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Brian Smithson


Weatherhead/Charlotte Newcombe Fellow

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate,
Dept. of Cultural Anthropology,
Duke University

Piety in Production: Moviemaking as Religious Improvisation in Benin

Brian Smithson’s project considers Beninese Yorùbá moviemaking as an act of religious piety aimed at downplaying Christian–Muslim differences by rendering “tradition” in a contemporary audiovisual medium. Drawing upon two years of fieldwork in Southeastern Benin as a researcher, apprentice filmmaker, and amateur actor, Smithson argues that movie production allows Beninese creators to celebrate indigenous religion and thus speak back from the margins of the two wealthier film industries that surround them: Nigeria’s Nollywood, and the Beninese state’s publicly funded cinema. Benin’s Yorùbá moviemakers reject the religious messages promoted by these larger industries—denigrating indigenous religion and the Yorùbá, respectively—thus denying the peripheral roles these film cultures leave them. They opt instead to make movies independently, while still carefully engaging both sides in the hopes of winning material support. Smithson’s project speaks to important debates in anthropology and allied fields about media and material culture, religious change, and aesthetics.



Piety in Production: Video Film, Religious Improvisation, and Cosmopolitan Ethics in Bénin

Dobkin Boardroom, SAR Administration Building
Wednesday, November 8, 2017, 12:00–1:00 pm, Free

In the small, West African country of Bénin, Yorùbá movie crews improvise stories that venerate indigenous spirits. Meanwhile, these productions bring Christians, Muslims, and followers of Yorùbá divinities together on sets and in writers’ rooms, offering them a forum to negotiate norms of religious interaction, and to assert their cultural importance on a global stage. Based on two years of field research, Brian C. Smithson considers how these moviemakers stay active despite economic competition from Nigeria’s Nollywood juggernaut and disdain for video film aesthetics from the Béninois state.

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Videography by McCall Sides.