Remnants of the Central Film Library and the Rethinking of Ghana’s Audio-Visual Heritage

by Rebecca Ohene-Asah


Current discourse on audio-visual heritage amidst questions of long-term preservation, restitution, and ownership appears to exclude conversations on long-term preservation of video native films. These video films are as a result of a large amount of video production within the Sub-Saharan African region, with Nigeria’s Nollywood leading the field (Haynes 2016, 5). Described as a new world order of cultural production, (Hediger, Cheeka, and Campanini 2021, 56), video films are predicted to be threatened with total extinction. This is most critical in Ghana, especially when video preservation culture is examined against the management culture of the celluloid film material stored at Ghana’s premier audio-visual storage center, the Information Services Department’s (ISD) Central Film Library (CFL).

The (ISD) of Ghana is one of the colonial appendages that remained significant even long after Ghana’s political independence in 1957. Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of Ghana, had observed the useful role of the ISD in colonial information dissemination and sought to leverage a similar usage for information and education aimed at promoting a nationalist posture, for whipping up patriotism in the newly independent state (Hess 2001, 61). The ISD was the main government agency that exhibited films, audios, prints, and audio-visual materials publicly throughout the country. Similar to the way colonial governments used local commentators to run commentaries and engaged in discussions during and after exhibitions, (Rice 2011,135–53), the Nkrumah regime and successive governments used the services of the ISD to communicate government policies to the populace on national, continental, and international issues (Ohene-Asah 2021, 5). The reliance on the ISD for this national assignment made the agency’s film library (CFL) a hub for all audio-visual materials produced by national agencies such as the Ghana Film Industries Corporation (GFIC) and the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC).

Regardless of the vital role played by the ISD’s Central Film Library in national development, the library is today in ruins. The dearth of maintenance at the facility for decades has reduced the facility to a place of a faint memory of a once vibrant national heritage. Relying on my own observations as a researcher, I recount my discovery of the CFL collection. With interview data from key gatekeepers at the CFL and notes from other researchers who worked previously on the collection, I discuss the maintenance culture of the CFL to foreshadow the current production, collection, and preservation culture of video films produced in Ghana. This article takes its purpose from a preventive conservation thought to evaluate storage culture as a means of investigating the preservation culture of video films currently produced in the country. I first present a historical account of film storage and archiving within the mandate of the ISD and proceed to discuss the storage and preservative practices of current private video producers before making some concluding notes on the way forward.

The ISD’s Central Film Library

The Information Services Department was established in the year 1939 with the aim of facilitating the propagation of key information about WWII and the progress of Britain to the people of the Gold Coast. This was done mainly through audio news and photographs, however with the rise of cinema activities, which came with the establishment of the Colonial Film Unit, and the subsequent setup of the Gold Coast Film Unit (GCFU) in 1947, the ISD begun utilizing cinema vans to exhibit educational films on colonial activities, expounding British imperialism to the people of the Gold Coast (Smyth 1989, 389). Copies of exhibited films were naturally kept and managed at the ISD’s libraries and storage spaces.

The library collection began with films produced by the London-based Colonial Film Unit, which consisted of a three-man crew led by William Sellers, who traveled across the colonies to produce mostly health films for educational purposes (Sellers 1953, 832). After the decentralization of film production ensured the establishment of the GCFU, film production became more tailored towards the informational and educational needs of the Gold Coast, and the ISD collection continued to grow. Titles such as Amenu’s Child (1950), Towards New Farming (1953), Three Red Boys Left for Sabey (1951), New Horizon (1950), Dangerous Waters (1951), Progress in Kojokrom (1953), Mr Mensah Builds a House (1953), and The Boy Kumasenu (1952) encompassed indigenous narratives that resonated with the cultures and traditions of the people of the Gold Coast. Colonial exhibition of films was mainly through the use of cinema vans moderated by indigenous film commentators, who would run commentaries alongside screenings. Although mostly non-theatrical, the shows were successful in whipping up public interest towards British cultural hegemony and colonial power at screenings (Rice 2011). These screenings were under the control of the Information Services Department and led to further growth of the audio-visual collection.

After attaining political independence, the nation state Ghana, through the initiative of its first leader Kwame Nkrumah, continued to use film as the main governmental communication mouthpiece. He therefore restructured the existing GCFU by investing in film equipment, film laboratories, exhibition centers, and libraries and renamed the GCFU to the Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC). Regardless of a library collection center within the GFIC, country-wide film screening and exhibition continued to be the mandate of the ISD-thus, further cementing its position as a central point for film storage and archiving in the country (Hesse 1995, 6–9).

Whereas some of the holdings are unique and may only be available in Ghana, the library also collected materials produced in other parts of the world. For instance, copies of documentary and newsreels produced on Nkrumah’s continental and international travels as well as films collected through diplomatic relationship with other countries were stored in the library (Ohene-Asah 2021, 4).

