Challenge Cinema Today – Christian Mobile Cinema

Mobile cinema van

Mobile cinema van

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.

Ben the mobile cinema van driver/pastor inside the van.

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.

Ben and his partner setting up the cinema 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.

"Escape from Hell"

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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Rural Film Shows Revived (1970)

Government publication circa 1970 found in University of Ghana, Legon Balme Library

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Independence Day Bolex

In honor of Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations which happened earlier this month on March 6th, here is a little movie morsel from the archives of “Ghana’s biggest selling newspaper since 1950.”

Daily Graphic - January 10, 1957 (photo compliments of Fred Pratt)

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FESPACO 2011 – African Cinema and Markets

This post was featured on The Afropop Blog, the official blog of Afropop Worldwide. Afropop Worldwide is an internationally syndicated weekly radio series, online guide to African and world music, and an international music archive, that has introduced American listeners to the music cultures of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean since 1988. Check it out here.

At FESPACO headquarters

I would call the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) a festival rather than just a “film festival.” In many ways the celebration of Panafrican film and television is just an excuse for the city to let loose. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took a 24-hour bus from Accra to Ouagadougou until I reached the gates of Stade du 4 Août, the largest stadium in the country, for the opening night. The people waiting in a queue to get into the stadium were filled with glee. Children wearing FESPACO visors were stuffing candy in their mouths as their parents dragged them to their seats, while groups of teenagers schemed about how skip the line and get seats closer to the field. Once we sat down the next performer, the Togolese band Toofan, was announced and the audience roared with excitement. Following Toofan’s energetic performance began the “Youth in Dream” dance performance staged by well-known choreographer Salia Sanou. Over 300 brightly costumed dancers filled the stadium grounds dancing to a mix of traditional and contemporary drumbeats. The performance gathered momentum as exciting, unexpected performances were revealed. To a dramatic drumbeat tall men on stilts came dancing onto the field followed by acrobats and contortionists. Lastly a troupe of equestrians appeared to steal the show by performing acrobatic stunts on their horses as they rode around the stadium. Finally to end the evening there was a 20-minute fireworks display so close to my end of the stadium that I could see glowing embers falling onto unsuspecting audience members.

Opening ceremony at Stade du 4 Août

The exhilaration and merriment of the opening night carried on throughout the festival. Each night festival goers walked from theater to theater between movies, stopping for a bottle of Flag at the Institut Français or perhaps pommes frites and mayonnaise outside the Cinè-Neerwaya. The dusty Ouaga night air created a fuzzy glow around the street lamps, invoking the light of the movie projectors inside the theaters.

Unlike most festival goers I camped out at one theater, Cinè-Burkina, even though it meant watching French-language films that I couldn’t understand but whose images were compelling enough to hold my interest. During the screening of Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s La Mosquèe my boyfriend translated the French subtitles for me the best he could, mostly summarizing the dialogue after the end of a scene. Five minutes into the film he turned to me and said, “This is the point in the film where the fourth wall comes tumbling down.”

"La Mosquèe" (Morocco) by Daoud Aoulad-Syad

FESPACO was founded in 1969 by serious cinéastes and luminous African filmmakers, but it wasn’t until January 7th 1972 that it was made a public institution by government decree. The biennial festival is held the last Saturday in February every odd year. The Grand prize of FESPACO is the Etalon d’Or de Yennenga or the Gold Stallion of Yennenga. In addition to the FESPACO film and television festival FESPACO is also home to one of the most established film archives in the sub-region. Founded in 1989, it was once home to nearly 2000 films and 1000 film documents. Unfortunately a devastating flood in 2009 damaged many of the items in the collection. However two thirds of the collection was saved and a new building for the African Film Library with climate-controlled vaults was unveiled at this years FESPACO festival.

New FESPACO African Film Library (photo from FESPACO News 26-02-2011)

While I was only able to catch the first part of the festival of what I saw these two films really stood out: Notre Etrangère (The Place in Between) by Sarah Bouyain (Burkina Faso/France) and Un Transport en Commun (Saint Louis Blues) by Dyana Gaye (Senegal).

