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Turning Rice into Pilau: the Art of Video Narration in Tanzania

  • Matthias Krings

…plus d’informations

  • Matthias Krings
    Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Couverture de traverser,                Numéro 20, automne 2012, Intermédialités

Corps de l’article

In Tanzania, pirated video copies of foreign films are subject to a thorough practice of remediation. Video narrators—who either perform live simultaneous translation and commentary in video parlors, or mediatize their interpreting efforts in the form of VHS cassettes and DVDs with Kiswahili voice-over—are in great demand and have established themselves as mediators between American, Chinese, Indian and Nigerian films and local audiences. In this essay I will introduce two such video narrators, King Rich and Lufufu, and some of their work, including sequences by King Rich from Karishika (Christian Onu, 1998), a version of the Nigerian Pentecostal classic, and sections by Lufufu of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and Super Love (Andy Amenechi, 2003). [1] Video narrators do far more than simply translate or recreate pre-existing film texts in different languages or media. Their craft consists in the creation of new texts, texts that speak both for foreign film and to its new and unforeseen local context. The practice is not specific to Tanzania and dates back well before its application to pirated foreign films. After a brief exploration of the craft’s varied trajectories within East and Central Africa and a sketch of its recent development in Dar es Salaam, I will place the phenomenon within a wider theoretical debate about the transnational circulation of media and the appropriation of media apparatuses and media content beyond the circuits of their initially intended users and spectators. Following Vincent Bouchard’s explorations of orality and film spectatorship in Africa, [2] video narration can be understood as a reconfiguration of video as a medium operating within a specific local context. I am arguing that video narration domesticates a comparably new and foreign (audio) visual medium by amalgamating it with a much older local audio medium: the spoken word as used in a number of established speech genres, with storytelling at the forefront. Domestication, however, is not just a matter of reconfiguring the medium as such, but also of deriving meaning from its contents. If a Nigerian film such as Karishika is subjected to this process, the video narrator’s remediation serves (among other things) to re-establish the authenticity of the original narrative, in so doing, providing repair. An analysis of sequences from King Rich’s and Lufufu’s work, however, clearly demonstrates that video narration not only facilitates the communication of the film but, in several instances, subverts its intended meaning, provides additional information—a “who’s who” of Nigerian film, for example—or even directs the audience’s attention away from the film with self-promotional statements. To a certain extent, the current practice of video narration in Dar es Salaam addresses two different modes of film spectatorship—a contemplative-hermeneutical mode and a mode that aims for spectacle—and conflates these within a single performance and its mediatized output, the dubbed VHS cassette.

Trajectories of Video Narration in East Africa

Until recently and for many years, video narration in Tanzania was associated with a single name: Derek Gaspar Mukandala, also known as Lufufu. When I first met Lufufu in 2007, in Dar es Salaam, he was producing VHS cassettes of foreign films with Kiswahili voice-overs—a studio version of the live foreign film interpreting he had stopped doing over fifteen years before. A retired naval officer of 57 years, Lufufu claims to have translated more than one thousand films—mostly American and Chinese action movies, but also about ninety Nigerian films and several from India. He told me that the initial idea came to him in 1971-72, when he was based in China under a military training program, as he was watching a Chinese live interpretation of a North Vietnamese propaganda movie. Back in Dar es Salaam in the early 1980s, he came across a 16mm film projector in his army barracks and started a mobile cinema show in his spare time. He toured the outskirts of the city with copies of old American Westerns and action movies he had rented from “Anglo-American” (a distributor in Dar es Salaam at that time) and started doing live interpreting. He turned to VHS equipment in the 1990s and later stopped performing live, turning to dubbing cassettes, a technique he had come into contact with during a visit to his wife’s relatives in Uganda. He started out by playing the dubbed video cassettes exclusively in his own video parlor, and later started selling them to video parlors and libraries all over Tanzania. Lufufu is a role model for a new generation of video narrators emerging over the last 3 years in Dar es Salaam. One who has worked as Lufufu’s apprentice has even acquired the nickname of “Junior Lufufu.”

Fig. 1

Lufufu in his private video archives, Dar es Salaam, 2007.

© Matthias Krings
Lufufu in his private video archives, Dar es Salaam, 2007.

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Video narrators are cinematic go-betweens who speak along with, or alongside of, foreign films and thus act as mediators between film and audience. Precursors in cinema history include film narrators of the silent movie age (referred to as bonimenteur in France, Kinoerzähler in Germany and benshi in Japan). [3] In order to unravel the historical trajectories of video narration in East Africa, however, one does not have to travel as far as China, as Lufufu did. Forerunners to present day Tanzanian video narration and narrators may well be traced back to colonial cinema and their interpreters, who “translated” educational films into African languages during mobile cinema shows. The Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment (BEKE), which ran from 1935 to 1937 and was based in Tanganyika, provided running commentary in local languages to accompany their silent educational films. [4] Mpungu Mulenda, who reports on film narrators in the cinema halls of Lubumbashi during the 1980s, finds evangelical film shows—which were organized by missionaries and employed local evangelists as commentators—at the root of this phenomenon. [5] Furthermore, live interpreting was an integral part of promotional mobile cinema shows well into the 1970s. These were organized by Kenyan operators who toured the Tanzanian countryside with American and Italo-Westerns, Chaplin features, and Laurel and Hardy comedies, attracting large crowds for their promotion of Omo detergents, Eveready batteries, and the like. [6]

