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date: 24 April 2019

West African Cinema

Summary and Keywords

Motion picture technology developed at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the formal colonization of Africa was launched at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. While it took a few decades for cinema houses to spread in West Africa, by mid-century the colonial administrations began to use film as a means for conveying colonial culture to African subjects. For the British and French colonials, film was a means to shape public opinion. Both British and French colonial administrations criminalized indigenous filmmaking for fear of the subversive potential of anti-colonial messages—film communicated in one direction only. When West African nations became independent in the late 20th century, these restrictions vanished and Africans began to make films. This process played out differently in Francophone Africa than in Anglophone countries. France cultivated African filmmakers, sponsored training, and funded film projects. Talented and determined filmmakers in Anglophone Africa also struggled to produce celluloid films, but unlike their counterparts in former French colonies, they received little support from abroad. A significant number of excellent celluloid films were produced under this system, but largely in Francophone Africa. Though many of these filmmakers have gained global recognition, most remained virtually unknown in Africa outside the elite spaces of the FESPACO film festival and limited screenings at French embassies. Though West African filmmakers have produced an impressive body of high-quality work, few Africans beyond the intellectual elite know of Africa’s most famous films. This paradox of a continent with renowned filmmakers but no local film culture began to change in the 1990s when aspiring artists in Nigeria and Ghana began to make inexpensive movies using video technology. Early works were edited on VCRs, but as digital video technology advanced, this process of informal video production quickly spread to other regions. The West African video movie industry has grown to become one of the most prominent, diverse, and dynamic expressions of a pan-African popular culture in Africa and throughout the global diaspora.

Keywords: film, cinema, video, digital media, Francophone, Anglophone, Nollywood, popular culture, FESPACI, FESPACO, pan-Africanism, negritude, third cinema

Film in West Africa during the Colonial Era

As early as 1903, a Spanish film unit traveled the coast of West Africa screening short films from a mobile cinema. Records indicate that they made it to Lagos. French documentarian Jean Rouch recounts that 1905 marked a turning point for West Africa cinema. That year the Lumiére brothers’ films, L’arrivé d’un train en gare de Ciotat and L’arroseur arosé, were screened in Dakar; and mobile cinemas began to wend though the suburbs of that city screening animated shorts.1 By the 1920s Lebanese entrepreneurs were opening cinema houses along the coast of West Africa—with a concentration in Senegal.2 The films viewed by Francophone West Africans before World War II were primarily light entertainment films made for the French public. Unlike British documentarians, French filmmakers did not produce films specifically intended for African audiences. While the French colonial administration regarded film as an effective means to introduce French cultural values and aesthetics to non-literate Africans, there was no formal program to employ film as an educational tool in Francophone Africa prior to World War II.

In the British colonies, film was cast in a more overtly pedagogical role. In 1927 Hanns Vischer, an advisor on education in the colonies, proposed deploying film in schools and other public arenas in the colonies as a means of public education. Thus, while film in the Francophone colonies became identified as entertainment and was considered a form of passive enculturation, it was deployed in the British colonies as a means of education. British colonial film policy developed through the 1930s and in 1939 was formalized as the British Colonial Film Unit (BCFU).3 The BCFU initial project involved producing films to assist the effort to enlist African colonial subjects to fight in World War II, but it quickly expanded to include films on health education and other concerns.

The spread of commercial cinema and colonial films, while significant, was limited before World War II. The most extensive deployment of film in West Africa prior to the war was accomplished by missionaries who were often the advance guard of colonial occupation. They arrived prior to colonial administrators and prepared Africans for foreign rule by linking the Christian notion of salvation to European culture and values—undermining indigenous systems of knowledge and political authority. Missionaries used slide and film projectors, described as “Magic Lanterns” to dazzle and persuade colonial subjects to yield to the power of their colonial overlords.4

If the introduction of film to West Africa was somewhat haphazard prior to World War II, colonial policies and practices became more formalized in the post-war period. In 1949, André Lemaire’s report to the Commission du cinema d’outre-mer outlined a distinct role for cinema in the French West Africa colonies as “the single most important medium for the transmission of French cultural values and identity.”5 The colonials came to regard film as a unique means to instil European values and beliefs in the hearts and minds of colonized Africans while enchanting them with the wonders of film technology. Film became a tool for indoctrination of Africans in both British and French colonies. But colonial strategies for film in the colonies, and African’s experiences of those films, were more complex and varied than a simple indoctrination model can account for.

After World War II, foreign-owned commercial cinema houses in both French and British colonies continued to spread across West Africa. These theaters screened a motley mix of Westerns, comedies, dramas, and other media from an increasingly diverse world of cinema. The French government, concerned with managing the enculturation of colonial subjects, was particularly worried that anti-authoritarian themes might exert influence over the minds of compliant colonial subjects. The colonial authorities limited foreign companies from opening new cinema houses in an overt effort to keep film distribution in French control. Despite much resistance from theater owners, they established quotas to limit the screening of non-French media and altogether banned Soviet films for fear of anti-colonial content.6 While the French restricted films they feared would challenge French imperialism, they could not effectively control the flow of diverse ideas that entered Africa through film after World War II.

Prior to independence from colonial rule, Africans in French and British colonies were banned from making independent films. Film was seen as a powerful tool for indoctrination, and the colonial regimes feared the subversive power the medium could have if used in opposition to colonial dominance. In the post-war French colonies, film remained a manifestly foreign affair in which Africans rarely appeared. The primary exceptions were ethnographic films, most significantly those of ethnologist Jean Rouch, who was the pre-eminent documentarian of West African cultures during the colonial period. On the other hand, British colonial films sometimes featured local actors, and in Ghana, Africans were trained as technical assistants. In colonial West Africa however, Africans were never involved in determining the overall message of the films.

Ultimately, the differing policies and strategies for film in Francophone and Anglophone areas resulted in different visual media cultures in West Africa. In Francophone colonies, film was associated with French entertainment and global metropolitan culture. In Anglophone countries, film was more likely associated with didactic colonial documentaries, American westerns, and crime dramas.

Post-Independence Film in Francophone West Africa

As West African countries began to gain independence from colonial rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the ban on filmmaking in the colonies no longer stood in the way of African filmmaking. Africans who wanted to make films, however, faced other obstacles. Producing celluloid film required a large initial investment and access to sophisticated processing facilities. The funding and technical equipment required for film production were simply out of the reach of former colonial subjects living in a largely informal economy where the mechanisms of capital financing were unavailable to anyone outside the elite industrial/banking sector. The colonial promise that commerce with Europe would stimulate economic development in Africa was undermined by the radically asymmetrical nature of economic exchange during the colonial period. While resources from Africa poured into Europe, most African citizens in the newly independent colonies had no means of access to capital or global markets.

