The BBC Africa Kick Bus arrived Nigeria on Monday, June 7, 2010. On board were Alex Jocana, presenter of the BBC ‘Have Your Say Programme’, his technical team and cynicism.
After taking a swipe at Nigeria’s importance to Africa, they cornered Nollywood practitioners at Ojez Restaurant in Surelere to deepen the wounds of her scorn. Only they took it a tad too far.
Mr Jocana asked if Nollywood helping or harming African film making capability? While the question appears innocent enough, subsequent questions gave away the intention of the programme. The ladder leaned heavily on the wall of cynicism. But this is what we expect of the western media. They follow the stench of negative news in Africa as avidly as a carnivore does the fresh scent of blood.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood from the start of the silent era in the late 1920’s to 1950’s, African filmmakers were not allowed to make films due to colonialism. Some of the most popular early films about Africa including The African Queen, Tarzan, and King Solomon's Mines foisted upon Africa a stereotype so horrid, they called it the “Dark Continent”.
When the European invaders gave us a flag and a song and told us we were free, Africans began telling their own stories. Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire de (Black Girl) gained international acclaim. In 1969, the African film festival (FESPACO) was established and enlarged the frontiers of African film. Many of these early films dealt with subjects like colonialism and mundane African issues. The film makers raised funds mostly by groveling before International agencies and governments amenable to Western influence. The films were mostly elitist and excluded the masses in the main though they were shot on 35mm.
The summary of the history of African film does not take a prize for inspiration. How do we continue telling the story of colonialism 50 years after most of the colonialists are long dead? How much progress is there for the African film if it continues to grovel for funds from Shylock lenders and/or exacting donors and subservient governments? And how do we establish a film culture when it excludes the very people for whom film is made? Is it wise to insist on shooting on 35mm in a continent where cinema houses are being converted to churches and warehouses?
These were the thorny issues the emergence of Nollywood addressed. Seventeen years later, Nollywood has achieved global acclaim - eat your heart out Hollywood!
Nollywood created a whole new paradigm with which African film can be measured. It addressed issues that found relevance in people’s reality. It sympathised with their trials; it provided them company in their pain. For youths in Ghana and Nigeria, Nollywood has given wings to their dreams. Nollywood destroyed the stereotype created by Tarzan and King Solomon’s Mines that Africa was a race of savages. Nollywood is the new African film.
Nollywood challenged the norm and took the story to the people that matter. Ahmed an analyst on the show from Kenya put the point succinctly. The success of Nollywood lies in the fact that the audience are accepting what they make. Another analyst from New York also gave a vivid account of the influence of Nollywood in Uncle Sam’s own country. The Asians especially she said are making a fortune pirating Nollywood movies.
While other African countries were closing their cinema houses due to the prohibitive cost and the sophistication shooting on 35mm demands, coupled with a poor distribution framework in Africa, Nollywood began shooting direct to video. This method was lampooned at first but now it has become the method of choice for African filmmakers. In this way Nollywood saved the African film from extinction. South Africa, with a film that has won an Oscar and several nominations has not even achieved the acclaim Nollywood has garnered.
Yet these are not the best of times for Nollywood. The session with Nollywood practitioners in Ojez Resturant revealed to a large extent, the rot in the system. It indicated that perhaps, more than anything else, Nollywood’s biggest problem is that it has become a victim of its own success.
I listened with shame as Nollywood practitioners came a short crawl away from using their fists in the heated debate. Amidst jeers, Emeka Ike insisted he was AGN President. Zack Orji took the microphone and rebutted. Femi Durojaiye introduced himself as AGN Secretary General so many times, he began to call himself National President of AGN. Tari West got stuck in the middle of former Presidential, and 2nd Vice Chairman, and currently the 1st vice presidential chairman of... (She forgot what association she purportedly chairs – all of them fighting over a piece of carcass they are fast turning Nollywood into.
Absence of credible structures, government’s indifference and aloofness, poor technical know-how and the substitution of professionalism for nepotism are conspiring to bring Nollywood to her kneels. Virtually all the commentators took a swipe at scriptwriters yet few are willing to pay for top notch writers instead they rely on a distant cousin in distant high school. The problem with Nollywood has taken on Sisyphean proportions. The industry needs creative thinking and pragmatic actions rather than the thousand tones of noise currently emanating from its practitioners.