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 A presentation at the Uganda Film Festival Kampala Uganda by Femi Odugbemi.

femi_odugbemi I Thank you very much for this opportunity to be here and I am excited by the possibilities that this gathering can bring to the Ugandan ?lm industry, the economy and the issues of cultural diplomacy not only for this great country but for African peoples at large. Africa needs every tangible effort from its individual nations to take the continent to the next level – an objective to which a vibrant viable ?lmmaking industry can uniquely contribute.

There are quite a number of things that the African continent needs, one of them is a strong ?lmmaking culture. This is in part because ?lms have a unique way of creating models for its audiences and reshaping their outlooks, but more importantly because ?lmmaking IS business and it can hold its own in contributing signi?cantly to economic growth in terms of youth employment, receivable tax incomes and ancillary growth of other professions and small-scale businesses that feed off of the patronage of ?lm projects. But much more than that, in a world where your economy is impacted by your “brand identity and projection” ?lms are critical promotional and cultural tools in shaping perception in a globalized world.

The in?uence of ?lm is well understood by many leading economies of the World; which are creating and funding structures and institutions that can help to perpetuate the ?lm art. In Germany, since 1979 every federal state has been putting up its own funding programs, and the spending of the German Federal Film Board is put at 96.72 million Euro as at 2005. The British ?lm Institute has a plan of increasing its investment in ?lm production and development annually to 24 million pounds by 2017. The French government provides roughly half the funding for the Cannes ?lm festival, and in 2012, the country’s ?lm business was buttressed by more than €749 million. Some states in the U.S. and Canadian provinces will provide subsidies or tax credits for ?lm production expenditures if all or parts of the ?lm is shot in their state.


Here in our beloved continent, South Africa is perhaps the most clued-in economy in terms of how they have fashioned a multi-layered approach to ?lm investment, ?nancing  and out-of-country marketing and promotion of their ?lm industry. The South African government smartly identi?ed the ?lm industry as a sector with excellent potential for growth, and a catalyst for both direct and indirect employment of people from different sectors of the economy. And they have reaped great rewards ?nancially. Their ?lm and television industry contributes around R3.5-billion a year to the country’s economy, according to a 2013 study conducted by the National Film and Video Foundation, an agency of the SA Department of Arts and Culture. The South African ?lm and television industry contributes around R3.5-billion a year to the country’s economy, according to a 2013 study conducted by the National Film and Video Foundation, an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture.


In 1995, when the country ?rst became a viable location venue for movie and television production, the industry employed around 4,000 people. Today this has grown to around 25,000 people. The bene?ts of a proper investment in the ?lm industry are clear, especially when it comes to bringing in foreign exchange. Co-productions with international companies especially result in the direct investment of millions of dollars into the economy.


But the underlying intelligence for urgent and deliberate structural investment in the ?lm industry by government goes beyond its economic value. It is about its cultural relevance. Many Western countries are consciously (re)positioning perspectives about their identity and are creating imageries and images that attracts favourable reviews to their civility in the comity of nations. Much more than any other continent in the World, Africa has suffered greatly from the global information order that is skewed towards negative branding of the African experience.


If we consider the quantum of positive in?uence that the Nigerian ?lm industry (Nollywood) has brought to the African evaluation of our own self-worth on the one hand and the global perception of the African continent on the other, you will agree  that the art of  ?lm IS the catalyst to kickstart the perception change that the continent so desires. With the democratization of ?lmmaking through digital technology, Africa is continuously being confronted with enormous opportunities as never before to de?ne its own identity and civilization; to state who we are and how we want to be perceived by the rest of the World in our own words and imageries. It is my strong view that every government in Africa has a duty to set about creating enabling regulatory frameworks to encourage the production of local content as a way of projecting its people’s heritage through its stories.


Recently, after more than 20years of concerted efforts, the Nigerian government has begun providing multi-level support for our ?lm industry through different funding and tax incentives to be executed by different government parastatals. In 2010, the federal government of Nigeria announced an investment of $200 million into the development of the entertainment industry, and later an intervention fund of N3 Billion christened Project Act Nollywood. These are very positive steps in the mass of what is needed to be done. Similarly, I believe every African country should have a National Funding structure that can subsidize the cost of ?lm production, incentivize established ?lm makers, encourage emerging ?lmmakers, and create a buoyant platform for culture and tourism development.


The economic reality of many African countries clearly makes it dif?cult, if not impossible, for many ?lmmakers on the continent to fund their own ?lms. Many of our ?nancial institutions do not also key into the business of ?lmmaking, and the few that provides some opportunities for the ?lm industry do so with terms and conditions that may not be practical within the creative industry. A low budget Hollywood ?lm will cost about $20,000 to make, for some African ?lmmakers, that is still a huge amount of money to raise as an individual.



So, what non-governmental funding opportunities are therefore available to African ?lmmakers?




Currently, there are several non-governmental organizations across the World offering funding/grant speci?cally targeted at African ?lmmakers. These funding support all genres of ?lmmaking with objectives ranging from culture propagation, to democratic values, creative contribution, human rights defense, social activism, education, local ?lm development, and a lot more. For example:


– The IDFA Bertha Fund supports ?lmmakers and festivals in developing countries, with the aim of stimulating local ?lm cultures and to turn the creative documentary into a truly global ?lm art.


– The Alter-Ciné Foundation offers a yearly grant to young ?lm and video makers from Africa, Asia and Latin America to produce ?lms on the theme of human rights and freedoms, including social and economic rights, women’s rights, the right to culture and artistic creation.


– Movies That Matters offers modest ?nancial assistance (up to € 5,000) to human rights ?lm events in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.


Sundance Institute’s Fund and Awards provides grants between $1 and $2 million per year to support U.S. and international contemporary independent ?lms.


-And of course there is the African Development Bank funding available under its SME framework.


The list is long and the scope of funding is wide and interesting. You can simply go on the internet and access information about a lot of these existing funding structures. I must be quick to point out however that quite a lot of these grants or funding pursue some interests of some sort which the ?lmmaker must align with before they can bene?t from the fund. This raises a question of ?nding a midpoint between the creative quest of the ?lmmaker and the interests that the funding organization stands for – sometimes, there is no such midpoint, in which case the ?lmmaker must source his/her own fund.


Beyond this, what I ?nd utterly disturbing is that many African ?lmmakers do not take advantage of some of these funding, simply because they consider the process cumbersome. In the case of Nigeria, perhaps only two or three major producers are known to have actually accessed the fund from the Nigerian Government’s $200 million investment in the entertainment industry. There is a general withdrawal by the community of ?lmmakers in the country from applying for the fund based on what they consider the ‘undue rigour‘ of the process.






In the alternative, ?lmmakers can look to crowdfunding to ?nance their ?lms. This is a largely internet based network of individuals who pool their money together to fund the production of a ?lm. There are well over a hundred internet sites that provide crowdfunding services; Kickstarter and Indiegogo tops the list. Expectedly, some of these sites do not cater for African fundraising concern – some do not even allow fundraisers outside their region. There are staggering efforts from some organizations in Africa to create crowdfunding sites but not so much has been achieved in terms of popularity and functionality.