The form of live film interpreting currently practiced in East Africa can be traced back to the video parlors of Kampala, Uganda, where the art grew strong during the late 1980s. With three hundred plus video narrators, Uganda is certainly the East African country where this art seems to be cherished most. The local term for practitioners is video jockey, and Prince Nakibinge Joe, president of Uganda’s Videojockeys Association, compares the VJ to the DJ, the one “who spices up music in a discotheque” and keeps dancers going until the early hours of the morning.

[…] a VJ is also like that. He puts some jokes in the film, at the same time he translates it, at the same time he is also like an actor, because he is also acting … VJs are the subtitles of the community, without us people cannot understand the movie. [7]

Although there is some evidence that this practice of video narration spread to Tanzania quite recently through direct contact with Uganda or Ugandans, local origins, apart from BEKE and the promotional mobile cinema shows of the 1960s-1970s, may also be considered. As Bouchard points out, oral practices around cinema are manifold, and apart from institutionalized cinema narration, informal varieties, such as a friend volunteering to interpret for a group of friends, have been widespread on the African continent. [8] Professional video narrating might indeed be traced back to such amateur origins. Lingo, the first mythical video jockey of Uganda, who appeared in a Kampala video hall in 1988, seems to have been one such amateur (some even recall him as a migrant from former Zaire) :

People could not watch movies without him because they didn’t understand. He moved around from the front sit [sic] to the back to the front, he didn’t sit down; he was moving around all the time, telling to the audience what the movie was about, and everything. This man was not educated and he didn’t understand English well, but he could get the story, what was the movie about, like ‘the boy buys a sweet, enters in the car …’ or he (would) tell you that a certain person is going to die … So he was not professional at that time, but people enjoyed this. [9]

Those who followed in Lingo’s footsteps started using electronic equipment—sound mixers, microphones and amplifiers—to reduce the volume of the original sound track and insert their own commentary. A decade later, they started dubbing live performances on VHS tapes and selling these to video libraries.

Video narration in Tanzania is still in its infancy. This is in contrast to Uganda, where the profession has gained some recognition beyond the video halls, through VJ-slams organized by the Amakula Kampala International Film Festival. [10] In Dar es Salaam, the practice is called “tafsiri” (translation), and the one who performs is called a “DJ” rather than a “VJ.” Even in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s economic and cultural capital, less than ten video narrators were operating in 2009, all of whom (with the exception of Lufufu) had started their careers in the preceding four years. Most of them are freelancers, which, in this case, means they offer their services to video hall owners for free. Since they don’t have their own equipment, this is the only way they can record their performances on VHS tapes. These tapes are then sold for as little as 5000 TSh (less than three Euros) as master tapes to Ajay Chavda, a local video store owner who reproduces them en masse.

King Rich, who calls himself “VC,” “video controller,” or mkurugenzi (general director), also used to sell his tapes to Ajay Chavda until he managed to buy his own equipment. He started to do live video narration in 2005 in Tarime, a northern Tanzanian town close to the Kenyan border after he had finished secondary school (O-level). His first film was Above the Law (Andrew Davis, 1988), an American action film, but he soon began to specialize in Nigerian films because he found Nigerian English much easier to understand. After leaving Tarime he continued working as a live video narrator in two Lake Victoria fishing camps before stopping for about two years. His father had urged him to find a “real” job, and suggested he become a policeman. Following the advice of his father, he joined the police force. When he was posted to Dar es Salaam in 2007, he came across Mr. Kobla, the owner of a video parlor, who persuaded him to take up video narration again, later introducing him to Ajay Chavda, who bought recordings of his performances in Kobla’s video parlor. When King Rich was able to set up his own recording equipment in 2008, he stopped doing live interpreting and started producing dubbed master tapes in his own “studio” instead. As he explains, narrating live is more demanding, because the brouhaha in the video parlor sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate on the film. At the same time, he finds it more rewarding because the narrator gets an immediate response from the audience. Performing live doesn’t generate much of an income, however, as audiences would rather stay away than pay high entrance fees. This means that live narrators have to depend on the token amounts received from video parlor owners, who hire narrators to attract more customers. That video narration would be mediatized, and dubbed tapes sold en masse to video parlors and video libraries across the country, would therefore seem a natural consequence. King Rich always makes sure to announce his mobile phone number a few times on each of his dubbed tapes and reports getting a lot of encouragement from his dispersed audiences. Such positive feedback notwithstanding, he believes his audience still prefers live narration. When he performed in Kobla’s video parlor for a two month period in 2007, for instance, the number of spectators grew daily and the room soon became too small to accommodate them all. [11] As King Rich is still working as a policeman, he can only devote half of his time to video narration. Nevertheless, his oeuvre thus far comprises about ninety Nigerian films.

Fig. 2

King Rich performing in a Dar es Salaam video parlour, 2008.

