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COMING SOON: GREEN WHITE GREEN

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Set for an early 2016 release is GREEN WHITE GREEN the debut feature of Nigerian filmmaker Abba Makama with a screenplay by yours truly, Africa Ukoh. GREEN WHITE GREEN is a coming of age story about three young Nigerians with time to burn, a borrowed film camera and dreams as big as their motherland. The film stars Ifeanyi Dike Jr., Samuel Robinson, Jamal Ibrahim, Crystabel Goddy, Bimbo Manuel, Okey, Uzoeshi and Meg Otanwa. I had a ton of fun writing the script and it’s certainly going to be a film with a unique and vibrant visual flair.

Check out other works by Abba Makama here. And to find out more about my black ass you can visit the About An African Page.

WILDEST DREAMS: Taylor Swift at the Precipice of Prejudice or Ignorance

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A few days back Taylor Swift sent her Swiftlings into euphoric fits with the announcement that she would be dropping a video for her song Wildest Dreams on the 31st of August, the night of the 2015 VMA’s. Tweets announcing the video release and a 15 second teaser on YouTube contained enough mouth-watering features to get fans excited.

Apparently styled after The Notebook, the video appears to be set in 1950s Africa with Taylor Swift and Scott Eastwood entang– Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! REWIND! “1950s Africa?” As in: nineteen-fifties Africa? As in: the African continent in the years dated 1950 – 1959? Oh, boy!*insert facepalm emoji here*

Now, I don’t know how big the issue of Swift’s Shake it off video being racist got (didn’t really follow the story at the time, and as far as I’m concerned the video isn’t racist) but having tread into “are you racist?” territory before, you would think more aptness would be shown by the Swift camp when entering the mother of all “are you racist?” territories: the (mis)representation of Africans.

Not caution in the “let me present everyone as good so as not to offend anyone” sense. Rather caution in the “let’s get our details right so that we actually know what we are presenting” sense – you know, life professionalism dictates.

The possibility that a large number of people can’t fathom why a music video by a (though I detest using skin colour to describe any human being) white musician set in “1950s Africa” is (potentially) offensive suggests just how vacuous this great age of information is.

Here’s the thing: 1950s AFRICA IS COLONIAL AFRICA! Colonial Africa as in oppressed Africa. Colonial Africa as in socio-politically enslaved Africa. Colonial Africa as in European occupation of Africa and subjugation of Africans.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The way I see it there are only two ways this can play out: the video will end up as some prejudiced assed ish or some ignorant ass ish. I don’t want it to be. I would much rather be writing the fourth scene of my play or watching re-runs of House than bitch about two people kissing under the rain while zebras run around, but I just don’t see how else this video can end up if not in prejudice or ignorance. Consider the two likeliest outcomes:

1) The video turns out to be an inaccurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.
2) The video turns out to be an accurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.

Outcome A:
History and geography would probably crumple themselves into the foetal position and weep in agony if 1950s Africa in Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video turns out to be generic Hollywood Africa. What greater embodiment of ignorance in the 21st century when a simple Google search with the phone right there in the palm of your hands will give you, at the very least, an idea of something you are clueless about?

The phrase “1950s Africa” doesn’t help either. That’s already a big fat finger pointing at ignorance. Saying “1950s Africa” in the context used is like saying “1950s Europe” or “1950s Asia”. That’s like me saying, hey I’m writing a new play and it’s set in South America of the 1980s … ya, but where though? Reducing the myriad of cultures and histories of a freaking continent to a set of stereotypes is …? No extra marks for guessing the answer.

Outcome B:
If the video turns out to be an accurate depiction of Africa in the 1950s it will be digging one of two graves for itself.  (i) It would be a critique of the colonial era, and we all know that isn’t going to happen, or (ii) It would be a celebration of the colonial era, inadvertently so, at the very least. Any need to explicate why both of these are graves? Good, didn’t think so.

And here’s the thing, except the time period the Wildest Dreams video is shot in changes, there’s no escaping the fact that it is occurring in colonial Africa. Only 6 African countries gained independence during the 1950s (Libya, 1951; Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, 1956; Ghana, 1957; Guinea, 1958) so it isn’t like the last days of colonialism in Africa. It’s smack in the era which means, if you think about it, Swift and Eastwood are playing the parts of colonials.

***

It’s quite ironic that not so long after Taylor Swift’s mini-squabble with Nicki Minaj on Twitter OVER THE ISSUE OF PREJUDICE in entertainment/pop culture, a video teeming with such rich and colourful possibilities for prejudice would be coming from Taylor Swift.