By 2009, the CFL had an estimated audio-visual collection numbering 5,568. This consisted of 35mm and 16mm film reels, and some quarter inch open reel audiotapes (Blaylock Report 2009, 6). Whereas the Blaylock report suggests that some of the materials date back to the 1940s, the only catalogue seen documented films from only 1970–72. After an appraisal and preliminary salvage work the Blaylock team found only 626 audio-visual materials to be salvageable. It eventually came up with a number of recommendations. The first was for the ISD to develop a sorting, collection, and retention policy. This was to ensure that resources were committed to only those materials that were of utmost importance to the collective histories of Ghanaians. As indicated earlier, the CFL collected widely. Part of the ISD’s mandate to classify all films exhibited in Ghana led to their interaction with films brought into the country by private marketers and exhibitors. Whereas bound by copyright issues, this collection network led the CFL to store films from different parts of the continent and beyond, including Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The case of limited funding opportunities also makes it imperative for archivists to adopt strategic curatorial practices to select and preserve only the materials unique in contents and found only in Ghana. The second was to develop an efficient macro environment with the capacity to store and preserve film materials at the right temperatures. Another recommendation had to do with the micro environment and the film containers. They recommended a storage system that could ensure enough ventilation to ensure optimum preservation. The last major recommendation was for the reformatting of the important materials to make them easily accessible (Blaylock Report 2009, 14–19).

Indeed, reformatting salvageable collections would have made the material contents easily accessible. This would have bridged the disconnect between the cultural knowledge of the historical audio-visual contents and cultural producers, leading to a desire to advocate for long-term preservation of the materials. Reformatting through digitization, for instance, has the potential to create opportunities for recontextualizing and re-interpreting historical film materials within current audio-visual cultural expressions. This will be useful for an active memorialization and repurposing for current generations. The Blaylock recommendations, though largely temporary, are useful reminders of the ephemeral nature of audio-visual archives, which thus demand an active commitment from a holding by employing a trained archivist tasked to manage materials and engage in programs that liaises with different stakeholder groups to constantly keep the collection in use. An inactive or inaccessible archive is as good as a mere storage, which should have no place in audio-visual preservation. An archive is only of value when it is accessible, and active engagement with stakeholders is of high priority. Perhaps the Blaylock team’s caution about the possibility for complete destruction if the recommendations on salvageable materials were not adopted has come to pass.

This researcher found the library and the audio-visual materials in complete chaos, thus raising key questions on the management conservation strategies that the library was implementing. Clearly, none of the professional conservation recommendations had been implemented. As of the year 2022, there was no librarian nor archivist with knowledge on the management of the collection, no visible reformatting actions had been undertaken, and the materials remained in a deplorable state (see figure 1 and 2).

[Fig. 1] Materials in the CFL (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 5)

[Fig. 1] Materials in the CFL (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 5)

[Fig. 2] Researcher going through remnants of CFL materials (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 5)

[Fig. 2] Researcher going through remnants of CFL materials (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 5)

Preservation Within the CFL Operation

When Nkrumah took over the top management of Ghana, he sought to situate cinema at the center of the education and re-orientation of the Ghanaian people into a patriotic group. To properly manage films used in this re-orientation mission, Nkrumah resourced the GFIC to establish a functional celluloid library and archive that stored and made accessible film materials for national and private exhibition purposes. The basic management and conservative activities included the storage of produced materials in a functional cold room with archivists and librarians who catalogued and made materials easily accessible.

The collection in the storage included black-and-white 35mm and 16mm negatives and positive films and color positives on mostly 35mm. Color negatives were, however, developed and kept in a British laboratory, where prints could be ordered anytime positives wore off as the macro storage environment for color demanded more financial commitment than black and white. Whereas the GFIC spearheaded audio-visual productions in the country, nation-wide exhibition was the responsibility of the Information Services Department of the Ministry of Information. Positive copies used in these outdoor screenings were preserved in the CFL’s air-conditioned rooms to ensure proper ventilation for preservation.

The GFIC and CFL relationship vis-à-vis film collecting ensured that there were two major institutions in the country where films of significance to the nation state could be accessed. Their combined role was effective through all the political regimes of the country until the late 1990s, when the GFIC was diversified.

With the GFIC diversified and turned into a private television organization, the audio-visual materials collection in its care became at risk. The television network, TV3, found no immediate use for the celluloid materials it found in the library and archive as it only concerned itself with broadcasting on video formats. This was also worsened by the lack of transfer and playback technologies that could provide access to celluloid contents. This inaccessibility eventually made the storage obsolete, which necessitated its eventual destruction to make spaces for television production activities (Meyer 2015, 61–62).

