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Malawi Man of Steel: What video halls tell us about media consumption in a globalised world

Display board outside of a video hall

A visit to a Malawian video halls show us how different cultural influences from around the world are remixed and recreated through a local lens. As media travels, it is challenged and transformed, disrupted and appropriated, and becomes something new.

The cardboard display outside the informal cinema or ’videohall’ acts as a frontline view into the complex flows of media in a 21st century globalised world.

The films on offer are diverse, they span continents: Nollywood, Bollywood, 90s and modern-day Hollywood, Korean Hallyuwood. Action movies are a clear favourite – with a wide collection from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Maharashtrian martial arts to the muscles of Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme.

When we speak of globalization and the increased flow of media, it is often a story about emerging countries adapting to ‘global’ trends and tastes. By ‘global’ we mean ‘Western’. In TV and film, we mostly mean American. Some concessions are made for the likes of Nollywood, but what little is written and said about somewhere like Malawi is often prone to the Facebook-Free-Basics-Logic: there is so little going on locally that they’ll be happy with a basic version of what we have.

The Malayalam film ‘Escape from Uganda’

On the surface, data on the Malawi media scene supports this: there is only one government TV channel, satellite TV only arrived in the last decade, and is out of reach for most (1)However, the selection of films in the Video Hall (I’m looking at a poster of the 2016 Ugandan-Keralan cross-over ‘Escape from Uganda) suggests a more complex picture. More friction than flow: different global influences crisscross and collide with local culture, to create something entirely new.

‘Man of Steel’: dubbing or creative adaptation?

Today’s offering – what appears to be some kind of disaster movie starring Amy Adams. Man of Steel, Hollywood’s 2013 Superman flop, I later learn. There is cardboard for sound-proofing, thin wooden benches for seating and a small TV screen stacked high on top of a table at the front of the room.

It’s 30 kwachas a head (about 3p). A young boy, just about old enough to pass the movie’s PG-13 rating, comes around to collect the cash. Even younger boys without the cash (or years) to enter settle for peering through the cracks to steal a glimpse of Amy’s “arresting” performance.

As advertised outside – this is the ‘Chichewa collection’ – dubbed into the local language. Mind you, not that local, here in the north the predominant language is Chitumbuka, and depending on who you ask this is either totally acceptable or a growing frustration. More on this later.

The images are grainy, and there are best-guess English subtitles to accompany the dubbed dialogue – evidence of the bumpy road between licensed cinema or DVD release in another part of the world, to a ‘pirated’ matinee showing at a local videohall. It’s endured shaky handheld camera recordings and patchy web connections on its journey.

‘Dubbed’ doesn’t quite capture it – voices blare from the speakers at a volume higher than they can take, creating a fuzzy static effect and rendering the original audio and sound effects mute. All we hear is two male voices: one deep and base-y, the other high pitched and shrill, narrating the entire movie.

Occasionally during scenes with no dialogue, we’re jolted back into the original sound for a hot second before we skip back to the voices sparring in Chichewa.

Man of Steel, the Chichewa collection

Across many countries in the region dubbing has grown into an art-form in itself. In Uganda and Rwanda, for example, Bruce-Lee action movies are dubbed with a twist: a layer of comedy is added by a genius narrator who weaves humorous one-liners, packed with local references, into the fight scenes. A reminder then that viewers are not passively consuming hand-me-down Hollywood movies, they are active remixers.

The translators, local disc jockeys with a tendency to view imported movies as mere source material for their version, are script writers. Sometimes creating entirely new, localised narratives (2). Of course, the technical quality of the end product leaves a lot to be desired. But once we accept this, a strange freedom emerges. Anyone with access to a PC or smart(ish) phone can join in.

Like the brilliance of Vine videos (or that Jeremy Corbyn Stormzy remix): once we accept the low production standards (in the case of Vine, a roughly edited 7-second video loop) as the norm, a creative community around the practice emerges. Creation and conversation speed up, exciting things happen for us.

As Jace Clayton, international DJ and author, points out in his book Uproot: when remixes and edits are hastily executed, its usually a sign that something interesting is bubbling up” (3). In this case – it’s that there are multiple Chichewa versions of Man of Steel in circulation. Each with different storylines, different genres, characters and styles – each, it is highly likely, a hundred times better than the original.

How do viewers perceive the mish-mash of global cinema?

So, what about the viewers – what do they make of improvised Chichewa cinema? How do they negotiate between the different global influences?

Speaking with some of the teenagers about dubbed Chichewa – it’s clear that it adds a sense of inclusion for a generation without local cinema. A precious pocket of the global mediascape to call their own. Different cinemas can cater to different moments: Bollywood for romance, Nollywood for real-life drama, Hollywood for action. Dubbing expands options.

Inside a hall (PVI International)

But while dubbed Chichewa is the choice of township videohalls, it’s far from the full picture. The growing number of teens with screen access elsewhere (at home, on mobiles) are more likely to be found at the ‘burn centres’ – more legit looking shops in town that load, burn or Bluetooth-beam the latest content to your device of choice for a small fee.

“Dubbed movies are holding us back”, one boy comments, another jokes: “little boys in townships are growing up thinking white people speak Chichewa”. This audience prefer to watch films in their original language. But, even just scratching the surface, there’s nuance in how they navigate their cinema:

Language can dictate engagement: Nollywood’s English is more easily understood, Bollywood’s too, with some preferring to pick up new slang here. One teenager joked that the ‘Deep English’ of Hollywood is too difficult to understand, he prefers to just focus on the action. This challenges the idea that simply consuming American movies translates cultural influence – a regular concern in Malawian press (4).

A myriad of global influences muddies the idea of ‘local’: in a flood of Chinese Kung-Fu or Hollywood combat movies, Nigerian cinema and soaps are refreshingly local. Bollywood can also be talked about in ‘local’ terms – love stories depicting a clash of tradition and modernism can feel authentically African for some.

Though, as with Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood – the viewer’s desire for ever more authentic representations of their life on screen is unyielding.  For example if you compare movies with the music consumption, the definition of local narrows significantly – it’s not hard to find someone with a gripe about Nigerian musicians. In the predominantly Tumbuka-speaking North of Malawi you might even find concern about the dominance of Chichewa music (especially Chichewa from Zambia).

For young people in particular, there is an interest in seeing their Malawi on screen. And there are already promising signs (6). For now, though: it’s clear that we’re well past a Western-centric model of flows, as we see different corners of the world talk to each other. Already more questions are stacking up, questions with implications well beyond Malawi’s borders.

 

Notes and references:
1 – ‘Scales of cultural influence: Malawian consumption of foreign media’, Media, Culture and society, Jonathan Gray, 2014: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0163443714536081.
2 – Some of the Chichewa films come from neighbouring Zambia, that also share the language.
3- Uproot: Travels in 21st century music and digital culture by Jace Clayton, DJ Rupture (which I highly recommend)
4 – There is concern in national newspapers about the influx and influence of Hollywood movies: The Nation, 12 July. Available at: http://mwnation.com/piracy-will-the-fight-ever-be-won/
5 – Zathu, Malawi music festivals and much more