British and French administrations employed distinct strategies for colonial rule. The British approach (often referred to as “indirect rule”) involved only a few colonial agents in residence because most day-to-day governance was handled through indigenous “warrant chiefs” and “customary justices”—local citizens placed in positions of authority by colonial administrators. This system left many traditional cultural and legal institutions (like polygyny, elder councils, age grades, and descent-based land tenure systems) in place. In Francophone colonies, however, assimilating African subjects and communities into modern French cultural norms and social practices was at the heart of the colonial enterprise. Colonial initiatives to cultivate Francophone culture in Africa had two somewhat contradictory consequences for post-colonial African filmmakers. The French interest in the development of French cultural institutions in Africa resulted in substantial programmatic support for Francophone African filmmakers. It also gave French authorities the power to vet and oversee every aspect of film production in their former colonies. As artists in former British colonies faced almost insurmountable barriers to film productions, those in former French colonies could compete for funding to produce films at the cost of dependency on a neocolonial mode of film production.

The French Monopoly

In 1955, Paulin Vieyra became the first African graduate of l’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris. The French government barred him from returning to his native Benin, or to Senegal where he attended school, for fear that he might use his training to make films against the interests of the colonial regime. Stuck in Paris, the budding filmmaker (with the help of three other Africans students) produced: Afrique sur Seine with support from Comité du film ethnographique du Musée de l'Homme.7 Drawing from contemporary conventions of the French “New Wave,” the film focused on African radicals living in Paris. While this film was made, written, and directed by Africans, no aspect of its production occurred in Africa. Nor was it screened in Senegal. French officials feared that the film was too inflammatory for colonial subjects. Neither Vieyra nor his film were allowed to return to Senegal until after independence from French rule. When France ceded political control of Senegal in 1960, the Lavel ban on filmmaking was no longer in effect. French interventions in African filmmaking however, were just beginning.

The French Bureau de Cinéma was created in 1963 under the auspices of the French Ministére de la Coopération to support filmmaking in former colonies. The new Bureau provided African filmmakers with funding, production assistance, and access to French post-production facilities on a competitive basis. The impact of this program was impressive by any measure and more than 180 high quality films with were produced in Francophone Africa between 1964 and 1975.8

The contrast between the prolific film production in Francophone Africa and the very few offerings from Anglophone Africa (where filmmakers had virtually no access to financing) highlights the relative success of the French system. Postcolonial filmmaking, however, presented Francophone filmmakers with a different kind of struggle. Though funding and support was available, it involved compromises on the part of filmmakers that solidified French control of the means of film production in Africa after independence. Unsurprisingly, many filmmakers resisted this arrangement.

In 1960, Leopold Senghor became president of a newly independent Senegal. Senghor was already well known as one of the principal founders of the Negritude movement—a political initiative that positioned African arts as central to the post-colonial project of restoring African cultural autonomy and uniting Africans across ethnic and national boundaries. It seemed inevitable that film would play a crucial role in the creation of a culturally unified Africa as imagined by the philosophers of Negritude.

Francophone Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembène was one of those who saw film as the perfect medium to reach out to the mass African audience. Sembène had successfully published three novels in French prior to independence. The novels were received with acclaim abroad, but Sembene was unsatisfied writing novels in French for a literate audience. He wanted his stories to reach the ordinary Senegalese citizens who were neither fluent in French nor literate. Film seemed the ideal medium in this respect.

When Sembène failed to get French government support for his training in filmmaking, he traveled to Moscow in 1961 to learn the craft at Gorky Studios.9 When he returned to Senegal a few years later, he began making the films that would secure his legacy as a founder of African cinema. Even before he studied filmmaking in the USSR, Sembène’s literary work was devoted to stories that challenged the machinations of colonial exploitation. His work at Gorky Studios provided him with a clear cinematic language for expressing that perspective.

The Bureau de Cinéma, while poised to start funding projects by African filmmakers, was still terrified of the dangers that political film might unleash in the hands of African auteurs. Unsurprisingly, they offered no help to Sembène. It was only because Paulin Viera, then head of Actualités Senègalaises (Senegal’s government newsreel service), introduced Sembène to André Zwobada, an influential editor for the French newsreel services and an outspoken critic of the neocolonial policies of the Bureau de Cinéma. Viera knew that Zwobada would appreciate Sembène’s aspirations. Zwobada used his influence and access to film production facilities to provide Sembène with the support necessary to make his earliest films.

Sembène’s first film after returning to Senegal was a 20-minute short called Borom Sarret (1963). It depicts a day in the life of an impoverished cart driver in Dakar. The black-and-white film vividly conveys the class divide in postcolonial Senegal and the daily exploitation of struggling Senegalese citizens by French residents and Senegalese elite. The film’s aesthetics and visual structure draw on the austere socialist realism of the Soviet school that was to become emblematic of first generation Francophone African films.10

Sembène’s second film, La noire de . . . (1966) was a more complex project with scenes shot in both Senegal and France. The film follows the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who leaves Dakar for the promise of a job with a family living on the French Riviera, only to discover that her life as a foreign domestic worker in France is indistinguishable from slavery. With a running time of an hour, La noire de . . . is often claimed as Africa’s first feature-length film. Encouraged by the successes of his first two films, Sembène embarked on a more ambitious project that went to the heart of his mission to be a filmmaker for the African masses. He wanted to make a feature film using the Wolof language rather than French. This goal, however, ran up against the Ministére de la Coopération’s unwavering commitment to promoting French language and culture.

Colonial languages were at the foundation of cultural colonization, and the political implications and consequences of the language a filmmaker chooses to use in his or her work led it to be one of the most pivotal issues in African literature and film. Sembène’s third film, Mandabi (1968) (French: le Mandat, English: The Money Order), was one of the first shots in the confrontation in the struggle to decolonize the language of African film. Rather than fight with his French patrons, Sembène made two versions of the film: one in French, one in Wolof. Ultimately, the wisdom of Sembène’s project became evident. The Wolof version prevailed and was screened with subtitles at film festivals in Europe and the United States. Thus, with considerable resistance from French interests, Mandabi became the first film made in an African language. It was also the first film to be banned by an African president. Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president and champion of the Negritude movement, banned the groundbreaking film from being shown in Senegal—home of the vast majority of Wolof speakers. As a dark comedy about the absurdities faced by the poor in postcolonial Senegal, Mandabi could be held up as an excellent example of Senghor’s notion of revolutionary film. While Senegal’s president extolled the potential of film to raise the political consciousness of the newly independent citizens of African nations, he was thin-skinned when it came to criticism of his own regime and would not tolerate a film that suggested that oppression of the poor continued after independence.