Currently, Africa has a big gap in SME ?nancing (both by government and ?nancial institutions). Moreso because the terms and conditions that come with some of the SME ?nancing are always beyond the reach of the bene?ciaries. Crowdfunding provides a viable alternative that can be trusted, and I think that creative entrepreneurs and computer software programmers and developers can collaborate to create platforms that are speci?c to the peculiar needs of African small business terrain.


Going into the future, African ?lmmakers must put some pressure on their governments to create National ?lm funds – ?lmmaking is too serious a venture for government not to invest in it. It is economically viable and serves as a store of cultural identity and a gauge of national aspiration. This must be a multi-level process where even local authorities can create enabling grounds to foster ?lmmaking.




There is also the option of providing tax relief or waivers for ?lm production projects to encourage ?lmmakers. This has been done in several parts of the World and it is remarkably successful. South Africa has a tax relief structure for ?lmmaking that many African countries can adopt or build on. The Nigerian government is also directly investing in the country’s ?lm industry through grants and loans to ?lmmakers and the impact of this investment is visible in the quality of ?lms that is being produced now in the country.




Lottery is also an effective way of creating funding for ?lmmakers. If organized bodies or government sets up lottery programmes that is aimed at directly providing funding for ?lm project, it would go a long way in increasing the quality and quantity of ?lms being made in Africa and it can also allow ?lmmakers to work on subjects that they choose, expressing their creativity as they so desire as opposed to when they are being funded by NGOs that are pursuing speci?c interests.




There is also need to touch upon the importance of the role of professional collectives such as ?lmmaking Guilds and associations in making the right economic arguments to governing authorities on the need to invest in the ?lm industry as a priority development sector capable of contributing signi?cantly to growing the GDP.


Guilds must articulate and train ?lmmakers in their ability to construct sensible business plans for their ?lm projects that demonstrates a clear understanding of distribution realities and the marketing channels that will estimate the capacities of the project to perform creditably at the box of?ce, in dvd distribution, in online sales and various mobile device points of sales now available to consumers.


Guilds must be proactive in engaging government through intelligent position papers and public debates to adequately inform national policy. Guilds have a duty to focus on improving quality of product through training and re-training of practitioners as technology evolves and the tools and techniques of ?lmmaking itself invite constant reorientation.


Speaking about technology, there is are important challenges to the future success of African cinema that we must focus to address. Africa today is largely a consumer of technology and is yet to join the league of countries that are primary producers. So while African cinema is constantly evolving and trying to catch up with Western cinema, in terms of technology we continue to face important challenges. Creating certain genres of stories especially ones that explicate the mysteries of African mythologies, for instance, require existing technology to be customized for the ?lmmaker to successfully tell his story. In our environment today that would be ?nancially crippling to say the least.


Successfully broadening genres in African Cinema is inhibited by this. African ?lmmakers would ?nd it challenging to create ?lms in the science ?ction and other genres that require heavy technological in?uence for a while.


Secondly, we need to urgently broaden the artistic appeal of our ?lms and be able to offer more works that compete strongly in major festivals and can be acquired for international distribution. Funding for ?lms that win enough business to create the kind of model sustainability we all yearn for, does not come easy. It is more than just about the content of the ?lm, it is also about the context and craftsmanship of the product.


To achieve that, we have to better emphasize and encourage professional training. We need to focus on training with emphasis not only on equipment technology but as much on the artistic use of technology. It is not necessarily about spending more money as being more ef?cient with money spent.


We need institutional interventions in curriculum that is well researched and standardized so that emerging ?lmmakers are skilled in the creative thought-processes. Guilds should engage tertiary institutions so that ?lm schools are created as intervention tools in empowering emergent ?lmmakers.


Thirdly, there is need for more collaboration among African Filmmakers on individual levels and at governmental levels. There has been some form of progress in that area, but we need to work together better. We have not yet quite grasped the full power of collaboration.  It provides a solution for instance to the primary challenge of funding, and also a sharing of skills and knowledge. Of the many aspects of developed ?lm industries, one I would love our young ?lmmakers to take away and appreciate better would be the idea and the concept of collaboration.


Co-Production treaties amongst African countries is an urgent goal. It is strange that South Africa for instance has signed many co-production treaties with several countries in Europe and with Canada and the US but hardly any within Sub-Saharan Africa.


South Africa has signed co-production treaties with Canada, Italy, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. This means that any of?cial co-production is regarded as a national production of each co-producing country, making it eligible for any bene?ts or programmes of assistance available in either country. South Africa also has a memorandum of understanding relating to ?lm with India.

The bene?ts beyond the ?nancial spreads to development of human capital critical to sustaining growth.


Finally, we must underline the reality that ALL creative industries are in the midst of a pivotal shift, driven by emerging technologies. The extraordinary growth in Africa of iphones, ipads, android tablets, blackberry and iphones and the emergence of the social media platforms – Facebook, twitter and Google+ has created amazing ways for people to connect with each other and with new ideas and concepts and to share data and content in user-friendly ways. This appetite for content is creating new opportunities for digitally-driven content that provides an important distribution opportunity for African ?lmmakers.


The opportunity for African Cinema’s future is how to leverage these technologies to deliver generation-next content that creates compelling consumer experiences and connects audiences across devices, networks, time zones and geography. We need to start distilling the trends that will fundamentally transform how content is created, distributed and consumed in the next 5-10years.


Let me reiterate that telling the African story is the obligation of Africans and every nation on the continent must deliberately choose how the rest of the World perceives its people, its identity and its civilization. Filmmaking is our most important cultural diplomatic tool providing us a unique and viable platform for us to de?ne who we are for the rest of the World, BUT it won’t happen unless we make a conscious and deliberate ?nancing intervention to empower the ?lmmakers with a systemic structure to realize their stories.


Thank you.

Femi Odugbemi

August 2013.



‘Niyi Coker, Jr.

DSC_0385_0091What and where is the African diaspora? As we all know the word diaspora is used in reference to the “dispersal” of the children of Africa around the globe.

We know and study clearly that some of that dispersal was as a result of the Trans Atlantic or trans Saharan enslavement. But that is not the whole story..

People of African descent, who refer to and define themselves as Afro-descendants can be located in at least 25 Caribbean countries which include the Islands of Turks and Caicos, the Netherland Antilles, Kitts and Nevis, Guadaloupe, St. Martin, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not to mention the obvious larger islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Barbados.

On the continent of South America there are self-identified Afro-descendants in Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay.

In North America, the self identified Afro-descendants are in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama.

In the Middle East, we have self identified African descendant populations in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Israel, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Baharain and Cyprus.

In Asia, the self identified Afro-descendants are in Japan, India, Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka . Renowned are the Sidi’s of India, who are very proud of their East African ancestry. Kings’ and Princes’ with known linkages to Africa include Raza Khan the 10th Nawab and Nawab Sidi Haidar Khan.

In Europe as you can imagine, the self identified African descendants are in France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Poland and Hungary.

In the Pacific Islands we have self identified descendants in Papua New Guinea, the Fiji Islands, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Guam, Vanuatu

While we wait on the number of self identified Africans in Russia, rest assured on the basis alone that the renowned Russian poet Alexander Sergeyvich Pushkin regarded as the founder of Modern Russian Literature was born to an African grandfather in 1799 and he died in 1837. His grandfather was an Eritrean named Abram Gannibal and entered Russia as an enslaved African. Pushkin never made any attempts to conceal his African ancestry.