Stakeholders and government agencies could only turn to the state-owned ISD for historical audio-visual contents, thus turning the CFL into one of the most useful government agencies archiving audio-visual materials on Ghana. This did not last, however, as convoluted factors including lack of policy, political will, and funding, occasioned by rapid technological changes in audio-visual formatting affected the management of the ISD audio-visual collection. The ISD library and archive appeared almost forgotten by its mother agency—the Ministry of Information. Years of neglect and lack of financial commitment was visible in the physical structure of the organization, evident in worn-out walls, old furniture, and unrelated private business activities on the property. This lack of financial support eventually affected the effective management and preservation practices of the CFL collections.

Preventive conservation, however, is thought to include all “strategies, actions, skills, and decisions adopted to balance heritage protection and public access” (Lucchi 2017, 1). Whereas preventive conservation ideals aim at preventing future loses, these dictates were clearly missing in the storage pragmatics of the CFL. Indeed, one can only describe the system run at the CFL as mere storage, lacking preventive conservation. Again, in defining preservation, Mnjama cites Harvey (1994) as suggesting that preservation of cultural heritage is a conscious integration of managerial, storage, financing, as well as staffing policies to be considered in order to achieve optimum preservation of library and archived materials (Mnjama 2010, 140). Yet, with the CFL materials caught in a technological conundrum, most useful contents could no longer be accessed. Fast changing technological advances made attempts to reformat onto accessible modes an expensive venture.

A National Film Library Comes to an End

In 2021, as part of a field study of the CFL, we observed a completely abandoned storage room with many de-caned celluloid materials on different celluloid formats in a near deteriorated state. The two storage rooms had been sealed off and virtually abandoned by the ISD. The macro environment had little ventilation and a set-up completely inappropriate for audio-visual preservation. The rooms were dusty, had broken windows, and the roof leakages was visibly evident in the water stain on the ceiling. The boxes serving as the micro containment for celluloid materials were filled with mold, cobwebs, and dust. The team found scattered paper documentation on film exhibition in a disorganized state. There were also video materials that suggested that the CFL had begun to collect films on video formats, with labels that suggested they were materials on Ghana’s political history, transcending different political administrations.

Interview responses suggest that the CFL became less useful following a decision to acquire new cinema vans, which had no capacity to play celluloid reels. The change from celluloid reel vans to video (analog and digital) cinema vans contributed to making the CFL storage obsolete, as the new cinema vans no longer had use for film formats in the collection. With the adoption of video format by the entire country for audio-visual cultural production, it appears it made no economic sense to authorities to invest in celluloid accessories that could only play historical materials but not current video formats. This decision eventually led to most materials in the collection trapped in a technological quagmire, making most inaccessible.

As budgetary allocations to the ISD from the Ministry of Information became inadequate, effective management of the CFL became a daunting task. And since the many recommendations by different organizations who had appraised the library involved funding that the economically deprived ministry of information also did not have, the materials simply remained locked up and continued to deteriorate. Attempts by gatekeepers and stakeholders to attract the needed attention failed to yield the necessary support, since the salvage, conservation, and preservation of the materials was not viewed as a venture that could be self-sustaining. Other attempts to salvage the materials with external funding were met with resistance from some stakeholders who cited backend issues of multiple copies that accompany digitization and the interests of external funders as a threat to the copyright and unique ownership of the materials. At one point, the materials deteriorated to a degree that strong vinegar syndrome and mold was viewed as an environmental and security threat to the setting. There was therefore a recommendation for the materials to be discarded following an environmental assessment.

By the middle of 2022 therefore, a waste management company was contracted to dispose of the film materials to prevent a potential health hazard. The research team, however, managed to salvage most of the video materials collected with the hope of finding a sustainable way of accessing and salvaging the contents (see figure 3 and 4).

[Fig. 3] Materials on video formats found at the CFL (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 9)

[Fig. 4] Materials on video formats found at the CFL (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 9)

[Fig. 3 and Fig. 4] Materials on video formats found at the CFL (Source: Ohene-Asah 2022, 9)

The Future of Video

Video technology became the default format for audio-visual production in Ghana from the mid-1980s. This was after the cost of celluloid became an economic hurdle for both state and private film ventures. Video film production was, however, marked by a high sense of creative independence. Its affordable nature made it easily accessible unlike celluloid formats. Whereas celluloid was positioned as an elitist/colonial legacy, video appeared to be the post-colonial version. For instance, while established and trained filmmakers resisted video technology for filmmaking, many amateur and self-trained people adopted the format and expressed themselves freely, outside the canons of state control and traditional restrictions. Video technology brought diversity and democratized the film production industry in Ghana. By the beginning of the 1990s, a large amount of video films produced by budding video filmmakers had positioned the industry as a dominant popular culture in Ghana. Titles included Zinabu, Kanana, Sika Sunsum, Diabolo, Who Killed Nancy, Step Dad among other titles. These drama narratives were bolder in their expressions and experimented with flamboyant effects and exaggerated scenarios. Yet, they to a large extent the visually expressed characteristics of the collective experiences and dreams of the middle and lower-class members of the Ghanaian society (Meyer 2015).