Sembène’s central role in African film is often celebrated with titles like “the Father of African Cinema”—a practice that may overshadow the contributions of other early filmmakers such as Mustapha Alassane Ganda, a Nigerien who (with backing from Jean Rouch) pioneered animated film in Africa with his shorts: La Mort de Gandji (1965) and Bon voyage, Sim (1966).11 Nevertheless, Ousmane Sembène’s struggles to produce his first three films aptly illustrate the barriers to linguistic and ideological expression inherent in the conditions that Francophone African filmmakers faced in postcolonial West Africa. Funding and technical support were available to those who satisfied the requirements of the Bureau de Cinema, but the colonial program for “assimilating” colonial subjects into French culture remained the operative goal of French promotion of African film.

While African filmmakers endeavoured to create a distinctly African cinematic language, the Bureau de Cinéma’s conviction that the French auteur tradition was the highest refinement of universal cinematic methods led them favor those projects that conformed to the visual and narrative conventions of avant-garde French cinema. Banning Sembène’s groundbreaking film Mandabi was an ominous sign that African filmmakers would not only have to get past foreign funders to produce their work. They would also have to satisfy African leaders fearful of those who challenge their authority. They would not only have to struggle to produce the films they wanted, they would also have to struggle to screen their work for African audiences. The late 1960s saw the birth of indigenous film from West Africa. But the birth was slow and fraught with complications. Nevertheless, a number of determined filmmakers were able to wend their way through the restrictions, oversight, and outright racism of the Francophone film production system to make films that captured the plight of ordinary Africans as they confronted the contradictions of “independence” from colonial rule.

The Federation of Pan African Filmmakers

The shared struggles of Francophone African filmmakers rapidly led to the emergence of a movement by filmmakers to gain more control of film production and distribution, ultimately leading to the formation of Federation of Pan African Filmmakers (FESPACI) in 1969 to present a united front against foreign monopolies. They managed to nationalize the commercial cinemas in five of the eight Francophone countries in West Africa over the next few years. While the nationalization of movie theaters was a step toward film independence, the most important accomplishment of the FESPACI group was to organize a week-long film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The initial festival in 1969 featured films from five African countries including Sembène’s first two films and three films by Niger’s Moustapha Alassane as well as films by two European documentarians: Jean Rouch and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens.12 The first FESPACO best film award went to Oumarou Ganda for his film Le Wazzou Polygame (1970).

The second festival was held in 1973 and became known as Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO. The biennial festival thrived, and by 1985 it had grown to include thirty-three countries, leading filmmaker and scholar Manthia Diawara to call the festival “the biggest cultural event in Africa.”13 The filmmakers who organized FESPACI are recognized as the founders of African cinema. One of those the leaders was Ababacar Samb-Makharam, a Senegalese television professional who in 1965 made his first film, Et la neige n'était plus, as a student in Paris. Samb-Makharam went on to become secretary general of FESPACI in 1972.14

Med Hondo, a Mauritanian actor turned filmmaker, was one of FESPACI’s most ardent advocates. Hondo emerged as an incisive critic of the foreign monopolies that were keeping African films out of African cinemas. He considered reaching the African audience a primary goal because he advocated the view that film must be used to elevate pan-African consciousness and the decolonization of African culture. His first film, Soleil O (1969), tells the story of an African who immigrates to Paris only to discover himself in victim of a modern form of slavery. The film won critical acclaim at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and launched Hondo’s illustrious career as an African filmmaker who would not compromise his vision.15

One of Senegal’s most prolific early film directors was Mahama Johnson Traoré, who produced nine films between 1969 and 1975. Like Sembene, his films frequently feature female protagonists and take a broadly feminist perspective. His first film, Diankha-bi (“The Young Girl” in Wolof), was released in 1968 and slowly began to accumulate critical acclaim. Traoré went on to become one of the founders of FESPACI and took over the secretary general position in that organization when Makharam completed his term in 1975.

Following decades when filmmaking was banned, the early post-independence period in West Africa saw the emergence of a small but potent cadre of African filmmakers. In Francophone West Africa, production grants and access to film-processing facilities were available to those who could navigate the bureaucracy. The biggest impediment that remained was the monopoly on cinema houses in West Africa.

By the 1960s Francophone West Africa became a battleground for cinema distribution interests. The French movie theater chains COMACICO and SECMA found that the West African market they controlled was being targeted as a new market by the American-based American Motion Picture Export Company (AMPECA).16 Just as African film was blossoming in the Francophone countries, Hollywood studios and French corporations fought to monopolize cinema houses in West Africa. There was no place for African film in this battle for access to African audiences.

FESPACI filmmakers were committed to making films that reinvented culture and commerce on African terms and to redress the cultural destruction wrought by the colonials. They found it untenable that they were shut out of the theaters in their own countries. Their films were beginning to receive international recognition and win awards at film festivals abroad. But that global fame and recognition was bittersweet because their films remained largely unknown in Africa.

The organizers of FESPACI partook of some of the goals of the “Third Cinema” movement—a filmmakers’ initiative originating in Latin American devoted to decolonizing both the political economy of film production and the narrative and aesthetic conventions of film. In keeping with the Third Cinema notion of film as a tool for raising political awareness, FESPACO screenings were fashioned as catalysts for discussion. Audiences were invited to respond to the films, and the resulting debate was regarded as a crucial part of the overall program. Though FESPACO was resolutely pan-African in spirit, it remained largely a Francophone event in practice. The 1981 FESPACO notably included two significant English-language offerings: from Nigeria Ola Balogun’s Cry Freedom and from Ghana Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed in the African Pot.17 English-language African films remained rare, largely because filmmakers in Anglophone countries had few resources available and no ready access to professional equipment or editing facilities abroad. The great disparity in conditions conducive to filmmaking in Anglophone and Francophone countries was a source of frustration for Anglophone filmmakers like Balogun and Ansah, whose output, though relatively small, was hard-won against extraordinary odds. Aside from a few exceptions, West African filmmaking from the 1960s through the 1980s was largely a Francophone endeavor due to the neocolonial strictures of West African film production at that time.

Francophone Film at the End of the 20th Century

FESPACO acted as a powerful catalyst for film production in Francophone Africa. As the festival became established as the definitive venue for African film, many African filmmakers were inspired to participate. The festival became the hub of a profoundly indigenous discourse on African cinema, with Ousmane Sembene, Med Hondo, Souleymane Cissé, Djibril Dip Mambéty, Paulin Viera, and others giving voice to a broad variety of concerns regarding the aesthetics, narrative conventions, political criticism, and ultimate purpose of African film.18 The initial boom in African filmmaking after FESPACO began failed to have much impact in Africa itself, beyond the biennial festival in Ouagadougou. While FESPACO created a highly visible international venue at which to screen new works, the problem of foreign distribution monopolies in Africa remained. West African filmmakers remained dependent on French cooperation to fund film production and provide facilities and expertise for post-production processing. The requisite contractual arrangements consolidated French control over film distribution. Filmmakers who signed on to this devil’s deal were contractually obliged to relinquish the non-commercial distribution rights to their films. This legal alienation, combined with the fact that most commercial venues in West Africa were foreign and would not screen African films, meant that the dream of indigenous film culture in Africa remained out of reach.

