African Film Heritage: The Case for Restitution

by Nikolaus Perneczky

African calls for the restitution of moving images predate the historical debates at the center of Bénédicte Savoy’s important recent study, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art (2022). Already in 1958, the Benin-born filmmaker and later historian of African cinema Paulin Soumanou Vieyra demanded the return of moving images pertaining to African cultures—one among the many unmet demands of the struggle for independence that have only gained in urgency since. In this short intervention, I will offer a brief consideration of what restitution might mean in relation to the moving image in general and African film heritage in particular. On the most general level, it is a real question of whether the concept of restitution, which has been elaborated primarily in relation to land, irreproducible artifacts, and human remains, is pertinent to the medium of film, a technical object with its own, medium-specific operations and affordances, including the fact that it can be reproduced in both analog and digital formats. To reframe restitution through the medium of film will therefore necessitate a rethinking of that paradigm.

Another likely objection to my yoking of restitution to the moving image is historical in kind and concerns the specificity of African film heritage. There are good reasons to question whether the displacement of African films meaningfully compares to the systematic extraction of African bodies and artifacts and their subsequent accumulation in Western museums and ethnological collections. The violence that transported African films into Western archives, certainly if we are talking about works made after independence, generally differs from that upon which claims for restitution are usually based. A majority of films—prints and files—have ended up there “legally”: by force of co-production contracts, the push and pull of technical and economic dependency, and the dull compulsion of global market forces skewed against African filmmakers—all contributing factors to what we might call the “forcible internationalism” of African cinema or its “extraversion,” which obtain across the entire syntagm of the moving image from film production, distribution, and consumption all the way into the archive. However, as critical provenance research has shown time and again, the mere fact that an object was acquired legally does not preclude the presence of coercion and subterfuge; the best-known documentation of the extralegal and unethical activities that often accompanied formally legal transactions is Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fântome (1934). If Leiris’s testimony concerns the acquisition of statues and other artifacts, audio-visual archives, too, may at times conduct themselves in this way and even feel warranted in their actions by virtue of some abstract preservationist ideal. But the larger and more difficult challenge is this: in order to contest the sequestration of African films in Western archives, we have to address the contractual terms and economic relationships that underpin the unequal distribution of this heritage and the uneven development of archival capacity more broadly. Indeed, we would have to expand the remit of restitution to include artifacts displaced by forms of slow and structuralized violence, and find a persuasive language to describe this (ongoing) process.

If we extend the discussion to Africa’s colonial and ethnographic film heritage, which was produced within a generalized context of injustice (Unrechtskontext), the shape of the question shifts yet again. The conditions under which these images were originally acquired, the institutional circuits on which they were displayed, and the locations where they were finally stored, make them more immediately comparable to other kinds of looted artifacts. Ciraj Rassool (2022), writing against a tendency to treat looted artifacts and human remains as separate entities, insists on their shared provenance and archival contiguity—the fact that they were collected and displayed together. This argument also extends to moving and still images. More fundamentally, one could argue, with Ariella Azoulay (2019), that the taking of photographic images under colonial rule or from an ethnographic point of view itself constitutes an act of capture and of separation, in a clear analogy to the extractive process by which other objects were taken. Azoulay, it should be noted, is critical of the restitution paradigm in its current configuration precisely because it does not sufficiently attend to this original violence of objectification and separation, which rent whole life-worlds apart and turned them into partial objects for Western consumption. “Giving back,” Azoulay warns, does not do enough to address the enduring damages wrought by these dispossessions.

Although there has been much talk of treating colonial cinema as a “shared” or “borrowed” heritage (e.g., Benali 2001), not everyone would agree it ought to be recuperated as part of Africa’s film heritage. Students in a class I taught in Berlin were deeply troubled by the multiple registers of violence encoded in the colonial film archive, with some arguing that these images should not be shown at all. African archivists, for their part, have raised concerns about what they see as the archival overrepresentation of the colonial period. Both are valid and necessary queries, which I cannot address here in full. As a shorthand response, I again refer to Ariella Azoulay, who speaks of the “colonial photographic wealth” (2019, 282) accumulated in Western archives, meaning that these are historical documents of great, including monetary, value. Our best guides to the question of recuperation, in any case, remain those African and diasporic filmmakers who have made it their task to reclaim the colonial archive as matter and as memory. In reading this archive with and against the grain (Stoler 2009), filmmakers such as Costa Diagne, Suliman Elnour, Ahmed Bouanani, Assia Djebar, Jean-Marie Téno, or Onyeka Igwe have elaborated subversive, reparative, and abolitionist approaches to Africa’s colonial and ethnographic film heritage, while struggling to gain access and afford prohibitive licensing fees—an enduring struggle that has only intensified since the 1980s, when audio-visual archives, facing widespread neoliberal austerity, scrambled to monetize their holdings.

