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date: 18 November 2017

West African Cinema

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

Motion picture technology was developed at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the colonization of Africa was launched at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. The colonial administrations in West Africa used film as a means for conveying colonial culture to African subjects. For the British and French colonials, film was a means to control public opinion. Both British and French colonial administrations criminalized indigenous filmmaking for fear of the subversive potential of anti-colonial messages. 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 remain 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 on the continent 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 diaspora.