African films remained unavailable in Africa but became well-known at film festivals and film studies classes in Europe and the United States. This predicament in African film illustrates one of the double-binds of life in the African post-colony. Anglophone West Africans had virtually no access to the resources and technologies needed to make films and (citing the French counter-example) complained bitterly that the United Kingdom had failed filmmakers in its former colonies. On the other hand, Francophone African filmmakers were offered support from the French government but found themselves bound to a system that provided virtually no access to the African audience they hoped to target.

In 1975 FESPACI held a conference in Algiers, Algeria, where they developed and presented the “Algiers Charter.” A manifesto in following with Third Cinema principles, the charter reiterated the anti-colonial goals that had framed discussions of representation in Francophone African film from the beginning. The Algiers charter went further in its critique of the political economy of filmmaking in Africa, especially foreign control of media infrastructures, distribution arrangements, and intellectual property. This battle against French paternalism and foreign commercial interests, combined with the anti-capitalist sentiments of Third Cinema, led Francophone filmmakers to regard commercial cinema as little more than the handmaid of global capital, cultural imperialism, and neocolonial economics.19

In the last decades of the 20th century, Francophone African filmmakers produced a potent body of aesthetically rich, intellectually sophisticated, politically provocative films that have come to be regarded as the canonical works of African film studies. The Francophone films produced in the late 20th century were deliberately framed by the ideological goals and aesthetic sensibilities of FESPACI, and as such, they form a body of work that captures the anti-colonial sentiments, and neocolonial criticism by African intellectuals of the time. The struggle of Africans to retain their values and sense of identity against the forces of global capital is a reoccurring theme—though often shrouded in allegory.

Once FESPACO provided a destination for the best African films, the festival began to bring international attention to African filmmakers. It is certain that Souleymane Cissé’s 1979 prize at FESPACO for his short film Baara was an instrumental step toward his triumph as the first African to win a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 for his masterful epic, Yeelen. With Yeelen Cissé introduced what came to be called “back to the source” African cinema that strove to recreate traditional African historical epic stories in cinematic form.20 Burkinabé Dani Kouyaté’s first full-length feature, Keita: l’heritage du griot (Best First Film award at FESPACO 1995), was another example of a cinematic epic. Keita incorporates one of Africa’s most legendary figures, Sundiata Keita (who famously founded the Manding empire in the 13th century), into a narrative set in modern Ouagadougou. Kouyaté’s own griot heritage culturally obliges him to pass Sundiata’s story to the next generation. Keita gave new veracity to the notion that Francophone filmmakers were “cinematic griots.”

As indigenizing conventions in African film developed, the austere cinematic conventions of the Soviet realism that characterized many early Francophone films began to give way to more robustly cultural presentations—particularly in terms of African music. European and African music were often contrasted in early film soundtracks—serving as iconic markers of cultural identity as in Sembène’s la Noire de . . . While effective, this tidy arrangement was perhaps too reminiscent of the reduction of African aesthetics to iconic markers in Western film. Breaking this mold and mobilizing the great cinematic potential of African music, Joseph Gaï Ramaka unleashed the compelling force of Wolof sabar drumming and dance in Karmen Gei (2001), his lush adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Another groundbreaking musical film from Senegal was Moussa Sene Absa’s L'Extraordinaire destin de Madame Brouette (2002), a musical murder mystery with feminist undertones. Senegal was also home to Djibril Diop Mambéty, who produced a body of brilliant films. He won the international critics prize at Cannes for his film Touki Bouki (1973). Mambéty’s masterpiece was Hyènas (1995), an adaptation of a satirical play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In 1975, filmmaker Safi Faye released Kaddu Beykat, the first sub-Saharan African feature film made by a woman. The film explored the exploitation of farm workers and was immediately banned in her home country of Senegal. The film won an International Federation of Film Critics prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1997, an award from the International Catholic Organization for Cinema, and prizes at Festival International du Film d’Expression Française and at FESPACO.

The institution of FESPACO was accompanied by other institutional developments in Burkina Faso. The Institut d’Education Cinématographique de Ouagadougou was opened in 1977. The school was organized by FESPACI, supported by UNESCO, and largely funded by the government of Burkina Faso. It provided a range of training and technical facilities and assistance to filmmakers. Also in 1977, Burkinabé filmmaker Gaston Kaboré assumed directorship of the new National Film Center of Burkina Faso. He became the secretary general of FESPACI in 1985 and held that position for more than a decade. An astute filmmaker himself, Kaboré’s film Wend Kuuni (1983) established him as a significant artist. The main character returned in Kaboré’s film, Buud Yam, which took the Yennega Stallion prize at FESPACO in 1997.

Despite the many impediments faced by filmmakers, many of Africa’s most renowned films were produced during the period between the retreat of colonial rule in the 1960s and the rise of digital media in the 21st century. In the spirit of decolonization, most of the Francophone African films produced on celluloid were explicitly intended to provoke critical political consciousness among African viewers. The paradox that few Africans would see these films because filmmakers had no control over the means of production and distribution of their films was not lost on African filmmakers or film scholars. The problem was so intractable that out of frustration, Sembene famously traveled around Senegal in a van, personally screening his films in remote villages. The problem of distribution in Africa, which seemed intractable in the first three decades of African cinema, was ultimately resolved in the 1990s, not by policy changes or political action, but due to advances in video technology and the development of Internet and satellite broadcasting.

Anglophone West Africa and the Rise of Video Movies

While Francophone African filmmakers struggled to overcome French control of filmmaking in their countries, Anglophone African filmmakers faced a bleaker reality—virtually no external support for filmmaking. While English African literature gained wide global popularity after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart opened the door for Anglophone African writers, film production was an expensive process that required financial backing in addition to talent. Anglophone African filmmakers simply could not garner the kind of external support that the French government offered in its former colonies.

In 1957, the Gold Coast colony became the first West African state to gain freedom from colonial rule. Reborn as Ghana, the nation’s first democratic elections saw Kwame Nkrumah (a principal spokesperson of the pan-Africanist movement) win a landslide presidential victory. Much like Senghor’s advocacy of la negritude, Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism included a strong commitment to ameliorate the cultural destruction wrought by colonial indoctrination with cultural initiatives. The pan-Africanist perspective held that true independence from European dominance would require the cultivation of a pan-African culture, shared by people of African descent around the globe without regard to traditional tribal affiliations or imposed colonial nationalities.

Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. After a three-year transition, Nigerians elected Nnamdi Azikiwe to be the nation’s first president. Azikiwe (popularly known as Zik) was also an outspoken pan-Africanist. Both Azikiwe and Nkrumah were committed to deploying television and film in the post-colonial renaissance of pan-African culture. In this spirit, both Ghana and Nigeria built robust national television broadcasting systems that continued to develop and strengthen—even after 1966, when both Nkruma and Azikiwe were removed from office by military coups.