When the Nigerian Nollywood influx into the West African sub-region threatened the quantity of Ghanaian video productions, a new strategy was devised by indigenous video producers to confront this cultural domination. Most producers employed the local Akan language rooted in the city of Kumasi for films in a bid to reverse Nollywood’s hegemony in Ghana. At the onset, Akan language video producers’ prolific activities turned Kumasi into a video production hub, overtaking Accra’s video production enclave, most of which were made in the English language. As of 2011, out of an average of 5 films released each week onto the market, 4 were from the Kumasi enclave and produced in the Akan language. This resulted in over 200 video films being churned out from the Kumasi industry alone each year, at the peak of its production output, from 2009 to 2016 (Garritano 2013, 172–73). The industry produced perhaps the largest chunk of video films in the history of audio-visual cultural production in Ghana. Most of the films from Kumasi encompass themes on contemporary events, folktales, and stories of historical significance to their audiences. With contents reminiscent of Ghanaian socio-cultural heritage, the preservation of these videos presents an obvious concern to different publics and stakeholders.

Nonetheless, preservation of video films in Ghana is largely a private affair, as there is no active national strategy for video film preservation like what existed with celluloid film formats. Earlier video film materials are perhaps more at risk than recent productions. Most video producers appeared unconcerned with the preservation of their master copies after they had distributed and recouped their investments. They simply kept copies on VHS, VCD, DVD or at best, Betacam copies, which eventually could not playback. Often, duplication companies kept glass master copies but producers rarely went back for more prints after their investments have been recouped. Most simply went on to the next project and forgot about the future of their cultural productions (Ohene-Asah 2018).

Current audio-visual cultural producers, however, appear to operate a better storage/preservation practice, although they may not be considered ideal. Most films are now distributed online so it’s easier to keep soft copies on hard drives and online. The hard drives, however, often fail filmmakers because they are prone to malfunction. Perhaps, apart from the films stored on the online cloud system, those stored on hard drives are at risk of loss unless they are constantly played and/or transferred onto newer data drives since hard drive storage is considered quite transient. Indeed, some filmmakers who relied on drives and often transferred to newer drives still lost useful contents, which reaffirms the unreliable nature of hard drives.

Concluding Thoughts

In the absence of a national film library, current video film producers may be facing a more dire situation. Clearly, most current video producers are engaged in non-sustainable practices for storing and preserving their cultural products. This chapter has relied on a historical account of audio-visual preservation practices from colonial to post-colonial Ghana to discuss the state of audio-visual materials once kept at the CFL to predict the futures of video film materials. The discussion has spotlighted how the once vibrant national audio-visual library and archival institution from where the ISD coordinated national film exhibitions via cinema vans and community wide screenings is currently a faint memory of a nearly forgotten era and the implication for video format futures. The fact that some video tape formats were found amongst the rubbles of the CFL means the country never adopted a conscious preservation policy for its audio-visual past regardless of the format. Indeed, the situation raises more questions when the ISD’s cinema section still exists but with no secured collection to augment its activities. The absence of state interest and commitment to the long-term preservation of audio-visual materials from Ghana’s past is enough reason for workers assigned to work with the collection to be demoralized. Ghana would need an entire national re-orientation on the importance of audio-visual materials as intangible heritage. This is not to say that stakeholders do not already recognize the importance of such materials. There are many workers within the CFL who continue to push for reforms but to no avail. Though some filmmakers kept copies of films on drives and would often transfer to newer drives, they still lost useful contents, which reaffirms the capricious nature of hard drives. The fact that some of the materials found after the appraisal of the CFL were unique to only that collection means Ghana could have leveraged on these unique materials to contribute to world audio-visual heritage. Regardless, the recent establishment of the National Film Authority (NFA) is perhaps the foundation of the national action that was needed decades earlier to properly manage Ghana’s audio-visual past. The NFA, established in 2016, has in its mandate to organize and collect remnants of Ghana’s audio-visual past. Luckily, negative celluloid copies of most of the CFL titles may still be available at the Iron Mountain Group, a UK-based laboratory and archive company. Thus, there may still be hope for Ghana to access most of its celluloid materials for its current and future stakeholders. The hope is also that films and audio-visual materials on video formats would also take center stage in the NFA’s mandate to make audio-visual materials an active component of Ghana’s intangible heritage.


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