Monday, February 09, 2009

Watching Movies in Africa

In 2008, I began a research project about moviegoing across West Africa, with a focus on cinema audiences in the period from 1939-1962 -- the Second World War to the independence era. This is a long-term project that will form the bones of a Ph.D. dissertation (in African history).

I am still in the process of assembling and collating large quantities of data about the films that were shown, the locations where they were projected, and their relative popularity. Thus far, I have been concentrating on urban locations in Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal, with much more limited information on other parts of West Africa, and some comparative data from East and Southern Africa.

There are many different sources for information on film screenings: I have made use of newspapers, memoirs, novels and short stories, colonial administrative documents, and to a limited extent personal recollections. What is much more difficult to assess is the relative popularity of films, or to move beyond general assertions such as "everyone loved Westerns." From my initial data collection effort, based on a systematic collation of cinema listings from three different newspapers, some titles crop up so frequently that I am assuming they were reliable revenue-generators. That information is already painting a more nuanced picture of audience preferences.

As part of this project, I am also attempting to watch a reasonable number of the films that appear regularly in the film listings. I can't hope to project myself back to a movie screening in Abidjan or Kumasi, which would by all accounts have been a raucous affair, but I can begin to appreciate what people watched and, perhaps, why they made the choices they did. Unfortunately, many of the films are not easily available on DVD, which inevitably means my picture will be biased towards films that have been deemed worthy of continued circulation.

All this will of course influence the films that begin to appear in this space: expect an uptick in movies from the 1950s and before, and especially a glut of Westerns over the next couple of years...

2012 update: Since I began this project, I've zeroed in on Gold Coast/Ghana as my primary focus, and expanded the time period so that I cover roughly a 50-year span from 1925 (when early colonial censorship legislation was passed) to the early 1970s. While I continue to be interested in what people watched, and why, I'm also using Gold Coast/Ghana to a degree as an example of how the film industry, and particularly Hollywood, penetrated virtually every corner of the globe, and how they achieved that. In some respects, then, my project has shifted from something that might be easily classified as "African history" to something that is on the border between African history and cinema/business history.

Movies in the WMIA project (updated as often as I remember)

The Boy Kumasenu (1952, Gold Coast, Sean Graham)
Captain Blood (1935, US, Michael Curtiz)
Cobra Woman (1944, US, Robert Siodmak)
King Solomon's Mines (1950, US, Compton Bennett/Andrew Marton)
The Man From the Alamo (1953, US, Budd Boetticher)
Sanders of the River (1935, UK, Zoltan Korda)
Simba (1955, UK, Brian Desmond Hurst)
Something of Value (1957, US, Richard Brooks)
Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942, US, John Cromwell)
Taken 2 (2012, France, Olivier Megaton)
War Arrow (1953, US, George Sherman)
West of Zanzibar (1928, US, Tod Browning)
West of Zanzibar (1954, UK, Harry Watt)
Where No Vultures Fly (1951, UK, Harry Watt)
Whispering Smith (1948, US, Leslie Fenton)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great project, Gareth... I will impatiently wait to see what post-WWII movies grace your screen (and my monitor) soon...

ps) At the university where I got my M.A., we had an abroad program in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (I believe that program is still going strong). Alas, I didn't make it over there, but a couple of my friends got to go and, while there, took a course with a famous filmmaker whose name escapes me now. I'll have to inquire and get back to you... I've been meaning to tell you this tidbit of information for way too long, but kept forgetting. And now I don't even have his name! I'll keep you posted.

In any case, I am excited about your project. :)


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