While television sets became common fixtures in the nascent Anglophone states, film failed to thrive in the former British colonies. Not only did Anglophone filmmakers lack the external financial support that their Francophone colleagues enjoyed, like Francophone filmmakers, they were up against theater distribution monopolies that rejected African films, preferring to screen Hollywood B-movies and other inexpensive foreign content. The few filmmakers in Ghana and Nigeria who were able to produce films against the odds found it nearly impossible to get those films distributed beyond initial screenings.

After independence, the colonial Gold Coast Film Corporation that had produced colonial documentaries was reorganized as Ghana Film Corporation. While the colonial unit had focused on didactic documentaries, they had a successful foray in narrative film with, The Boy Kumasenu (1952), which was screened at the Berlin Film Festival and won a diplomat at the Venice Film Festival. The film was well received in Accra, against the expectations of the filmmakers who originally didn’t want the film screened in Ghana.21 After independency, when the Film Unit came under local control, they began to produce more narrative films. Some, such as Sam Aryeetey’s: No Tears for Ananse (1968) and Egbert Adjesu’s: I Told You So (1970), enjoyed significant popularity in Ghana. These early successes caused some optimism about the future of film in Ghana. Ultimately, however, the prohibitive costs of celluloid film production, combined with the structural impediments to distribution, led the Film Unit to revert to producing government documentaries about health and citizenship.

It was not until the 1980s that some Ghanaian filmmakers began to find financial support for their projects. Ghana’s first independently financed film was Kwaw Painstil Ansah’s feature Love Brewed in the African Pot (1980) made with funds from the British corporation Film Africa Ltd. Despite help from British funds, Ansah was wary of foreign support. He wanted to make films that appealed to African audiences rather than falling in line with foreign development agendas. Ansah’s focus on entertainment stood in contrast to most earlier African films (colonial and post-colonial alike) that were designed to educate, raise awareness, indoctrinate, and otherwise influence the minds of the audience. In the commercial market filmmakers were driven (by both ideology and financial exigency) to make films that appealed to the sensibilities of their African audience. As film historian Frank Ukadike noted, this strategy produced very different films from those in Francophone Africa that were made to transform the consciousness of the African public rather than to embrace it.22 Ansah was fiercely independence and ultimately avoided co-productions with foreign collaborators. This differed from Ghanaian filmmaker King Ampaw, whose productions such as Kukurantumi (1984) and Juju (1986) were co-produced with foreign companies. Both Ansah and Ampaw made films designed to appeal to Ghanaian audiences, and their films were well-received as such. Ansah’s most ambitious film, Heritage Africa (1988), became the first English-language film to win the Grand Prize at FESPACO in 1989.

In Nigeria, similar conditions favored the development of television and the marginalization of film. Nigeria’s most prominent celluloid filmmaker of that period was Ola Balogun, who made ten films between 1972 and 1982. Balogun’s accomplishments were close to miraculous given that Nigeria did not even match Ghana’s timid efforts to support filmmakers. Balogun’s endless struggles to make films were further impeded by the difficulty in getting his finished works screened in Nigeria. Balogun drew from literature and theater in the Yoruba language for many of his storylines. Balogun worked with actor/director Adeyemi Afolayan (aka Ade Love) on Ajani Ogun (1975) and Ija Ominira (1978). His most well-known collaboration was with legendary Yoruba playwright Hubert Ogunde, whose play Aiye, a story of a village shrine priest who vies with witches in his community, was adapted for film by Balogun in 1979.

Compared to the impressive, award-winning film output from Francophone West Africa, very few films were produced in Ghana and Nigeria in prior to 1990. Television, on the other hand, thrived, and substantial national broadcasting infrastructures were constructed in both countries. Programming was a mix of local content and foreign content. The quality and cultural impact of foreign content became a concern in both countries, ultimately resulting in regulatory legislation. Standing by pan-Africanist goals, and facing a risk of becoming a dumping ground for junk foreign programming, both Nigeria and Ghana passed laws limiting the volume of foreign content that stations could broadcast in relation to locally produced shows. These laws were modified over time, but the various regulations required 60 to 70 percent of broadcast content to be of indigenous origin. The result was extraordinary demand for local material by broadcasters. By 1983 an Organization of African Unity study reported that Nigeria had the highest percentage of indigenous content of any African nation.23

Of the long-suffering filmmakers in Anglophone Africa, Balogun was the most persistent and the most productive against all odds. When he retired from filmmaking he expressed great frustration with Nigeria’s hostility toward its own cultural industries. By bringing Hubert Ogunde’s highly popular work to the screen, however, Balogun established a creative alliance between the popular theater and filmmakers that would form the foundation of a new era in African film.

The Video Alternative

By 1990 African film had reached a breaking point. In Anglophone West Africa, filmmaking was nearly impossible due to technical and financial constraints. Francophone West Africa had cultivated a successful auteur cinema with assistance and sometimes heavy-handed guidance from France. Cinema houses in both regions were controlled by foreign interests with little interest in screening African film. Regardless of the quality or quantity of films that African filmmakers produced, foreign control of the distribution was so extensive and tenacious that as late as 1993, Burkinabé film critic Emmanuel Sama could still proclaim that “African Films are Foreigners in Their Own Countries.”24

Television however, became proudly indigenous and continued to thrive. Broadcast stations were plentiful and in densely populated areas of southern Ghana. In many locales Nigeria, a simple antenna could pick up five to seven separate stations. The ongoing demand for local content led television producers to turn to popular playwrights for materials. Both Nigeria and Ghana had robust popular theater movements that began after World War II and flourished for the next fifty years. In Ghana, theatrical productions took place at “Concert Parties” that presented storytelling and folkloric plays in a comedic variety show format.25 In Nigeria, popular traveling theater troupes presented plays in Yoruba language in the southwestern region around Lagos.26 These local theatrical productions provided precisely the kind of content needed to meet the demands for truly indigenous programming. The marriage of television and theater was highly successful in both Ghana and Nigeria, and by the late 1980s both countries had well-developed broadcast television sectors producing locally created content much of it in indigenous languages. Thirty years of television production established a significant community of experienced screenwriters, directors, producers, technical experts, and popular performers—a community of creative artists that was to become the foundation of the video movie industry.

By the late 1980s more Nigerians were watching television than ever before. The cinema houses that popularized American westerns and other foreign media in the 1960s to 1970s had, by the 1980s, became dangerous venues frequented by thieves and inhospitable to families. Television allowed extended families to view films in their homes in safety. As television rose to prominence, video recordings of popular shows began to show up at street vendors stands. More established video shops, however, continued to predominantly feature films made in the United States, India, and Hong Kong—pirated copies produced by Nigeria’s notorious media bootleggers.

