Ghanaian Popular Cinema and the Magic in and of Film

Since the late 1980s, a booming video feature film industry evolved in Ghana. While established filmmakers both within and outside the state-owned Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC) found it extremely difficult to generate funds for film production, formally untrained people of various backgrounds — from cinema projectionists to car mechanics — took ordinary VHS video cameras, wrote a brief outline, assembled actors (from TV or just “from the street”), and produced full fledged feature films which appeared to be tremendously successful in urban Ghana, and especially in Accra. Established professional filmmakers initially met the initiatives of non-professionals and their use of the medium of video with suspicion. Yet, when they noticed the extraordinary success which these productions had in Ghana and realized that screening these films in local cinemas could generate sufficient funds to sustain a viable video film industry, they also turned to film production in the video format. Moreover, in order to improve the productions made by untrained — and, gradually, self-trained filmmakers, the GFIC offered editing services and other forms of advice to filmmakers in exchange for the right to show the film in its own cinemas in Accra first. Gradually, production networks and systems of distribution evolved and since the beginning of the 1990s, each year saw the release of about fifty video movies made by private and GFIC producers.

Over time, differences pertaining to technical standards of films made by formally trained and self-trained filmmakers gradually faded. And so did differences regarding their social position in the field of film production. This was, above all, a result of the decision of the Ghanaian state to sell seventy percent of the shares of the GFIC to the Malaysian TV production company, Sistem Televisyen Malaysia Berhad of Kuala Lumpur in 1996, as a consequence of which the GFIC transformed into Gama Media System Ltd.[1] As this foreign company focuses on TV productions and shows little interest in cinema, popular movie production was increasingly left in the hands of independent producers (both self-trained and formally trained[2]) who were all obliged to make it in Ghana’s newly evolving “showbiz” market. In order to generate funds for the next film and a usually small income, filmmakers solely depend on the taste of the audiences.

One distinctive, recurring feature of Ghanaian movies concerns the emphasis put on the visualization of otherwise invisible occult forces, and the fact that their narrative is usually placed in the framework of the Christian dualism of God and the Devil, who is regarded as leading all “powers of darkness” (see Meyer 1999a). These preferences do not primarily and necessarily reflect the convictions of the filmmakers, but above all the ideas of their audiences. As such, these films resonate well with what occupies people in Accra and other urban areas in south Ghana and hence form exciting sources for anthropologists.

Exactly because of this emphasis on occult forces and their incorporation into the domain of the Christian Devil, popular cinema has been subject to severe criticism on the part of elite film makers and intellectuals.[3] Movies made by private producers are often ridiculed and denounced as imbued in “superstition” — an assault also levelled against their audiences.[4] Moreover, occasionally these films are charged with representing Africans in inferior terms, and thereby confirming racist distortions and subverting the development of national pride.[5] Private video producers are accused of turning a medium meant to serve “development” and “enlightenment” into a vehicle for the expression of ugly matters which should have no place in modern, national Ghanaian culture.

In this essay, I present and discuss two films which are representative of popular cinema in that they foreground how otherwise invisible, occult forces impinge on the visible world. I will show how a quintessentially modern medium-like film, which has been used ever since colonial times to educate and enlighten people through images, has been appropriated in order to express people’s concerns about the hidden presence of the occult in modern urban society. I will argue that the visualization of the dark, secret aspects lurking behind the surface of modern city life concerns an “enlightenment” in another sense than usually intended by modernist protagonists. In so doing, I find it useful to follow a distinction proposed by Michael Taussig during the conference on which this volume is based between revelation and exposure.

