by J. Nathan Corbitt
Five principles will help us to do a better job.
My first experience with the film projector, generator, and a religious film took place in 1982. At that time I was new to Africa and was eager to use every means to share the gospel. At the insistence of a co-worker, we rounded up a generator from one missionary, a projector from another, and rented a film from a church group in town. I should have seen the red flags go up when at each stop the people apologized because "they had just gotten the projector back from the fundi (expert)," "the film was broken the last time but now repaired," and "the generator had not been running smoothly, but would work anyway."
We loaded my car and set out on an eight-hour journey into the hinterland of the coast of Kenya. We drove deep into a country that was steeped in crocodile infested rivers, dry, dusty, bushy terrain, and traditional culture that had only recently entered the 20th century. Word had been sent ahead by a transient worker that on the weekend there would be a showing of a film.
When we arrived we found the church grounds, where we would show the film, were empty. But I was encouraged by my partner, "Once the film is set up many people will come and participate."
Sure enough, as we were plugging in cords and adjusting the screen, people began coming from many little footpaths around the church. It was as if word had been announced and everyone knew when to come. (Actually, few cars came to the area. When they saw ours they knew it was time for the film they had been promised.) No one wanted to be disappointed.
As the sun began to set and a young man began to lead the group in choruses, we tried to crank the generator. Within minutes we were drenched in sweat from pulling the crank rope in vain. The crowd sang with some excitement while watching our activities in the corners of their eyes. We began to feel a bit uncomfortable, but were finally relieved when the generator jerked, spurted, and then began to purr. The crowd, sensing our relief, began to sing with much gusto.
But our relief was short lived. As we turned on the projector, the film began to jump and ebb in sync with the generator that obviously had not been tuned properly. Fifteen minutes into the cinema the film broke. By this time the crowd was not only restless, but angry. What had been promised was on the verge of not being delivered. After some guidance from the Lord, seeing none of us had much mechanical ability, we were able to get the film running. It was just in time, too, as the crowd was beginning to turn their anger into violence.
In the middle of the film a number of old women began getting up from their front ground positions and walking away from the church back down the footpaths. Children became restless and were constantly called down by our evangelist-helpers. The film was in a language that these people could not understand. The translator was having a difficult time being heard over the voices of the children. I sat praying that the film would soon be over.
Later that night I heard drums in the distance. My colleague, the local evangelists, and I were relaxing in the church with an unspoken relief and secret feeling that our duty to outdoor evangelism had ended without a violent incident of stone throwing that was common of other failed film showings.
At midnight we decided to follow the sound of the drums and observe the community event taking place some two miles away. The moon was full and the landscape was bright, illuminated by the lunar lamp. As we entered the village, it was teeming with life as the community was bursting in the compound with dance, games, and conversation. Though I could not agree with the acts I saw take place, I had to appreciate the participation of community.
MEDIA HARD AND SOFT
As a model or paradigm of media in communication, I would like to suggest that there are two extremes or poles in using various media to communicate a message. I have chosen the terms hard and soft. By hard media I refer to those media that are most concrete in their format and presentation. Soft media are those forms that allow for dialogue and flexibility during creation and use. We could say that the hardest media are the most inflexible and the softest are the most flexible. Hard media, as in computer language, would require hardware, technology, certain media literacy or knowledge of the medium by the participants, and allows for no change in presentation once the medium has been cast. The softest media require no hardware, no literacy, allow for dialogue, and can be adapted to each local situation even during presentation. The hardest media are books and films, while the softest media are conversation (dialogue), storytelling, music, and drama (in the improvisational state).
The point that I would like to make is that if we are to effectively communicate across cultures, then we must soften the use of media to allow for the greatest participation of the community. This is to be done in order to communicate and foster understanding within the context of the target audience. Not only are we to foster understanding of our message, but to allow the community to maintain a certain amount of identity (in light of biblical principles) and total integrity as the people grow in the Christian faith.
This concept can be illustrated by the idea of clay and brick. Give a man a lump of clay. Then after conversation-discussion-dialogue, working together to mold the meaning of the conversation, you will get a unique sculpture that represents meaning to the both of you. However, if you take a brick which has meaning only to you, it may take many more hours of conversation-discussion-dialogue (and sometimes coercion) to relay the meaning. The clay allows for mutual growth. Often, with a brick, the focus of the communication is on the brick. It places the owner of the brick at a distinct advantage of having to communicate his understanding. Growth runs the risk of taking place on only one side of the relationship. In the example of day, the focus is on shared communication through participation. In the example of the brick, the focus may be turned to the brick. The clay may result in a brick. But it may result in something eminently more beautiful and meaningful. The brick can only result in a brick.
There are three excellent examples from the Scriptures that illustrate this point as we apply it to Christian development. In Jeremiah 18 we see that Israel was to be like clay in the potter’s hand, molded and shaped into what God wanted.
In 1 Peter 2:5 it says, "You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ" (NASB).
