Piety in Production: Video Filmmaking as Religious Encounter in Bénin
This dissertation considers the production of video films by Nàgó–Yorùbá creators along Bénin’s southeastern border with Nigeria. There they find themselves at the margins of three better-funded arts industries with contrasting attitudes toward Nàgó–Yorùbá culture and aesthetics. In Nigeria, much of the Nollywood video film industry supports belonging to global religious movements, such as Pentecostal Christianity and Reformist Islam, all the while portraying indigenous religion as diabolical. The art-film scene of Bénin often dismisses West African video films as amateurish. Finally, Bénin’s state arts programs promote the Vodun religion of the coast as a tourist attraction yet deny Nàgó–Yorùbá people compensation for the state’s appropriation of their religious arts into the category of “Vodun.” Against this backdrop, video filmmakers use movies to celebrate indigenous religion and culture, to promote religious ecumenism, and to seek new sources of material support. Nevertheless, Nigerian media saturates the marketplace in Bénin so that very few local video films can earn a profit. My study thus seeks to determine how Nàgó–Yorùbá media practitioners persist in the face of such precarious conditions. I ask how the production of media becomes a forum to debate and establish norms of community and religious practice, how national identity, religious affiliation, and professional prestige affect negotiations over religious attitudes and conceptions of community, and how the open style of production in Bénin allows a diverse group of people—media professionals and others—to participate in the debates and discussions that shape media projects.
My work is based on twenty-two months of ethnographic fieldwork at the Bénin–Nigeria border. During this time, I learned moviemaking from video filmmakers directly, acting in their productions, learning camerawork and editing, and eventually producing my own video film. I argue that Nàgó–Yorùbá video filmmakers make video movies because doing so is a community-sustaining endeavor. These efforts grant video filmmakers a prominent status in their communities as recognizable and relatable faces, and as the conveners of social activities on sets and in studios where they mingle and discuss productions with colleagues and audience members. This intimacy turns video filmmaking into what I call a production public, a group whose activities not only create media, but also negotiate the audiovisual aesthetics by which religion and culture are shown on screen. In the face of disappearing profits and intense competition, their activities are precarious, but as long as this public continues to make media, video filmmakers assume the role of moral authorities in the community while working with audiences and patrons to shape attitudes toward religious ecumenism, morality, and ethical engagement with regional and global forces. The public crafts an image of ideal community behavior that supports indigenous Nàgó–Yorùbá religion, rejects religious strife, and looks for ways to export its moral outlook to others.
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