In Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana, Birgit Meyer chronicles the liberalization and commercialization of the Ghanaian film industry from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s. Of particular concern to Meyer, in this historical-ethnography, is the relationship between popular “film videos,” a term Meyer uses to differentiate popular films from state-sponsored films and art cinema, and Pentecostalism. Meyer argues that popular film videos during this period, while not propagated by or as Christian or Pentecostal specifically, reify and mediate the dialectic tension between good and evil or God and Satan in a way that would appeal to those who are sympathetic to a Pentecostal epistemology. Ultimately her project does not function as an emic study of Pentecostalism from within, but instead an etic study whereby she theorizes on the relationships between religion and media in general and explores, more specifically, those processes artistic and logistic that pertain to media production and distribution. Her focus on film as a “symptom and facilitator of profound transformations of the public sphere,” yields to a broad study on Ghanaian film over the last three decades (2015, 298). Her own expertise as a film director, producer, and anthropological scholar give her a keen ability to explore “the dynamic process of the making of video as a new medium for the imagination by tracking the interlacing of its technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects” (35). Meyer’s primary interlocutors are filmmakers, directors, and producers. Her relationship with them is multifaceted, at times casual, sometimes academic, other times professional, and occasionally collaborative. These dynamic relationships allow Meyer intimate access to their creative processes, artistic concerns, financial challenges, and desire for commercial success. In addition to these perspectives, Meyer’s research is informed by observation and conversation with a variety of publics – film critics, consumers, religious characters, and state officials.
The power of this work as a religious ethnography lies in its willingness and intention to explore the feedback loop between religious ideologies and popular culture. In this case, Ghanaian film videos and Pentecostalism inform material culture during this time period. In the first two chapters, Meyer makes chronicle changes in the film industry and situates them within larger political changes, namely the liberalization and commercialization of media and the rise of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism with its strong focus on God’s ability to prosper individuals emerges, per Meyer, as a viable alternative to the post-colonial government’s failed attempts at development and national prosperity (8-9). Pentecostalism not only offers a theological framework with which to understand the world but also welcomes particular patterns of consumption that affirm wealth and prosperity.
The theological binary present in Pentecostalism works on several fronts simultaneously. On one hand, it directly resists the State’s strategic sanitation of traditional African beliefs, that is the elevation of particular Akan symbols and narratives, by associating them altogether with the occult and the devil. On the other hand, it associates health, wealth, and prosperity, ideas readily conceived in a particular kind of urban lifestyle, with the favor of God (99). Meyer is keen to note the role of sense experience and how mediation both in religious contexts as well as through film make “real” those things imagined or invisible. Meyer calls this phenomenon “technoreligious” (189). The extent to which the physical and the spiritual are both sensed and understood in Ghanaian epistemology as common-place makes possible their imagining in film videos, specifically in “Revelation” films (170-172). These films materialize the invisible spiritual world in ways that resonate with Ghanaian Christians imaginaries but are not offered as explicitly Christian or in a religious context. The commercially successful films are ones that tap into the anxieties, hopes, and aspirations of the audience by using special effects, creating alternate worlds via set-design, imaging God/Jesus, creating ever more fantastical renditions of the occult and evil, and developing targeted marketing and distribution campaigns (Chapters 5&6). While Revelation films are not the only films in the Ghanaian film repertoire, their engagement with the Christian imagination certainly set them apart in this study.
I found Meyer’s willingness to address issues of African representation to be quite helpful. She framed a version of “respectability politics,” that is the need to portray blackness, or in this case African heritage, positively such that it works against perceived negative stereotypes. The extent to which these approaches, which she explores in depth in chapters 1 and 7, reify colonial categories can be easily overlooked. Representation in the public sphere is indeed a tricky subject for marginalized people who are trying to find their own voice in a public not really designed or built for them. Ghanaian filmmaker’s interest in creating a new public for their content and willingness to work within the imaginaries of these evolving publics is not only a capitalistic engagement but also a reflection of the dynamic nature of cultural formation and re-formation. For me, this kind of tending to the people where they are and trying to imagine what is possible is a necessary condition for theological reflection. While Meyer does not explore this explicitly her notion of transgression points to an etic theological exploration that happens outside the confines of orthodox theological imagination. I can see how paying attention this is not only of important in the ethnography of religion but why it is also important in the field of theology as well. Don Seeman, gets at this by raising questions around film’s ability to address a variety of moral imaginations and subsequently shape people’s lived experience. Mediation is indeed powerful in its own right, but it’s ability to both manifest, manipulate, intensify, and altar belief makes it a powerful conversation partner with religion and popular culture.
Has media always been a site for religious exploration and imagination? If so, how, and how might we analyze religious history in light of such a claim? (Codices, Guttenberg Press, amplification)
How does access to and usage of media reveal larger social, political, and economic changes?
How is power mediated and how is media a site for power? How do media, power, and religion negotiate publics concurrently?
How might we explore social media ethnographically? And how might it help us to see how people express a wide range of beliefs and imaginaries almost instantaneously?
How does this kind of study of religion differ from other thinks of religious ethnographies we have studied?
How might we pull this ethnography in conversation with James and Otto on religious experience?