God gave a concrete law to the Israelites, but the fulfillment of that law came in the person of Christ incarnate, who lived in community showing, dialoguing, modeling his message of peace, and love, and salvation.
PRODUCT OR PROCESS
We are in danger of communicating bricks when we focus on the product instead of the process. We must focus on people and their needs, not technology. We must focus on Christian community and not institutionalism. This is the difficult task that must be overcome in communication media by every communicator and especially the technological media specialist. In Africa, many media products are sitting on the shelf, unused and misunderstood because we have created a product and not involved the community in a process of communication. In many ways this is the conflict between our Western linear thinking and individualistic natures as opposed to the consensus community participation of oral, African societies. As a Westerner, I want to express myself and reach a goal as it is revealed to me. I have the message and seek to promote what I have to say. In African society, as I have observed, communication is like a circle that requires collective thought and communication reaching a conclusion in community.
Our task as communicators and specialists is to make the hardest of media softer. We must recognize the validity of books, films and other hard media, but also realize the limitations in cross-cultural use. Tom Colvin gives an example that illustrates this point. He says that writing music on paper in staff notation is like freezing African music. African music has many improvisational qualities and varies in participation from community event to event. When the music is frozen it can only be actualized when it is thawed through performance, not in exact adherence to the notation. It is a reliving by participation in community.
THE ART OF COMMUNICATING
The artist does not have the same role and function in African society as in Western societies. In fact, it is debated by Christopher Small in Music-Society-Education that the West has too often focused on the artist, leaving the process of art as secondary.
An example of the community in communication process is the storyteller. The storyteller has a message, the media of the story, and himself. The true art, the softest art, is his unique ability to involve the community in the story. Through a song, body language, gestures, voice tones, and improvisation he is able to involve the community. He is able to adapt his message immediately to the environment around him for maximum communication.
This is seldom possible in the harder media. In a highly flexible or soft state, our goal must be to reclaim the art of involving the community in the process of communicating the gospel in its wholeness. It can be difficult and time consuming, but the rewards are worth the effort, even with the hardest media.
Africa has been called the "dumping ground of the West" by a number of writers. Books that have no meaning to local people, films with irrelevant and even confusing signals, TV programs that impart the worst character from the West are common to the elite and often rural non-elites of Africa. Some would even suggest that this is imperialism, particularly when little effort or attention has been given to the needs of local people. This is not to suggest that a society should live in a vacuum, as societies can stagnate without newness and interaction with the world around them. But it is a caution.
The question remains, How do we soften media, even the hardest media, and return to community participation? I think there are five basic principles.
First, I believe that we need to spend adequate time understanding the community with whom we would like to communicate, even becoming a part of the community. Know thy people.
Second, we must enlist their support and participation in producing communication media that are relevant. We may in essence become communications servants. We may become enablers and encouragers.
The hardest media, such as films or books, should use local people in focus group discussions for understanding needs and evaluating the product. Local people can even write, act, direct, and learn through participation in the production itself. There is increasing use by communities of other video media, such as video letters, local drama, and documentaries. There is a new movement for community radio and newspapers. Our skills as specialists and owners of hardware may be used as we help the community to participate in contemporary electronic media. We can encourage the use of local resources.
Third, we can focus on the processes of Christianity and not on specific products that may be relevant to our home community. One missionary glibly referred to our objective of establishing an indigenous church in Africa and said, "But let us do it like we do it in Birmingham, Alabama." This means discovering with the local community as the Christian community develops. We may come to the same point and we may not.
Fourth, we have a responsibility to help educate people about the use of media as a part of the process and not the end product. We need to recognize that many of our media products have sometimes been targeted for the missionary and his needs and not necessarily for the target community. For example, showing a film, as I first did, was one of the hardest forms of communication. Had I known, I might have encouraged a storyteller, a choir, or drama group, sharing in the language of the people. I did not understand that there is often a tremendous need for entertainment among rural people.
My showing the film was not the point, sharing the gospel was. Showing the film just happened to get in the way. But to the local community, the film was the point, they wanted to be enter-And I’m sure they were, at my expense. The Christians of the community had resources for evangelism. A film could have been appropriate, given appropriate content, technology, language, and setting.
Fifth, on an international level, we may need to network materials that can be used in an ever mobile world, with a caution. Hindus in Mauritius spend hours in front of the TV screen at video party-clubs, but we don’t know if Hindi Christian films exist. A Malagasy Christian studying in the United States worked on the translation and dubbing of the "Jesus" film into Malagasy. He returned home with a vision for film and now lives with not only the dream but the knowledge to do more. The film "Le Combat" works well in Cote D’Ivoire, but also in Madagascar where there are similarities to witchcraft. However, we must guard against producing everything in colonial languages and broad subject matter at the risk of losing meaning and community.
Our goal, and one that is inevitably more expensive with harder media, is to involve community in relevant communication.
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