But there is more to the African “dispersal” than the vehicle of enslavement. There was a culture of migration as a result of trade or bi-lateral agreement. Lets take for example the expeditions of Suni Ali Ber the Mariner Prince of the Mali empire chronicled in by Ivan Van Sertima in his seminal work “They Came Before Columbus” a book which details the African Presence in the Americas, long before the advent of Columbus. Not surprisingly the New York Times initially denounced the book as “rubbish”, and actually encouraged the circulation of the work amongst renowned archaeologists and anthropologists in professional societies in the United States. The unthinkable occurred and the Times was forced to reverse itself in 1977 when renowned Columbia University Anthropologist, Professor Weinant, after a thorough review concluded:

“Van Sertima’s work is “a summary of six or seven years of meticulous research based upon archeology, egyptology, African history, oceanography, astronomy, botany, rare Arabic and Chinese manuscripts, the letters and journals of early American explorers and the observations of physical anthropologists….As one who has been immersed in Mexican archeology for some forty years, I am thoroughly convinced of the soundness of Van Sertima’s” conclusions.”

Some of the major significant evidence in Van Sertima’s work are the Olmec heads in Peru. Also the fact that the corn or maize is not indigenous to the American soil and climate, and was brought here not by ecological factors such as wind or water, but by Suni Ali Ber and his entourage. His work also asserts that the currents of the Atlantic Ocean does wash toward the America’s during specific seasons of the year, and washes back toward Africa in the opposite season. An oceanographic factor which made Sunni Ali’s travel possible.

I actually suspect that some of the physical evidence of these sacred scripts and research carried out by African scholars in Antiquity and stored for safe keeping in the libraries of Timbuktu in Mali have fallen victim to the arson currently being executed by the militia in Mali.

I take the troubles to highlight these facts to present a clear and unvarnished understanding of the breath and expanse of the African diaspora.

My esteemed college Professor at the University of Ife, Professor Wole Soyinka in an essay published in the collection, “African Culture – Rhythms of Unity” writes: “Africa does not begin and end, where the salt waters of the Atlantic ocean lick the shores of the African continent.”

Indeed Africans have taken Africa with them wherever that have been mis-located, dislocated and relocated to. Having found themselves in new and in most cases, strange environments our ancestors practiced their culture from memory. In most instances, they had to practice them in clandestine fashion—at night—in the dark, away from their captors. Their captors had abolished drumming and dancing which were central to worship. Their enslavers referred to the African religions and modes of worship as mumbo-jumbo or even as psychotic episodes. In French Islands such as Haiti and Martinique , the Code Noir was enacted and published. The entire concept of an African Cosmology was denigrated and demonized . In hindsight it’s surprising that as Africans we have invested into this concept and sociology.

The African religions manifested in the diaspora with their roots directly here in Africa are one and the same! An examination of the Gods, dieties, and modes of worship underscore this. Depending on where Africans found themselves the name of the religion changed. In the French territories the African religion was referred to as Vodun, in the Spanish it was Santeria and in the Portuguese it was Candomble. An examination of the content of these religions reveals that Padrinos or Orisha’s or Saints whether it was: Sango, Ogun, Yemoja were always constantly present.

These African religions simply took Catholicism, which was handed to them in their captivity and Africanized its saints and structures. So as you walk through the streets and neighborhoods in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in East Harlem NYC, in Havana Cuba, in Bahia Brazil, in San Juan Puerto Rico, Port of prince Haiti you see a constant African presence in the houses of worship.

It is no secret that Touissant’s victory against the French in Haiti was as a result of the revolutionaries becoming adherents of Vodun, and using it as a means of resistance against oppression. Recently it has been confirmed that in Castro’s revolution against Batista in Cuba, the revolutionaries worshipped as Santeros to maintain the secrecy of their plot. Upon the success of Castro’s revolution, the image of a white dove landing on his shoulder as he gave his first public address confirmed to the Cuban public that he had been anointed by Osun to lead the Cuban people.

The major columns of African religions—drumming and trance were carried by the Africans everywhere they were to be found. The belief of drumming hard and dancing to allow the spirits to come down was an African universal constant. You find it in Vodun, in Santeria, in Candomble and even in the Black Baptist Churches where its called “Gettin’ the holy Ghost!”

African people wherever they have faced domination and oppression have found strength in their Africanity, which has informed their resistance and strengthened their resolve to maintain their identity and cosmology. Even when their new environments lack continuous access to Africa, or have stymied their knowledge and access to adequate information.

A good example is the town of Oyotunji in Sheldon, Beaufort county, South Carolina which covers 27 miles and has over 250 inhabitants. Founded in 1970, this town’s inhabitants live daily on what they perceive as Yoruba culture and value systems.

The Maroons in Jamaica resisted and fled into the mountains until they were captured and deported to Nova Scotia, Canada. And we can attest to how Africanized Nova Scotia is today.

The Niyabinghi Order in Jamaica, originally an East African possession cult located in the areas of south Uganda and north Rwanda . Early missionaries and anthropologists named the Uganda/Rwanda clans, the Niyabinghi Cult, because their culture was based on the veneration of the goddess spirit, Niyabinghi . The Niyabinghi Cult is said to have thrived due to the possession of the goddess Niyabinghi through dance and religious séances.

Similar of cause is the Dugu Order of the Garifuna people in Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua.

It was this very African spiritual experience that was foreign to Westerners and thereby condemned as a Satanic practice, with Africans convinced on the continent to abandon those ways of their ancestors which has resulted in what can best be described as a lack of cultural esteem.

Africans both on the continent and its diaspora were convinced to perceive the ways of their own ancestors as savage, uneducated, couth, and completely with no basis in logic or rationality. The bad news and conclusion is that Africans bought it—hook, line and sinker! Carter G. Woodson in his legendary book, “Miseducation of the Negro” concludes that the most pernicious form of enslavement is the enslavement of the mind. The moment you have enslaved a man’s mind, you no longer need to keep him in physical chains. Now if you tell him he can no longer use that door but must enter and exit through a window—even if the door remains wide open—you are guaranteed that he’ll never use the door—even in your absence.

On the African continent we describe ourselves as being from “Tribes”. We have adopted the English language without questioning its racist and pejorative terms as it refers to us. They used it in describing us and now we inherit it without question.

We boldly proclaim, I am from Escravos, Forcados or even Lagos.

What does Escravos mean? It’s the Portuguese word for “Slave”. And in 2013 we have a town in Delta State Nigeria, names “Escravos”?

What does Forcados mean? Its Portuguese for “Pitch-fork”. What images readily come to mind when we mention Pitch-forks?

What is the origin of the name Lagos? The Portuguese explorer Ruy de Sequeira who visited the area in 1472, named the area around the city Lago de Curamo; Portuguese for “lakes”. Sequeira was from Lagos, Portugal – a maritime town which at the time was the main center of the Portuguese expeditions down the African coast and whose own name is derived from the Celtic word Lacobriga.

