As my research interests have increasingly broadened to the various historical and contemporary uses of mobile cinema van technology across Sub-Saharan Africa, I was recently very excited to learn about Challenge Enterprises of Ghana’s mobile cinema van program called Challenge Cinema Today. This company largely focuses on the selling of bibles and other Christian literature uses mobile cinema vans to bring Ghanaians living in rural remote parts of the country “to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ” through the showing of free gospel films.
The Challenge Cinema Today program started in 1980 with only one mobile cinema van but has since grown. There are now eight vans in the fleet; each assigned to cover a different region in Ghana. Typically each mobile cinema van is manned by two trained evangelists/drivers, who undertake approximately 22 – 26 nights of film shows per trip. Unlike the government Information Service Department mobile cinema vans, the Challenge vans are much bigger providing space for two matrices and a small kitchenette so that the mobile cinema van operators have a place to sleep and prepare food while they are on the road.
After meeting the spirited head of the mobile cinema van program, Reverend Roy Asiamah, I was invited to tag along with a mobile cinema van crew for a free gospel film show on Friday March 25th, 2011 in Accra. In addition to traveling to rural areas Challenge Cinema Today is often hired by different Christian churches from all denominations (excluding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses) in Accra to put on gospel film shows for the benefit of their congregations or to bolster church attendance and gain new church members. The show I was invited to was an example of the latter.
I met up with Ben, the mobile cinema van driver/pastor, at Tetteh Quarshie Circle. From there we drove through East Legon. I watched as we rolled by one mansion after another until we reached a community on the north-eastern edge of the district where many Ghanaian families are squatting in large unfinished houses that are being built piecemeal by Ghanaian’s living abroad. In fact, the Pentecostal church that had hired the mobile cinema van for the evening is in a similar situation to many of the people in the community. The church’s congregation of about 25 has been meeting for the past two years under a temporary canopy on the unfinished property of a Ghanaian who is currently living in the United States. They have permission from the landowner but are unable to construct any type of temporary structure other than the canopy that they are currently using.
We arrived at 5pm and met up with the church’s pastor. By 5:30pm we were ready to drive around the community to make an announcement about the film show. However, Ben’s partner, who usually makes the announcements while Ben drives, had not arrived. Ben decided to begin anyway. The church pastor and I hopped into the cab of the van to begin the rounds. Ben, speaking into the microphone as he drove, announced in English and Twi, “Free cinema show… 7 o’clock… latest gospel film show… award film…” while the pastor directed him through the windy, rough roads of the community.
At about 6:30 we returned to the spot in the community designated for the show. Ben’s partner was waiting for us and the two of them immediately went to work setting up the screen. It was already getting quite dark, but the two of them had so much experience setting up the screen and other equipment they were done in less than thirty minutes. The screen was set up behind the van on tall polls that reach above the height of the van so that people could see the screen from the other side if they sat around 50 feet from the van. The projector was set up inside the van pointing out a window at the screen. The distance was perfect and the image lined up nicely on the screen.
Like the Information Service Department vans they began the night by playing music but in this case it was specifically gospel music rather than popular Ghanaian music like highlife or hiplife. Then they began a teaser film from the 1980s about missionaries in the Philippines. While this film was playing Ben announced to the audience a summary of the film’s plot as well as information about the film show in general trying to increase the numbers in the audience. After about 15 minutes they stopped the movie and the pastor led the audience in prayer. Then they began the feature film, Escape from Hell. The films that Challenge uses are mostly independent films whose producers have given Challenge their permission to show for free in Ghana. The film Escape from Hell was a low budget independent movie about “Doctor Eric” who attempts to find out about the afterlife by self inducing death for 6 minutes while his doctor friends try to revive him. He finds that hell does exist and upon waking is chased by a demon to a church where a pastor leads him to accept Jesus Christ as his savor.
Ben provided commentary on the film in Twi for the audience, often summarizing the plot rather than providing a direct translation of the English script. At the beginning of the film he asked the audience, which was mostly composed of children, to repeat back the name of the main characters. During lulls in the action, particularly at emotional scenes between the characters, Ben would announce the Christian books that were for sale. At least 15 people bought books during and after the film. When the DVD playback stopped because of scratches on the disk they skipped to the next chapter. At the end of the film, Ben stuck his head out the window of the van and called the children around him. He then summarized the moral of the story for the children and had them repeat a prayer with him. The children were then given a free pamphlet on how to develop a lasting relationship with God while the adults in the audience were invited to meet the church pastor, to accept Jesus and give their contact information to the church if they were interested in attending future meetings.
On reflection, I am amazed by the similarities between the Challenge cinema show, the colonial era film shows that I’ve read about and the Information Service Department film shows I’ve had described to me. I find it interesting that while the technology has been used for very different purposes for the past 70 years—to create modern imperial subjects, a democratic citizenry and Christian converts—the cinematic performance hasn’t changed much.
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