Where is the Nigerian film industry headed? When does it aim to get there? What is its vision? What are its goals? Are there any targeted milestones? Does a plan exist to lead the industry to some El Dorado or is Nollywood content to go wherever the wind blows?

Nollywood Nigerian film industry

First Encounters of the Twitter Kind

Sometime in July when the film adaptation of Half of A Yellow Sun was in the news for being banned by the Nigerian Censors Board, a lady I follow Twitter posted a comment about a conversation she had with a Nollywood director. He had told her that the ban on HOAYS would discourage Nigerian filmmakers from tackling serious and controversial, perhaps politically risqué, topics. I found this odd.

Nollywood isn’t exactly renowned for producing movies which shake the Machiavellian foundations of the Nigerian polity. I replied the tweet with a question that zapped into my mind: can an industry be banned from doing what it wasn’t doing in the first place? If Nollywood filmmakers weren’t making controversial content, can a ban, unjust though it may be, really be considered a hindrance?

Her response was that the few who do make controversial content must be protected from bans which poach on an endangered species. Though I agree with this, I expressed a countering conviction – a story will always find a way to tell itself. To this she replied that while that may be true, the realities of Nollywood, a world where things must happen sharp-sharp-sharp, does not accommodate the adventures that come with a story finding a way to tell itself. Adventures after all are expensive, a luxury that tight budgets and tighter production schedules cannot afford.

What I found most intriguing about this opinion was its accordance with a belief in the Nigerian film industry which has always discomforted me: the well-widespread belief that Nigeria’s socio-economic stumbling blocks, so huge they dwarf the Great Wall of China, prevent Nollywood from growth such that the industry can only produce mediocre content, with the occasional exceptional work; but these average works should be lauded as excellent, they are testaments to Nigerian ingenuity. In my frank and ebonics-flavoured opinion, that’s some ol’ bullshit.

But why, pray tell, do I consider that belief equal to the faeces of Bos primigenius? Well, because it erroneously concludes that extensive and innovative planning CANNOT provide solutions to the industry’s problems. Granted the sharp-sharp-sharp world of Nollywood is often like a rampaging bull at a rodeo, yet to tame the beast must the cowboy not plan and be well prepared?

Second Encounters of the Critical Kind

A few weeks later I came across an article, Nollywood Nightmare At Durban Int Film Festival by film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo – a really interesting read. As can be surmised from the title he details how “Nollywood films took a beating at the Durban film festival due to the quality of our films”, with noted inferiority next to Ethopian, Kenyan and South African movies.

So what about this article caught my attention? The writer looks at two different receptions to a “much-hyped” South African film, Cold Harbour. One critic Kavish Chetty had positive reactions “hinging his praise on two politically charged scenes” while filmmaker Jozua Malherbe was “unimpressed” as the film “gave the impression … that it was a thriller but it failed to be a good example of one”. Then the writer expresses an opinion which reeled me back to my previous encounter on Twitter.

Reacting to Malherbe’s criticism of Cold Habour, the Nigerian critic finds himself thinking, “here is a man spoilt by a national cinema producing excellent films regularly. Nigerian cinemagoers don’t have that luxury. A film half as well made as Cold Harbour will meet with deserved acclaim. Expression of chagrin at the little letdowns of a film with such production values as Cold Harbour is a privilege exclusive to customers of better fare“.

Malherbe’s dissatisfaction is apparently justified since as filmmaker and cinemagoer he feeds on a regular diet of quality productions. But more importantly because socio-economic circumstances permit him to feed on such a diet. Were it about a Nollywood film such criticism would apparently be unjust because of the harsher realities faced in producing a Nigerian film. While it is true production realities are tremendously challenging, a poisonous seed lurks in the subtext – mediocrity is excusable.

Common Threads

I find both encounters lined with a common thread of thought: due to the challenges of filmmaking in Nigeria, to survive the industry must sacrifice quality. Hype becomes a vital weapon, as well as a blind support for “our own thing” regardless of its quality – a long-running campaign in the industry. Early in the 21st century, the branding-boom and growth of digital filmmaking technology added two crucial instruments to the Nollywood survival kit; with them the outer shell of Nigerian films could now be made more attractive though the meat within was still uncooked.