© Sandra Gross
King Rich performing in a Dar es Salaam video parlour, 2008.

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Theorizing Video Narration

Video narration comprises two different aspects which, despite their heuristic separation, actually go hand in hand and inform one another in East African video parlors: the appropriation and accommodation of the video medium itself, and the appropriation of foreign films transmitted on video. “Technologies are unstable things,” Brian Larkin reminds us, and “meanings attached to technologies, their technical functions, and the social uses to which they are put are not an inevitable consequence but something worked out over time in the context of considerable cultural debate.” [12] The spectacular rise of the “small” video medium, from a recording technology used in private, First World households, to a cornerstone of African film industries such as “Nollywood” and “Bongowood,” its Tanzanian counterpart, is clearly indicative of video’s enormous potential as a medium and the ingenuity of its African users. Less spectacular, but groundbreaking nonetheless, is the use of the video apparatus and its corresponding “cassette culture” [13] for the projection of films. Thus, the video parlor (vimkandala in Kiswahili) created a cheap alternative to film theatres, and permitted film viewing to spread to every nook and corner of Africa—a pastime once by and large associated only with town life. Video narration, as it is practiced in Tanzanian video parlors, reconfigures the medium of video in the same way that mobile film shows and cinema house screenings in East and Central Africa had reconfigured the medium of cinema decades earlier.

In his essay on commentary and orality in African film reception, Vincent Bouchard concludes that “the practice of adding an oral commentary to popular film screenings is the result of a media reconfiguration born during the encounter between (non modern) oral practices and the appropriation of a cinematographic apparatus born out of a foreign culture (in this case, Western modernity).” [14] I propose to further this argument by paying closer attention to the nature of the “oral practices” that informed the reconfiguration of the apparatus and—in current Tanzanian practice—have brought forth a new narrative genre that situates itself between the word and the screen.

Lufufu likens video narration to “the transformation of rice into pilau” (pilau is a delicious rice dish in Swahili cuisine). Following this metaphor, foreign films are like raw or unprocessed foodstuffs that need to be cooked and prepared according to principles of local cuisine in order to be made palatable. If we understand cooking as a culture-specific way of preparing food, where even new raw material is treated according to well established principles, and transfer this understanding back to consideration of video narration as a relatively new speech genre, we may find a means of discovering older speech genres that have informed video narration. During fieldwork on storytelling in southern Tanzania, my colleague Uta Reuster-Jahn was told that performances given by rural storytellers can be understood in terms of “traditional village cinema.” [15] Taking this metaphor seriously, I suggest that what urban video narrators do has to be considered an amalgamation of “traditional village cinema” with “cassette cinema,” that is, a local form of cinema that takes place in the video parlor. As a tentative hypothesis, I propose to conceptualize video narration as a practice of domestication of foreign films in terms of media. This would imply that such films are made digestible to Tanzanian audiences—to apply Lufufu’s metaphor once again—through the introduction of another medium, the spoken word, and that their exhibition in video parlors is reconfigured as a traditional storytelling performance. This hypothesis is based on the idea that live video narration is, in fact, a way of transferring video films into oral narratives. Freeing narratives from their audiovisual containers and reshaping them according to the principles of “primary orality” provides access to and reconstructs meaning through what may well be considered an inversion of the process Walter J. Ong has described as “technologizing of the word.” [16] Film and video are a constitutive part of the age of secondary orality brought about by electronics. Ong considers this new kind of orality “both remarkably like and remarkably unlike primary orality.” [17] Unlike print culture, mass media such as radio, television, and film share a “participatory mystique” and foster a “communal sense,” two characteristics held in common with live performance in primary oral cultures. Unlike primary oral narrative, however, feature films are firmly grounded in writing and the printed word. They are based on screenplays—often written and re-written over and over again—on storyboards and rehearsed dialogue, and, as such, are deeply shaped by principles of literacy. It is in this sense that I understand video narration as remediation, as a means of translating technologically mediated words into oral discourse. When King Rich uses generic local appellations to refer to specific Nigerian actors across a number of films, instead of the names of the characters they play or even their actual names, he is in fact reshaping them as generic types, a feature which, according to Ong, is characteristic of primary orality. [18] Patience Ozokwor thus turns into Mama mkanga sumu (Mama, the poison maker), Ramsey Noah into Loverboy. Similarly, when Lufufu explicitly formulates a moral at the end of a film, a lesson he wants his audience to take home, he draws on a feature of primary orality. This argument should certainly not be misinterpreted as reiterating the colonial claim that African audiences are unable to understand film. Remediating foreign films through live performance informed by primary orality has to be considered an attempt to get the utmost meaning out of such films by turning the specific into the generic. At the same time, the fact that video cassettes and DVDs with narrator voiceovers are screened in video parlors might be seen as complicating the picture, insofar as the voice of the narrator, technologically mediated, forms part of the setting of secondary orality. Still, many features of live performance are retained, for the simple reason that the master tapes were recorded during live performances, at least until very recently. [19] Needless to say, if a voiceover cassette is being played, there is no immediate interaction between audience and narrator. However, as I will demonstrate below, certain forms of direct audience address and participatory interaction are retained.

