve a higher — ‘spiritual’ — dimension existing in excess of, but also within the ordinary.” In its horizontal movement, trans-figuration speaks about the remediation of images and “figures” (ideas in a pictorial form) using other media.
This attention to trans-figuration allows Meyer to explore the revelatory work of the video movies. Since witchcraft is one of the main themes, the visualization of the invisible is an important goal of the movie makers. Special effects literally give form to what is immaterial. After 2005, Meyer observed an increased emphasis on the occult invisible in the video films, thanks to the novel possibilities of computers and editing programs, and movie makers were “making full use of available technological possibilities to trans-figure the wider popular imaginaries from which movies originated and into which they were reinserted.” The manipulation of recorded images is only one of the various practices used to render the invisible present — or animation as Meyer calls it. Setting up the recording space and working with advertisement materials are other practices in the media world through which an artificial/fictive reality comes alive. Though, as Meyer shows, if animation is too well done, then there is always the possibility — or risk — that the represented reality becomes present; the illusion of the make believe might become suspended and overtake reality.
The tension between the logics of representation on the one hand and the logics of making present on the other hand does not always have to be problematic or dangerous. In a recently published article on “thick photography,” Jennifer Deger describes the “spectral labor” carried out by Yolgnu Aboriginals who edit electronic images on their cell phones in order to connect to others and to ancestors. “Thick photographers,” as Deger calls them, re-organize the visible world while working with various layers of color, pattern, and light. This digital work (done with and on smartphones) materializes connections between people, places, and technologies and also stimulates “Yolgnu ways of seeing.” This is an optical mode that provokes a sensorium that goes beyond the body and includes “a sentient and feelingfull landscape inhabited by generations past” and thus provokes the sense of participation in the world of the ancestors. The “Yolgnu way of seeing” means looking beyond the surface of the figuration, and seeing “animating depth and texture.” As Deger shows, through the labor on digital photographs, sensuous connections with ancestors are rendered real. This is very similar to how the Christian filmmakers in Accra and Kinshasa want to render the Holy Spirit present (or “immanent”), yet, the Christian filmmakers fear the possibility of slippage, and of inviting demonic powers.
One of the major arguments of the book is the connection of the video film with the rise of new forms of personhood. In particular, ways of being in the house and in the body are becoming more and more closed off. This relates on the one hand to the new, urban lifestyle, but can, according to Meyer, not be disconnected from Christianity’s dictates of the nuclear family and the personal, privileged connection with the divine. These all come to the fore in the following discussion of the role of the “urban” and the city’s material infrastructures in the production and reception practices of the video films.
Accra is more than the décor of the video movies. It can be said to be an actor as well, challenging its residents while also offering new opportunities. Accra thus becomes one of the major protagonists in the Ghanaian films, just like Lagos and Kinshasa are vectors of the fictional plotlines in Nollywood and Congolese evangelizing serials. Meyer shows that the intimacy between the city and the fictional worlds, however, goes beyond the representational level. The infrastructures and spaces of work and entertainment are actually intrinsically tied to the video sphere as well. Here, Meyer is in line with Onookome Okome’s analysis of the pavement audiences of the early Nollywood films, who actually made the popularity of these films. For Okome, in Lagos, there was an intimate connection between watching these films collectively on the street and in video parlors, in contrast to, for example, the more private space of the living room. While Nollywood depended on the informality of group reception practices, Meyer shows that Accra’s filmmakers prefer to shoot scenes in a “range of fancy and developed sites” in town, and thus “conjured up a view of Africa in which global infrastructures were shown to have touched ground.” As such, the Ghanaian video filmmakers are visionaries, who selected particular spaces of town so as to project an image of “the desirable city,” which amplified the contrast with the representations of “the village,” shown to be “backward and full of ignorance.”
Yet the films also move into residential areas and fancy homes, and these settings speak to recent transformations in urban sociality. Protagonists often live in self-contained houses, representing a development in housing and cohabitation over the past twenty-five years. The continued interaction of transmigrants with their families in Accra has translated into an extension of the city, with self-contained houses built on the outskirts. Built with money earned by Ghanaian migrants living in Europe and the US, these houses not only bring in new architectural aesthetics (huge constructions, Roman-style pillars, walls painted in bright colors), but they also manifest novel ideas about identity processes. The building of these self-contained houses is on a par with an increased attention to one’s personal achievement and success. Individual projects are more important than the mutual obligations and mode of attachments as embodied in and via the family home.
The lifeworlds of the spectators of the video films may be strikingly different from these novel forms of identity-making portrayed in the fictional worlds; yet the films fashion the successful person in ways close to Pentecostal leaders’ advocacy of personal responsibility and autonomy in becoming a successful person. Pentecostal pastors indeed tend to promote the nuclear family and even push the extended family out of family rituals such as weddings. So, in Kinshasa, when a pastor asks the cheering crowd: “Who is paying for the bride price? Who is the best counselor in matrimony?” then the audience knows “God” is the only answer. While denying the material and financial contributions of (classificatory) parents, uncles, and aunts, these Christians reject the influence of the extended family over the new couple, the relatives’ expectations towards them, and at the same time also the obligations of the young couple to the larger family. Rather, the church community and the pastor are greeted as new points of reference for matrimonial discussions and influence.