The Rise of Nollywood

The origins of the video movie boom are difficult to designate because the lines between amateur video dubbing and the actual “industry” are fuzzy at best. Certain early titles are, however, significant. Muyideen Alade Aromire completed an early video movie, Ekun (Tiger), in 1986. The movie languished in the Nigerian Film Censors Board for three years, largely because board member and Yoruba traveling theater founder Hubert Ogunde objected, not to the content of the movie, but to the medium of video itself.27

In 1987, Ghanaian filmmaker William Akuffo released his movie Zinabu. The plot was a typical concert-party drama involving witchcraft, and its resolution by way of Christian conversion. Akuffo shot the movie on video, and though it was initially screened in a theater, its moderate success in Ghana was largely due to its distribution in video format. Zinabu was also popular in Nigeria, and oral histories of Nollywood (see later) often mention Zinabu as a catalyst for the video movie boom in Nigeria as well as Ghana.

Yoruba director Ade Ajiboye released his video movie Sonso Meji (Two Pointed Ends) in 1988, not waiting for approval of the censors. In 1989, Kenneth Nnebue, an Igbo businessman with a surplus of blank videotapes, collaborated with Yoruba theater writer Ishola Ogunsola to produce Aju Ni Iya Mi (My Mother is a Witch).28 While these titles experienced some popularity in Lagos and Accra, their distribution was limited.

Most accounts identify the singular actualizing event in Nollywood’s history as Kenneth Nnebue’s release of Living in Bondage in 1992. The film tells the story of a man who gets involved with a money cult with unfortunate results. Produced in Igbo with English subtitles, the movie was far from innovative. Cautionary stories about money cults were a standard theme in popular theater, and the video was crudely edited by hand on VCRs. It is, nevertheless, often heralded as the first Nollywood movie, not because it was better than what had come before, but because it initiated Nollywood’s distinct mode of distribution. The film was promoted with an aggressive poster-driven marketing campaign. Nnebue had a surplus of blank videotape and flooded markets with copies of the movie. Sales were brisk and clearly indicated that Nigerians were willing to overlook shortcomings in production quality to consume stories to which they could relate.

In the 1980s Nigeria’s film pirates were the bane of foreign filmmakers. Nigerian video shops featured dubbed bootlegs from the United States, India, and Hong Kong. As Nigeria’s indigenous video movie sector developed, demand for foreign content declined as audiences flocked to more culturally resonant material. As the market for foreign titles receded, video pirates saw an opening to become legitimate distributors. Others simply started bootlegging local productions instead of foreign ones. In either case, the video movie boom in Nigeria led to a significant overall reduction in piracy of foreign films in West Africa.

Home Videos

The earliest video movies from Ghana and Nigeria were manually edited on two linking analogue VCRs. Those crude techniques were quickly surpassed when digital video and computer video editing became readily available on the consumer market in the 1990s. As demand for “home videos” (as they were called in Nigeria) grew, marketers responded by investing in more productions. In the 1990s the video movie industry in Nigeria and Ghana transformed from a localized folk cinema into a major global industry without any support from their governments or foreign investors. As European dominance of global media infrastructures relentlessly obstructed the development of an independent pan-African cinema at every turn, filmmakers turned to Africa’s informal economy, which operated free of external interests. Home video system of production made local movies readily available at the local markets without the help or consent of development programs, foreign corporate interests, film processing labs, or theatrical distribution deals. By 2000 video production had reached unanticipated levels. In 2006 UNESCO reported that Nigeria had become the second largest movie producer in the world, with 872 productions in 2005.29

West African CinemaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Alaba Market is a major distribution hub for video movies.

Source: Photo by the author, 2011, Lagos, Nigeria.

The informal distribution system that developed was an unprecedented global success. Nigerian video movies became available at markets across the continent and globally wherever people of African descent resided. After decades of struggle with foreign control of African cinema, the new video technology offered true independence and the ability to completely sidestep foreign capital and the established infrastructures of global media.

As cultural demand and new digital technology propelled the video movie industry to economic significance and global visibility, the video movie industry began to be glossed as “Nollywood”—a term that helped make the phenomenon digestible for foreign observers but was less meaningful in West Africa, where distinctions between different regional cinema practices were paramount. It’s important to note that Nollywood is not what film scholars consider a “national cinema.” By most accounts, the video industry originated in Ghana and Nigeria simultaneously, and both countries remain major players. The industry has little regard for national borders, and the staffing and casting of productions have become increasingly pan-African in nature. Within Nigeria, the term “Nollywood” is used to refer to the English-language films produced in the south. In northern Nigeria, Hausa filmmakers distance themselves from “Nollywood,” with its favored themes of witchcraft vanquished by Christian evangelical intervention. Hausa-language movies (often dubbed “Kannywood” in reference to the city of Kanu) embraced Muslim values and drew more heavily on Bollywood films from India rather than Hollywood or French cinema.30

Scores of African-language video markets have rapidly developed. In Nigeria linguistic diversity is broad, with many movies in Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo and titles in Tiv, Ijaw, Edo, and other less common languages increasingly in regional markets. Ghana also produces movies in several languages, including Akan Twi, and Ga. As the African video movie comes of age, it can no longer be glossed as a Nigerian or an Anglophone phenomenon. Markets in Dakar and Ouagadougou circulate Vidéos de quartier (neighborhood videos)—locally produced movies in local vernacular, often based on modernized folk tales and other resolutely indigenous content.

The video movie phenomenon arose without support or direction from government programs, development initiatives, foreign grants, or capital investors. It developed organically from the grassroots up in Africa’s robust informal economy. Most early Nollywood movies were made on tiny budgets ($10,000–$20,000). Funding for films came primarily from informal marketers and churches. Their mode of movie production contrasted starkly with the Hollywood model—where a single vertically integrated corporate studio manages all aspects of the production process. Nollywood’s production system was radically horizontal, with movies produced by a loosely knit community of independent contractors, each providing some aspect of production service. Video equipment and vehicle rentals, generators, canteen services for the crew, costuming, editing, special effects processing, product packaging, and marketing grew as cottage industries in support of movie production and distribution. This decentralized production system very successfully produced a high volume of movies. It also resulted in films expressing a remarkably diverse range of religious and cultural views of the world. A few notable artists developed studios that integrated various aspects of production under the creative direction of a single producer. Notable among these are Socrate Safo’s Movie Africa Productions in Accra and Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe Films and Television in Lagos. For the most part, however, the first two decades of video movie production were characterized by this highly decentralized system of production.

