Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Invisible Classics... In Nollywood? This Millenium?

I shamelessly stole this topic from Jeremy's Blog, but we can pretend he emailed the article to me as his first contribution to The Afro Beat :-)

The excerpts below are from an article by the BFI (which I presume is the British Film Institute? Correct me if I'm wrong J). The article exhalts the impressive and surprisingly long-running history of African cinema, and snubs (rightly I believe, but feel free to argue with me) Nigerian cinema completely.

Question: (its long, so please try not to get lost)

Nigeria is purportedly the base of the 3rd largest film industry in the world. Nollywood is despised by many, and adored by just as many, and its viewers extend beyond the cities of Nigeria to the country's hinterlands, its neighbours in Africa, other countries in the Caribbean, Asia etc. The Afro Beat so far has discussed the problems plaguing Nigeria, the roots of which, appear to lie in the mind-set/mentality/psyche of the Nigerian. Is it possible to argue that this mind-set manifests itself even in something as frivolous as our film industry, in which $$$ (i.e. quantity) seems to be the driver, rather than quality?

Does the new breed of movies like "Amazing Grace" (you know the one... Fred Amata and 3 white guys on the poster?) spell a wind of change for Nollywood? Will special effects and an actual plot or sense of direction become the norm in the future? Or will the majority of film producers continue to ignore the potential diamond-mine at their fingertips in favour of producing the trashy million-naira-making "home videos"?


"African Cinema: Invisible Classics" by Mark Cousins

In this mental shadowland [Africa] lies a world of cinema: film-makers as significant as Martin Scorsese, as discrepant as Orson Welles; imagery as mythic as that of Sergei Paradjanov or Nicolas Roeg; life stories with the amplitude of Francis Ford Coppola's. These are films from a continent three times the size of the US, with more than 50 countries, over 1,000 languages, and nearly 300 film-makers in the Francophone territories alone. Many of us know something about Ousmane Sembène or Djibril Diop Mambéty...

Ousmane Sembène started as a bricklayer, became a Citroën factory worker and eventually a novelist... From 1966's La Noire de..., through the hilarious Xala in 1974, Sembène tackled gender. In Camp de Thiaroye (1988) he tracked the tirailleurs senegalais, the black African troops who fought for French colonial armies. Ceddo was ballsy in 1976, but consider its theme now: the arrival of Islam in 19th-century West Africa. Like Euro-Christianity, it brings violence and forces compliance; its advocates are fanatics, blind to cultural freedoms. The film ends with the local Wolof princess shooting an imam....

In Mauritania in 1970 Med Hondo had made Soleil O, the first, greatest, incandescent film about African immigrants. Safi Faye's feature debut, the first film by a black African woman, was the beautiful Letter from My Village (Senegal, 1975).

In the same year Algeria won the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina's Chronicle of the Years of Embers, shot on 70mm. Still in 1975, Hailé Gerima's Godardian Harvest: 3,000 Years not only put Ethiopia on the film-making map but, with lines like "Is there anywhere in the world where there are no flies or Europeans?", turned African cinema white hot...

[We must not] leave out Senegalese man of the theatre-turned-director Djibril Diop Mambéty... At the age of 28 he made a caustic road movie, Touki Bouki (1973), Africa's equivalent of Easy Rider or A bout de souffle... Mambéty, like his polar-opposite Dakar visionary Sembène, was calling forth a here-and-nowness for Africa, a cubist, layered modernity, a filiation untouched by revenge but bustling with recovery...

[In the 1980s] Senegal was still a centre but Burkina Faso and Mali came to the fore. Their film-makers asked new questions: not ‘What do we do now that the colonisers have gone?' but ‘What were we like before they arrived?' The Maghreb film-makers of the north and the black African masters Sembène, Mambéty and Hondo were joined by three new directors of world class: Burkina Faso's Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo, and Mali's Souleymane Cissé....

I watched my first African film, Yeelen, in 1990 and it changed my taste in cinema... I began to see what a feast African cinema in the 1990s was turning out to be. In the Maghreb, Morocco's Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi made the delightful comedy Looking for My Wife's Husband (1994). Tunisia fired out Férid Boughedir's Halfaouine (1990), about a 12-year-old boy negotiating the difference between female and male culture as he becomes a man; Moncef Dhouib's bleak semi-response to Boughedir's film, The Sultan of the City (1992); and Moufida Tlatli's The Silences of the Palace (1994). And from Algeria came Merzak Allouache's Bab El-Oued City (1994). These last five all challenge the reactionary elements of Islam."


I counted well over 8 African countries in Cousins' article, with dates of movies stemming from as early as 1970. Nollywood, several decades behind, only began to make waves in the middle to late 1990s. Even so, has it yet challenged anything? Or ever made anyone contemplate anything beyond the realm of black magic, forbidden love, thuggery, or extreme misfortune and subsequent happiness after a dramatic conversion to Christianity?