In his essay, Bouchard sketches out a continuum of film commentary practices in Africa with two distinct modes of spectatorship occupying opposite extremes of the continuum. On one end, we find what I call the contemplative-hermeneutical mode. This mode is characterized by silent spectators who attempt to understand the original meaning of a film and a commentator whose essential task it is to ensure this meaning is transmitted. In colonial Africa, this mode of spectatorship was established during mobile cinema shows featuring religious and governmental propaganda films. This mode corresponds to a conceptualization of cinema as a tool of communicating messages. At the other end of the continuum, cinema is conceptualized as spectacle, as an entertaining attraction that addresses spectators’ senses and entails an emotional engagement. Here, commentators are an integral part of the attraction and, as Bouchard suggests, their objective “is not to transmit the original meaning to the spectators, but to bring to light whatever elements can make the show most entertaining.” [20] This type of spectatorship and commentary may thus be interpreted as “a form of cultural resistance.” [21]

As the following analysis will demonstrate, Tanzanian video narration situates itself in between these two modes. On the one hand, narrators attempt to transmit the original meaning of the films they are interpreting, repairing the communication of the film through their commentary. On the other hand, narrators disturb communication by subverting the film’s meaning, or simply by drawing attention to their own activity, whether to promote one’s own career or distinguish oneself from professional colleagues. To show how narrator activity supports both of these modalities, I will focus primarily on King Rich’s version of Karishika, as well as examples from Lufufu’s Titanic and Super Love[22]

Video Narration as Repair

Video narrators re-enact dialogue, narrate stories, and add commentary or explanation. When King Rich translates dialogue, he uses direct speech and changes his voice to suit the gender and age of the screen characters, mimicking women and men, old and young (though other film narrators, Lufufu for example, pay considerably more attention to this). King Rich oscillates between first person dialogue voiceover and third person narration and commentary, using an audio mixer to add his verbal soundtrack to the sound of the original video, constantly fading in and out (sometimes after every sentence) to preserve as much of the original soundtrack as possible. I interpret these fade-ins and fade-outs as the narrator’s attempt to be invisible—at least to an extent that allows the filmic atmosphere—which depends as much on sound as on images—to unfold. As narrator, King Rich speaks in the third person and blends the role of the narrator with that of a commentator, interpreting those actions and images he thinks his audience might be unable to understand. He thus acts as a guide through foreign audiovisual terrain.

King Rich opens his version of Karishika by introducing himself as the one who is translating the film into Kiswahili and by announcing where the translated version can be ordered on cassette in Dar es Salaam, including the mobile phone number of “Kobla Video Library.” All of this is done while the opening credits are still running. As soon as the first images appear, images depicting a Nollywood mise-en-scène of hell, King Rich changes style and starts providing commentary as if reporting on a live event, even pretending to be in Nigeria himself:

As usual I am telling you I am in Nigeria, there in West Africa. I am sending you my missiles [here: “blockbusters” = films], and they are sold by Mr. Ajay Chavda, who is based in the Nyamwezi lane. The Nigerians are greeting all of you. May God bless Tanzania! [23]

Situating himself in Nigeria adds credibility to his commentary and in fact serves to authorize him. Similar authorizing phrases occur throughout the film (see below). King Rich originated this approach early in his career when he discovered that his ability to interpret Nigerian films led some among his audiences to wonder if he was Nigerian. He later developed and assumed, while narrating, the identity of a Tanzanian based in Lagos who sends his commentary directly from Nigeria. This identity addresses an imagined audience not present at the site of recording and highlights the fact that the narrator has a wider audience in mind even though recordings are made during a live show.

Lufufu opens his narration of Super Love, a Nigerian Cinderella story set in rural Igbo land, in quite a similar way. As on all of his tapes, he starts by introducing himself and situating the film by explaining where it comes from (sometimes even undertaking an imaginative journey from Dar es Salaam to the place where the film was shot). Accompanied by the opening credits of the film, he says:

My beloved viewers, my beloved relatives, Captain Derek Mukandala Lufufu, who is available at Aggrey street, Kariakoo, in the centre of Dar es Salaam city, brings to you one good film from the nation of Nigeria in this season of 2004—from the nation of Nigeria which is ruled by General Obasanjo

Super Love, 0:00:26–50

This is followed by an introduction to the plot:

Our film begins at a time when young Obinna returns from Europe where he went to study. Obinna was a prince as it is normal in a family of the chief. If your son is from that family, you are supposed to prepare his future. Among the things which you should prepare for him is a girl to marry. And that should be arranged while the girl is still very young. Therefore even girls of three years are prepared early in order to become married to the son of a chief. This is what happened in this place

Super Love, 0:00:51–01:55

Lufufu clearly felt the need to elaborate on the cultural significance of being a chief’s son in rural Nigeria. King Rich continues his narration of Karishika in a similar way, by elaborating on the meaning of the Christian concept of Satan. The camera pans across “hell,” a place dimly lit by fires and settled with poor, captured, half naked souls, their hands and feet in chains. King Rich sets in as narrator. Following his opening sentence, the original voice of Lucifer becomes partially audible in English, but King Rich, still somewhat engaged in the mode of commentating on a live event, refrains from translating Lucifer’s words. Instead, he introduces the actor who plays Lucifer, then takes pains to translate the meaning of Lucifer—name and figure—into Kiswahili:

