Journalism in the service of society

Spiritism and Nollywood

‘Spiritism in African cinema represents a unique and essential aspect of African  storytelling. We need to embrace its portrayals as a strengths of our creative signature, and use it to challenge stereotypes and foster cross-cultural understanding. Through increased exposure, education, and dialogue, international audiences can begin to appreciate these representations, not as fetish practices, but as integral components of our worldview.’

AFRICAN cinema, particularly Nollywood, has gained international recognition for its vibrant storytelling and unique representation of African culture. One question that frequently emerges is the portrayal of spiritism and spirituality, which plays a significant role in the continent’s diverse cultural heritage. These representations often face challenges in being understood and appreciated by international audiences, who often mistakenly view them as fetish practices rather than essential elements of the African worldview. 

Spiritism, or the belief in the presence of spirits and their influence on daily life, is deeply rooted in various African cultures. It encompasses diverse practices such as ancestor veneration, divination, and ritual ceremonies. Spirituality serves as a means of connecting with our ancestors, understanding the natural world, and seeking guidance in personal and communal matters. So incorporating spiritism into our storytelling captures the richness and complexity of our cultural heritage, portraying a worldview that is vastly different from Western norms. We have the power to reclaim the narrative surrounding spiritism and position it as a strength of our storytelling. By emphasizing the cultural significance and philosophical underpinnings of these spiritual practices, we can highlight their essential role in our ancient civilization. 

Globally, the slave trade deposited africans and our culture of spirit divination in other continents too. And the depiction of spiritism in cinema can be seen across different regions and cultures, including Brazil, Cuba and South America. Each  of these regions have their own unique artistic traditions and storytelling styles that influence the portrayal of spiritual themes on screen.

In Brazil and Cuba, spiritism has had a significant cultural impact, and it often finds artistic expression in their cinema. Brazilian cinema, for example, has a long history of incorporating elements of spiritualism, such as Umbanda and Kardecism, into its narratives. Films like “Nosso Lar” and “Chico Xavier” explore spiritual themes, the afterlife, and the connections between the physical and spiritual realms. South American cinema, including countries like Argentina and Colombia, also delves into spiritual themes in various ways. Films like “The Secret in Their Eyes” from Argentina or “Embrace of the Serpent” from Colombia touch upon indigenous beliefs, shamanism, and the spiritual connection to nature. In context different filmmakers, cultural backgrounds, and individual approaches to storytelling contribute to the nuanced representation of spiritism in cinema.


For us in Africa there have been a few memorable and successful films over time that have represented spiritism well too in a nuanced, authentic and compelling manner. 

“Black Goddess” (1978) by Ola Balogun is a vibrant and poetic film that delves into the Yoruba mythology and traditions. It tells the story of a young woman chosen by the gods to be their representative on Earth. The film expertly combines folklore, spirituality, and social commentary.

“Yeelen” (1987) by Souleymane Cissé from Mali is also a visually stunning film that delves into the realm of myth and spirituality. It follows a young man named Niankoro who possesses extraordinary powers and embarks on a journey to defeat his sorcerer father. The film beautifully portrays the interconnectedness of human existence and the mystical forces at play.

“Sankofa” (1993) by Haile Gerima was a critically acclaimed Ghanaian film which explored the themes of slavery and ancestral connections. The protagonist, Mona, is transported back in time to experience the horrors of slavery firsthand, guided by spirits who help her confront her past and reclaim her identity.

“Pumzi” (2009) by Wanuri Kahiu from Kenya, is a science fiction short film that incorporates elements of African spirituality. Set in a dystopian future, it tells the story of a young woman who discovers a seed that has the potential to restore life to a barren Earth. The film explores themes of nature, rebirth, and the importance of ancestral knowledge.

“Of Good Report” (2013) by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka from South Africa, is a psychological thriller that weaves together themes of lust, obsession, and witchcraft. The film follows a teacher who becomes infatuated with one of his students, leading him down a dark path intertwined with spiritual beliefs and rituals. These films offer compelling narratives and visually captivating representations of spiritism, showcasing the richness and diversity of African storytelling.

Nollywood, as a flagship African film industry, has not found its footing in this genre in any manner close to the films I have cited, regrettably. While Nollywood is evolving today into a diverse and technically improved industry with a wide range of narrative styles and themes, there remains too many instances where the representation of spiritism is ill-informed and disconcerting. We continue to see exaggerated stereotypes especially in the indigenous language films. A lot our stories continue to rely on sensationalized portrayals of the metaphysical. In many films, the representation of spiritism lack cultural context or authenticity, with inaccurate depictions of rituals, symbols, or beliefs. This in itself undermines the integrity of the portrayal and contribute to the misunderstandings of our spirituality. Some Nollywood films touch on spiritism briefly or use it as a plot device without delving into its deeper cultural, historical, or philosophical aspects. This result, of course, in shallow representations that fail to capture the complexity and significance of these spiritual practices. Perhaps the worst examples are African film narratives that are deliberate exercises in demonization and fear-mongering. These films perpetuate negative stereotypes, associating spiritism solely with evil or malicious forces.  In the majority many of our films have been cavalier at best in their narrative expositions of the spiritual. We need to change course deliberately and a few corrective measures beg for our consideration. 

Our Screenwriters clearly need more thorough research and consultation with cultural experts to ensure accurate and respectful portrayals of African spiritism. Understanding the cultural context, beliefs, and rituals associated with spiritism is crucial in order to avoid misrepresentations or distortions. 

Engaging with spiritual practitioners, such as priests, diviners, or custodians of cultural traditions, can provide invaluable insights and guidance. Collaborative efforts will ensure that the depiction of spiritism aligns with the cultural nuances and practices specific to different communities. Most important of all, our storytellers need to strive for nuanced storytelling that goes beyond simplistic or sensationalized portrayals of spiritism. By exploring the complexities, philosophical aspects, and moral dilemmas associated with these practices, Nollywood films can elevate their narratives and foster a deeper understanding among audiences. 

Additionally, incorporating educational materials or supplementary resources can help viewers better understand the cultural and historical significance of African spiritism. Film festivals, international distribution, and educational platforms can provide avenues for global viewers to engage with and appreciate these narratives. Collaborations between African filmmakers and international co-producers or distribution platforms can also facilitate the dissemination of accurate and context-rich representations of spiritism, fostering a more comprehensive understanding among global audiences. 

Spiritism in African cinema represents a unique and essential aspect of African  storytelling. We need to embrace its portrayals as a strengths of our creative signature, and use it to challenge stereotypes and foster cross-cultural understanding. Through increased exposure, education, and dialogue, international audiences can begin to appreciate these representations, not as fetish practices, but as integral components of our worldview. It can be an important journey of cultural understanding that paves the way for a more inclusive and diverse global cinematic landscape. Nollywood should be at the fulcrum of that possibility.


Comments are closed.

Naija Times