What is the etymology of the Yoruba words Onigbagbo or Imole? Why did our Yoruba ancestors describe these foreign religions and adherents in this unflattering manner?

For over 600 years, the records of what or who is an African has been assaulted and fabricated for an agenda, which has been of tremendous economic benefit to the Non- African. These can be found in pages of academic research and texts authored by Western luminaries ranging from Arnold Toynbees in his published volumes– “A History of the World”, in which he concludes that the only race of people never contributing to Human civilization are the Africans.

In Psychology where renowned Swiss-man Carl Gustav Jung conclusively writes that Africans are best served and suited to be enslaved and colonized.

T.J. Hutchinson commissioned by his Queen to travel to Africa. His logs at the British Library and Kew Gardens in London reveal falsely that Africans have to constantly rub their lips with salt to keep them from puterfaction.

Craniologists at Harvard University: Drs’ Morton and Aggasiz who ordered and were supplied with thousands of freshly slaughtered African skulls to study the reasons for African inferiority. The results are published in Crania Americana 1889 commissioned by the United States Congress.

The field of Medicine, physician Samuel Cartwright published “The Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro” used in Medical Schools around the world from 1854 till 1923 in which Africans were diagnosed with imaginary psychiatric diseases such as Dysthaesae Ethiopia when they disagreed with a white person or refused to follow orders given by a white. Thus, several enslaved Africans who willfully destroyed farming tools or burnt down the sugar cane or cotton fields or attempted to escape from slavery were diagnosed with Dysthaseae Ethiopia. Recommended treatment for which was 4 days of starvation, to be fed a diet of water and insects, while the entire body greased twice daily and 48 lashes of the whip applied to the oiled skin. Several other such diagnosis can be found in DeBow’s review which was the Agricultural Farmers almanac published in the Southern United States.

Examine for a minute Darwins “Evolution of the Species” which was quickly and readily misapplied for the purpose of social-engineering which as we now know gave rise to the culture of human Diorama’s.

It is essential to understand that the justification of colonies in Africa came through exhibitions, dioramas and this “colonial theatre”. There was ownership and agreement: Great Britain had India; France had Algeria, Indochina and West Africa; The Netherlands had the Dutch East Indies and later Belgium had Congo , Germany had Togo and Cameroon, Italy had Ethiopia and Portugal had Angola.

The desire to juxtapose the races in real life dates back to early 19th century. The exhibition in London and Paris of “Hottentot Venus ” whose body was an object of science and show business 1810 – 1815. Sara Baartman.

The images of these African men, women and children, totally exposed, in semi nudity, totally humiliated were displayed on post cards, posters, wall and ceiling paintings, and souvernirs. We see in these diorama’a African families behind fences or placed in what is perceived as their natural habitat with smiling happy European spectators watching as they enjoy a family outing.

In its interaction with Africans and their culture, the West re-invented an African culture that was mysterious even to the African, and through spectacle, theatricality and consequently cinema, these images and notion of the African as savage has been seared in the sub conscious of generations in western society.

Pascal Blanchard aptly describes the lasting and significant impact of culture of diorama’s : “ it stands at the intersection of colonial history, the history of science, the history of the world of entertainment and the grandiose worlds fairs that shaped international relations for over a century (1851 – 1958).

In fine, with the diorama’s billed at displaying Africans and their culture, western audiences paid admission prices assured that they came to see monsters and exotics. They came to see Species and beings that were different and inferior.

Western diorama agents went out to recruit, purchase and kidnap new objects, but sadly some were issued contracts. This phenomenon was so huge and wildly successful, it paralleled the Colonial conquests in Africa. The venture went very quickly from a few individuals held in captivity and exhibited as animals to entire families and troupes put on display.

Records from the Musee Branlee in Paris indicate that in all, nearly one billion four hundred million visitors patronized the zoo’s. circuses, theatres and fair grounds where Africans were exhibited around Europe.

It is critical to understand that this was the initial foray and advent into Mass popular culture, very well before sports, music or cinema.

So please imagine that for centuries—centuries, in the early days of the founding of Universities in Europe and the USA, the basic foundation of scholarship in every major discipline rested on the theory of the inferiority of Africans. In page after page, volume after volume, library after library—this was a constant!

Now lets fast forward to our contemporary times—2013 at a place called Lagos, and a space which is called Freedom Park where we are all here gathered. Let me turn the question around and back to you.

What CONSTRUCTIVE thing can or should African film makers and documentarians do to make meaningful and lasting contributions to this global struggle for African identity.

What should the mandate be to define the African humanity, and at the same time provide the much needed information to bridge the gulf which spans centuries between the continent of Africa and its diaspora?

In a twisted irony, it is evident that it is Africans in the diaspora who have maintained a stronger and vibrant hold to Africaness—moreso than Africans on the continent.

On our part, the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (AWDFF) has as its objective the promotion of knowledge and culture of the people of Africa, in a Pan-African context. Through the art of documentary filmmaking, the AWDFF is committed to the promotion of knowledge, life and culture, of the people of Africa worldwide.

Thankfully, IREP has initiated a movement and tradition, lets pick up the challenge and with this very accessible medium of documentary films—tell our own stories!






Femi Okiremuette Shaka

(Professor of Film Studies)

Film & TV Studies Programme

Department of Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt

Choba – Port Harcourt, Rivers State

Cell Phone: 234-806-442-1567 or 234-805-4435

Email: femishaka@yahoo.com or femi.shaka@uniport.edu.ng


DSC_0517_0105I was asked by the organizers of I-Rep documentary film festival to speak on the topic: “Documentary Film and African Spirituality and Politics,” but I have taken liberty to slightly alter the topic to read, “Documentary Film and the Projection of African Cultural Identity,” with the hope that I shall cover everything encapsulated in the initial topic given to me.

As a people, Africans have been engaging in social documentation since time immemorial. The form of social documentation has, of course, been oral. This was how our value systems have been passed from one generation to the next. Social documentation was not a subject matter handled by everybody. Only those who have been taught the art of oratory or who have inherited it by virtue of being born into a lineage of master orators, storytellers, or griots, engage in proper and systematic social documentation. Such persons were endowed with the gift of the garb. They were by calling and training the traditional historians, healers, geographers, astrologers, storytellers, thinkers and priests of the people. They documented through specialized oral mnemonic devices, stories related to the origin of the race; its religious beliefs; and its political, social and cultural values. These were then passed on orally from generation to generation. It is important that we should acknowledge what we had, what worked for us for centuries, before colonial conquest changed our outlook as a people forever.

Documentary film is a form of social documentation, a modern artistic form of social documentation which we acquired by virtue of colonial conquest. This paper is divided principally into five sections. In the first section, I will examine the origin of the term “documentary”. This will be followed, in a selective manner, the history of the documentary format, the type of documentary practice bequeathed us by the British colonizers and how the format can be used to propagate African cultural identity in a globalized world, followed by my recommendations and conclusion.