We are now formally beginning with our film. Today, we are having someone here who is called Obi Madurugwu who plays Lucifer. Who is Lucifer? Lucifer is the Satan [shetani]. One can call him ‘Devil’ [English in Kiswahili version] or Satan

Karishika, 0:02:36–03:02

King Rich combines the actors’ names with the names of the roles they play and sometimes uses them interchangeably. This is a typical feature in video narration. The actors are well known to Tanzanian followers of Nigerian films, so using their real names avoids ambiguity and makes it easier for both narrator and audience to follow the story. Translating “Lucifer” or the Christian concept of “Devil” to a local audience which is religiously mixed is in fact quite a complex matter, especially since the Arabic loan word shetani is also used in Kiswahili to denote any kind of spirit. After this explanation, King Rich sets out to tackle an even more complex task—explaining the concept of “hell” using just a few words, lest he lose track of the film:

Direct speech: “I am the king of the whole world.”

Narration: “This is the one whose name is Obi Madurugwu and who plays Lucifer.”

Direct Speech: “I am the ruler over this world. Who dares to challenge me?”

Narration: Now we return to the camp of the shetani, where there was Satan who ruled over the world of the spirits. And all the people who once had committed sins had been thrown into the world of the spirits. Those who are there are people who have pretended to be followers of God, but in fact have used Satan instead. They were thrown into the world of the spirits, to the Devil. Europeans call this “hell” [English in the Kiswahili version]

Karishika, 0:03:03–46

What is most striking about these performances is that the narrators’ commentaries and translations almost never stop. This is especially clear during film sequences without dialogue, in which the narrator commentary accomplishes several different things: summarizing for spectators who have arrived late at the video parlor, forecasting to ease the shift from one sequence to the next, establishing the authenticity and truthfulness of certain images, explaining the cultural or historical significance of certain settings—often by comparison with local equivalents. Lufufu carries out a number of these functions in the following sequence from his narration of Titanic.

The protagonist, Jack, is invited to have dinner in the first class because he has saved Rose’s life. He enters in a borrowed dinner suit, reluctantly observing the impressive architecture and the unfamiliar behavior of the upper class passengers as he descends the massive staircase. The original film relies solely on images to transmit Jack’s uneasiness and unfamiliarity with upper class customs. Lufufu adds the following commentary, which serves at once as repetition and explanation:

For the very first time... Jack Dawson had never before taken part in such a big festivity. As I have told you, in all of his life so far, even back in his village, he had never gotten an invitation card. On this day he, Jack Dawson, because he had saved Rose DeWitt Bukater’s life, was invited to a venue only rich people are invited to. Everyone who came in had a partner. Carefully he stepped down the staircase, looking here and there to see if he couldn’t find Rose somewhere

Titanic, 0:55:31–56:03

When Jack reaches the bottom of the staircase, he sees how gentlemen greet each other, how male passengers lead their female companions across the hall, and improvises a little pantomime to get accustomed to the appropriate gestures. The original film version continues to rely solely on images—unlike Lufufu, who proceeds with his voiceover. This time, however, Lufufu makes the images speak through a different register. With a whispering voice, he gives Jack an internal monologue:

I don’t know how I shall wait here. Everyone here has his partner. And what about me? If I had a partner at least ... aha, one hand must be held behind the back, and I should stand like this if I have to greet people, shikamo, shikamo [traditional respectful greeting]. If I would only have someone whom I could place by my side, damn it! This is poverty. Indeed, poverty is something bad. Even the girl I am waiting for is the fiancée of someone else

Titanic, 0:56:17–43

Suddenly, Rose’s mother and her fiancé, Caledon, pass by Jack, and Rose appears at the top of the staircase alone. Lufufu comments on this as narrator, then switches back to whispering Jack’s internal monologue as Rose walks down the staircase. When they finally meet and the original dialogue sets in, Lufufu switches to direct speech:

Jack’s internal monologue: “I will take her hand and say welcome to her. Truly, there is a beautiful ‘child’ coming down the stairs, an angel, how attractive she is, Misses Titanic! [laughs] Let me tell you! Wait, let me move closer to her so that I can shake hands with her.”

Jack’s direct speech: “I am happy to see you, Rose, my darling, if I may dare to call you my darling.”

Titanic, 0:56:54–57:16

King Rich, too, almost never pauses during performances. When asked why, he explained that he finds moving images without commentary inadequate and that he considers it part of his job to fill such acoustic gaps with meaningful information. As an authoritative example of running commentary on otherwise “silent” images, he cited the film Jesus (John Krish and Peter Sykes, 1979), screenings of which he had experienced many times in his youth. [24] Evoking this film is, in my estimation, an attempt to validate his oral performance—not only by tying it to a highly authoritative model in a Christian context, but by linking it to scripture through this very model. This ties in neatly with the high esteem accorded to writing and the written word in cultures that still sustain pockets of primary orality.

