Urban Migration on Screen

Alice Hertzog, Doctoral Candidate, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich

From Hollywood to Nollywood the film industry is a reservoir of urban migration stories. As an anthropologist I am interested in what these narratives teach us, and think development practitioners can leverage the tales told in film, documentaries and television series.

In West Africa visual media has played an important role in our understanding of migration. Take the famous anthropologist, Jean Rouch, who back in 1967 produced the docu-fiction Jaguar. It is the account of three friends who set out from Niger to the Ghanaian cities of Kumasi and Accra. The main protagonists experience the city in contrasting ways: as a poverty trap or a land of opportunity, but come together to open a successful market-stall, becoming "jaguars" (slang for cool kids) before heading back to Niger their pockets full of hard-earned cash.

Here in Benin along with GPMD colleagues Anicette Djokpe and Fabrice Fretz we have been collaborating with a television series entitled Kotonu. Directed by the young Beninois Aymar Esse, Kotonu is a mini-series that portrays the bustling capital city, and features migrants from all walks of life as their lives collide amidst a series of cliff-hanging plot lines.

The series will be aired on a major television channel and will reach a wide audience in the region. So it was an opportunity to help shape an informed conversation on migration, and combine GPMD's advocacy goals, insights from my research, and the creative team's story-telling skills. The end result provides honest social commentary on the tensions and opportunities generated by south-south migration and the everyday experience of strangers in an African city.

One of the project's outputs is a collection of short videos that address various M&D topics. For my colleague Anicette Djopke, "this is a public-private partnership initiative, and a way of talking about migration differently to how it's discussed in the media. It's a chance to show that in a city like Cotonou there are lots of different migrant communities that contribute to the economic life of city. Would we manage a single day without the input of our migrant communities? These are the types of questions we are raising."

In the current context we need to find new ways to tell stories about migrants in the city. And whilst West African series can be melodramatic, kitsch or brazen, the messages have potential to diffuse more balanced and nuanced understandings of urban migration.