The best that has been thought, said, and written must be taken seriously- questioned perhaps, improved upon if possible - but taken seriously as the highest achievements of the human mind.
What makes great works great is that they seek to penetrate the deepest mysteries of the human condition and to elevate mankind from the jungle of untutored nature.
All is not well with our country. We are crippled by the most rudimentary problems of energy, security, infrastructure and leadership. As a people, our destiny is under siege by a cabal of ‘elites’ who have infiltrated the pinnacle of our political leadership. Because we have no choice of our leaders, no voice on our legislations, the government has become a project of private plunder rather than for public good. Our education system is worst hit.
Experts say our systems are simply churning out “unemployable illiterates”. With such internal decay, our country declines in prestige, power and position across the continent and around the world while Ghana that country once our economic puppet- daily and increasingly becomes the economic and political epicenter of Africa.
As a result of our national predicament, I believe that Nigerian movie industry has no excuse in its current fetishing of the past and the weird present. Indeed it retains the unique capacity for our social progress as it is elsewhere around the world, from Latin America to North America and to Asia. That promise however will remain in the empty air if Nollywood is not liberated from the captivity of current mistaken assumptions about our culture, religion, history, and the needs of the Nigerian people.
To begin with, Nollywood is admittedly a run-away success, its meteoric rise from dynamo to domino almost certainly legendary: a small enterprise borne more out of circumstance and opportunity than from a well thought out business idea and then growing rapidly in the 1990 and 2000s to become the second largest film industry in the world; ahead of Hollywood (United States) and behind Bollywood (India) in terms of annual film production. It is reputed to be worth US$250 million churning about 200 home videos every month.
For all that, Nollywood has become a house of Babel. It is rumored to be running short of film titles, titles which are as diminutive as their contents. It is only in this country films run on such bizarre titles as 2 Rats, Feel My Pain, End Time Virus, Scent of Passion, Bypass, My Guy Again, Sugar Cane Lady, Chelsea/Liverpool, Money Yab Man, The Church is Mine, Hold My Life, Forgive My Father among others.
The content is equally shallow, sloppy, and empty of purpose; no doubt a reflection of the decline of the spirit of research and learning in our land. Most galling are the embarrassing verbal blunders, drab conversation, abysmal soundtracks, poor portrayal of roles, short duration with excess doses of advertisement taking equal duration as that of the movie content and the excessive tears too often displayed to make up for poor content.
And yet in a recent documentary, This is Nollywood, which follows a Nigerian film director, Bond Emerawa, as he sprints to make a feature- length action film in just nine days, he declares in a triumphant spirit: “We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way. I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about...”
We cannot disagree more with Bond. Is that truly how we tell African stories, without imagination and innovation? Which African way was he actually referring to? Or is the African story essentially and exclusively an appeal to witchcraft, occultism, blood, gore, vulgarity, mermaids, lust and the lowest common denominators?
Nollywood is profoundly wrong on many fronts beginning with African culture(s). First witchcraft and mermaids are not essentially African story, past and present, for they are to be found across all cultures. One does not need to read the elaborate volume of Robin Horton to discover that there are irrational elements in every culture.
Moreover if one reads Trevor-Roper’s historical essay on ‘Witches and Witchcraft’, the truth comes easily that Africa has never attained the heights to which this phenomenon reached in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
So stated, why are Nigerian movies predominantly stories of witches, witchcrafts and mermaids? Do these phenomena hold the key to our nation’s peaceful prosperous destiny? Are these not aspects of our culture that made it possible for a handful of Europeans to subjugate our ancestors as well as setting the conditions for neo-colonialism?
There is even a deeper source of worry and this is with regard to time. Nigerian movies fall squarely into a discernable pattern: they are either mostly about the past or about the present but rarely, very rarely about the future. The question is, why this future phobia?
Why the obsession about the past? Is it that our future as a people belongs to the past? On the contrary some of the brightest films of the 21 century such as 2012 and 24 were great not because they recast the well known stories of the past, but because they helped to re-imagine our world and security. Nor is Nollywood alone to be blamed for this pitfall. The romanticization of the past is pervasively an African literary problem.
Think here of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine or even the emergent African literary stalwart Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. All these and more are all backward looking literature. I cannot agree more with Soyinka: “A people, a nation, any community can imprison itself within walls of fears, and succumb to the arrogance of evil. One of the surest ways to do this is to heap all blame on some historically obscured origin, most especially if that origin can still be pinpointed and given a current face.”