On the Origin of the Term Documentary Film

The term “documentary” has as its root word, “document, which comes from the Latin, docere,” which means, to teach (Ellis and McLane, 2006, p.3). What this means is that the value of documentary lies in teaching. But the term documentary film as we use it today owe its origin to the Scottish filmmaker, John Grierson, who first used the term in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film, Moana, for The New York Sun in February 8, 1926. Grierson had submitted http://www.mindanews.com/buy-levaquin/ that “Of course, Moana being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value” (as cited in Ellis and McLane, p.3). According to Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane, when Grierson wrote that Moana, had “documentary value,” he was most probably thinking of the modern meaning of document – which is a record that is tactual and authentic. Ellis and McLane also submit that Grierson could also have been thinking of the French usage of documentaire to distinguish serious travelogues from other types of films, including mere scenic views. Later in life, Grierson would change his use of the term documentary to its original meaning of teaching and propagating through the creative treatment of actuality (Ellis and McLane, pp.3-4).

The film, Moana, was an ethnographic record of life in Somoa in the 1920s as Robert Flaherty saw it and recorded it. In his review of the film, Grierson reportedly remarked: “That’s all very well, but why couldn’t we bring that kind of filmmaking back to the mines and factories, the society and institutions, the problems and shortcomings of modern-day industrialized, urbanized life in Britain” (as cited in Ellis and McLane, p. ix). It is in this respect that John Grierson started “the main line of documentary tradition known today as social documentary,” with the main exceptions being nature, scientific, ethnographic films, educational films and other types of nonfiction form (Ellis and McLane, p. ix). According to Ellis and McLane, the documentary format originated in the 1920s in North America, the Soviet Union, France, Germany and Holland. The productions in these countries inspired the work of John Grierson, who at the end of the 1920s into the 1930s, then set the standards for social documentation for which British documentary has become world famous (Ellis and McLane, p. ix).

One of the key authorities on the documentary format, Bill Nichols, has defined documentary as follow:

Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes this story into a way of seeing the historical world directly rather than into a fictional allegory (Nichols, 2010, p.14).

He also makes a key distinction between the reproduction of reality and the representation of reality. He argues persuasively that both are not the same:

But documentary is not a reproduction of reality, it is a representation of the world we already occupy. Such films are not documents as much as expressive representations that may be based on documents. Documentary films stand for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the factual aspects of this world are familiar to us. We judge a reproduction by its fidelity to the original – its capacity to reproduce visible features of the original precisely and to serve purposes that require precise reproduction as in police mug shots, passport photos, or medical x-rays (original emphasis) (p.13).

A documentary film usually persuades us to take a stand on a topical issue or to advocate a particular world-view favoured by the filmmaker. In this respect, the success of the work is to be measured in accordance to changes we perceive in our original viewpoint prior to seeing the film which dealt with the subject matter. In the end, we may feel persuaded by the position taken by the filmmaker or feel better educated on the issue as a result of the film.

Documentary Film through History and Classification

The origin of documentary films can be extended to the very birth of the medium. In this respect, works by Louis and Auguste Lumiere such as The Arrival of a Train at the Station, Feeding the Baby, Workers Leaving the Factory, all of which were produced in the 1895s, or the work of George Melies such as Place de L’opera (1896) or Boulevard des Italiens (1896); or travelogues such as Moscow Clad in Snow (Pathe Freres, 1909); or With Scott in the Antarctic (Herbert Ponting, 1913); or In the Land of the Head-Hunters (Edward S. Curtis, 1914), can be considered documentaries (see Ellis and McLane, pp.6-7).

In some respect also, the newsreel tradition could be said to have started with the film, Excursion of the French Photographic Society to Neuville (Louis Lumiere, 1895). Other works in this category included a film on the crowning of the Czar, Coronation of Nicholas II (1896), the burial rites of the British queen, The Funeral of Queen Victoria (1901) and films dealing with warfare such as, The Assassination of a British Sentry (1900), Attack on a China Mission (1900), Attack on a Japanese Convoy (1904), amongst others. The newsreel in a weekly format was reportedly started by Charles Pathe of France in 1910 (Ellis and McLane, p.7). The anthropological tradition in the documentary format was launched by the father of documentary, Robert Flaherty, in his film, Nanook of the North (1922), followed by Moana (1926), and Man of Aran (1934).

After the successful prosecution of the Soviet Revolution in 1917, the Soviets started using film as a tool of propaganda in furtherance of the broad aims of the revolution, through the establishment of a film division within the Department of Education. Three types of Soviet documentaries emerged in the 1920s: the newsreel-indoctrinational series, the compilation film which dealt with the recent of the Russian Empire, and Soviet epics celebrating contemporary Soviet achievements.

The newsreel-indoctrinational genre was pioneered by Denis Arkadievich Kaufman who adopted the screen name Dziga Vertov. In 1922, the year of the release of Nanook of the North, Vertov began the production of the “Kino-Pravda” series of short films which were essentially indoctrinational newsreels. According to Ellis and McLane, Kino Pravda means film truth (Ellis and McLane, p.30). Pravda was of course the name of the Soviet daily newspaper, which was the main media organ of the Communist Party. In this respect, in the “Kino-Pravda,” the newsreel and the propaganda traditions were effectively fused. They took the form of reportage intended to inform and indoctrinate Soviet audiences regarding the necessity, progress and values of the Soviet Revolution. The climax of the Kino Pravda, was Dziga Vertov’s production of The Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

The compilation tradition was pioneered by Esfir (Esther) Shub, who started her career as Film Editor to Dziga Vertov and Sergein Eisenstein. In her work, she drew inspiration from both filmmakers even though she considered herself a pupil of Vertov. In 1922, she drew inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s full-blown use of montage in Battleship Potemkin (1925), to begin her work on the compilation films which included, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), The Great Road (1927) and The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928). The other great soviet documentarist was Victor Turin, who specialized in epic documentaries. A typical example of this genre is Turksib (1929) which documented the building of the Turkestan-Siberian railway.

The European avant-garde documentary tradition was also a major development in the 1920s. According to Ellis and McLane, the filmic precursor of the avant-garde tradition was George Meliess A Trip to the Moon (1902); in painting, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), offered an abstract stroboscopic view; Pablo Picasso’s The Violin (1913) provided the cubist dimension and in Literature, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1919-1925), is a typical example. The first of the avant-garde films towed the lines of abstraction and nonobjectivity. The tradition was started by two painter friends living and working in Berlin: Viking Eggeling, a Swede, and Hans Richter, a German. Their preoccupation with picture scrolls led them to moving pictures, beginning with Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921) and Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (1925). Other films in this category included Joris Iven’s The Bridge (1928), Walter Ruttman directed one of the early “city symphonies,” Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les Leures (Only the Honis, 1926), Joris Iven’s Rain (1929), which was about Amsterdam, or Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930), a satirical study of the famous French holiday resort town, Nice, or Arne Sucksdorff’s Symphony of a City (1947), which dealt with Stockholm; or John Eldridge’s Waverly Steps (1948), which was about Edinburgh (Ellis and McLane, pp. 44-55).

The next genre of documentary I should like to mention is the social documentary tradition created by John Grierson. Grierson was a World War I veteran who studied at the Universities of Glasgow and Chicago. He entered filmmaking from a social sciences background, with a strong belief that film should be used for the education of the masses, especially the British masses. When John Grierson returned to England in 1927, he teamed up with Stephen Tallents, the Secretary of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), on how to use film to promote economic ties between Britain and its commonwealth of nations. Stephen Tallents was persuaded by Grierson that the motion picture is a valueable tool for governmental public relations. But in actual fact, Grierson’s primal commitment was to how film can be used to mobilize and educate the masses rather than to promote and burnish government image.