Is Nollywood even trying to keep up with its remarkable African predecessors we've just learnt about in Cousins' article? Or (as I asked at the beginning) is it all just about raking in the $$$ right here and right now?
What is HE supposed to be? A medieval chief?


deolu said...

I also noticed his bias for Francophone countries, even though South Africa and Nigeria have some history behind them as well.

But about Nigeria. The truth is that most Nigerian movies have limited appeal to non-Africans; they may follow the universal themes of love, revenge, faith or fate, but they are often restricted to religious and cultural contexts that are hard to explain to the uninitiated in 2 hours (4 or 5 if you count the mandatory part II).

I think the industry will eventually be dominated by a small group of studios and creative-types, turning out high-quality movies with a broader market in mind. For now, even a tiny but loyal fraction of 140 million (or more?) may be enough of a market for the most ambitious filmmaker.

deolu said...

Here's an article from the July 29th issue of The Economist, which touches on a few key points about the industry's growing pains:

Nollywood dreams;
Nigeria's film industry

Nigerian films are so successful that the government wants to get involved

IT ALL started by accident in 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue, a Nigerian trader based in Onitsha, was trying to sell a large stock of blank videocassettes he had bought from Taiwan. He decided that they would sell better with something recorded on them, so he shot a film called "Living in Bondage" about a man who achieves power and wealth by killing his wife in a ritualistic murder, only to repent later when she haunts him. The film sold more than 750,000 copies, and prompted legions of imitators. Nollywood, as Nigeria's film industry is known, now makes over 2,000 low-budget films a year, about two-thirds of them in English. That is more than either Hollywood or India's Bollywood.

Today, filmmaking employs about a million people in Nigeria, split equally between production and distribution, making it the country's biggest employer after agriculture, according to the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). The industry has sales of $200m-300m a year. There are lots of spin-off jobs on a film set, such as make-up, props and printing, as well as acting and producing, says Chike Maduekwe of Gemafrique, a film-promotion business in Lagos, and young people without a formal education can find a place. Nigerian films are still sold mainly on videocassette, not in cinemas, and are so cheap and widely available that even the poor in rural areas can watch.

Nollywood's appeal has reached far beyond Nigeria: its films are watched all over Africa, and beyond. In South Africa MultiChoice, a satellite-television business, offers a channel devoted to Nigerian films, and last week Zenithfilms, a British company which distributes Nigerian programming to airlines, said it would launch a new channel, called Nollywood Movies, on BSkyB, a British pay-television operator controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

So far, the industry has grown with little or no help from Nigeria's government. The films cost anywhere between $15,000 and $100,000 to make, and the money comes directly from the market. Producers, or "marketers", as they are known, use some of the profits from one film to pay for the next. Banks do not lend to Nollywood, as there are no statistics from which they could estimate likely returns. But Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has now appointed a panel to devise ways to intervene in the industry to help it grow further.

Oddly enough, the government worries that Nigeria's film industry reflects badly on the country. "When I travel abroad, people complain to me about the voodoo themes and the poor technical quality compared to Western movies," says Emeka Mba, director-general of the NFVCB. He wants to try to show filmmakers that the themes they choose can have a negative impact on Nigeria's image. Many Nigerian films involve witchcraft, or "juju", because marketers have found that it sells especially well. Plots often use black magic as a way to explain why a man has gone from being poor to a millionaire overnight, says Onookome Okome, associate professor of African literature and cinema at the University of Alberta. Such a theme resonates in a society with great inequality of wealth. And although Nigerian films usually do have low production values, their popularity shows that they make up for it with story telling.

Nollywood is divided over whether it wants help from the government. Some filmmakers fear that the industry's growth could slow if the authorities discourage popular voodoo storylines. But many filmmakers would like the authorities to start a fund to offer cheap loans for films. It should provide access to credit, but go no further, says Mr Maduekwe. Teco Benson, a well-known Nollywood director whose recent work includes "Six Demons", a horror film, also wants the government to organise a proper distribution system. The industry today sells its wares in three big cities—Lagos, Onitsha and Aba. Money from films sold in the rest of Nigeria mostly goes to pirates. About half of the industry's revenue is lost because of its poor distribution network, according to Emmanuel Ugo, a marketer in Onitsha.

The next stage is to try to show films in cinemas, as well as on videocassettes. By next year, says Mr Mba, there will be up to 50 modern new cinemas in Nigeria. He plans to give them financial incentives to show Nigerian films as well as foreign blockbusters. Government officials talk hopefully of Oscar awards, and a group of expatriate Nigerians set up the Nollywood Foundation in Los Angeles in February to try to establish links with Hollywood. Even if the government does more harm than good to the industry, it is unlikely to dent Nollywood's energy for long.

Misan said...

I agree that though quality is lacking for now (haven't yet seen Amazing Grace), a few creative types will soon see the $$ in the industry (esp wt the potential of an even larger audience) and start churning out some better quality stuff. but for now, we'll have to make do with our current osofia in london et al.

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