From Collaborator to Star: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Celebrity Labor in West African Digital Filmmaking

  • 24 Jan 2024
  • 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
  • Online via Zoom (must register to receive log in information)


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IMPORTANT INFORMATION: This talk will be presented online using Zoom. Registration is required before 3:00 pm on Wednesday, January 24, 2024. Log in information for Zoom will be emailed to those who have registered with their registration confirmation.

YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/GE3vpnn7jS8

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The session will be recorded and posted to WAPA's YouTube channel within a few days of the event. 

Date: Wednesday, 24 January 2024 

Location:  Online meeting via Zoom

Time: 6:30 pm


Dr. Brian Smithson, St. Mary’s College of Maryland 

About the talk:

From Collaborator to Star: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Celebrity Labor in West African Digital Filmmaking

For Bénin’s Yorùbá (or Nàgó) people, digital video is an accessible medium to tell stories about idealized African pasts and prospective African futures. Nevertheless, economic barriers make movie production difficult. Based on participant–observation helping to plan, shoot, and even produce Beninese movies, I show how West African moviemakers respond to economic precarity both socially and aesthetically. Their labor regime relies on wealth-in-people: well-known celebrity actors (“stars”) calling upon large networks of supporters to make movies at minimal cost. This system encourages openness and negotiation over aesthetics and narratives by casts, crews, and audiences. Meanwhile, it regulates behavior by invoking forms of social sanction marked as “traditional”—understood as Indigenous and African rather than white or Western. Aesthetically, these movies use digital montage, or editing, to intersperse close-ups on actors, bolstering their recognition within the small Beninese communities where these movies circulate. Yet, I also show how my participation in Beninese moviemaking as a white American anthropologist both illuminated and challenged this system. Specifically, I focus on the improvised roles filmmakers gave me to play, showing how the aesthetics and narratives of my scenes speak to moviemakers’ economic concerns about centering African traditions as an alternative to white economic power—all while amplifying my public profile in local communities in ways I never anticipated.

About the speaker:

Brian C. Smithson is a cultural anthropologist who studies the audiovisual cultures and religions of West Africa. He is completing a book titled Aesthetics of Praise: Making Movies Religious in Bénin—a story about cash-strapped movie producers, Christian–Muslim animosities, and professional rivalries in Yorùbá-speaking Bénin. The book shows how moviemakers overcome these hurdles by championing Yorùbá indigenous religion, its ethical principles, and its moral demands. In the process, they emphasize Yorùbá Indigenous religion as an essential resource to shape political possibilities across religions, borders, and oceans in the face of global trends that lead to religious division and economic insecurity in Africa. Dr. Smithson's work draws from his experience as an apprentice video filmmaker in Bénin, and his co-production of a full-length, Yorùbá-language movie under the guidance of several Yorùbá filmmakers. He earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and a master's degree in African Studies at UCLA. He has taught at Duke, Bowdoin College, and the University of Virginia.

(c) 2024 Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists
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