Accidental Archivism: A Necessary Accident

by Didi Cheeka

When it was announced that the library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. … That unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained precious books, yet that those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable.
Jorge Luis Borges (1999, 141)

Necessity, to paraphrase Hegel, expresses itself as accident. By this, I refer to the tendency of the accidental, as used in the title, to occur at precisely the moment it becomes necessary: the accidental (re)discovery of Nigeria’s audiovisual archive was an accident that has enabled a necessary engagement with history. But this “unbounded joy” of being in possession “of an intact and secret treasure” quickly became its opposite as the archival materials, in their vinegar-decayed state, presented themselves as “forever out of reach.” This too, is in correspondence with Hegel: the tendency of things to become their opposite. I suppose, in foregrounding Hegel, my intention is to position accidental archivism as arising, necessarily, from the crisis, so to say, of conventional, or if you wish, institutional, archiving. We will deal with this further. But first, a thesis—by way of a background.

Background as Theses

To extend the notion of the accident to the personal—my point of entry into archival practice was purely accidental. It was the need to create an alternative cinema center dedicated to founding the first arthouse cinema in Nigeria—as opposed to the renewed growth of commercial cinema houses in cities across the country—that directed a small number of cineastes, critics, and curators to the building of the old Colonial [later Federal] Film Unit (CFU/FFU). In the abandoned rooms of this building, we stumbled upon hundreds of cans of decaying film materials in very bad condition, traces of a forgotten past, dating back to the colonial and immediate post-colonial period. In the 60s, following independence, Nigeria was a model on how to organize state archives, as the archival situation was quite good. The CFU, which was set up in 1939, represented “a significant state effort to use film and media to shape” (Rice 2019, 1) the colonial enterprise by speaking “directly to colonial audiences, producing and exhibiting films specifically for the colonies” until its demise in 1955. In its reincarnation as FFU, following independence, it diligently continued to document aspects of public and national life. Before us, in those dusty vinegar-scented backrooms, were memory’s ruins.

What is it about images from the past that exert such seductive pull? Perhaps it’s the siren call of memory, the need to know? In the eastern part of Nigeria there is a word that gained currency after the Biafran-Nigerian War (1967–70), echezona, which resonates with the English expression “never forget.” It positions remembering as a personal and collective duty. I was seduced by this ruin, this accidental memorial. From the outset, there were doubts, questions: why was I doing this—why has it become an obsession; was my life as a filmmaker and critic over—overtaken by archival practice? This discovery triggered an international symposium on history, memory, and trauma to consider, not just the significance of these materials, but also how archives are kept in Nigeria. Ultimately, it led to an encounter with the archival engagement of Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art and, through this, Goethe University Frankfurt and DFF—Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum. Ultimately, these encounters culminated in the inauguration of a Film Culture and Archival Studies Master in Nigeria. But… how do you teach film culture and archival studies without access to your country’s archive and film history?

It is, I think, correct to say that it was the rusted can of the forgotten movie by Adamu Halilu, pioneer director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Shehu Umar (1976), accidentally yielded to us by the archive in our initial, tentative look-through, that offered access to Nigeria’s national audiovisual archives. We made the decision, almost immediately, to have this film digitized and it had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum (2018). Nigerian cinema had taken shape in the western and northern parts of the country—fueled by the oil boom of the 70s—removed from the eastern part (formerly known as Biafra) ravaged by war. However, ever since the emergence of Nigeria’s commercial home video phenomenon and the subsequent UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics in Canada’s 2008 study on the state of global film industry showed that Nigeria’s movie industry had overtaken, in output, the United States’ and was second only to India’s, the movie industry dubbed Nollywood had become the object of international study and academic discourse. What is never acknowledged is how it got here from there. The question is: what has happened to Nigeria’s post-war (1967–70) cinema—what is the level of access to this pre-Nollywood cinema?

Antithesis: Archives as Prisons

As far as answers go, one is only able to reference an almost absence of access. The institutional diligence of painstakingly recording and archiving images as historical sources of knowledge has become—in the absence of diligence in preserving and making this knowledge accessible—its opposite. At its initial discovery, as we viewed the haphazard batch of rusted cans before us, what came to mind was a line from Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Statues Also Die: “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears.” The archive seemed to come into focus: a place where films enter to disappear from living glance, to die and be forgotten. What institutional short-sightedness was responsible for this mass internment—or, perhaps to pose the question in a direct political manner: what political act of forgetting laid the foundation for this institutional neglect? To pose the question this way is to consider the possibility—or perhaps it’s an admission—of Third Cinema archival practice a subversive act. In the sense that conventional archiving, with its formal structure, its connection to official funding and state apparatus, lack the political will to confront the challenges of contemporary practices of memory.

