A Black person wears an astronaut suit (a clear globe around their head) in a black and white still.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Essays

Beyond The Colonial Camera

3 Departures

Translated to text by Nuotama Bodomo, based on a keynote delivered by Bodomo at BlackStar's inaugural William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar in March 2021.

Afronauts (2014), dir. Nuotama Bodomo.


Yɛ zimaane. N poɔ pɛlɛɛ la yaga ne yɛ nang yeli ka N wa yeli yɛlɛ ko yɛ Zenɛ.


That was me just thanking everyone in Dagaare for the honor of speaking in front of this very intentionally gathered community. It’s such an honor to be able to speak to an audience I can really share with and get feedback from. 

A few years back, at the BlackStar filmmaker symposium, I got to see [filmmakers] Roni Nicole and Iyabo Kwayana speak about how they constructed their practices, and how their personal lives gave rich material for the subject matter of their films. So jumping off from the gift of those presentations, I wanted to start by sharing a bit about my practice right now: where I’m at, what I’m doing, and how I’m conceiving of film. 

Where I’m at always has a lot to do with what brought me to film: on the one hand, being African and being from the “dark continent,” being from a space that has been so willfully misrepresented by media—so much so that you grow up wanting to punch back, because you’ve seen something a majority of the world doesn’t get access to see. But then, on the other hand, being very diasporic and so, thinking: Let me remix, let me bring together, let me figure out, in my own way, what my traditional and indigenous heritage is [by] using all of the tools at my disposal. This desire to speak truthfully, complexly, and authentically brought me to film.

Even the movie I’ve been sitting with for a very long time now, Afronauts, was introduced to me through a similarly colonial video:

And yet, in popular American film discourse, we get into these linguistic, discursive dead ends, especially around this thing of representation—like Oscars So White and the conversation around why so many historical African American figures are portrayed by Black British actors. These conversations and this sort of protest are very important. However, I’m also just thinking through the year when the Academy finally opened up to  a lot of women and people of color. And I’m looking at that result and wondering if when we frame our protests as “Oscars so white,” we then encase our protest within that institution only. So that institution then responds and opens up, but only to usurp everything that we’re talking about into their own ranks. 

I’m always left wondering if I can truly speak properly and speak to the fullness and the richness that I want to be speaking to, and especially if I can do that with other people. When these questions come up for me, it’s at the scale of infrastructural things, but also at the scale of film-linguistic things, like how to put two shots together. So many threads have come up for me as to whether we can authentically, indigenously speak together using film language. 

One of the threads that has come up is the idea of the colonial camera. I think most of us gathered here would agree that the camera has been used to define us but also to redefine how we define ourselves. So much so that Arthur Jafa said: “It doesn’t matter if a Black person is behind the camera or not, because the camera itself functions as an instrument of the white gaze.”1 So there are these discourses around the camera being something that isn’t for us and wasn’t made for us. 

When I think about the colonial camera, the sort of stereotype that comes up is black-and-white newsreel footage with natives demonstrating native things for educational purposes. A white male, usually British voiceover comes on and explains—not to an audience that includes the natives, but to an audience that includes only the people akin to that white British voice—what the natives are doing. 

But then we can also talk about how the camera itself was used to administer the colonial era. In Ghana, we had these movies like Mr. Mensah Builds A House (1955) or other educational films that would teach natives how to wash their hands and dress for an interview and clean up and be better citizens, be better colonial subjects. In this way, the camera had its place just in terms of administering the colonial era. And some of the earliest film practitioners in Ghana were making these colonial-educational movies, so those legacies definitely run deep.


Faces Of Africa - Mukuka Nkoloso: The Afronaut - CGTN Africa

So even though this video is not produced in the colonial era, you’re still getting this setup: camera pointed at native people doing “wacky” things; a news reporter who takes the place of the colonial voiceover explainer. And even in trying to be a “nice white person” by explaining to his white audience that the people here aren’t what Zambians are—that Zambians are rational—he still others the people here that are being filmed and shown to us as crackpots. Beyond that, we only have free access to this video through this “50 Terrible Ideas” lampoon show. Only through this extra filter of, “we’re laughing at them” do we even have access to this video of the Afronauts. 

So even outside of an expressly colonial context, these dynamics are still at play. It’s part of the reason why I was so captured by this story. 

When it comes to the colonial camera, I also want to speak beyond something that feels like it’s stuck to a previous era and talk about how contemporary media plays into these dynamics around the camera being colonial. I want to talk about the image of Africa that still affects how Africans see ourselves today.