While the notion of exposure is part of a hierarchical perspective affirming the superiority of scientific thinking which unmasks magic as false and based on mere superstition, the notion of revelation criticises magic from within, thereby leaving intact the idiom itself. I will show that, contrary to the elites’ expectations of the medium of film to promote superior forms of knowledge and behaviour leading beyond magic, watching popular movies does not make people go beyond magical imagination towards increased levels of rationality, but rather constitutes, or at least confirms, the domain of the occult at the very moment of its revelation. It brings light into the dark and, at the same time, contributes to establish the domain of occult forces as part and parcel of modern city life (cf. Geschiere 1997). I argue that, in so doing, it brings about a break with colonial cinema and realizes the magical potential of movies which is so often ascribed to this art form in the West.


While the medium of film was introduced to Ghana by private businessmen,[6] who opened cinemas in urban areas and employed cinema vans to tour the country side (especially the cocoa—growing areas) in the course of the 1920s,[7] the Information Services Department of the colonial government actively engaged in film only in 1940.[8] It drove its green-yellow Bedford buses all around the colony and assembled people at spaces in the open air in order “to show documentary films and newsreels to explain the colonial government’s policies to people in towns and villages free of charge” (Sakyi 1996: 9). An important aspect of this information service was propaganda films about the Second World War which were produced by the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) in London (cf. Diawara 1992: 3). After the war, the unit also started to produce educational films and a number of feature films which were screened in Britain’s African colonies. Contrasting the Western and African way of life, these films represented the former as an embodiment of “civilization” and the latter as “backward” and “superstitious” customs to be left behind (cf. Diawara 1992: 3; Ukadike 1994: 44ff.).[9] Film was thus closely related to governmental and imperial interests and employed to create loyal subjects. Placing film in the service of “civilization”, the CFU avoided screening films that criticized or ridiculed aspects of Western life, thereby denying Africans access to the whole field of Western cinematic representation (cf. Diawara 1992: 1).

The Gold Coast Film Unit, which was to produce local films, took up themes particularly relevant to the Gold Coast. These movies, too, were to serve colonial interests and the attention was on “purposes of better health, better crops, better living, better marketing and better human co-operation in the colonies” (Middleton—Mends 1995: 1; cf. also Diawara 1992: 5). As these objectives were thought to be best achieved “on the native soil with native characters” (Middleton-Mends ibid.), from 1948 onwards the unit started training African filmmakers.[10] Similar film units existed in other parts of British colonial Africa, and their products were mutually exchanged and shown to audiences all over British colonial Africa.

In a very interesting publication, Morton-Williams has presented the results of his research on the reception of so-called fundamental education films by rural Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa audiences in Nigeria, which he conducted for the Colonial Office.[11] “Fundamental education”, as the author explains, refers to attempts by the British Colonial Administration “to instill motives and the requisite technical skills to improve the material conditions of life, and to make it possible to apprehend, in some degree, the relationship of the rural community to the rest of the territory and to the world” (1953: xii). Next to brief descriptions of the content of thirty-four films (made by the CFU in England, film units in Africa and commercial producers) which address topics from “clean cooking” to “the circulation of blood”, his study provides detailed overviews of audience reactions to these films. Although this study focuses on Nigeria, I see no reason to doubt that these and similar films would have been shown in the Gold Coast as well and that audiences would have reacted in similar ways.

According to Morton-Williams, the bulk of the films falls into the categories health films, farming films, and village development films. The basic message of all these films, of course, is a demonstration of the superiority of Western knowledge and of how sticking to traditions not only implies backwardness, but also leads to ill health and poverty. Indeed, in the light of Michael Taussig’s distinction explained earlier, it may be concluded that the films sought to establish colonial authority on the basis of the exposure of existing magical beliefs as false. Here, magic was represented as modernity’s other.

About the Director

Birgit Meyer

Birgit Meyer is a cultural anthropolgist affiliated with the Research Centre Religion and Society. She is currently working on a book about the video film scene in Ghana. She also directs the PIONIER research program — Modern Mass Media, Religion, and the Imagination of Communities — to be conducted throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
“Ghanian Popular Cinema and the Magic in and of Film” reprinted by permision of Birgit Meyer.