To pursue the idea of institutional archiving as deriving from the political act of forgetting. Citing the Nigerian experience. What you see is an institutional process in concentrated form: the accumulation of a significant number of audiovisual materials—dating back to colonial/post-colonial and post-war (1967–70) periods—and relative technical know-how on one hand, and, at the same time, absence of curatorial, artistic access to these materials on the other hand. I locate this process as a deliberate act of post-colonial military regimes that rose after the Biafra-Nigeria war (1967–70), to silence memories of atrocities committed before, during, and after. Given that history, as a stand-alone subject was recently banned from Nigerian classrooms, it means that the performative possibilities offered by non-traditional archivism become the only way to grasp, to access an otherwise inaccessible history. In this lie the challenge and subversion of accidental archivism: how to tiptoe through institutional archives, one harboring forbidden materials as not to antagonize or frighten the authority to shut down or restrict access to this archive.

Perhaps I digress, but to quickly state this: I’m opposed to post-colonialism as a theory—it is not valid in the Nigerian experience of today (I tend to use the term post-war—in the sense that not only was the Biafran war the most traumatic event of our national life, it was the collective crime that birthed modern Nigeria and not colonialism). Since forbidden footage of the Biafran war exists within the archival holdings, how do we navigate the power structures that decide what archival materials should and should not be made accessible to the public? How would re-engagement with archival material related to the Biafra-Nigeria war affect continuing access to this archive, and how can artistic and curatorial practices overcome the potential obstacles of censorship and ease political unease? What I’m trying to do, using the chance discovery of hundreds of decaying cans of films in the abandoned rooms of Nigeria’s Old Film Unit (dating back to the colonial/post-colonial and post-war periods), is treat history as trauma. What this means is that the new archivists who succumb to the seductive pull of images from the past are mostly artists, activists, filmmakers—to put it simply, accidental archivists.

Archivists of the Future

If access to the archives is to become the right of every citizen, then the State and institutional policies responsible for access to images from the past should actively “guarantee, without delay … not only the formal right, but the technical conditions of access to this archive” (Derrida and Stiegler 2002, 35). This, however, does not seem possible without some parallel mode of archival practice—archival activism. Animating this activism involves conceiving “a different imaginary of the persona of the archivist” (Azoulay)—a person who “brand[s]” archival materials and “put[s] them under chain and lock.” It is not possible to imagine the archive of tomorrow without first re-imagining the persona of the archivist. Archival activism has become necessary because the archival field has been radically transformed by the entry of accidental archivists. There is, for instance, Inadelso Cossa’s A Memory in Three Acts, which explores, through the story of survivors, the decade-long bloody struggle of Mozambique to free itself from Portuguese colonialism. I’m reminded also of the film Independencia, directed by Mario Bastos, which comes some forty years after Angola’s independence. Interweaving fragments of memory and archival material, Independencia presents a not so distant past to instigate dialogue and remembrance of things forgotten.

There is an ongoing memory boom in cinema as, utilizing the rich resource of history, filmmakers actively seek to engage with a violent past. It is possible that this seduction is informed by the fact that a new generation is only now awakening to its own history and the need to tap the memory of the last surviving witnesses to this history. This, of course, confront us with challenges: How do we engage with archives as a contemporary curatorial and artistic practice? How do we challenge and broaden the practice of working with institutional archives—especially regarding access? To go further on the curatorial and artistic necessity of accidental archivism—the idea is to treat this (re)discovered burial site as a site of trauma: the point of entry, then, is the question—how could a national archive of films contribute to the practice of memory and coming to terms with the past? Implicated in this question is the idea that history, especially in a country where it has been banished from classrooms as a stand-alone subject, could be reclaimed, not through purely academic discourse, but, rather, through archival practice as an act of public memorial, the mechanics of breaking personal and collective silence.

By this I mean that the act of dealing with an illegitimate past, so to speak, which is violently repudiated, demands more than a judicial, political process—reconciliation committees and constitutional proceedings are not enough, and have proved incapable, especially concerning inherited acts of hatred, anger in which the state is implicated. This method calls into being a new form of archival practice—turning to digitized archival materials. If it is true that the abandonment of Nigeria’s historical memory was rooted in the trauma of war, then rescuing the national audio-visual archives contains the possibility of a re-encounter with trauma, as well as an attempt to understand it. Archival practice thus becomes a witnessing, an excavation of memory, a shattering of silence. To conclude, then. My ongoing documentary project From Post-colonial to Post-war: Cinema & Political Amnesia—The Forgotten History of Nigeria’s Post-war (1967–70) Cinema is the inevitable, the necessary trajectory of my life as an accidental archivist.


Alli, Sabrina. 2020. “Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: ‘It Is Not Possible to Decolonize the Museum Without Decolonizing the World.’” Guernica, March 12. Accessed June 6, 2023.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1999. “The Library of Babel.” In Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. London: Penguin.

Derrida, Jacques, and Bernard Stiegler. 2002. Echographies of Television. Translated by Jennifer Bajorek. Oxford: Polity.

Rice, Tom. 2019. Films for the Colonies. Cinema and the Preservation of the British Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.