Accustomed to Francophone Africa’s films that had been produced by European-trained auteurs and carefully vetted by European funding agencies, scholars of film criticism were largely blindsided by the eruption of resolutely indigenous video movies in West Africa. While the Francophone auteurs had been well versed in Western conventions of filmmaking and criticism—often having studied in the same classrooms as the academics who later wrote about their films—the ideologically diverse outpouring of video movies was difficult to account for using the familiar forms of analysis. As a result, many film scholars dismissed the video movie phenomenon as too inconsequential to be taken seriously. The development of informal media distribution channels in the global informal economy, however, wrested African film production from the grip of neocolonial capital. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but Nollywood had opened a new path toward independent production. The popular African cinema industry that blossomed in the informal market gave a popular voice to hundreds of African languages, and to gamut of African religions, representing a sprawling mix of narratives as diverse as Africa itself.

The first decade of video movie distribution (1990–2000) saw the production of tens of thousands of movies in West Africa. The vast majority of them were deficient in almost every technical respect: low production quality, derivative or incoherent storylines, careless editing, and soundtracks marked by the hum of the generator powering the lights. Nevertheless, amidst the mass of hastily produced productions, many gems began to emerge at the threshold of the 21st century. Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe Films studio produced increasingly high-quality movies in Yoruba with English subtitles. The first Nollywood title selected for inclusion in the California Newsreel Library of African Cinema (thus making it easily available for academic uses) was Kelani’s 2000 film Thunderbolt. The first Nollywood movie to really get the world’s attention was Kingsley Ogoro’s comic farce Osuofia in London (2003). The first decade of the 21st century saw the release of newer, better Nollywood movies. Many premiered in Europe and the United States to much critical acclaim, including Through the Glass (2008, Stephanie Okereke), Araromire: The Figurine (2009, Kunle Afolayan), Inale (2010, Jeta Amata), The Mirror Boy (2011, Obi Emelonye), and Tango with Me (2011, Mahmood Ali-Balogun). These so-called New Nollywood titles were notable, not only because they had overcome the technical limitations of the original video movies, but also because the narratives successfully engaged a more global audience without forsaking the distinctly indigenous perspectives that have made the movies so popular in Africa.

21st-Century African Cinema

The late 20th century was a time of struggle for African filmmakers. Celluloid film production labs were controlled by non-Africans, and access to foreign owned production facilities and distribution systems was limited and conditional. Despite these barriers (and, to an extent, because of them), Francophone Africa developed a robust auteur cinema movement with FESPACO as its most notable institution. A more popular African cinema could not develop under the post-colonial constraints on filmmaking until developments in electronic media technology opened new possibilities for production and distribution, making video a viable alternative to film. The rise of popular video movies in Africa happened so rapidly that established African filmmakers and critics were at a loss as to how to interpret it. Many underestimated its potential. The popular video movies were more diverse in quality and subject matter than anything that had come before. Despite the complexity of the phenomenon, many film scholars were satisfied to simply dismiss video movies categorically—allowing the worst of them to stand for the whole.31 Film scholars’ initial reluctance to embrace video production eventually gave way to acceptance as technology narrowed the aesthetic gaps between the film and video and serious auteurs moved to video for practical reasons. Though many of the cinema houses from the colonial era closed down in the 1980s, new, fully electronic theaters began to open in Lagos and Accra in the 2000s.

The development of the Internet has coincided with the rise of video movies, and the potential for filmmakers to distribute their work to the whole world has not been lost on African filmmakers, many of whom have been held back by distribution monopolies for their entire careers. Streaming services and satellite broadcasting make African movies, television, and music videos available to anyone with a smartphone. Both Nollywood and Francophone African films are now featured on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. While the digital revolution’s liberating potential has perhaps been exaggerated, a case can be made that for African film the Internet and digital satellite broadcasting have helped to end a half-century of struggle for freedom of expression in Africa.

Discussion of the Literature

The scholarly literature on West African film began to take form in the 1960s, consisting largely of journal articles and a few doctoral dissertations focused on specific filmmakers. The early research was highly limited by the difficulty in obtaining films beyond festival screenings. Therefore, much of the early literature was narrowly focused on the work of Ousmane Sembene and a few other francophone African auteurs. The articles were published largely in French academic journals such as Cahiers du Cinéma and Présence Africaine. After FESPACI formed and organized the groundbreaking biannual African film festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the overall visibility of African filmmakers increased, and in the 1970s a critical literature began to coalesce around a small but substantial canon of African films. The most extensive overview of the scholarship on African film prior to the 1990s can be found in Nancy Schmidt’s two exhaustive bibliographies of African film literature. The first volume covers publications up to 1986.32 Schmidt’s second bibliography covers publications from 1987 to 1992.33 An additional invaluable source from this early period is Françoise Pfaff’s interviews with twenty-five African filmmakers, published in 1988.34

In the early years, West African films were rarely screened in commercial theaters, and prior to rise of digital technology commercial video-recordings of African titles were difficult to obtain. With public exposure limited to film festivals, West African cinema remained largely unknown to the general public, even in Africa. A notable source of West African films on video in the early decades was California Newsreel’s Library of African Cinema. In 1968, this American academic film distributor initiated a catalog devoted to providing films by African filmmakers to educators. As a result of this institution (and other academic film distributors who added African titles to their catalogues), African cinema came to America and Europe largely through college classrooms rather than cinema houses, television, film festivals, or commercial video.

Manthia Diawara’s 1992 book African Cinema: Politics & Culture helped to refine the discourse on African cinema’s canon.35 More importantly, it placed this canon in the context of the ideological issues that had shaped the continent’s history of film production. Frank Ukadike’s 1994 volume Black African Cinema provided an excellent complement to Diawara’s book by offering more detailed analysis of the struggles of filmmakers in Anglophone Africa in addition to the more familiar Francophone auteurs.36

In general, the first three decades of writing on African film revolved around questions of the place of African film in the creation of pan-African culture and the initiatives of the Third Cinema movement. While many Francophone Africa’s auteurs sought to express Third Cinema’s distinct anti-colonial perspective and film scholars extolled the potential of films to bring enlightened political awareness to Africans, African film prior to the 1990s remained largely unknown and unavailable to the African audiences. Scholarly debates regarding African film at that time focused on the narrative content, formal composition, and the expression of a distinct political perspective, with little attention to the inaccessibility of the films in Africa. A notable exception was Emmanuel Sama’s 1992 article, “African Films are Foreigners in Their Own Countries,” which directly addressed the problem.37 Researchers should turn to James Genova’s 2013 book Cinema and Development in West Africa for a sustained critical analysis of the political economy of West African film production and distribution.38

The literature on African film experienced a florescence at the turn of the 21st century as scholars began to address the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the canon. Works by Kenneth Harrow, June Givanni, Joseph Gugler, Olivier Barlet, David Murphy, and Sada Niang were particularly influential in broadening the scope of discourse.39

The first book to examine the video movie production that began in Nigeria in the 1990s was Jonathan Haynes and Onookome Okome’s 1996 volume entitled Nigerian Video Films. It included seminal essays on key issues that distinguished this radically autochthonous popular movie industry from everything that had come before.