Initially, John Grierson was appointed by Stephen Tallents in an unofficial advisory capacity. In this position, he was able to carry out research on the use of film by governments around the world. He equally set up film screening sessions for the personnel of the EMB to highlight the potentials of film as a medium for social, political and cultural development. Following these screening sessions, Grierson was able to recruit Tallents in the drive to persuade the Department of the Treasury into funding the production of a film by the Empire Marketing Board. Grierson’s opportunistic style of fundraising for film production is highly recommended for socially committed filmmakers. The result of his persuasion of the Treasury was that funds were provided for the production of Drifters (1929), the only documentary that John Grierson wrote, produced, directed and edited. The film dealt with herring fishing in the North Sea. Rather than tow the path of an iconoclastic individualist artist, Grierson’s desire to mentor generations of documentarists took the better part of him. He close a collectivist approach to filmmaking by creating a workshop for the teaching of documentary film. It is in this respect that he helped in establishing the world renowned British documentary movement.

In 1930, the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit was established with Grierson as its head. During the four years of its existence, the EMB’s Film Unit produced over one hundred documentaries. As head of the EMB Film Unit, Grierson reputedly engaged dozens of young upper middle class well-educated (many of them attended Cambridge University) and socially committed aspiring filmmakers who bought into Grierson’s dream of using film to educate the masses. His liberal humanist views were essentially geared towards making the state and society function better through civic education facilitated by the cinema. According to Ellis and McLane, Grierson thought that

Collective effort, cooperation, and understanding could lead to a better world – not only better food and better housing, better teeth and better schools, but a better spirit – a sense of being part of a valuable society with space still left for individual satisfaction and eccentricities (p.61).

Among those who trained in the documentary workshop of the EMB were Basil Wright, Paul Rotha, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey and Stuart Legg. They were joined later by Harry Watt, Humphrey Jenning and Alberto Cavalcanti, who was a coproducer and coteacher with John Grierson. Even though they were paid very little amount of money, they were all caught in the excitement of helping to create a socially relevant and committed art. Besides this, they were equally fiercely loyal to John Grierson.

What happened to Grierson’s documentaries was symptomatic of what also happened to government funded documentary film production in colonial Nigeria. I shall return to this issue shortly. Suffice to note that Grierson was not only committed to socially relevant documentary filmmaking, he was equally committed to creating avenues for the distribution and exhibition of the works produced by the film collective of the EMB. Grierson faced a lot of challenges. The film industry resisted government involvement in filmmaking; also, distributors and exhibitors said the public was not interested in documentary films. To solve these problems, Grierson had to resort to a method of nontheatrical distribution and exhibition. Film screening sessions were scheduled for exhibition in government-owned agencies. While the Imperial Institute, London, was used as a venue for film exhibition, the Empire Film Library was used for the free loan of 16mm prints of film through the mailing system. Later, the General Post Office included travelling projection vans to take films to the countryside. Grierson also persuaded the film critics of the major newspapers to highlight the work of the British documentary film movement. He and his colleagues were equally regularly on the lecture circuit to promote their work. Ellis and McLane have submitted that Grierson and his team were instrumental to the founding of journals such as Cinema Quarterly, World Film News and Documentary Newsletter (pp.57-62).

As a result of the 1930s great Depression, the work of the Empire Marketing Board was terminated on grounds of the economic situation. When the Board folded up, Stephen Tallents moved to the General Post Office as its first public relations officer, but he was able to negotiate the movement of the EMB Film Unit and the Empire Film Library to the GPO. The GPO was a much more larger and richer government agency housing the postal mail, the telephone and wireless broadcasting, a savings bank, among other government services. The first set of films produced under the GPO included, Six-Thirty Collection (1934) and Night Mail (1936). After fulfilling its obligations to its new sponsor, the GPO Film Unit then embarked on other productions that fit the general bill of the documentary film movement. They included Song of Ceylon (1934) and Coal Face (1935). The GPO Film Unit also reputedly produced over one hundred films (Ellis and McLane, p.62).

John Grierson also carried the campaign for the sponsorship of the work of the documentary movement to the private sector. In this respect, he was able to persuade Shell International on the potential uses of the documentary film. This resulted in the establishment of the Shell Film Unit, which became highly regard for its films on scientific and technological issues. Grierson’s protégée, Edgar Anstey became the first head of the Shell Film Unit. He was succeeded by Arthur Elton who continued the tradition of producing high quality scientific documentaries.

Grierson also recruited the gas industry into sponsoring the production of documentaries such as, Housing Problems (1935) and Enough to Eat? (1936). Most of these documentaries were directed by members of the film collective. For example, Housing Problem was directed by Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, John Taylor and Ruby Grierson, the youngest sister of John Grierson. Other films produced to solve perceived social problems included, The Smoke Menace (1937), which dealt with air pollution and Children at School (1937), which examined the shortcomings of the public school system.

In 1937, Grierson resigned from the GPO Film Unit to establish a central coordinating and advisory agency to link those interested in setting up film units in their companies with members of the British documentary film movement. The services of the Film Centre included overseeing the promotion of documentaries, and planning production and distribution of such films. The Film Centre which Grierson founded in 1938, had Arthur Elton and Stuart Legg as his assistants. Undoubtedly, anybody who is an avid patron of documentary channels such as HBO, the History Channel and the Discovery Channel can attest to the fact that British documentarists dominate many of these channels. Besides, one of Grierson’s protégée, Paul Rotha, became a world renowned scholar in the documentary format, with many books on the subject matter to his credit.

The Colonial Heritage of the Documentary Format in Nigeria

Right from the beginning of the colonial encounter, Nigeria was brought under the influence of the British documentary movement in the formative period of the movement. The sudden outbreak of a plague in Lagos in 1929 prepared the grounds for the intervention of the documentary movement through the activities of a British colonial official who was inspired by the work of the movement. In attempt to explain the real cause of the plague, William Sellers, then the Chief Health Officer of the Department of Health, used the documentary film to educate the people of Lagos on the vectors responsible for the plague. Before his scientific intervention, rumours were rife in the city that migrants from the hinterland brought the plague (Shaka, 2003, p.53). The British Central Office of Information (COI) Bulletin No. R3161, October, 1955, gave the following account of how the documentary film was employed to educate the people of Lagos on the real cause of the plague:

In the late 1920s lantern slides were being used to illustrate lectures on health in Nigeria, and it was in this territory, to combat an outbreak of a plague in Lagos in 1929, that film was employed for the first time in any colonial territory as medium of information and education. In the campaign, the film was used to illustrate to Africans the way in which rats carry the disease and to enlist the co-operation of Africans in killing the plague-bearing rats. The success of the campaign was such that from that time the film was increasingly used in West Africa (as cited in Shaka, 2004, p.157).

