Sensational Movies: Book Review

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

By John Durham Peters and Gavin Feller (University of Iowa)

One of the most exciting things about the anthropology of Christianity is the way it uses the minutiae of practices in out of the way cultures to cast light on ancient and deep philosophical and religious questions. To think about will and personhood, one can turn equally to St. Augustine and to Joel Robbins’ Urapmin. To think about translation and denominational schism, one can turn equally to Martin Luther and to Courtney Handman’s Guhu-Samane Christians. (Like the Urapmin, they live in New Guinea.) The anthropology of Christianity likes to coax theologizing from its armchair and show it at work in the wild, in the field, in vernacular forms.

Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies is a worthy contribution in this project. Amassing and integrating over two decades of her research, the book shows, as we will see, how richly the film culture of south Ghana treats the theological problem of necessary but productive evil and the theoretical problem of the ontology of the photographic or cinematic image. The producers, actors, and audiences she has worked with over the years may not be trained religious thinkers or media theorists, but their constant meditations about the occult, about the nature of acting, the power of the image, and the willing suspension of disbelief show them to have rich ideas about how media can form entities in this world and the world beyond. The resulting book is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary sweet spot where religion, media, and cultural anthropology converge. Continue reading

New Resource: Documentary Film List

For scholars of global Christianity, documentary films can play a pivotal role in both teaching and research. AnthroCyBib has now added a new resource to our Teaching Archive, a curated list of films that focus on Christian communities and movements. Download the pdf and check back regularly for updated versions. This resource will expand as we learn of existing films and new films are released, so we encourage site readers to send film titles not yet included to the curators.

Liahona: Film review

Sanders, Talena. 2013. Liahona. Watertown, Massachusetts: Documentary Educational Resources.

By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)

Liahona is not an ethnographic film. It is not even a documentary, or, at least, a documentary of the standard type. Consisting of images shot on scratchy 16 millimeter film using a hand camera, mixed with a wealth of found footage (much of it originally filmed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, for either missionary or apologetic purposes), and shot through with decontextualized voice-overs, it is not concerned with clear explication, or at least with granting immediate clarity. Rather, it has more of the sense of a piece of symphonic music, with images or scenes briefly introduced, which are returned to again and again in different ways as the film proceeds. Again and again, we are shown shots of the stark landscape and expansive skies of Northern Utah, both of which are presented as sublime (in the Kantian sense of the word). This landscape is repeatedly juxtaposed with vintage shots of quotidian Mormon life, as well as with views of prominent Mormon temples in the region, scenes from the Days of ’47 Parade down Salt Lake City or the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant. Some of these scenes are eventually given the necessary context to become readable as the film progresses. Other elements, such as the repeated and unexplained use of characters from the desert alphabet, a column of smoke from a scrub wildfire, or the haunting image of a feathered headdress, worn at either dawn or sunset, shrouded in shadow as it is juxtaposed against the Manti Temple, remain unexplained even at the film’s close. (Similarly, the source of the movie’s title goes unexplained for those not familiar with it). The soundtrack is equally jarring; we shunt between thundering church organs, atonal droning, and acapella renditions of iconic Mormon hymns such as “If You Could Hie to Kolob” and “Called to Serve.” Continue reading

Meyer, “Sensational Movies”

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational movies: video, vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, California : University of California Press.

Publisher’s Description: Tracing the rise and development of the Ghanaian video film industry between 1985 and 2010, Sensational Movies examines video movies as seismographic devices recording a culture and society in turmoil. This book captures the dynamic process of popular filmmaking in Ghana as a new medium for the imagination and tracks the interlacing of the medium’s technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects. Stepping into the void left by the defunct state film industry, video movies negotiate the imaginaries deployed by state cinema on the one hand and Christianity on the other.
Birgit Meyer analyzes Ghanaian video as a powerful, sensational form. Colliding with the state film industry’s representations of culture, these movies are indebted to religious notions of divination and revelation. Exploring the format of “film as revelation,” Meyer unpacks the affinity between cinematic and popular Christian modes of looking and showcases the transgressive potential haunting figurations of the occult. In this brilliant study, Meyer offers a deep, conceptually innovative analysis of the role of visual culture within the politics and aesthetics of religious world making.