Notre Etrangère (The Place in Between) was the winner of two FESPACO awards: the Prix de l’Union Européenne (European Union Prize) and the Prix Oumarou Ganda given in honor of internationally renowned Nigerian filmmaker Oumarou Ganda for the best first feature film. Notre Etrangère is the story of Amy, the daughter of a Burkinabé mother and a white French father, who spent most of her adult years in France with her father’s French family, but who decides to return to Burkina Faso to reunite with her mother. Amy’s story is juxtaposed with the story of a 45 year old Burkinabé women living in France as a cleaner who starts tutoring a middle-aged, middle class white women in the Dioula African language. This film manages to be insightful, touching and humorous: creating complex connections between Europe, Africa and the Africa Diaspora with an ingenious subtlety.

Un Transport en Commun (Saint Louis Blues) is a campy Senegalese musical set to 1960s-inspired rock and roll. The story follows several characters as they take a trip in a bush taxi from Dakar to Saint Louis. Granted I don’t speak a word of French, except for the standard bonjour and merci, so most of this movie’s details were lost on me. However, the many musical numbers, some of the most notable having Senegalese cabbies dancing on or singing from their cabs, was enough to make this film a win for any Anglophone or Francophone. For more information about this 2009 short fiction check out the African Women in Cinema blog for an interview with the director.

Etalon d’Or de Yennenga (Gold Stallion of Yennenga)
Pegase, Moftakir Mohamed (Morocco)

Etalon d’Argent de Yennenga (Silver Stallion of Yennenga)
Un Homme qui Crie, Mahamat Haroun Saley (Chad)

Etalon de Bronze de Yennenga (Bronze Stallion of Yennenga)
Le mec idéal, Owell A. Brown (Côte d’Ivoire)

Premier Prix du Documentaire (First Place Documentary)
Monica Wangu Wamwere -The Unbroken Spirit, Jane Murago-Munene (Kenya)

Deuxième Prix du Documentaire (Second Place Documentary)
Witches of Gambaga, Yaba Badoe (Ghana)

Troisième Prix du Documentaire (Third Place Documentary)
Indochine sure les traces d’une mère, Idrissou Mora-KpaÏ (Benin)

Music at Cinè-Burkina between screenings

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The Search for Opera — aka Ghallywood

My second Accra historic movie house quest was to find the famed Opera Theatre. I choose this theatre as my next pursuit because I remembered noticing the façade when haggling for a “She’s a Devil” Nollywood movie poster back in 2004. While I didn’t know the precise location of the building I had a hunch about where I might have been able to find it. I wandered from Accra’s Tema station, passing the Rex Cinema on my left, towards Melcom and on to the Central Post Office suspecting I would pass the building on my way. Once I reached the Post Office I became a bit perplexed. I was certain that I would have already spotted the building. Dismayed, I retraced my steps. Where had it gone? I began taking pictures of buildings that I thought could have been the theatre until I spotted an archway with “OPERA” written across. Excitedly I wandered through into a courtyard. All over the walls of the building were the words “Opera Shopping Centre.” Was this the same Opera Theatre now a mall?

A man in the courtyard confirmed my suspicions. The reason I had difficulty identifying the building from the front was that the iconic entrance had been completely covered with a new façade for GT Bank, the current tenant. Fortunately, the original historic exterior remains, only now hidden underneath a modern mask.

While the building no longer belongs to the movie industry, its surrounds are dominated by it. Opera Square is the epicenter of the Ghallywood, the Ghana movie industry. All around the Opera Theatre building you will find giant movie posters advertising the newest release, upstart production companies and market stalls selling VCDs from Nollywood, Bollywood and of course Ghana’s own Ghallywood. I stopped, bought a few and headed home wondering about the origins of Ghana’s video industry convinced that it grew up around the Opera Theatre precisely because its long cinema history made it synonymous with the movies.

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Political Vulgarity in the Margins

“The question of whether humor in the postcolony is an expression of ‘resistance’ or not, whether it is, a priori, opposition, or simply manifestation of hostility toward authority, is thus of secondary importance. For the most part, those who laugh are only reading the signs left, like rubbish, in the wake of the commandment. Hence the image of, say, the president’s anus is not of something out of this world—although, to everyone’s amusement, the official line may treat it as such; instead, people see it as it really is, capable of defecating like any commoner’s.” — Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (2001).