From the foregoning, it is clear that Nigeria was in the forefront with respect to the use of film as a medium for educating the masses. Colonial Nigeria equally pioneered the tradition of using free Mobile Film Units as a strategy for reaching people in the countryside who would never have had the opportunity of experiencing this modern medium of storytelling. Historically speaking, Mobile Film Units (MFUs) were first designed and used in Nigeria before the expertise was exported to the rest of the world through the activities in the British Commonwealth. The British Central Office of Information Bulletin No. 3161, October, 1955, also confirms the Nigerian origin of the Mobile Film Units:

the first mobile cinemas – usually in improvised vans – were in use as long ago as 1929. It was in 1931 that the specially designed mobile cinema van was evolved in Nigeria, and since then the design has been steadily improved. Modern vehicles carry their own power-supply, are fitted for the projection of 16mm films, silent or sound, and include film strip projectors, public address equipment and radio. The mobile cinema van is a many purpose vehicle, for according to the composition of its crew and programme, it becomes a mobile health centre, a veterinary centre, or a school for literacy or agricultural improvement campaign (as cited in Shaka, 2004, p.168).

Once the popularity of this form of free cinema was established, itinerant salesmen began to exploit the system by setting up their own MFUs to promote the sale of their merchandise. The salesmen’s film exhibitions were often much more popular than those of the government owned MFUs because they often showed mostly Hollywood movies to promote the sale of their goods. This was how the film viewing culture permeated the Nigerian society.

What I have been doing so far is to demonstrate the fact that the documentary film can be used for the propagation of virtually any idea, so far as the idea concerns persuading the populace to adopt a particular outlook in life. If the colonial masters used it so successfully, there is no reason why we cannot. For instance, in 1927, Han Vischer, the Secretary to the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies (ACEC) recommended to the Colonial Office Conference on Education in the Colonies, that the cinema should be used to spread general knowledge about health and economic development in the colonies. In this regard, in 1929, Julian Huxley went to East Africa for ACEC to test African reaction to educational cinema. He concluded after observing the reactions to the pilot programme that the cinema could be used for the education of adults and for propaganda means. It was not surprising therefore that the British colonial government’s Ministry of Information (MOI) established the Colonial Film Unit in 1939, in the heat of the Second World War, to make and distribute war propaganda films in the colonies in aid of the British war efforts. It should not surprise us also that William Sellers who pioneered the use of film for educational purposes in Nigeria was appointed as Producer of CFU while George Pearson became the artistic director of the Unit (Shaka, 2004, pp.156-168).

After the pilot programme which Julian Huxley carried out on behalf of ACEC in 1929, the Colonial Office agreed in principle that the cinematic medium was an invaluable tool for adult education and social development, yet it would not commit itself financially to the implementation of ACEC’s findings. In fact, according to Rosaleen Smyth, this lack of financial commitment by the Colonial Office towards the development of the colonies was the subject of several reports that were very critical of British colonial administration, which appeared just before the outbreak of the war. The consensus was that the British colonial government needed to spend more money on the development of the colonies, hence the enactment of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940 (as cited in Shaka, 2004, pp.158-159).

By 1944, the total number of films carrying the CFU’s label was 115, even though not all of them were actually produced by the CFU. The war propaganda films produced by the CFU can be classified into three categories: war information films, exhortation and goodwill films, and the projection-of-England films. Most of the war information films carried titles like, This is an Anti-Aircraft Gun (Pearson, 1941), or This is a Barrage Ballon (Pearson, 1941); or they were films highlighting Africans fighting in the war such as, Pilot-Officer Peter Thomas, RAF (Pearson, 1943), which was about a Nigerian, Peter Thomas, who was the first African to qualify as a commissioned combatant officer in the Royal Airforce. Others such as Food from Oil Nuts (Pearson, 1944) and We Want Rubber (Pearson, 1944), exhorted Africans to produce more rubbers to help overcome the critical shortage of the commodity after the fall of Malaysia to the Japanese. Films such as Comfort from Uganda (Pearson, 1942) and Katsina Tanks (Pearson, 1943), were goodwill films made to show British appreciation for contributions made by the colonies towards the war efforts. The projection-of-England films had such titles like, Mr. English at Home (Gordon Hales, 1940) and A British Family in Peace and War (Pearson, 1944) (Shaka, 2004, pp.166-167).

Towards the end of the war, as the agitations for independence grew louder in Africa, British colonial film policy was directed towards ensuring that the colonies stayed within the British Commonwealth. The main objective was to persuade Africans that Western democracy had more to offer them than communism. Also, in keeping with its post-war plans of placing emphasis on the production of educational documentaries, the Colonial Office instructed the CFU to develop film production infrastructures in the colonies for the production of educational films. At the end of the Second World War, most of the CFU films were directed by Lionel Snazelle. They included, Toward True Democracy (Snazelle, 1947), Good Business (Snazelle, 1947), which dealt with cocoa marketing in Nigeria, Village Development (Snazelle, 1948), Better Homes (Snazelle, 1948), Mix Farming (Snazelle, 1948), and Animal Manure (Rollo Gamble, 1950). As the titles indicate, most of the films were geared toward teaching Africans the importance of multi-party democracy, village planning and development and modern methods of farming (Shaka, 2004, p.167).

To demonstrate his sincere concern for the state of development in the colonies, John Grierson, in his crusade for the production of educational films wrote a report for UNESCO in 1949, on the need to set up institutions for the training of filmmakers in Africa. According to Manthia Diawara, this report was instrumental in motivating the CFU to establish the Film Training School in Accra, Gold Coast (Ghana). The Accra Film Training School provided Anglophone West Africans rudimentary training in film production for a period of six months, after which it was closed down and relocated to Kingston, Jamaica, where the CFU provided film training for its colonies in the Caribbean Island for another six months, after which it was closed down and relocated to London where its name was changed to Overseas Film and Television Centre. The Centre was instructed to coordinate the autonomous CFUs in the colonies as well as serve as a Centre for post-production of films, renting of film production equipment and providing training for film and television crews from the British Commonwealth of nations. The strategy was to perpetually make the people of the newly independent countries to be dependent on the British metropole (see Diawara, 1992, p.3; Shaka, 2004, p.167).

As the CFU was transforming itself into the Overseas Film and Television Centre, the GPO Film Unit founded by Stephen Tallents and John Grierson also transformed itself into the Crown Film Unit, intended to provide serves to all the Departments of the British government. It was in this new capacity, possibly in an attempt to ameliorate stringent criticism regarding the apathy of British colonial administration toward the development of the colonies, that the Crown Film Unit sponsored the Oscar Award winning documentary, Daybreak in Udi (Terry Bishop, 1949). This was a prototypical Griersonian documentary dealing with the subject matter of self-help development projects embark upon by the people of Umama village in Old Udi Division, near Enugu, with the support of the local District Officer (DO) E.R. Chadwick. The film deals with adult literacy classes and the building of a Maternity home in the community (Shaka, 2004, pp.170-212).

The first generation filmmakers such as J.A. Otigba, Adamu Halilu, Malam Yakubu Aina and A.A. Fajemisin, were colonial government trained filmmakers who were taught at the Accra, Gold Coast (Ghana) Film Training School. Upon completing their training, they were posted the Nigerian Unit of the CFU which was established in 1946 but had its name changed to the Federal Film Unit in 1947 through an act of parliament. Between 1947 and 1960, the pioneer filmmakers worked under the supervision of N.F. Spur, the Film Officer of the FFU, in the production of the following documentaries: Empire Day Celebrations in Nigeria (1948), Small Pox (1950), Leprosy (1950), Port Harcourt Municipal Council Elections (1950), and Queen Elizabeth II Visit to Nigeria (1956) (Shaka, 2004, 282).