Hackett and Soares (eds), “New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa”

Hackett, Rosalind I. J. and Benjamin F. Soares.  2014.  New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Publisher’s Description:New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa casts a critical look at Africa’s rapidly evolving religious media scene. Following political liberalization, media deregulation, and the proliferation of new media technologies, many African religious leaders and activists have appropriated such media to strengthen and expand their communities and gain public recognition. Media have also been used to marginalize and restrict the activities of other groups, which has sometimes led to tension, conflict, and even violence. Showing how media are rarely neutral vehicles of expression, the contributors to this multidisciplinary volume analyze the mutual imbrications of media and religion during times of rapid technological and social change in various places throughout Africa.

Table of Contents: Acknowledgments

Foreword
Francis B. Nyamnjoh

Introduction: New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa
Rosalind I. J. Hackett & Benjamin F. Soares

Part I. “Old” Media: Print and Radio
1. A History of Sauti ya Mvita (“Voice of Mombasa”): Radio, Public Culture, and Islam in Coastal Kenya, 1947-1966
James R. Brennan
2. Between Standardization and Pluralism: The Islamic Printing Market and its Social Spaces in Bamako, Mali
Francesco Zappa
3. Binary Islam: Media and Religious Movements in Nigeria
Brian Larkin
4. Muslim Community Radio Stations: Constructing and Shaping Identities in a Democratic South Africa
Muhammed Haron

Part II. New Media and Media Worlds
5. Mediating Transcendence: Popular Film, Visuality, and Religious Experience in West Africa
Johannes Merz
6. The Heart of Man: Pentecostalist Emotive Style in and beyond Kinshasa’s Media World
Katrien Pype
7. Islamic Communication and Mass Media in Cameroon
Hamadou Adama
8. “We Are on the Internet:” Contemporary Pentecostalism in Africa and the New Culture of Online Religion
J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu
9. Conveying Islam: Arab Islamic Satellite Channels as New Players
Ehab Galal
10. Religious Discourse in the New Media: A Case Study of Pentecostal Discourse Communities of SMS Users in South-western Nigeria
‘Rotimi Taiwo

Part III. Arenas of Exchange, Competition, and Conflict
11. Media Afrikania: Styles and Strategies of Representing “Afrikan Traditional Religion” in Ghana
Marleen de Witte
12. Senwele Jesu: Gospel Music and Religious Publics in Nigeria
Vicki L. Brennan
13. Managing Miracles: Ambiguities in the Regulation of Religious Broadcasting in Nigeria
Asonzeh Ukah
14. Living across Digital Landscapes: Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and an Indian Guru in Ethiopia
Samson A. Bezabeh
15. Zulu Dreamscapes: Senses, Media, and Authentication in Contemporary Neo-shamanism
David Chidester

Merz, “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin”

Merz, Johannes. 2014. “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin.” PdD diss,. 

Excerpt: In 2002, Paul Eshleman of the American Jesus Film Project claimed that their flagship known as the Jesus Film was “the most-watched, and the most-translated film in world history” (2002: 69). Seven years later, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (2009) declared Nigeria the “Christian movie capital of the world” in the influential American evangelical magazine Christianity Today. In more academic circles, New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz speculated that “it may well be the case that more people worldwide know about Jesus and his life story from the movies than from any other medium” (2007: 1), while Asonzeh Ukah commented for Nigeria: “The medium of video has become one of the preferred channels for the communication of religious truth, hope, ideas and propaganda” (2003: 226).