Video commentary, in all its exuberance, may at first glance seem to produce nothing but redundancy. After all, saying the phrase “Jack carefully stepped down the staircase” renders almost the same information as the actual images that show Jack stepping slowly down the staircase. According to Walter J. Ong, redundancy and repetition are fundamental characteristics of oral thought and speech.

Redundancy, repetition of the just-said, keeps both speaker and hearer surely on the track. […] In oral delivery, though a pause may be effective, hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something, artfully if possible, rather than simply stop speaking while fishing for the next idea. Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility. [25]

While the kind of redundancy Ong refers to can also be found in video narrators’ performances—phrases are repeated while narrators look for the right words to continue with the story—the redundancy of a phrase like “Jack carefully stepped down the staircase” dissolves if one submits that such phrases actually double information through remediation. When video narration is seen as a practice of remediation that exhibits the original and copy (the commentary) simultaneously, information is transmitted simultaneously on two different channels, both visually and acoustically. This serves to minimize ambiguity and may provide repair (see below), and—to use Ong’s words—“keeps the spectator on track.” The most important function of this doubling, however, lies elsewhere, and pertains to all forms of commentary. Narrator commentaries and translations cause the (foreign) images and sounds to lose their governing function in telling the story. Whether performed live or produced as added voiceovers in a studio, the narrator’s voice takes precedence over the pre-existing moving images, which turn into mere illustrations of his verbal narrative. The hierarchy of original and copy is thus reversed, which is also neatly reflected in King Rich’s self-ascriptions as “video-controller” and “general director” (mkurugenzi). It is the video narrator who gains control of and reigns over foreign audiovisual material. This also explains why the narrator almost never pauses, even if this means he has to repeat himself, for his silence would imply “surrender” to the very material he seeks to control through his performance.

Sometimes King Rich, himself a born-again Christian, asks his spectators to reflect upon a particular religious issue raised in a film. In Karishika, for example, he comments on a scene in which Bianca is about to consult a traditional healer, and poses a rhetorical question directly to his audience: “Is it possible for a faithful believer in God to engage with traditional [magical] methods? The answer is up to you! May God bless you, you who are following my Nigerian films!” (Karishika, 0:24:32–44). Through this direct address, the narrator stimulates critical inquiry by initiating the active participation of his audience, a feature Ong suggests is typical of primary orality. [26] Each spectator can then pause for a couple of seconds and think about his or her own previous experiences as they compare to those of Bianca.

As the mediating “third” between film and audience, the video narrator actually provides repair through commentary and translation. In linguistic conversation theory, repair refers to a turn-taking conversational phenomenon in which a hearer helps a speaker to repair an utterance, the meaning of which would otherwise have been ambiguous or totally incomprehensible. Repair situations can be two-person dialogues, as well as situations in which a third interlocutor is present apart from the primary speaker and listener. To a certain extent, the video narrator as primary facilitator of the film-to-audience relationship. The video running on screen is thus constructed as communicating only partially meaningful messages, incomprehensible until repaired by the video narrator. A somewhat similar arrangement is also found in traditional African storytelling, which often involve a narrator and an audience, as well as an equally important “third party.” My colleague, Uta Reuster-Jahn, who has studied storytelling among the Mwera tribe of southern Tanzania, reports on the cooperative style of Mwera oral performance, which always involve a respondent in addition to narrator and audience. [27] The respondent serves two main functions. One is to encourage the narrator through utterances of approval and the other is to step in and assist the narrator if he misses a word, gets stuck or produces ambiguous meaning; in other words, the respondent performs repair. In such instances, the respondent may become a co-narrator. A video narrator may thus also be considered a respondent. Unlike the traditional storyteller, however, who incorporates his respondent’s repairs and clarifications into his performance (usually by repeating them), the video narrator’s narrator—the audiovidual stream flowing from the TV set—can obviously neither incorporate nor react to this repair. Only the audience can react with signs of approval.

Video Narration as Distraction

So far I have only highlighted moments of the narrator’s performance that seem to aid or facilitate the relationship between film and audience. Video narration, however, is based on a paradox, for the video narrator’s translation and commentary not only repairs, but simultaneously causes distraction. In certain instances, the video narrator may even direct the attention of the spectators away from the screen, like a “commentator-gone-wild” who starts telling his own story. In so doing, he turns against himself as narrator, or the film’s original narrator, by seizing the audience’s attention and troubling both the film’s preferred meaning and the filmic medium’s illusion of immediacy. Most remarkable in this sense from King Rich’s performance are moments in which he addresses the audience referring to himself as “I,” King Rich. Such references are not only self-promotional in character, but also serve to negotiate the art of video narration itself which has yet to be firmly established as a cultural practice.