What I’m going to show is a video from the Live 8 benefit concert that happened in 2005 on the twentieth anniversary of 1985’s Live Aid concert. This all came out of the success of Band Aid, when a lot of British superstars (like Sting and Bono and Bob Geldof) came together to record the hit 1984 song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise money for the Ethiopian hunger crisis. So, we’re in the context of this charity song—British people coming together to show you just how bad it is in Africa so that you will donate money. To enact this, they reinforce that we, the British, are generous and good people.2 

The Ethiopian hunger crisis was from 1983 to 1985, so we’re talking thirty-five, thirty-six years ago. That’s how young this image of Africa—potbellied kids, everyone’s dying of hunger, they have nothing, they’re destitute, we must give them charity—really is. That’s how young this very specific vision of Africa is. And it was constructed out of this charity industrial complex in which you have to necessarily show that people are suffering to incite people to donate. And the pathos of how Bob Geldof is speaking . . . that sort of pathos is needed to collect money, right? And this is even forgetting that, like, Live Aid, the (RED) campaign, and all these sorts of campaigns are constantly being held to task for corruption in getting these funds to the actual people and the percentage of proceeds that go into marketing. That’s even beside the point. 

I really want to talk about the fact that, in the 1980s, a camera was used to film three-year-old Birhan Woldu—the Ethiopian person who now appears in this video as an adult—ten minutes from death. And then that video was paraded around the world for profit. And then twenty years later, she’s now being brought up and paraded on stage as a singular success story. So you’re saying millions of people were dying, and yet you’re parading out this singular example as the reason why what you’re doing works? 

And now, because she and her translator have been given money to come here, they reinforce the dynamic by speaking with this language of “Africa loves you.” 

Beyond what is overtly within the colonial era, these dynamics evolve, but stay put. 

I am not one to disagree when somebody says the camera is colonial. However, as a filmmaker, as somebody who’s been doing this since she was a teenager and as somebody who has really honed this skill and really understands what a camera is as a tool, it’s very hard to just sit back and say, OK, the camera is colonial. 

So I start to think through what I can offer to complicate some of the thinking behind constructing the camera as colonial. I’m going to present just a few things. 

The first is stills from the Congolese photographer, Jean Depara. I’m situating Jean Depara within African studio and fashion photography of the 1960s. That’s Malick Sidibe. That’s James Barnor. Just across the continent, there were photographers setting up studios for party and fashion photography. And for me, this is an example of how dynamics do shift when the person holding the camera shifts. It’s not to erase the power dynamics, because there’s always going to be a power dynamic, but to give examples of how they shift. I start to theorize people as maybe wanting to be photographed. Obviously, all I can offer here is conjecture. I don’t know enough about who was photographed here. I can only look from the photographs as presented, but I start to see possibilities of other ways that people can be in front of the camera. 


Four dancers sitting on a platform, Kinshasa, ca. 1955-1965. All are Black and wear dresses.
Four dancers sitting on a platform, Kinshasa, ca. 1955-1965. © Photo Jean DEPARA / courtesy Estate of Depara - Revue Noire Paris.
A group of Sapeurs seated in front of glasses of Primus beer, Kinshasa, ca.1955-1965.
A group of Sapeurs seated in front of glasses of Primus beer, Kinshasa, ca.1955-1965. © Photo Jean DEPARA / courtesy Estate of Depara - Revue Noire Paris.

I’m thinking about the desire to be documented, the desire to have evidence of your presence. And personally, I connect it to when I go to my village, which is in the Upper West Region of Ghana, and I’m holding a camera. I just have it because I want to take some vague shots and document the trip. . . . Once that camera enters my village, it becomes communal property. It becomes a communal tool. Everybody’s now coming in and directing me: “Take my picture, take my picture.” People want to go away, get dressed, come back, and have their picture taken.

I’m just using some of these examples to complicate what it means to point a camera, and to what extent people want to be filmed versus don’t want to be filmed. 

But beyond changing who’s holding the camera, I also want to think through new media forms. Now I’m thinking about Vines and TikToks, and meme culture, and the fact that Black youth are at the avant-garde of creating new media languages on these platforms. 

The reason I really love this one is that in this one specifically, we have this dynamic between the child in the frame, the person filming, and then the person sitting next to the child. They’re saying, “Do it for the Vine,”—and so referencing this corporate platform, that if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here doing this—but even considering these power dynamics, you can’t negate an intimate moment recorded between family. Let’s say that they love each other. Then those possibilities come into play, and the camera becomes this sort of nexus of play. It’s something to put on and play with and record this moment with. So it’s about documentation and evidence, but it’s also active in this moment, where it’s facilitating a certain play. 

The last thing I’ll offer in terms of just trying to open up a little bit beyond the camera as colonial is how I specifically use the camera as a spiritual tool. I think about the moments in my life when I have been completely down and have kind of lost sight of who I am—I don’t really know where life is going anymore. I’ve had quite a few moments like this in my own spiritual journey, and I’m honest about them. A constant for me has always been that moment when I just pick up the camera and start filming again and start documenting moments as a way to start to work through what’s happening to me. The camera becomes a tool of my own resurrection.

