Friday, January 21, 2005

A 21st Century "Penny Pamphlet"

One of the many reasons to admire John Wesley was his interest in mass media. He had a special concern to put Christian materials into the hands of ordinary people. In particular, he wanted to make sure that the poor had access to inexpensive materials. In one sermon preached late in his life, Wesley looked back on his decision to make resources available to the poor: “Two-and-forty years ago, having a desire to furnish poor people with cheaper, shorter, and plainer books than any I had seen, I wrote many small tracts, generally a penny apiece.”

In another place in one of his journals, Wesley praised the activity of a society in Glasgow, which had been formed specifically to distribute Bibles and religious books among the poor.

It can be argued that one of the primary reasons that the Methodist movement spread so quickly and widely was Wesley’s interest in publishing and media. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation itself boomed precisely because it coincided with the invention of the printing press.

These remarks are meant to preface what I have to say about media in Cameroon. Because I think I have discovered the 21-st century equivalent of the “penny pamphlet.” It’s the VCD (video compact disc), a cheaper version of the well-known DVD.

In Cameroon and many African countries, the VCD is extremely popular and widespread. VCD players are very inexpensive, and though the disc itself holds less data than a DVD, two discs can hold a feature-length Hollywood movie.

However, what I discovered on my trip through the Southwest, was that Hollywood movies are not the best-selling VCD’s in Cameroon … that honor is reserved for the booming film industry in Nigeria! All across the Southwest Province, alongside roads and inside small stores are hundreds of VCDs from “Nollywood.” A typical VCD can be purchased for between $2 -- $4, which makes them accessible for even poor Cameroonians.

I even had the “pleasure” of watching a couple of Nigerian films (they’re in English!) in my hotel rooms on the road. Now the production values are extremely low, somewhat akin to a third-year college film project. And the drama is somewhere between melodrama and soap-opera. But the stories are real-to-life, and they are immensely popular across Africa.

Of course, my interest was immediately piqued by the VCD phenomenon. I am a TV/Film graduate of Cal State Long Beach, and long before I even thought about donning a dog collar, I was writing scripts and planning Oscar acceptance speeches.

But if the VCD is the low-cost equivalent of Wesley’s own tracts and pamphlets which he used to spread scriptural holiness across England, then perhaps I need to find ways to use this medium. Maybe I can use my old college degree after all! The possibilities are endless – we could produce and duplicate real-life dramas of people who are changed by the gospel, music videos and concerts, even simple Bible studies. They can be sold cheaply on the street, shown in churches for youth events, even broadcast on Cameroonian TV.

After all, I can't help but wonder what old Wesley would have done with a video camera.

So … where did I put that old director’s chair?