An example of direct address to the audience which also serves as a meta-commentary on the art of interpretation occurs during a rather dramatic sequence of Karishika (1:12:30–14:22). Bianca, who is somehow troubled by her pregnancy through Karishika’s satanic intervention, is comforted by her Pentecostal husband. The sequence opens with a medium close shot of the couple lying in bed, Bianca telling her husband that she is not sure “if she is carrying a baby or a stone.” The husband comforts her and tells her she should have faith “in the work of God Almighty.” This original English dialogue and the Kiswahili translation are only partially audible, as King Rich enters the sequence by situating himself again in Nigeria, reiterating the fact that he is actually based in Lagos, from where he is sending “this missile” to Dar es Salaam. He then catches up with the last part of the dialogue, delivering the husband’s direct speech (whose lines he does not translate literally). Next, King Rich exploits the original’s lack of dialogue to deliver background information about the actor playing Bianca, clearly considering this part of his job, as exemplified by this statement made directly to his audience: “She is called Sandra Achums and she is well established in the film business. I have promised you to interpret [this film] good…” (Karishika, 1:13:06-10). A sudden outbreak of action on screen forces him to redirect his own attention, and that of his audience, back to the film. Bianca is haunted by the image of a mermaid—a satanic reaction to the husband who has mentioned God Almighty as the source of her pregnancy—and jumps up screaming. King Rich picks up on this, imitates Bianca’s high-pitched screaming voice and translates what she shouts “I have seen this woman who took me to that healer, I have seen her!” He then switches back to commentary mode, explaining that “Karishika appeared to her.” While Bianca and husband continue to jump and scream on the bed, our video narrator falls quiet for a couple of seconds and leaves the original sound untouched, until once again picking up the thread of self-promotion and meta-commentary he had started earlier on:

I have promised you, my beloved spectator, that I will start to explain the pictures and the life of the actors. In the pictures that will follow, I will tell you who each actor is, where he lives in Nigeria—there, where I am living—how many children he has, how many wives he has, to which school he went. Apart from this I will tell you many other things regarding the art [of filmmaking] itself. I am begging you to sit down and listen, so that I can do my work properly. I wish to thank all of those who are sending me their commentaries which enable me to do my job even better. I have promised you to begin introducing the actors to you one by one, and all pictures, by commenting upon two to three people, if I have the time [to do so]

Karishika, 1:13:28–14:15

By redirecting the audience’s attention to his personal project, King Rich in fact diminishes the importance of this sequence and symbolically tells his audience to ignore the film for a moment while he conveys some important information. Though this has a distracting effect on the audience in terms of the film’s storyline, King Rich considers these glimpses behind the screen to be an important aspect of his work. As he told me, he gathers any necessary background information from the Internet and Tanzanian magazines that report on Nollywood stars. An important surplus effect of such interventions is that they expose the medium as medium and call attention to the context in which the film is watched.

Film, narrator and audience are tied together in a triangular relationship. The video narrator usually follows the film quite closely, like a go-between who is supposed to remain neutral, or a translator who is expected to show absolute fidelity to his source text. The narrator stands in as an expert on different film cultures—as an ethnographer of American, Indian, Chinese or Nigerian film. Like a good ethnographer who hopes the strange may become understandable to his own people through his translations and explanations, the video narrator shows respect for and fidelity to the film’s intended meaning. In some cases, however, he also diverges from the film’s preferred reading. The dinner sequence from Lufufu’s Titanic narration serves as an illustration.

This sequence shows Jack at a dinner table in the first class section. Lufufu bridges the cultural distance by using local names to refer to the food seen in the film. At the same time, he interprets Jack’s bewilderment with the upper class table manners, the small portions and the abundance of cutlery he does not know how to use as an acknowledgement on Jack’s part that he probably won’t get enough to eat. Though this reading is not completely over the edge, Lufufu’s interpretation, with its allusion to an empty belly, is much closer to the everyday lives of the film’s Tanzanian spectators than it is to late Victorian social relations between the elite and working classes as encoded in Jack’s unfamiliarity with upper class table manners.

Jack’s internal monologue: “On this party one is supposed to eat ugali [Maize dumplings] with twenty different spoons. These are things I would never get accustomed to, stupid, useless things.”

Narration: “Jack, still on … like I have told you … still on the welcoming party, he thought that he would get ugali, spinach, beans and cassava, instead he was served only very small portions of food. That’s how it is in a decent place like this. That was not very pleasant. He thought to himself that he would go to bed hungry today.”

Titanic, 1:00:13–45

Through certain comments, the narrator may indeed expose cultural differences between those acting on screen and those looking at the screen. He may even subvert the film’s preferred meaning by ridiculing certain images. Such actions, again, create a distance between film and audience, and trouble the viewers’ identification with screen characters. King Rich’s version of Karishika contains some hilarious examples of such subversions. When Lucifer is about to send Karishika, his female agent, to the world of the living, we see a close-up of Obi Madurugwu’s face, the actor who plays Lucifer, who declaims in a theatrical style: “Karishika … Karishika … shika … shika … shika!” (0:07:00–16). King Rich picks up the chant and continues in similar intonation: “shika, shika, kamata, chukua!” This gives Lucifer’s acting an ironic, almost absurd twist, as ku-shika means “to hold” in Kiswahili, its imperative form is shika and kamata and chukua are imperative forms of verbs with similar meaning. In a similar manner, King Rich ridicules Satan’s former antagonists, two pastors who fell for Karishika. When they are praying aloud in typical Pentecostal declamatory style, he mocks their prayer by imitating its sound using meaningless syllables like “Holy baba shanta baba kunta baba shantra babababa!” (Karishika, 1:15:00–07). As King Rich explained to me, however, he reserves this mockery for “fake” pastors who have already fallen for the Devil.