But why opt for the return of African film heritage held in Western archives, you may ask, when the most practical, inexpensive, and lasting solution would clearly be the provision of digital access? I do not mean to dismiss the importance of digitization and the expanded range of possibilities it affords. Digitization creates new digital objects and images with new affordances for circulation and participation, which can be useful in managing and, yes, “sharing” collections, including those of colonial and ethnographic provenance. But there are good reasons to be wary of digital panaceas. Digital access generates just as many problems as it does solutions. In addition to all the familiar quandaries—from the non-trivial costs of digital archival infrastructure to digital obsolescence and on to the global digital divide—there are a number of issues specific to the digitization of shared or otherwise displaced heritage, which have been much debated in recent years (e.g., Agostinho 2019; Odumosu 2020).

It has been questioned whether openness and accessibility are self-evident and universally desirable goods. What about culturally sensitive images, for instance, those that depict secret and sacred objects or rituals reserved for initiates? What about images that harm and dehumanize? Who gets a say over how such images shall be used? What about the right to reuse them? Digitization projects, moreover, run the risk of reproducing the categories and nomenclatures embedded in archival metadata and in the film material itself. Automated, algorithmic forms of ordering and accessing images entail a further extraction of data at an unprecedented scale of information, which may not be appropriate for handling images of people pictured without their consent or with little control over the terms of the encounter. Digital databases privilege modularity over context; even where they are geared to user-participation, they enable certain kinds of archival knowledge while foreclosing other forms of knowing the archive. The provision of access alone, then, is not enough; we must address forms of epistemic violence encoded in the interfaces, classifications, and technical operations that mediate archival images, and rethink the ways images are labeled, datafied, stored, and transmitted.

But the most basic issue is this: when audiovisual archives in the Global North mandate “access” to what is sometimes euphemistically called “shared” film heritage, it is often they who set the terms of accessibility, whatever they may be. They determine how far access should extend, how this heritage can be exploited (or not); they assess collections, decide what will be digitized to what standard and how it will be datafied, all the while precluding alternative conceptions of what it might mean to share this archival responsibility and authority. Have access, but on our terms.

As the experience of African filmmakers working in this presumed digital utopia shows, the promise of easy access frequently hides the persistence of unequal property relations. There are, of course, legal hurdles to challenging the ownership of shared heritage. In the realm of the image, copyright reigns supreme. This legal framework yokes image property to a narrow understanding of authorship, which does not recognize filmed subjects as co-creators of the image. Such hurdles, I would argue, need to be tackled pragmatically, on their own terms, but with a view to abolishing those same terms, which are cultural and economic as much as they are juridical. In order to question the ownership of shared film heritage, we need to undo the naturalizations of intellectual property law with its bias against other forms of possession or attribution. This, too, must be part of the project of moving image restitution.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of transnational partnerships in the field of audio-visual archiving, often on a North-South axis, with the aim of salvaging, restoring, and preserving important works of African cinema (Sanogo 2018). But while these are urgent and necessary tasks, the current framework for archival partnerships and exchanges under the banner of “international co-operation” frequently ignores and sometimes entrenches colonial legacies of uneven development and unequal exchange (Sanogo 2022). Whether we talk about the “shared” film heritage of colonial or ethnographic provenance, or the dispersed and often precarious film heritage of many postcolonial cinemas, the truth is that world film heritage is everywhere unevenly shared. If moving image restitution is to be more than a symbolic act it must go beyond the repatriation of individual films, towards a broader transformation of caring relations in audio-visual archiving globally.

Such a holistic understanding, which takes restitution to entail both a new “ethical relation” (Sarr and Savoy 2018) and forms of material reparation, is precisely what Paulin Soumanou Vieyra articulated in 1958, at the dawn of decolonization (Perneczky 2022, 384). Vieyra’s call has been restated many times since, prominently by Seipati Bulane-Hopa at the 2011 FIAF Congress in Pretoria. But not only has this been a real and enduring demand for a long time, moving image restitution already is a reality. There are numerous precedents for restitutive practice within and outside of established archival institutions, from which we can learn, and which we must amplify and generalize. For critical and imaginative resources, we may turn to the history of international solidarity in audio-visual archiving, especially in the socialist and nonaligned worlds, which contains numerous, if informal, instances of “really existing” moving image restitution (e.g., Aventurin and Morin 2021; Metschl 2016). Also of interest here are the policies and practices developed by archivists working with indigenous communities in settler-colonial societies such as Australia, ranging from community consultations regarding the handling and storage of culturally sensitive images, to the implementation of indigenous knowledge labels in databases and interfaces and the joint elaboration of collections management and digitization protocols that would respect the integrity of photographic portrayals that are deemed con-substantial—that is, of one substance—with the ancestors depicted therein, and on to digital repatriations or “returns to country” (James 2020). These institutional efforts at reform and redress, moreover, have been critically accompanied by a host of film scholars and anthropologists highlighting fault lines, tensions, and contradictions within (e.g., Barwick et al. 2020). Finally, we may turn to the growing number of archives and archival projects—accidental and otherwise—in the Global North that are engaged in a fundamental rethinking of archival responsibilities and protocols of care (e.g., Fossati 2021; Haeckel 2021; Carter and Kent 2022). Together, they point beyond the paradigm of “shared” heritage to the horizon of a global cinematic commons.


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