Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Africa Joins the World": The Missionary Imagination and the Africa Motion Picture Project in Central Africa, 1937-9

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Africa Joins the World": The Missionary Imagination and the Africa Motion Picture Project in Central Africa, 1937-9

Article excerpt

Introduction

The lights in the church flashed back on as the final credits brought the film to a close. "It [was] better than a dozen missionary addresses," one pastor declared enthusiastically, while another pontificated, "it ought to be shown in every church in America!" (1) The film in question was The Story of Bamba, a collaborative result of eight Protestant mission boards that came together in 1937 under the auspices of the recently formed Africa Committee of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America. (2) The Africa Committee, spearheaded by Disciples of Christ missionary Emory Ross, inaugurated the "Africa Motion Picture Project" (AMPP) primarily to expand funding and recruitment in American churches for foreign mission boards. (3) This two year experiment in producing missionary films in Central Africa on the eve of the World War Two broke new ground for its technical quality and provided a rare look into the life-world of the BaKuba and other African communities from a missionary perspective.

Relying primarily on the AMPP films, production files, and newly discovered journals, scrapbooks and an unpublished autobiography of the principal filmmakers, this essay focuses on the increasingly central role of the arts in the construction of "Africa" in the interwar world, reflecting the shift in European interventions in the sub-Sahara from shooting Africans and animals in the era of late nineteenth century conquest to shooting images in the era of twentieth century colonial consolidation. (4) Ross's film crew - the newlyweds Ray and Virginia Garner - produced approximately ten films in less than two years. (5) Shooting in Central African villages under trying climatic conditions, the project sought to reinvigorate awareness of missionary endeavors in addition to establishing a more secure footing for Protestants in the Congo, given the general hostility of Catholic missions and the Belgian colonial state to these Protestant interventions.

While this special issue has problematized the role of 'place' in the production and consumption of the arts, Julia Foulkes has rightly said in the introduction to this collection that this conceptualization must strive to be inclusive of those art forms fashioned on the margins or "out of place." The AMPP provides a rather stark example of how a new western tool of representation was imported into the colonial peripheries, with a production process that involved what Foucault might refer to as a disciplinary function by requiring Central Africans to memorize lines, retake scenes, fabricate sets, and wait for clouds to clear. Furthermore, it tells us about the instability of 'place' as it is generated and represented in the arts, especially in those large swaths of the globe recently decolonized, where stereotypical images and perceptions have historically functioned as a central means of cultural subjection. In this arena, 'place' functions less as a geographic marker than it does an overdetermined cultural signifier, a repository for multiple and often competing agendas. The AMPP films were first conceived in New York, produced in Central Africa, and then returned to the United States for editing and exhibition. The films call into question the seemingly stable and all-pervasive effects of Western stereotyping generated through the arts by a greater focus on the point of production in the field and display the importance of both stereotypical and material "place" in the construction of these images.

A poignant example in a similar context highlights the importance of 'place' in unpacking the relations of power inherent in artistic production. During the filming of De Voortrekkers (1916) in South Africa, colonial officials had fretted about the possible downside of arming a large contingent of "Zulus" (in fact they were black mineworkers of varying ethnic backgrounds hired as extras) as they tried to recreate the famous "Battle of Blood River. …

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