For me, it’s very hard to sit and say that the camera’s colonial and then give it away. There’s too much power in that tool. And as filmmakers—that’s why we’re all gathered here—there’s too much power in this tool to give it away. I think we tend to give too much away to the colonizer. When we want to get back to something that feels pure and pre-colonial and truly ours, we give too much of what we have worked for back to the colonizer. 

In a conversation with my father as I prepared this talk, he reminded me that a lot of the raw materials that are in these cameras most likely originated on the African continent. So in what ways are you denying yourself something that is already yours?

But for me, a more personal way [that] I feel like I’m not going to give over the camera to the colonial or to colo-mentality, is that I think about how Dagaare—the language I spoke at the beginning of this—and English, both share this G sound. And it would be too much for me to say that because English has the G sound, the G sound is simply English. I’m not going to give over the G sound to English. No, I’m going to keep that as my own. So, if I break down language to its basic tools, down to that G sound, then I can reconstruct Dagaare just as much as I can reconstruct English.

That’s how I think about film language too. If we’re able to strip down, come back to basics, and go down to the bare tools of this thing that we do, then we can reconstruct from these tools our indigenous languages. And that’s kind of the framework that I want to operate from. That becomes a really huge opening for me, because then I start to think about how those of us intentionally gathered here have inherited some of the most complexly organized narrative structures. Our storytelling traditions are genius. They’re just very complex. They are organized in ways that are so effective and amazing. If we’re able to look through the rich tapestry of the cultures we come from and use that to structure our filmmaking and structure how we make movies, I think that that opening becomes incredibly generative and incredibly powerful. 

Just to specify more of what I’m saying and situate it in different examples, I want to offer three departures from the colonial camera. 


Ewe cotton chief's cloth, ca. 1930-1950. Many different colors are patched together, some with multiple lines visible in them and others more solid.
Ewe cotton chief's cloth, ca. 1930-1950.

Departure 1

The first example that I’m going to give is a more formal linguistic one.

If you take a film class in the US, you’re going to come across the idea of a three-act structure, this way of writing that’s supposed to be all-encompassing and universal. I’ve always struggled with three-act structure, and for me it’s because acts come from theater and the specific material constraints of putting on a play that film does not quite share.

But then there’s also this idea of a hero, both a male or masculine way of moving through the story, but then also the hero being a singular figure in this sort of narrative. There are just so many aspects of this story structure that can’t quite tell universal stories, right? You can’t quite tell, say, Okonkwo’s story from Things Fall Apart. 

So, once I put aside three-act structure, I think about other things that could maybe start to be structures for our cinematic storytelling. And for me, one such inspiration comes from kente cloth. 

Just looking at this image of a kente cloth, I start to think about what patterns I see. And of course, kente has meaning already. The colors mean things. You can tell the ranking of who it was made for and the season or the era it was made in if you really know how to read a kente cloth. But I’m more interested in narrative structure and patterns. I just want to see if I can see narrative structures in this cloth. 

And if I think in that way, I start to think about a lot of periods of energy and activity followed by equal amounts of periods of calm. It’s the stripe, stripe, stripe, stripe, stripe, and calm. Stripe, stripe, stripe, stripe, and calm. And when I start to look at that, I start to piece together something that could be a narrative. If it’s a movie, [for example], about revolutionaries, then in these periods of activity and striping, we’re seeing the activities we know about these revolutionaries—let’s say the history, the events, the speeches, such historical events that we already have access to. But in these calmer moments, we’re seeing something more behind the scenes: who they were when things were quiet, who they were when they were preparing for the events that we know of, what they did, and who they were besides that. And as you go across the film, just going from periods of activity in history to periods of quiet and, you know, non-history, we’re starting to build a picture of these revolutionaries whose stories we know, but in a way where we complicate what was written into history and what was left out. 

That, to me, would be the structure of a film created from the pattern of this Kente cloth if I started to think beyond structuring it in the way that we’re taught in film classes.


"This is Cuba's Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify – all without the internet." - Vox

Departure 2

For the second departure, I want to offer a look at pre-existing economies and industries that are basically indigenous. And when I say this, I’m thinking about Tyler Perry and the Chitlin’ Circuit, I’m thinking about Nollywood or Bongo Cinema, I’m thinking about countless local film industries that are by us for us, and have always been made with us in mind only, and are never even thinking about a world outside of that. Sometimes, because these spaces are lo-fi or low production value, it can be easy to overlook what’s happening in them. But I think if we want to make movies that are seen by us for us, we have to honor these industries that have been very successful in creating profitable business models around sharing and releasing our films.

The one that I really want to zero in on is El Paquete Semanal, which is a Cuban example. 

