Sensational Movies, Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana-Birgit Meyer

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?


6 Replies to “Sensational Movies, Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana-Birgit Meyer”

  1. Lahronda, thank you for your precis and especially for your brief summary of your own experience in Ghana this past summer. Even this short summary helped me to image better the kind of religious climate that Meyer explores through video movies. Like you, I had not thought in terms of ‘the imagination’ for ethnographic study and found this aspect of Meyer’s project intriguing. I thought it was especially interesting to study video movies as mirrors of interwoven “ideas, experiences, stories, and figures with regard to life in the city, personhood, love, the family, the morality of wealth, issues of trust, anxieties, and desire – that were in the air and, in turn, had impact ‘on the ground'” (p. 7), particularly as we consider ethnographic work in the contemporary world, where visual mediums and global influences are increasing prevalent.

    It seems to me that Meyer’s notion of ‘imagineries’ is helpful for thinking about how media and entertainment reflect and shape cultural and religious experiences. I wonder, though, how her work could be translated to contexts where the production of entertainment, such as film or music, is more removed from the context and lived experiences of their audiences. For example, while I have no doubt that American, Hollywood blockbusters shape and, to some degree, reflect ‘on the ground’ matters in Canada, where American films are watched more frequently than Canadian films (and no doubt would play some part in an ethnographic study of Canadian cultures or religious communities), I wonder how you would determine what movies/music/television was relevant? Or to what degree they were influential? To some degree, whether this was Meyer’s intention or not, her work, for me, brings into sharp relief the complexity of doing ethnographic work in a globalized world, where boundaries are blurred and where the production of material artifacts proliferates so quickly (a setting that seems to contrast dramatically with that of, for example, Lienhardt’s study of the Dinka). How does the ethnographer determine what ‘counts’ for an experience-near cultural and religious analysis of particular communities? Or does one simply choose only one aspect to focus one’s attention on, as Meyer’s study focuses primarily on film-making?

  2. Lahronda, I would be interested in hearing more about your trip and the connections/disconnections you saw in relation to the text. Ultimately, my question for you is, “What is at stake in this text?”

  3. Lahronda, thanks for your precis! I think one thing to add to the focus on on imagination and imaginaries is the way Meyer handles questions of “ontologists,” which Seeman guides us to in his article. In our course, both last week and before, the question has come up of what it means to “treat the goddess as real,” to act “as if” local understandings possess an ontology. I am glad to read that I am not the only one to have an unease with this “as if,” as Meyer points out: “Framing anthropology as an endeavor that seeks–and yet by definition fails–to grasp entirely different ontologies is problematic” (196).

    The problem, as Seeman names it, is that “the very possibility of ethnographic fieldwork depends on a degree of mutually negotiated intelligibility that strong claims of ontological incommensurability would tend to preclude” (Seeman 3). On the one hand, it is nice to see that the problems that have troubled me with the “as-if” are not just in my head. On the other, the question immediately arises: “How, exactly, can we render ontologies intelligible to others?”

    If it arises immediately, the question may be dismissed immediately by many. There are plenty of ethnographers for whom the question can be answered summarily by, “We don’t have to have an account of how human experience is mutually intelligible, only a conviction that it *is,* and our work can proceed from there.” As someone with ethical and theological skin in the game of explaining how we might understand one another, I find the question more difficult to avoid. And to those people interested in the intersection of at least Christian theology and ethnography, I think the question is utterly essential: can we provide a theological account for how the process of understanding different experiences may be possible?

    Birgit Meyer sidesteps this question, in a way that I think is probably perfectly valid for the project she is doing but ultimately frustrating for my divergent questions. To Meyer, a focus on practices become a kind of escape from the abstract questions of ontology and the problem of the intelligibility of experience. We are no longer actually discussing “the occult ‘as such’ but only mediations of the occult via various oral, written, and visual media” (Meyer 195). We are pursuing “actual practices of figuration that represent the occult rather than taking abstract ontological ideas about spirits and the occult as a starting point or reducing narratives about the occult to underlying anxieties and moral critiques” (Meyer 195).

    I am a fan of the close examination of embodied practices, and this maneuver Meyer makes is of a similar flavor to Catherine Bell’s move in ritual theory, where we move from taking “ritual” as an object or form and instead looking to practices of “ritualization” by which certain things become “ritualized.” But the worry I have with making that kind of maneuver with experience and ontologies is that it seems to risk forfeiting our ability to articulate why things are important to people. I may be able to explain a phenomenological lifeworld that takes the occult seriously by studying the occult through its mediation. But if that is all we have access to, then can we make claims with any amount of authority as to why particular abstract ontological conceptions are important in peoples’ daily lives? By shifting the ground to practices, it would seem like we no longer have a way to make any statements about what matters to people, but instead we’ve found our way back around to a kind of “thick phenomenological description” of practices and encoded ontologies.
    By focusing on practices and the mediation of ontologies, do we lose the ability to explain why those practices matter?

  4. Lahronda, Thank you for your Precis. I really enjoyed how you brought your own experience in Ghana into your reading of the book. I would love to hear more about it in class and how it might have influenced your reading of this book. Furthermore, you provided a great summary of the book and offered important questions, many of which I also had while reading the book.

    I, too, was surprised at Meyer’s use of the imaginary in her ethnography. In connection to that, I found her claims about film and religion intriguing. She writes, “What film shares with religion, understood as a practice of mediation, is that both conjure imaginary realms and beings that appear real within certain bounds, that is, within the frame offered by a film or by a religious tradition.” (158) She goes on to claim that they offer audience a perspective on the spiritual and its connection to the physical as well as uncover the unseen which impacted people’s lived experiences. Her example of Actors as Priests and Priests as Actors was also interesting. Yet, I could not help but wonder, if her analysis of the “shared” between film and religion was infact reductionist of religion? And did not engage the difference of the imaginary between religion and film?
    I also think it would help to see a short section of one of the movies which she uses in her ethnography, as it would help me conceptualize/visualize her description of the movies better.

  5. Lahronda, thank you for your précis and especially for sharing your own experience in Ghana. Meyer proposes an interesting shift in the anthropology of Christianity from “committed Christians” to the ‘distribution’ of the ideas and reaching out in ‘everyday’ life. (p.9) Her discussion on writing about the occult was most intersting to me and like Jackson, I would like to discuss more on the possibility of writing on a different ontology and yet rendering in its own terms to the readers.

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful precis and personal anecdotes, Lahronda. I think this book offers us another way to think about the “religious real”, which Jackson has brought up in the form of an ontological issue; however, it could also be framed as what makes a “real” difference in people’s lives. I was talking to Joyce Flueckiger the other day about the definition of dharma, the term for ‘religion’ in her South Asian context, as what holds the world together. It seems to me that the ‘imaginaries’ and the ‘sensational’ theoretical projects developed by Meyer end up blurring the lines between the spaces and places, as Lahronda mentioned, where people co-construct their world. The pictures of the occult in film end up being a representation and a presentation of what is considered a real part of life. The use of religious clergy as actors and the use of film as moral education (albeit contested by different parties) ends up making video film in Ghana part of the religious life of people there.

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