Not that the past does not matter: far from it. What is being lamented rather is a systemic neglect of the future dimension of our lives in literary works. And this is a core difference between novels written by Tom Clancy and Dan Brown that are cosmopolitan while not neglecting the untapped potential of the past and those by our own that are traditional, that is, about traditional African life. Is this a reflection of something intrinsic in our culture and that time and again we find endemic among our leaders? The downstream consequence is breathtaking.
EtoungaManguelle has sounded such a solemn note when he observed that, “without a dynamic perception of the future, there is no planning, no foresight, no scenario building; in other words, no policy to affect the course of events. There can be no singing of tomorrows so long as our culture does not teach us to question the future, to repeat it mentally, and to bend it to our will.”
Sympathizers like to say that perhaps the problems of Nollywood are simply technological and financial, problems which given time surely must resolve themselves. They remind us that Hollywood is far older than Nollywood by half of a century. Unsurprisingly, this same argument was made by Olusegun Obasanjo during his presidency. Nationhood is a plant of slow growth, he has said. We have to wait; but not their families and certainly not their private empire.
I think this argument belies the essence of modernity. Indeed in knowledge-based economy and world, people no longer wait; there is no room for marking of time. Speed and innovation underwrite every aspect of our life, except maybe in Africa! For example, says Kishore Mahbubani, it took Britain and the United States fifty-eight years and forty-seven years respectively to double their per capital output, but Japan in thirty-three years, Indonesia in seventeen, South Korea in eleven, and China in ten.
The deep persistent problem of Nollywood has never really been financial but human capital, that is, skills and knowledge, values that only training and love for a work well done can engender. And this is already happening within the continent itself. The 2004 Oscar-winning film Ttotsi was entirely an African production with South African actors and director. It proved in a once and for all manner that a home-made film can acquire polish, standard, and global competitiveness.
South Africa is not alone on this leading edge. Just last year, at the AMA awards held annually in Nigeria, Ghana had the attention of everyone as she carted away most of the trophies.
Nollywood can do the same and much more. By re-inventing and reinvesting itself, it can even transform this nation. The truth is that a great film does not merely reflect time and space, culture and history, it shapes them. We shall return to this point shortly.
But first to provide that missing link, our film industry must accomplish a number of things. At a minimum, the producer must find a good story, an African story or any story from book, play, etc., which he now tells in an African way.
Stories could be investigative and not merely exhumative, they could challenge the status quo or question conventionally held beliefs, they could seek to redraw our political map and re-imagine this nation in a thousand and one way.
The director primarily responsible for the storytelling and the acting of the film must seek nothing less than excellence from individual actors and screen writer(s). He should be able to skillfully combine the action, composition, sets, costumes and make up in ways that would make a difference. If the director has the vital charge of bringing the film to life, the actors/actresses must seek to make the characters real. Indeed strong actors are capable of making a dull story turn interesting. All in all, duty, honor, and country should be the surpassing objectives for Nollywood.
So transformed, Nigerian movie industry can be at the vanguard of our social progress. It can do this by first focusing more on the cognitive and less on the affective, that is, on such things that borders on blood, tears, and orgy. I believe that the battle for the future of this nation will depend most fundamentally on reclaiming the African consciousness and conscience.
In an age where films are now striking at the heart of the social sciences and the humanities, blood and gore are luxuries we cannot afford. Nollywood can project some African traditional values like oratory and moral character as criteria for leadership.
Indeed the Nigerian public needs a raised expectation. Prison Break is admired far and wide and even in Asia where Wentworth Miller has become their hero not merely because of the themes of justice, mathematics, imagination, and love, but because Miller (Michael Schofield), portrayed himself as the ideal American citizen, graduated with a first class and capable of using his genius to overrun any prison for freedom of his brother.
More than that, Nollywood can help recreate our culture and values for a more just, free, patriotic, and fair Nigeria. I shall borrow a distinction from the social sciences to enunciate this point, nay the difference between social kind and natural kind. Indeed all such things as witchcraft, mermaid, and so on are social kinds, and unlike natural kinds, their existence in society largely but not only depends on the human practices that carry them from one generation to the next.
The truth is that nothing kills an idea more than a systemic silence over it. Nollywood should do same for our progress-resistant values. Finally, I would like to insist that culture is never a finished project but always something taken over from the past which shapes the present and is in turn shaped by it.
Therefore we must have the courage in the words of EtoungaManguelle to “destroy all within us that is opposed to our mastery of our future, a future that must be prosperous and just, a future in which the people of Africa determine their own destiny through participation in the political process.” This is the plea we have essentially made to Nollywood and through it, to the Nigerian people.