In Conversation with Alessandro Jedlowski
Alessandro Jedlowski works in the areas of cultural anthropology, visual arts, communication and media. He is a Fond Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique FNRS post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale et culturelle, University of Liège, Belgium and a member of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Africa, University of Naples “L’Orientale”. His main research interests include African cinema, media and migration, urban culture, contemporary African visual arts, the economy and politics of cultural production in Africa, piracy and informality in African media industries.He has conducted research fieldwork in Nigeria, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Congo, Senegal and Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire.
Jedlowski has also worked as a lecturer at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Italy and at the University of Liège, Belgium, and as festival organizer and artistic director in Italy and Portugal, as consultant to the UNESCO and the UK-based Bertha Foundation, and as an independent documentary filmmaker and producer. He has authored numerous publications in international academic journals and has edited many collections of essays. Adebimpe Adebambo and Oliver Enwonwu chat with him about his interests and research work on the African continent.
Please tell us why you are very interested in the African continent and why your research work focuses on visual arts, media, culture and cinema in Africa?
I began to be interested in the African continent before entering the university. At the time, I was surprised by the stereotypical representation about the African continent circulating in Western media – always the same images. They are either beautiful landscapes and wild animals, or famine, wars, poverty and disasters. I was curious to go beyond these stereotypes, to better understand what was happening in the continent, what was her reality, and how African people were interpreting it. I come from southern Italy, and the early 2000s, migrants had already started crossing over from northern Africa, provoking misleading media representations about Africa and about people’s reasons for travelling towards Europe. From Calabria (the Italian region I come from), northern Africa is very close. Historically, northern Africa and southern Europe have had many contacts, many exchanges. The Mediterranean Sea has long been a place of encounter. But today it has become a border, a frontier. The region I come from has also become a periphery of an European Union very much built on the basis of cultural and political views that come mostly from central and northern Europe. This is why when I began to study African cultures and societies; it was not only to respond to my curiosity, but also as a personal political response to the way Europe is being constructed. I wanted to look southward rather than northward, to find cultural, political and artistic models in the south rather than in the north, in Africa rather than in Europe. For me, the best way of doing this was to study and understand the African continent through the production of African intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers. I’ve always been very interested in cinema and the visual arts. I believe they are fundamental means of expression in today’s world – they shape the way we see the world. African images are also particularly interesting for me because they are one of the most valuable tools to counter the stereotypical representations of the continent that circulate worldwide.
In your opinion, what have been the contributions of Africa and indeed Nigeria to world cinema?
African cinema has contributed a lot to world cinema, in many ways. It would take too long to talk about the amazing work of the many African filmmakers whose works have been influential to me, such as Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambery, Safi Faye, Haile Gerima, Ola Balogun, Abdherramane Sissako and Jean Pierre Bekolo. These artists have contributed in proposing to the world another, more complex, nuanced, dynamic understandings of African realities. They have been able to translate into images the rich imagery of many different African societies, and show the transformation these societies were living in the postcolonial period. Over the past few years, my main focus of research has been Nollywood’s economy and modes of operation. And in this sense I can say that Nollywood has offered a fundamental contribution to both world cinema and African cinema. It is the first major film industry in the world to develop entirely in the post-celluloid era – something that makes of it some sort of avant-garde of the transformations happening worldwide in terms of cinema format and relationship with technology. In what concerns Africa, then, Nollywood has been fundamental in showing African people’s appetite for African images and in experimenting ways to make film production and distribution economically viable in the continent, without the support of external agents such as cooperation agencies and foreign funds.
Today, migration is very topical. In the course of your study what trends have you noticed in Africa over the years?