These different observations indicate a trend in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity towards an increasing use of films and videos. This raises the question, which I address as the overarching theme of this book, of whether we are witnessing a shift in certain forms of Christianity from a religion of the book towards a religion of film. Such a shift from text to film would have wide-ranging implications not only for Christians but also their wider socio-cultural settings, both on a local and global scale. I address the various factors that contribute to such a shift and discuss its implications for rural Benin. I propose that the best way to approach this theme is to study how contemporary Christians engage with audiovisual media. More specifically, I am interested in how people watch and experience Christian films, what they make of them and how these films become part of their lives and the world they live in. In order to grapple with such ques- tions and fully understand the results of my ethnographic research, I need to move beyond semiotics, which has been one of the foundational premises of Western science.

With Nigeria having become the world leader in the production of Christian video films, West Africa seems an ideal place to study this phenomenon. While obvious places may be cities in southern Nigeria or Ghana, such as Ibadan or Accra, I chose a less likely area for my research on Christian films, namely the rural Commune of Cobly in the northwest of the Republic of Benin. Cobly is often considered one of the remotest parts of the country and those Beninese from outside the region who have heard of it associate it with backwardness and as being steeped in tradition. State employees, such as teachers or policemen, resent being sent to work there and missionaries often consider it a difficult place to work given that its people are largely “unreached” (cf. Mayrargue 2005: 247), a current missionary euphemism for “pagans”. My knowledge of the area, on the other hand, made me realise that the Commune of Cobly would be a fascinating site for researching people’s experience of Christianity and video films. Especially during the last two decades, the younger generation have become increasingly interested in all things they consider modern, whether mobile phones, television sets, videos or Christianity, thereby participating in the trends of the wider region. Older people often stayed more sceptical towards these developments, promising an interesting mix of views and opinions in a society that is facing rapid and significant social and cultural changes.

In this book I discuss three Christian films that are all known in the Commune of Cobly and that have been used in evangelistic events and sometimes circulated on Video CD or DVD: Jesus (1979, produced by John Heyman) has been made in American evangelical circles with the goal of global evangelism; La Solution (The Solution, 1994, David Powers) was produced by American missionaries in Côte d’Ivoire; and Yatin: Lieu de souffrance (Yatin: Place of Suffering, 2002, Christine Madeleine Botokou) is a Beninese video production that has a direct link with the Nigerian Christian film industry.

I am particularly interested in how people watch and experience these films, focusing not only on their contents, but also, and maybe more importantly, on their materiality. I include what people make of television sets as material objects that are usually used to watch videos. Furthermore, it is important to discuss the history and backgrounds of the films and how they became popular in rural parts of Benin. This allows me to link my research with regional and global trends of Christianity and address my overarching question of whether Christianity is shifting its focus from Biblical texts to Christian films…

Film, “God Loves Uganda”

Williams, Roger Ross. 2013. God Loves Uganda. 83 min.

Filmaker’s Description:  The feature-length documentary God Loves Uganda is a powerful exploration of the evangelical campaign to change African culture with values imported from America’s Christian Right.

The film follows American and Ugandan religious leaders fighting “sexual immorality” and missionaries trying to convince Ugandans to follow Biblical law.

Film, “Enlarging the Kingdom”

Butticci, Annalisa and Andrew Esiebo. 2013. Enlarging the Kingdom: African Pentecostals in Italy. 35 min.

Filmmaker’s Description: Enlarging the Kingdom explores the encounter, interactions, and conflicts between Catholicism and African Pentecostalism. By putting in conversation Nigerian and Ghanaian Pastors and Catholic Priests the documentary looks at their diverse understanding of evil forces, authorized and unauthorized forms of relating to the Divine, the making of idols and icons, religious leadership and authority, women access to the pulpit and religious politics of the Italian Nation State. Enlarging the Kingdom offers a unique insight into the challenges of African Pentecostals in Italy and the role of Pentecostal Churches for African immigrant communities.