Documentary Film Format and the Projection of African Cultural Identity

The concept of “Africanness” lies at the centre of the pan-Africanist project and the construction of an African identity. It was the issue that preoccupied the mind of the pioneer pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere. The concept of “Africanness” as I see it, is a social secular construct used by the people of the African continent in defining their identity in terms of their belief-systems, their socio-political organizations or institutions, their cultural values, their perception of issues related to race, class, gender, and ethnicity. These issues define us a people. The issue of personal identity is an issue borne out of personal conviction, arising from one’s knowledge of one’s background. People generally construct identities for themselves, and then use such identities in defining themselves. It is in this respect that Ali Mazrui poses the question of who an “African” is:

But what is an “African”? There are two main types – those who are “African” in a continental sense (like Egyptians and Algerians) and those who are “African” in a racial sense (like Nigerians, Ugandans and Senegalese). Egyptians and Algerians are Africa’s children of the soil. sub-Saharan Blacks are Africa’s children of the blood. In reality all those who are natives of Africa are children of the soil (called wana-nchi in Swahili language). But sub-Saharan Blacks are in addition Africa’s children by racial blood (as cited in Shaka, 2005, p.23).

Mazrui’s notion of Africanness which is based on geographical and racial considerations is exclusionist in nature because it does not related to how we should define Asians and Europeans whose great grandparents consider themselves Africans because they migrated to the continent, raced their families here and their children grand children and even great grandchildren know no other home but Africa. This is the candid reality of many Asian and European Kenyans, Zimbabweans, Namibians, South Africans and even Nigerians. In my perception, an African chooses to be so identified either by virtue of personal migration or by birth. It is not something that is forced upon people. That is why you will meet many Europeans or Asians who will proudly tell you they are Africans while the so-called Africans by racial origin would claim to be a Caribbean or African-Americans due to inferiority complex.

To return to the question of how the documentary film can be used to propagate African cultural identity, I should to state that for the better part of this paper, I have been trying to demystify the process of achieving such a project by reviewing how the documentary film has been used by so many countries throughout the course of history to promote issues of social welfare and cultural values of their society. From the anthropological or the ethnographic documentaries, to the newsreel, to Soviet indoctrinational or propaganda documentaries, to the compilation film, avant-garde documentaries, to the social documentaries of the British documentary movement, historical evidences before us show that the documentary format can be utilized in solving any social problem militating against harmonious development of any society. The case of Africa cannot be different.

Though any aspect of our social experience can be exploited as content for documentary production, the institution of the traditional African festival is an unexploited quarry for those interested in culture-related documentaries which will help project traditional African institutions globally. Of course, urban or city contemporary social experience is a fitting subject matter for documentary production, but the urban space is something that is regularly covered by the international broadcast media. The same cannot be said of traditional African institutions which will offer a refreshingly different visual experience to global viewers.

Several aspects of the traditional African festival can provide valuable content for exploitation by the documentarist. First, the festival is a community-wide celebration that involves everybody in the community, from the lowly commoner to the aristocratic leader who may be presiding over an ancient kingdom like the Ague Festival of the Edo people which is precided over by the Oba of Benin, or it may be a small community precided over by a local chief or king. The king and his retinue of chiefs, traditional historians or chief priests provide a colourful scenario for the documentarist.

Second, since such festivals deal with myths and legends related to the origin of the celebrating community, it should provide avenues for members of such a community to be interviewed, to tell the story of how their community was founded. Third, the celebratory atmosphere of the festival which is usually punctuated by ritual ceremonies, masquerade dancers and general feasting, during which time the proverbial traditional African hospitality is put on display, should be interesting to the African Diaspora trying to spiritually reconnect with their ancestral roots. Considering the fact that Nigeria is richly blessed with thousands of traditional African festivals, documentarists shouldn’t really run short of materials for documentary production. Even better known festivals such as the Osun Oshogbo Festival, the Kano Durbar, the Ague Festival or the Arugungun Fishing Festival, which are already on the world tourism maps, are yet to be fully exploited by Nigerian documentarists. What is stopping us! Should we wait for our expatriate friends to exploit them before we begin to complain of misrepresentation of our cultural institutions?

Considering what we have been able to achieve with the Nollywood film culture, with little governmental support, it is surprising that we haven’t been able to harness our vibrant and creative artists to start a serious documentary film movement like the type that John Grierson helped to establish in the UK. Who would be Nigeria’s John Grierson? Who will champion the cause of the promotion of a socially committed and relevant documentary practice in Nigeria, in an age of crass materialism when we celebrate the tradition of kleptocracy and canonize bare-faced thieves fitting for the gallows! Who will do this thankless, financially challenging job for us?

Outside of the tradition of the problem-solving genre of social documentation, there is equally a lot of potentials in the antobiographical documentary, nature-related documentaries, scientific documentaries, and the use of the documentary format in the teaching of school curricular subjects or for specialized professional trade-related instructions. The field is wide open for the creative artist to exploit. All that is required is a dogged spirit to use the documentary format to tackle whatever issue one considers vital at any historical period within our society. There are now high quality miniaturized digital cameras in the electronic market to meet the need of a small crew working on whatever line of documentary. What is perhaps currently lacking is a proper mentorship scheme by experienced documentarists like Femi Odugbemi and others like him who are committed to working in the format, and who may be prepared to take many unemployed youths off the streets and teach them the trade of documentary practice as a means of turning them into responsible and productive citizens.

The owners of the broadcast media also have a role to play in turning the documentary format into the next frontier waiting to be conquered the way we have conquered the turf of commercial film production through the Nollywood film culture. The broadcast media, both radio and television, need to create an alternative market for documentary productions. Luckily, our country’s airspace has been democratized and there are now many television and radio stations which should be hungry to be fed with creatively well-packaged documentaries. This is time for work; this is time to start a line of civic advocacy in the field of documentary production. We hope both Nollywood and non-Nollywood practitioners would give a strong thought to this sector of our national economy.


I have been arguing thus far that the documentary format can be exploited to project a virile African cultural identity to the rest of the world in the same manner that we are currently doing so through the Nollywood film culture. I have undertaken a historiographic excursion into how other countries around the world have harnessed the potentials of the documentary film to advance the social welfare of people of their society. I have equally suggested typical African institutions which have the potentials to provide content for the production of documentaries, to propagate our cultural values in the global market place. What remains for us is to match rhetoric with action so that we can turn the fortunes of the documentary format around in our country.


Diawara, M. (1992). African cinema: Politics and culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Ellis, J.C. and McLane, B.A. (2006). A new history of documentary film. New York: Continuum.

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. (2nd Edition) Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Shaka, F.O. (2004). Modernity and the African cinema: A study in colonialist discourse and modern African identities. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

_____ (2003). History, genres and Nigeria’s emergent video film industry. Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. Vol. 5. No. 2 (Summer): 51-64.