In general, scholars of African cinema were slow to incorporate the fin-de-siècle video movie explosion into their surveys of African cinema, often dismissing it as an ephemeral phenomenon. As a result, the scholarship on African video movies in the 21st century developed somewhat independently of mainstream film scholarship, with many of the exemplars coming from English and anthropology departments rather than French and film criticism. Carmela Garritano’s 2013 book on the video movie industry in Ghana, African Video Movies and Global Desires, emphasizes the crucial role of Ghanaian videographers in the emergence of video film in West Africa (sometimes lost in the rush to brand all video movies as “Nollywood”).40 Also based in Ghana, Birgit Meyer’s 2015 study of Pentecostal films, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana, captures the importance of Pentecostal churches to the institutional and ideological infrastructure for film production in Ghana. Scholars interested in the theatrical origins of West Africa’s video dramas may also want to consult Catherine Cole’s Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre and Karin Barber’s definitive work on Yoruba popular theater, The Generation of Plays.41

Jonathan Haynes’s 2016 book Nollywood: The Creation of Video Film Genres provides scholars of African media a detailed guide to Nigerian video movies and the industry that produces them.42 For forward-looking overviews of the continental and global dimensions of African video movie culture, scholars should consult the 2013 edited volume Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry.43

Primary Sources

One of the most important African film archives is the African Film Library of Ouagadougou. Located in the capital of Burkina Faso, the archive includes films from the biannual FESPACO festivals that began in 1969, as well as other films from all over the continent. The Ouagadougou facility is adequately funded and maintains conditions suitable for the preservation of celluloid. Most other, more regional film archives in Africa struggle to cope to acquire the equipment and operating budget needed to address the volatility of celluloid film.

Efforts to preserve and digitize early films at risk of deterioration made great progress in the early 21st century. Digital formats and Internet streaming have allowed the once insular world of African film to reach a global and increasingly popular audience. Most of the best known canonical African films are now available from commercial streaming services like Netflix and Kanopy (which includes California Newsreel’s Library of African Cinema in their offerings). The British Film Institute Archives holds many African titles in its extensive collections, though most of these are also available in commercial digital formats. Northwestern University’s Herskovits Library of African Studies in Evanston, Illinois, has many African films, including a complete collection of titles produced by Tunde Kelani’s Mainframe Studios in Lagos, Nigeria. Another extensive collection of African films is held at the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, which includes both canonical films and more obscure titles. The African Film Library of the Institut Français in Paris holds one of the largest collections of Francophone African films, with more than 1,500 films dating from the earliest productions in the 1960s.

Further Reading

Cole, Catherine M. Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics & Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Diawara, Manthia. African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics. New York: Prestel, 2010.Find this resource:

Frindethie, K. Martial. Francophone African Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.Find this resource:

Garritano, Carmela. African Video Movies and Global Desires. Africa Series No. 91. Athens: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2013.Find this resource:

Genova, James E. Cinema and Development in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Givanni, June, ed. Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema: Audiences, Theory and the Moving Image. London: British Film Institute, 2000.Find this resource:

Gugler, Josef. African Film: Re-imagining a Continent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Harrow, Kenneth. African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Harrow, Kenneth. Post-Colonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Haynes, Jonathan, ed. Nigerian Video Films. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2000.Find this resource:

Haynes, Jonathan. Nollywood: The Creation of Video Film Genres. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.Find this resource:

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

Sama, Emmanuel. “African Films Are Foreigners in Their Own Countries.” Ecruns d’Afrique 4 (1993): 54–67.Find this resource:

Thackway, Melissa. Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Ukadike, Frank. Black African Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 31.

(2.) James E. Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 25–26.

(3.) Ikechukwu Obiaya, “A Break with the Past: The Nigerian Video-Film Industry in the Context of Colonial Filmmaking,” Film History 23 (2011): 129–146.

(4.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 30.

(5.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 20.

(6.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 38–40.

(7.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 69.

(8.) Claire Andrade-Watkins, “Film Production in Francophone Africa 1961 to 1977: Ousmane Sembene—An Exception,” Contributions in Black Studies 11 (1993): 26.

(9.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 110.

(10.) Kenneth Harrow, African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Reading (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007), 1.

(11.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 75–76.

(12.) Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics & Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 129.

(13.) Diawara, 128.

(14.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 76.

(15.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 79.

(16.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 152.

(17.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 194.

(18.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 158.

(19.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa, 155–156.

(20.) Diawara, African Cinema, 159–160.

(21.) Emma Sandon, “Cinema and Highlife in the Gold Coast: The Boy Kumasenu (1952),” Social Dynamics 39, no. 3 (2013): 496–519.

(22.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 131.

(23.) Jonathan Haynes, Nollywood: The Creation of Video Film Genres (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9.

(24.) Emmanuel Sama, “African Films Are Foreigners in Their Own Countries,” Ecrans d’Afrique 4 (1993): 54–67.

(25.) Catherine M. Cole, Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

(26.) Karin Barber, The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theater (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

(27.) Haynes, Nollywood, 6.

(28.) Haynes, 6.

(29.) “Nollywood Rivals Bollywood in Film/Video Production,” UNESCOPRESS: Press Release No. 2009–40, May, 5, 2009.

(30.) Brian Larkin, “Hausa Dramas and the Rise of Video Culture in Nigeria,” in Nigerian Video Films, ed. Jonathan Haynes (Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2000), 209–241.

(31.) Carmela Garritano, African Video Movies and Global Desires (Athens: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2013), 4–5.

(32.) Nancy J. Schmidt, Sub-Saharan African Films and Filmmakers: An Annotated Bibliography (London: Hans Zell, 1988).

(33.) Schmidt, Sub-Saharan African Films and Filmmakers.

(34.) Françoise Pfaff, Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988).

(35.) Diawara, African Cinema.

(36.) Ukadike, Black African Cinema.

(37.) Sama, “African Films Are Foreigners in Their Own Countries.”

(38.) Genova, Cinema and Development in West Africa.

(39.) Harrow, African Cinema; June Givanni, ed., Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema: Audiences, Theory and the Moving Image (London: British Film Institute, 2000); Olivier Barlet, African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze (New York: Zed Books, 2000); Josef Gugler, African Film: Re-imagining a Continent (Cape Town: James Currey, 2003); Kenneth W. Harrow, Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Manthia Diawara, African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics (New York: Prestel, 2010); David Murphy, Africa’s Lost Classics: New Histories of African Cinema (London: Maney, 2014); and Sada Niang, Nationalist African Cinema: Legacy and Transformations (New York: Lexington Books 2014).

(40.) Garritano, African Video Movies and Global Desires.

(41.) Birgit Meyer, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015). Karin Barber, The Generation of Plays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

(42.) Haynes, Nollywood.

(43.) Matthias Krings and Onookome Okome, eds., Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).