On one hand, because it’s Vox, they overemphasize that the hunger here is for American media. The reason why I wanted to show this specific example is, I see an indigenous structure that shows that indigenous doesn’t have to mean ancient or pure or pre-colonial. There was a problem that was local to a space, and then a solution that sprung up from that space to solve it. And I think these kinds of things become huge possibilities when we think not only about how to make films, but also about how to disseminate them and share them with the people that we want to share them with. The last thing I’ll say about this point is just to think about how sometimes illegibility—it being underground, it being invisible in a way, it being lo-fi—is a way for it to propagate and move in the spaces that it wants to move in. So sometimes, when we, who are cultured in a certain way, look at these things and don’t see much in them, we may not be doing them justice. I think there’s a lot to honor there. 


Still from Nuotama Bodomo's work in progress Un-Braiding: Three-Act Structure
Still from Nuotama Bodomo's work in progress Un-Braiding: Three-Act Structure (2021).

Departure 3

The third and final departure is a meditation on specifying our collectivity. And for me, I’m not going to sit in front of a group of Black and Indigenous people and preach collectivizing. I think that’s something that we inherently do, and we know as the way forward. But I want to offer meditations on how to think about how our ancestors gathered, how they collectivized, and the sort of frameworks that they used to come together. 

The example I’ll give here is a Twi proverb. It’s one my mother always tells me when I’m talking with her through the trials and tribulations of grouping, and teamwork, and gathering with people. It’s one I always rejected when she first used to say it. 

Sε woyε dodo nam a ma wo wεrε εnfi sε wo anko wonam.

The English translation is: when you’re walking with others, don’t forget that you’re also walking alone. 

I used to resist this saying, but as I’ve grown, I’ve really kind of come to understand a collective as a group of individuals–and you bring yourself to the collective, meaning you bring your needs to the collective. And I think the impulse in us to be selfless and compete to see who is the best, say, Marxist in the group, the most selfless in the group, the most morally upstanding in the group, is peak whiteness infiltrating our collectivizing. I think that when you look at the way that Black and Indigenous people have collectivized, there is always space for needs to be a part of the collective. And, in fact, all of us bringing our needs into the space is the beginning of why we collectivize, why we consolidate power, and why we move forward to protect each other. That’s integral to a lot of organizational formations in African and Indigenous and Black organizing. 

For me, personally, it also has to do a lot with learning to be OK with assertiveness. Because we are all equals here, right? So speaking your point and speaking clearly and presenting yourself and being present in the collective is very OK, because no one is above another. Here we are all presenting ourselves just so that we can be seen amongst each other. 

So, to summarize this: I started by trying to share where I’m at in my practice. I’m thinking through ways to break out of our typical film discourse, and ways to think and imagine beyond how we usually construct films and what this thing that we do is.

One thread in that web of thinking is the colonial camera. So first I showed examples that elucidated that, yes, the camera was definitely colonial. It has been and continues to be.

But then I tried to show examples of ways to start to open up and think beyond and find possibilities where the camera could not be colonial, because for me personally, I can’t rest on the fact that the camera is colonial because I use it as a spiritual technology for me that I call filmmaking, right? So in what ways can I break everything down, back to its core tools, and then reconstruct it to speak from my authentic voice? And in what ways do we all do that?

Then I gave three examples to depart from the colonial camera. The first was formal linguistic. I was thinking through how kente cloth could probably be the structure of a feature film. The second was about indigenous economic systems, ones that have already validated us and ones in which we’re already speaking to each other, and honoring those despite their lo-fi nature. The third was a meditation on collectivity and asking that we be more specific when we gather and ensure that what we’re gathering around is our abundance, especially, and the abundance of our indigenous cultures.

I’m going to leave it there, just to affirm what you’re working through in your practices on your own terms. I think that the discourse has been structured so that the light is over there, and we have to ask for visibility from over there. But for me, I’m more interested in: Can we see ourselves? Can we see each other? And can we see together?

And then lastly, I just wanted to speak the Dagaare that I spoke at the top again.

Yɛ zimaane. N poɔ pɛlɛɛ la yaga ne yɛ nang yeli ka N wa yeli yɛlɛ ko yɛ Zenɛ.

Good evening, everyone. My stomach has been brightened by your asking me to come and speak before you all today.

Thank you.


Footnotes:

1. “If you point a camera at a Black person, on a psychoanalytical level it functions as a white gaze. It therefore triggers a whole set of survival modalities that Black Americans have. It doesn’t matter if a Black person is behind the camera or not, because the camera itself functions as an instrument of the white gaze.” From “Arthur Jafa in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist,” Moderna Museet, 2016, https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/arthur-jafa/arthur-jafa-hans-ulrich-obrist/.

2. There’s a world outside your window / And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing / Is the bitter sting of tears

And the Christmas bells that ring there / Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them / Instead of you
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life (Oooh)
Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow / Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

From Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Phonogram/Columbia, 1984).