In “Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria,” Brian Larkin traces how Britain’s colonialist practices varied throughout Nigeria, providing indirect and direct rule that in turn impacted the roles of radio and cinema in the country. In chapter 1, Larkin discusses “Infrastructure, the Colonial Sublime, and Indirect Rule”; in chapter 3, “Majigi, Colonial Film, State Publicity, and the Political Form of Cinema”; and in chapter 5, “Immaterial Urbanism and the Cinematic Event.” Although the chapters build on each other, I was most struck by chapter 3, in which Larkin begins in Northern Nigeria in the 1930s, describing how traveling mobile film crews were sent around the region to educate citizens about the “proper” methods of hygiene and various medical practices. In stark contrast to commercial cinema, which was generally pure entertainment, these short, public service announcement-like films were meant to appeal to the “ideal colonial subject”: progressive, mutable and willing to be bent to the British colonizers’ will. When screened in towns and villages along with newsreels and documentaries, the PSAs became an event, drawing thousands of attendees who the British hoped would walk away with more knowledge than they had before.
But were the British successful? In the chapter, Larkin notes that these productions were some of the first created in Africa, for African audiences; even though they were public health campaigns and not what we typically consider “movies,” they were clearly not meant for British eyes. And despite being, in some ways, British propaganda, these films were embraced by Northern Nigerian audiences, unlike cinema as entertainment, which was rejected for being controversial (similar to the essay we read last week about the current argument over Bollywood films and their impact on Nigerian culture). Most interestingly, as Larkin notes, these productions still have lingering effects today, popping up as imperial spectacle — the bureaucratic performances captured in some of these films eventually lost all their meaning, becoming devoid of any real impact but still remaining a facet of evolving Nigerian politics.
Larkin finishes chapter 3 by noting how the British filmed these productions with the belief that African audiences were inferior, so certain camera angles and cinematographic techniques were used for what the colonizers considered maximum effectiveness. But what I found curious — and perhaps a bit lacking from Larkin’s chapter — were more details about how Nigerians at the time responded to the newsreels and PSA segments. Larkin mentions that the British didn’t think the films were particularly effective because of Nigerians’ comments about how the medical films didn’t apply to them or their cultural beliefs, but it would be interesting to read firsthand accounts of those who attended these events. Did they think the screenings were a communal event first, and an educational one second? How did they consider British advice on medicine and health matters; did any of their suggestions resonate? And for the ruling elite who helped facilitate these events, did they expect the educational messages of the films to take hold with their citizens, or were the screenings just positive publicity? More probing into those questions would add another layer to Larkin’s arguments and findings about “Signal and Noise” in Nigeria.