Counter Hem

While believing in the sacrifice of quality has aided Nollywood’s continuity it is a double-edged sword leaving more than its fair share of wounds. As already stated, it is an easy access-road to mediocrity. Indeed one can link the pervasion of this notion to old Nollywood (i.e the pre-digital era 1992 – 2006) and its band of unskilled filmmakers who needed a justification for their less-than-mediocre home videos, knowing that they couldn’t do any better. (It’s a deviously ingenious marketing scheme, to be honest! Exploiting our sense of indigenous pride and search for a common identity.)

The most grievous damage remains the industry’s inability to continuously evolve effective and innovative plans unique to Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions. Plans that position the industry to produce quality films, rather than deluding ourselves that that new boring movie is great and even if it isn’t so good at least they tried sha. I feel the urge to lay out various benefits of good planning but that’s too damn elementary, Watson! The essence of a plan is undeniable. Heck, every good villain, both real and fictional, knows that a plan is vital to achieving efficient destruction. How much more so when you are trying to build?

Planning isn’t merely an act; it is a philosophy, an attitude, which we as a people – not we as individuals, now – are yet to develop. As a group of people bunched together by brethren Frederick Lugard, we are way more reactive than active. Even when staring at a blatant problem we refuse to take the initiative until calamity erupts then we start scrambling for half-baked solutions. Our original sin is passivity. Probably the most common solutions to social problems are 1) Pray to God and all will be magically fixed without us having to break a sweat or 2) Just wait until some other person finds a solution then do exactly what he/she/they did even if it doesn’t entirely apply to us. Generations have used these approaches to graduate from Universities with top honours, how won’t they apply it to every aspect of life?

A Long Walk To Nearby Destinations

Maze of truth
In its quest to win international acclaim Nollywood is taking the needlessly long route to confronting a homegrown problem – the absence of a plan. It should be obvious without experiences like the one at the Durban Film Festival that ours is an industry void of an identity and starved of a common purpose. We needn’t be pissed or scared about this, we just need to sit down and fix it.

Having buried the value of excellence so deep you’d have to multiply six feet by six to locate it, the journey ahead is a long one. The allure of the global limelight – being the first Nigerian to win an Oscar and all that – would only help if tempered with patience. So far we are impatiently clawing at international success. As dust raised in hyping the ostensible Nollywood renaissance settles it is becoming more obvious that HD cameras alone do not make a good film, certainly not a good industry. Access to cinema’s international community also serves as slaps into realization. There the struggles of Nollywood, its no-be-our-fault and just-manage-am-like-that strategies, are impotent. The solution always bring us back to the same point – we need a plan, holmes!

The resistance to accept the unavoidable truth is understandable. The old mentality is too saturated into the consciousness of some; catharsis will take time. Some sense that in the sea of impending change they will drift to extinction. Perhaps what scares the industry most is the (sub)conscious awareness that, to achieve the next level of progress, the mentally pauperish pillars which have long upheld it must be destroyed. Delusions of grandeur, banal praise and subtle compulsion will repetitively lead to the same old thing – weak films which will be praised at home but lambasted in the wider world.

Reel-ality Twist

The confusion of an industry without a plan is humorously captured in the way neo-Nollywood sought to disassociate itself from old Nollywood. Back when all we had were shitty scenes poorly shot on video cameras with an Igbo woman bellowing a theme song every ten minutes, the poor quality of home videos was unquestionable. Yet the industry refused to confront this issue. It took the easy way out: screw looking for some sort of way to improve, let’s just defend these movies no matter what.

Then boom! digital filmmaking technology became accessible. A new path appeared before our Nolly-feet. And then the funniest thing happened. Actors, directors, marketers and publicists who migrated from old to neo-Nollywood, seeking to improve their brand by showing how much better the new era films are, began to criticize old Nollywood. Suddenly all the criticisms which were vehemently defended a few years back became weapons of attack – and they knew just were would hurt the most. Now that’s a priceless piece of irony and the trademark of a vicious cycle.

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third person)
Playwright Africa African
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage – abeg, follow me for twitter oh!) is a playwright, screenwriter, creative director, and arts administrator. And protector of the realm. He has been the recipient of awards such as the BBC African Performance competition and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. In 2014 he won the prestigious Oscar award for best actress in a supporting role … Oh, no, wait, that … that was Lupita N’yongo. His works have appeared on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology, and more. If you’d like to get in touch with him you can send N1500 MTN recharge card to 08036207841 and he will call you back, sharp-sharp. Or maybe just email him: africaukoh@gmail.com.

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