Last July I travelled to Ghana with a group of colleagues whereby we explored Accra, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. In preparation for the trip, the group had lively and informative discussions on different social aspects of Ghanaian culture, ethnicity, race, language, and religion. I knew that Ghana would be a fascinating trip, however, I did not expect to experience such robust influence of pentecostalism. Upon arrival my eyes and ears were assailed by a plethora billboards that advertised religious events, and every other business and street vendor was identified by a religious name. Local television stations aired mostly religious programming, and the rhetoric towards witchcraft was visceral to say the least. At the time, I did not consider the eclectic dynamics of politics, economics, sensation, and imagination. However, Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies, Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana considers the intersections of these along with religion which are “keys to gathering and forming people” through the media of state films and video movies. (p. 24) She seeks to study the effect that audio-visualization has in one’s interpretation of the spirit world and the material world and how one determines the nature of African gods, ancestors, and other beings that are considered to be contrary to Pentecostal beliefs.
Movies as a way of educating and giving moral direction is a familiar phenomenon. I recall in the late 80s a popular movie within evangelical circles being shown in every church I knew of. I do not recall the name of the movie, but it was similar to the Left Behind series. This movie was also the topic of discussion for quite some time among Christians and used as a tool to bring others to salvation through Christ. “A phenomenology of film experience offers fruitful incentives to deepen our understanding,” is an apropos statement even outside of West Africa. (p. 142) The ability to participate with a film through all of the senses gratifies the need to ascertain something far more sentient than mere entertainment. Meyer hints at the communal aspect of phenomenological experience in film watching as animation through the mediated experiences of the actors. This interchange is successful when the viewer is able to identify with the storyline and exclaim, “this happened in my house.” (p. 145) In order to create this synergy, Meyer describes the filmmakers’ commitment to studying audiences – their lives and their reactions to particular scenes. Even to the degree of creating spaces for more educated audiences who tend to be quieter. “Moving Pictures and Lived Experience” implicitly employs the notions of space and place in the phenomenology of film watching.
Meyer’s historical summation of culture, tradition, and heritage offers a helpful discourse that situates the development of African and African American cultures within a framework that helps to could connect dismembered people. Meyer also highlights nuances within the concept of sankofa – “go back and fetch it” – that have proven to be at times controversial. It is this concept that problematizes the co-existence of Pentecostalism and African Religious Tradition. This seems to be the impetus to establishing a new genre of film which convey indigenous religion in a more affirmative, though still tempered by Christian-Pentecostal language.
In Sensational Movies Meyer cites an interesting parallel between movie production and the evolving existence consumers in a neoliberal society – the struggles of film production and “wondering how to lead a successful life” in a quickly reforming and re-shaping context. Additionally, I interpret Meyer’s deep involvement with film producers to be a slippery slope in that while her attempt to convince audiences at film festivals to judge “Ghallywood” films on their own basis “collides” with the audience’s belief that these films combat the respect of indigenous traditional cultures. The impact of Meyer’s work illumines the troubling issue of what I call romanticization of African culture and discourses that exclude scholarly African thought which seems to prevail in the Lost in Nollywood event. (p. 317) The ambivalence towards scholarship in the disinclination to draw distinctions between genres in what I presume to be a predominantly “western” audience is deeply problematic within a discipline that purports to be humanizing. How can ethnographers do justice to the people studied and also effectively challenge audiences to broaden their range of view of people in a way that respects the culture?
Meyer argues that “while “tradition” and “cultural” heritage tend to be matters of ultimate value in current debates in Ghana, as scholars we need to resists echoing such views and, instead, rethink tradition and cultural heritage as dynamically shaped through imaginaries.” (p. 46) In Don Seeman’s response Sensational Movies, he seems to support Meyer by asking the question “how does film, even when we acknowledge its fictional quality, help to mediate the moral imaginaries we inhabit?” (Seeman, p.10) According to Seeman, to consider the work of ethnographic exploration in this way is “more humane” and “more adequate.” (Seeman, p. 10) As I continue to grapple with what it means to be an ethnographer and how to determine the ultimate concern, paramount to any question put forward for exploration is the humanity of persons, the entire person. Until Sensational Movies, I did not have an awareness of imagination as a salient consideration for study. For me, Seeman’s story about Moshe highlights quite palpably how important it is to carefully regard the subject’s whole being and their beliefs. My question is how does history bear out the argument for imaginaries?