Migration is a hot topic, in Africa as in Europe. My feeling is that the media has had a big impact on influencing this phenomenon. The fact that today (and at least since the 80s) young Africans are constantly exposed to media images of the Western world pushes them to build expectations that are hard to achieve locally. The images of the West they have access to (Hollywood films, TV series, advertising and so on) offer a stereotypical image, which has little to do with the reality, but offers very seductive models of consumption, wealth and welfare. Another factor that has strongly impacted on migration is the politics of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s. Until then, migration fluxes to Europe (and the West more generally) were stale and never reached the numbers we see today. But after Structural Adjustments, the economies of many countries including Nigeria collapsed, forcing people to look for alternatives elsewhere. Unfortunately, today’s fall of the oil price is imposing on Nigeria and other African countries the same conditions that provoked mass migration in the 1980s and 90s. Criminal organizations thrive in this kind of situation, and today organizations such as the Italian and the Nigerian mafias play a very significant role in organizing migration itineraries, to gain huge amounts of money from it. In relation to these phenomena, African films have a very important role. They are able to create a bridge between Africa and Europe. They translate and make understandable to European viewers the expectations, dreams, and everyday life of young Africans. And on the other side they often make an attempt at showing the hardship of migration, the reality that exists beyond the Eldorado narrative of much media representations about the West circulating in Africa. They are definitely an instrument of intercultural dialogue that can help give a better face to frame the complexity of the migration phenomenon both in Africa and in Europe.
Please tell us about your work as a consultant to UNESCO.
I had a minor role in the writing of the Creative Economy report, in 2013. I was asked to write two short reports on the basis of my knowledge and previous researches on African cinema. One report was about the impact of new technologies on African cinema, and about the increase in video film production all over the continent. And the second one was a short report about the FESPACO, the pan-African film festival that takes place in Ouagadougou every two years since 1969. The report is free and available on line (www.unesco.org/culture/pdf/creative-economy-report-2013.pdf). It’s a very good tool for all those who are interested in the creative economies in Africa. The same year, I worked as a consultant for Bertha Foundation, and Anglo-South African foundation that supports documentary film production and dissemination. I collaborated on the production of a report on the state of documentary film production around Africa. It was a wonderful experience and it made me learn a lot about documentary filmmaking around Africa. This report is also free and available online (http://adff.org/) and is a very good tool for people who want to learn more about documentary film production around the continent.
You have conducted extensive research work in East and West Africa. What similarities and differences do you find in the cultures and media industries in these regions and how has film promoted cross-cultural ties?
In West Africa I worked mostly in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, while in East Africa I worked mostly in Ethiopia. These three countries are extremely different in terms of their history, cultures and current political organization. It would take too long to discuss all these differences in detail. Let me only say that the three countries have a very interesting history of filmmaking. In Ethiopia what is maybe the most remarkable aspect of cinema history is the relationship with Russia. Most early Ethiopian filmmakers went to study in Russia in the 1970s and 80s and this resulted in a strong tradition of technical skills. Since the 1970s, what might be the most remarkable feature in Côte d’Ivoire, is the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the film environment. You can find Cameroonians, Rwandans, Senegalese, Nigerians and Haitians working together on the same project. This is a legacy of the openness of Abidjan’s economic and cultural scene during Houphouet-Boigny’s time. When analogue and digital technologies arrived the three countries took very different itineraries. This is an aspect I’m particularly interested in in my research. In the three countries people quickly took up the VHS technology and began filming their own stories, however, the film industries that emerged from it are profoundly different. In the south, the Nigerian video film industry (Nollywood) is well known for having developed a straight-to-video system of distribution, in Ethiopia video film production has begun to thrive only when locally produced video films have been accepted for screening into the few still existing, state-owned theatre halls. Today, local film production is booming, cinemas are being built all over the country and cinema-going culture is thriving. On the contrary, in Côte d’Ivoire producers have oriented themselves toward television and, within a context characterized by a protracted political and economic crisis, the introduction of digital technologies have brought about the emergence of a dynamic and successful TV series industry, which has made of Abidjan, one of the leading cities for the production of visual popular culture in sub-Saharan Africa.
What have been your challenges so far in your research and field trips in terms of funding and language?
In terms of funding, I have been lucky enough to gain the support of generous academic institutions and foundations, which gave me the opportunity to travel regularly to different African countries. In particular, I received scholarships from the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, from the European Union (for the programme Marie Curie), the University of Liege and from the Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS). Regarding language, I am able to speak English and French fluently, and to speak a little bit of Portuguese. These languages helped me a lot in traveling around the continent. I made an attempt at learning Yoruba before beginning my research in Nigeria, but when I arrived in Lagos it was very hard to practice. Lagos is such a cosmopolitan city, and everyone is in a rush – so I ended up speaking English with everyone, and learning a bit of Pidgin. But I still would love to learn Yoruba properly, as well as Amharic (the Ethiopian national language) but to do so I believe that I will have to go in smaller cities and focus solely on learning the language – in fact, learning a new language is not something one can do properly while engaging in another research project.