Last December while I was searching the University of Ghana Balme Library for information on mobile cinema vans I came across a series of political publications that had been, let us say, “customized” by students. Publications idealizing the Republic were filed with notes in the margins demarcating an alternative political text at times humorous, vulgar, or both. Photographs depicting unpopular political leaders had their eyes crossed out, photographs depicting the modernization of Ghanaian in the 50s and 60s were juxtaposed with narratives of a demoralizing “present”, while the illustration of a giant phallus sexually assaulted the image of a popular actress.

Accra Tema in Pictures (1969)

Today, the youth are left in the street to rot. Ghana on the Move (1965)

CHEAP MAN! Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

...a high sense of immorality. Ghana on the Move (1965)

I was led to this collection of documents when looking for the 1951 publication Achievement in the Gold Coast: Aspects of Development in a British West African Territory. This book was one of a number of publications published each year by the colonial government to demonstrate the advancements in the Gold Coast colony during the previous year. Filled with large glossy photographs and everyday parlance to describe development projects it is clear these publications served to aggrandize the colonial government for the general public, both within the colony and abroad. The practice of publicizing official government pomp continued after independence and into the present day. It was amongst this genre of publication that I found what I was initially looking for—Achievements in the Gold Coast—and the many other astounding political publications marked in the margins with anonymous political vulgarities.

They kill you!! Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

The Fante Elite. The Roadmakers: A Picture Book of Ghana (1961)

My absolute favorite unofficial addition is on the second to last page in the publication Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 which shows eight disembodied Heads of State, seven of which visited Ghana in 1973, and Colonel I.K. Acheampong, the Ghanaian dictator who played host. The 1970s Brady Bunch layout inspires even the most politically apathetic into jests of government mockery. But it is really the “Oh Kutu? You no dey respect?” written in ink between the overly joyous President Hamani Diori of Niger and Colonel I.K. Acheampong’s penetrating stare, which lovingly as if from a chastising mother jibes at Acheampong’s failed vanity and exposes most vividly Mbembe’s postcolony. While obviously agitated enough to write the comment, the writer wasn’t angry. He doesn’t take a position directly against, but rather questions pointedly from the inside at Acheampong’s pathetic legacy.

Oh Kutu? You no dey respect? Ghana 1974: A Review of 1973 (1974)

I can in my mind, as I have already done, imagine this author. I envision a male Ghanaian student wading through the political propaganda in these publications and feeling impelled to write against the indulgent, portentous and self-gratifying histories as recorded by those then in power. I imagine as a young student his need to point out the absurdity of former regimes, those of his father. But not out of anger, out of something closer to boredom. If we are to take Mbembe seriously when he writes that, “such research must go beyond institutions, beyond formal positions of power, and beyond the written rules, and examine how the implicit and explicit are interwoven, and how the practices of those who command and those who are assumed to obey are so entangled as to render both powerless,” my imagined subject writes vulgar reprehensions not only against but also within the same violence of powerlessness and monotony that afflicts him.

However this historical subject is impossible. Not only because I’ve imagined his feelings and motivations but also because the moment he wrote his comments, whoever he/she was, he has brought an illusive perpetual present to bear upon History. Each comment, unlike the text on which he wrote, exists outside of concrete time. He writes not now and not then, but somewhere between the two. His comments will always effect and be affected by the present unless they can be tied down to a specific time. Now I can only speculate what it would mean if the vandal wrote his comments immediately following the coup that overthrew Akyeampong, or perhaps during the Limman presidency? Or maybe he wrote it after Rawlings had stabilized the country, but during the economic crises of the early 80s. And wouldn’t it be interesting if it was written in the last 10 years, when Ghana is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. I inadvertently acknowledge that the event happened sometime between the book’s publication and December 2010 when I carefully photographed each page, but for the person who picks up Ghana 1974 today “Oh Kutu?” could have been written yesterday. I enjoy considering him and his comments flexible and fluid in this way—straddled between future historians’ subjects and symbols, imaginary and real. I relish his transient ability to appear and reappear in a multiple of pasts and futures.

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Mobile Cinema Van visits Prampram, Ghana

Based on interviews with former ISD mobile cinema commentators these photos were probably taken sometime in the late 1960s.

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Photos from Ghana’s Information Service Department Photo Library.

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