Reclaiming the History and Memory of the Country Counter-Archives in the Struggle Against Forgetting

Colonial history: Didi Cheeka in the interview
Didi Cheeka in the interview | © Goethe-Institut

Didi Cheeka has rescued the previously abandoned Nigerian national film archives and developed them into a sort of “counter-archives”. We talked to him about how to handle colonial films and the search for a nation’s forgotten history.

By Teresa Althen

Didi Cheeka is a Nigerian director and film critic as well as an, as he puts it, “accidental archivist”. When he found remnants of the national and colonial film archives in Lagos, he launched a project entitled “Reclaiming History, Unveiling Memory” with the object of preserving, digitizing and curating rediscovered Nigerian films. He also founded the Lagos Film Society and the first Berlin and Lagos Archival Film Festival.

Cheeka stresses how important it is for Nigeria to reclaim these archives and, in so doing, the history and memory of his country. He demands the restitution of the photographs and films shot during the colonial era in Nigeria without the subjects’ consent so that Nigerian society can discuss the country’s history on the basis of this material: “We want an archive that is no longer considered some dusty place in which only old bearded white men work.”

Cheeka objects to the very notion of “post-colonialism”. As he sees it, colonialism is not a historical category: on the contrary, colonial structures have never ceased to exist. The terms post-, de- and anti-colonialism tend to reduce African and other formerly colonized countries to colonialism. He calls for more open-ended discussions, including discussions about archival categorization, which are essential to changing the prevailing power structures. The colonial reference in and of itself is a form of colonial imposition. Cheeka is convinced that this can be done differently and he has made it his mission to bring about change.

Most of the documentary films made in colonial contexts are now kept in European archives. And only a fraction of that footage was shot from the perspective of the colonized themselves. So to whom does this material really belong? To whom should it be accessible – and how? Why are some of these archives left to gather dust and what can be done about that? Archivists and filmmakers who work with archival footage address these questions in the following interviews.