The technical feature of special effects used to expose the occult dealings of witches and evil spirits also allows for a particular ethics of watching, in which people literally learned how to close themselves off from images of evil. In video parlors and cinema halls, Meyer’s neighbors closed their eyes and ears with their hands during moments of fictional excess, thus literally closing their bodies “in order to avoid being polluted by the intrusion of evil pictures and sounds.” These techniques of the self while watching the sensational film were in line with the novel ways of the enclosed person, who is nevertheless immersed within a social environment, of which film and sound are as important as the influence of relatives, money, and preaching pastors. Film thus contributes to shaping a new habitus and a broader ethical mode of conduct.
Meyer’s reflections on the ethics of technology use are fascinating, and show us that the increased individualized consumption of media texts (text messages, phone conversations, songs, audiovisual footage) needs to be placed within a history of ever-evolving ideas about personhood. With the new information and communication technologies that can be hand-held, more personal, isolated modes of consuming films are also apparent. Increasingly, in Kinshasa’s households, children can enjoy their own (alone or with siblings) bedroom and command their own television set. Juliet Gilbert has noted that adolescent girls in Calabar, Nigeria, withdraw to their bedroom to chat on their smartphones, and to upload and consume photos and digital clips online. These are new ways of “closing off” the person, as Meyer has described in her book, but that have moved away from religious dictates, and that have been facilitated by technological innovation.
Meyer not only witnessed the insertion of new technologies in the production of the Ghanaian video films, but also the emergence of a new genre, which she calls the “epic” genre. Around 2002, and inspired by Nigerian “history” or “old times” films, Samuel Nyamekye (of Miracle Films) began to produce visual narratives located in the past, “long before the intrusion of colonialism and of Christian missions.” These films depict an imaginary past: set in beautiful green villages, characters are dressed in white cotton loincloths and wear beads around their necks and feet and arms. The audience longs for it — as said Akwetey-Kanyi, the producer of the epic movies Sacred Beads I and II.
Meyer makes the fascinating observation that the portrayal of the past in “the epic” transcends the differences between existing ethnic groups and cultural settings, and depicts a general “African” past. Meyer understands this movement as a challenge not only to the dominance of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, but also to “Sankofa cinema,” state-sponsored films about the past that have been producing documentaries about ethnic traditions since independence.
The “hybrid, invented past” of the “epic” genre speaks to the imagination of the postcolonial urban audience which has never known village life. A different perception of the “past,” “heritage,” and “culture” emerges when compared to the Pentecostal video films. Meyer shows how this “epic” genre sits between the Pentecostal films of good and evil and Sankofa cinema, informed by particular ideas of “good heritage” and attempts to counter the negative press for “African tradition.” Sankofaism, or the shorthand for a Ghanaian national past, promotes a selective appraisal of cultural resources, strongly biased towards Akan traditional culture and chieftancy. The “epic” genre—as produced by filmmakers not sponsored by the state but targeting “the Ghanaian market”—attributes a more positive image to the past, in which witchcraft and juju cannot really contribute anything. Yet Meyer is quick to stress that this “epic genre” is not fully removed from Pentecostal ideas because the moral instruction remains relevant (although not always as explicit); closing statements such as “to God be the glory,” or attempts to situate the story line “prior to the arrival of Christianity,” reveal that the frame of reference remains Christianity.
The emphasis on aesthetics and pleasure, however, is new. The producers of the “epic” genre display a pleasant and joyful image of the past “with beautiful, bright colors, even though in the past people wore plain, light cotton cloth.” Meyer thus points at the importance of “pleasure” as a phenomenological category to include in our analysis of popular culture. The “epic genre” suggests a turn in the cultural politics of tradition: moral values are abandoned in favor of lavish display and pleasure. Meyer situates this shift within a new representational regime underway, which can be linked to a cultivation of the past in fashion, and which she sees as a “symptom of a broader commercialization of culture in the neoliberal era.” “Tradition” becomes an “aesthetic commodity,” not only invented but also to be consumed.
Meyer’s attention to pleasure is fully in line with recent exciting discussions on new directions in the study of music, dance, and media in Africa. One might argue that “pleasure” is becoming a new paradigm in the social and cultural study of Africa. At the bi-annual European Conference of African Studies in Lisbon in 2013, panel members discussing future directions of the study of popular culture on the continent pleaded for more attention to pleasure and its various correlates (joy, ambiance, desire, etc.). Nancy Rose Hunt’s study of colonial Congo is not only an investigation into the affective moods of the colonial state, but also into the various forms of hedonism and play on the part of the colonized.
It is clear that Sensational Movies touches on a wide variety of topics that are relevant for the study of urban anthropology, religion and media, and will become a major work of reference for years to come. Meyer has not only offered us a fascinating and engaged ethnography of a crucial period in the Ghanaian film world, but this work also contributes to current debates about the senses, the neoliberal moment in the Global South, and the politics of representation.