The recent British Film Institute’s archival and scholarly project, “Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire”, has sparked interest in the history of colonial cinema. However little research or archival preservation is being done in former British colonies such as Ghana. As a Fulbright scholar in Ghana I will be studying how the Cinema Van program, a legacy of colonialism, has been incorporated into current Ghanaian national political ideologies. My project will include the creation of an ethnographic and historical research paper, archival conservation and preservation of films used on the Cinema Van tours that are currently housed in Ghanaian archives, and the creation of a short documentary about the Cinema Van program.
In 1939 Britain’s Ministry of Information set up the Colonial Film Unit in London to produce 16mm World War II propaganda films. These films, meant to encourage British colonies to support the British war effort with raw materials and new recruits, were exhibited throughout the colonies in Cinema Vans equipped with 16mm sound projectors, microphone amplification and cinema screens attached to the rear of the van’s roof. Britain only started supporting filmmaking within the colonies after World War II when independence became an eminent goal for the colonies. After Ghana achieved its independence in 1957 state sponsored films were produced by the Ghana Film Unit and later the Ghana Film Industry Corporation. These nationalist films continued to be exhibited across the country in Cinema Vans. Surprisingly the Cinema Van exhibition program is still in place today, albeit with video instead of film. The Cinema Van program is currently housed under the Cinema Section of Ghana’s Information Services Department [ISD] a division of the Ministry of Information.
My research will look at the changes in Ghana’s political rationality through a close examination of the use of the state-run Cinema Van units from the late 1940s to today. I will ask what role the Cinema Vans played in shaping the transformation of British colonial subjects into audiences of Ghanaian citizens and what purpose the Cinema Vans, a key feature of the development state, fulfill in current Ghanaian political rationality. My research will also question how audiences interpret the films shown on Cinema Van tours, an area that is crucially understudied, by asking whether the Cinema Van film experience is interpreted in ways that are unintended by the Ghanaian governments. In this way, my research and resulting paper will explore the Cinema Van unit as a site of subjectification from the mid-20th century to today.
To accomplish this I will conduct oral histories from current and former ISD staff, inquiring into institutional history as well as their personal experience with the Cinema Van units throughout the decades and I will conduct ethnographic research while traveling with a Cinema Van unit across the country. In addition I will also use the films and paper documentation at the ISD Film Library to conduct historical research on colonial and Kwame Nkrumah era Cinema Van tours.
In June 2009 I spent a five-week internship as part of my graduate studies in moving image archiving and preservation inspecting films in the ISD Film Library collection. The collection consists of over 5,500 films, newsreels, documentaries, and features dating from the 1940s to the early 1990s. A large number of these films were originally distributed using Cinema Vans. Many of these films are unique and exist nowhere else in the world. These films are essential to my research, but because the collection is in dire physical condition many of the films remain inaccessible. Over half of the 125 films that I inspected last year were in late stages of decomposition or exhibited major biological contaminants such as bacteria or mold. Considering the storage conditions, high temperatures and high humidity, it is remarkable how many films are still in relatively good condition and can be saved with proper conservation and preservation actions. Thus, in addition to conducting original research I will also work to promote academic access to this rare collection by volunteering my skills as a trained moving image archivist. I will train ISD staff in new film conservation and preservation principles so that the skills of ISD staff will continue to develop, strengthening the organization for the long-term.
*Disclaimer: This is not an official US Department of State Website. The views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US State Department. For more information about the Fulbright Program please visit: http://www.iie.org/en/Fulbright/ and http://fulbright.state.gov/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.