What impact has the emergence of Chinese media corporations on the production and distribution of Nigerian and African films?
It is probably still too early to say what the real impact is, but in general I’m convinced that Chinese media corporations can have an important and positive effect. If you think about StarTimes for instance, it had an important role in balancing the power of DSTV/Multichoice and in offering more affordable options to sub-Saharan African subscribers, making satellite television accessible to a wider stratum of the population. In terms of news making, the arrival of Xinha News and CCTV Africa has helped to further diversify the landscape. There is however, a risk of these companies becoming too powerful to the point of inhibiting the emergence of local competitors. But this is not a concern I have only in relation to the Chinese companies. I believe that today there are many big corporations (Canal Plus, IROKOtv, DSTV, etc), which are investing a lot in African media and there is a palpable risk of them overtaking the role of local entrepreneurs. There is presently something of a corporate takeover of African media production and distribution around Africa. I see it as dangerous for local producers and marketers. However, it is hard to say how things could evolve; this is a very exciting time for African cinema and media and things change very rapidly.
How have advances in technology contributed to film production and distribution in Africa and how can they be used to curb piracy?
I think that the introduction of new technologies had a fundamental role in the development of African film and media production. Phenomena like Nollywood and the other video film industries that have emerged all over Africa over the past 10 to 15 years could hardly have existed without the revolution introduced by cheaper and more manageable technologies such as the VHS and later digital cameras, VCDs and DVDs. The Internet, satellite televisions and mobile phones also offer great opportunities, particularly with regards the control of film distribution. However, Internet and satellite televisions require much larger investments than what VHS and VCD distribution previously demanded. This makes the business much less open to small entrepreneurs such as those who used to control the video industry in its early years. I have the feeling that with these new technologies, only an elite of businessmen and big corporations can control the market and benefit from it. But again, it is probably too early to give a conclusive opinion on these transformations. In what concerns piracy, it is obviously a very big problem, and it affects all media industries around the world. In Nigeria, it reaches levels that are almost paradoxical. However, at times I’m tempted to think that piracy is less a result of the technological specificities of the Nigerian film industry, than the result of a number of social and political contrasts dividing the industry. In particular, today, I see a very sharp division between marketers, independent producers and big corporations such as IROKOtv and the others. These three categories of actors are often trying to protect diverging interests, and this pushes them to clash. Piracy is at least partly a result of this dynamic.
How has popular culture influenced and blurred boundaries between TV and cinema in Africa?
In my view, more than popular culture, it is the history of technological penetration in Africa that helped to blur the boundaries between cinema and television. Digital and analogue technologies arrived on the continent at a time when, as a result of the economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 80s, cinema production and cinema going culture were collapsing. People who had various experiences in television production, theatre or in cinema converged towards the new medium and participated in shaping a new format, the so-called “video film”, which revolutionized media production around Africa. This prefigured the blurring of formats and genres that exist everywhere around the world today. Compared to twenty/thirty years ago, today it is much harder to define precisely what constitutes cinema and what constitutes television. Even in Hollywood, most productions are made in digital format, and actors, directors and crews move back and forth between the television and the film industry.
You are also an independent documentary filmmaker and producer. What themes do you mostly work across?
I did a few documentary films in the past, mostly to illustrate some aspects related to the researches I was doing. In 2006, for instance, I worked on a documentary film on theatre production in Brazzaville, Congo while I was doing a research there for my MA at the University of Rome. In 2008, I worked on a documentary about the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary Arts (Dak’Art) as part of a dissertation project for the University of London. In this sense, I worked on many different topics, and so documentary films have been more like an illustration of larger written works that I was doing for the university rather than independent works. The last work I made was a more elaborate project, part of the exercises to graduate at a visual art school I attended in Lisbon, Portugal. I produced a number of portraits of young artists who where attending the school with me, and put them together as a video installation. It was fun, and it made me want to experiment more with visual production. However, a few months after completing that project I got the scholarship for my PhD on Nigerian films and since then, haven’t had the time to go back to film production.
Are you working on any documentary or media project at the moment and can you tell us about it?
I’m not unfortunately. I have in mind a documentary film project about the region I come from in southern Italy, but it is at a very early stage of the writing process, and I cannot say much about it.
April 14, 2021
March 25, 2021