Finally, video narrators do not hesitate to adapt film sequences that openly contradict local cultural standards of decency. Lufufu, for example, who considers explicit sex scenes disturbing, edits them out of his tapes or copies over them with trailers of other films. He felt children and under-aged teens, as the principal video parlo clientele, might be disturbed by such scenes. Karishika contains two more or less explicit sequences depicting a couple in bed. In their original form, both are pure action sequences without dialogue. King Rich “spices them up” with his commentary, adding a comic layer of meaning that also serves to counter any embarrassment they may cause. In such instances the video narrator turns against the film and shields his audience from the embarrassing power of such images that might hit the spectators with full force if left without commentary. Thus, King Rich comments on such scenes using colloquial expressions for having sex, such as “climbing a mountain” or “riding a bike.” When Pastor James is seduced by Karishika and turns into her “spiritual husband,” King Rich not only mocks his prayers, but imitates the sound of kissing lips, puts additional words into Karishika’s mouth using a high-pitched voice and advises the pastor “to keep away from that fruit!” (Karishika, 1:15:48-51)

* * *

Video narration serves to bridge cultural gaps between foreign films and local audiences and, at the same time, provides moments of subversion. It thus fosters a contemplative-hermeneutical mode of spectatorship shot through with instances of spectacle. As a powerful example of cultural resistance, video narration speaks of the agency of local audiences vis-à-vis transnational media circulating in an already globalized world. Far from being victims of an alleged cultural imperialism—be it American, Chinese or Nigerian—Tanzanian spectators of foreign films pirated on video have developed a modus operandi for the domestication of such films. In terms of subjecting something alien to the conditions of “home,” the invention of the video parlor may well be read as a domestication of the video medium itself. Video narration, then, reconfigures the domesticated medium, and domesticates the foreign audiovisual material itself. The video narrator’s voiceover channels the foreign material, or—to call up another connotation of domestication—tames it through verbal commentary, which assumes the upper hand over the pre-fabricated images and sounds.

The infrastructure of the video parlor—hard wooden benches, small TV screen, bad video copies and bad sound—already restricts the unfolding of cinema’s power of illusion and make-believe, which in conventional cinema theatres may cause people to forget the film, forget the screen, and even forget themselves. [28] Live video narration, a non-filmic activity, creates an awareness of the viewing situation as well. Looking at video narration from the point of view of the history of global cinema, the current Tanzanian practice inverts a process that began around 1900, with the shift from the cinema of attractions, which fostered a mode of spectatorship informed by spectacle and vaudeville, to narrative cinema, with a power of absorption that fostered silent spectatorship and surrender to the medium. According to Miriam Hansen, this cinema of attractions mode, which allowed non-filmic acts and activities such as live sound and live commentary in the theatre space, started to disappear early on in the evolution of cinema. “This process of negation involved representational strategies aimed at suppressing awareness of the theatre space and absorbing the spectator into the illusionist space on screen.” [29] Video narration, if performed live, creates an awareness of the medium through the presence of the narrator and the addition of live sound. This holds true even if dubbed voiceover cassettes are shown in video parlors, as commentaries that direct the audience away from the film or add meaning to the film, such as the biographies of Nollywood actors provided by King Rich, expose the film as film and call attention to both the viewing situation and the critical distance between spectator and video film.

Video narration in Tanzania has recently suffered a severe setback. Based as it is on pirated video copies of foreign films, it has called the Tanzanian Copyright Society (COSOTA) into action. During a major raid against video piracy in September 2009, eight distributors were sacked in Dar es Salaam and tons of pirated material impounded. Although COSOTA was hunting primarily for those who endanger the growth of the local video film industry by illegally reproducing local Kiswahili films, the police also apprehended Ajay Chavda, the main distributor of foreign films dubbed by Dar es Salaam’s video narrators on DVD and VHS. Rumor had it that COSOTA was tipped off by some of Chavda’s competitors dealing Kiswahili films; they attributed a decline in their sales to competition from Chavda’s dubbed foreign films. Whether this is true or not, it is true that video narration had been on the rise for the previous two years. This rise is clearly tied to the shift away from live performances and towards the mediatization of the craft using recording technologies and mass production, which allowed video narrators to generate more income. I therefore doubt that King Rich, Lufufu and Dar es Salaam’s other video narrators will put a stop to their recording activities and return to live performance for fear of legal consequences. Since COSOTA intends to stop the owners of video parlors from exhibiting pirated copies of foreign films, this would not be a legal alternative for the narrators in any case. It seems as if their very success—reflected by the high demand for their Kiswahili voiceovers of foreign films, which attracted the attention of the Copyright Commission—has now turned against them. Unless COSOTA legalizes their craft by introducing a system of copyright fees, Tanzanian video narrators are doomed to operate in the grey zone of the informal film distribution economy.

Parties annexes