Of course, music or a music video isn’t necessarily a representation of an artist’s personality or personal beliefs. For some the art reflects the artist, for others the art is just an image, a manufactured product. What cannot be ignored is what that art, artist, image or manufactured product advocates in the pursuit of its own success.

That’s why things like this are dangerous. On the 31st of August, 2015, Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video will help millions of people around the world believe that Africa in the 1950s was Zebras running around buck naked or some other blindly painted portrait.

Things like this, in their institutionalised multitude, are the stumbling blocks to the flourishing of inter racial relations at the global level. A music video set in 1950s Africa about colonials falling in love (and getting to second base) is like a music video set in Auschwitz about two Nazi’s falling in love (und immer zur zweiten base) while the Jews watch from queues leading up to the furnace.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong and jumping the gun. Here’s expecting that I’m not. On the flipside:

TIDAL Troubles: Jay Z’s New Enterprise and the Artist-Audience Disconnect

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Stream of consciousness blog post coming in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …

Friends, Romans, Tweeters, lend me your ears!

Jay Z took to Twitter yesterday to defend his new streaming music enterprise TIDAL, an attempt to counter criticisms and what he claimed to be a heavily sponsored smear campaign labelling the venture a flop. It was a rare sight, prior to the so-called rant (didn’t seem like a rant to me) the @S_C_ account had only tweeted 215 times since 2008.

Jay Z who NEVER tweets actually turning to Twitter to try and connect with people (which he – not that I mean to be cynical – may only see as connecting with the ‘market/customer’) garnered your typical internet trolling reactions, a lot of insightful opinions, and even business advice.

“TIDAL is for all” … No?

Jay Z’s tweets re-emphasised TIDAL’s selling points: it aims to empower artists, connect them directly with their fans (cutting off the middle man) and give music lovers more and better music. TIDAL is pro-artist and fan.

For now, it seems most people aren’t buying it. Among the many rebuttals three popular opinions stood out to me:

  1. At $20 per month TIDAL is too expensive.
  2. We see what TIDAL will give to the artist but we don’t see what it will give to the fans/audience.
  3. Even if I wanted to spend that amount of money, today’s mainstream music isn’t worth it.

These opinion reflect a deep disconnect in the relationship between artist and audience, which, in my opinion, has been present for a long time but masked by systematic marketing.

Is it worth it? Did I put enough work in?

The artist-fan relationship is founded on a special bond. Though one (artist) delivers a service (music) in exchange for capital ($) from the consumer (audience/fan) what actually connects artist and audience is sharing the experience of art.

This shared experience is amplified by the cultural ties of a music genre to its fan base. Thus the value of country music, hip hop, punk rock etc, extends beyond just music. (This is one reason why some artists despise referring to audiences/fans as ‘customers’ or ‘the market’.)

For the most part, people don’t mind paying for music so long as in return they receive an experience they consider equal or superior in value. This return in value is extremely important because it is the pivot around which the business of show business revolves.

Though a portion of audiences have for long expressed discontent with the value of mainstream music, producers and (in some cases) artists have been able to ignore the pressure to create music with more value. Two reasons why this was possible: 1) the proliferation of free music on the internet 2) marketing developed to such a systematically efficient state that sub-par products/services (the music) could be sold successfully despite discontent from the buyers.  

Once the pressure to create great music was no longer a motivational factor for mainstream success, a disconnect was inevitable. In this light, one key problem facing TIDAL is that it is trying to cash in on an artist-audience connection which no longer exists.

Devaluation

Take rap music for example, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s rap music wasn’t just music, it was a movement, a voice for a generation. The heavily ideological music of rappers like Tupac and Nas were an affirmation of the African American identity. Even the ‘I’m flossing like a boss’ music of rappers like Jay Z and P.Diddy were essential parts of the movement – they affirmed financial success as part of an African American’s identity.

However, the music, in its mainstream form, did not keep up with the shift in priorities of the audience. The music stopped listening to its fans. The audience’s value-needs expanded but the music stayed narrow. And when it realised it could still make money without listening to its fans, it happily jumped into that pool. (This circumstance is not unique to rap, it has manifested in rock, R & B and, yes, even pop music.)

While this circumstance offered short-mid term gains for artists and producers, it always threatened to backfire in the long-run. People have spent so long asking the music to care about them but it couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Today we have TIDAL asking people to care about it but they can’t give a rat’s ass.

Show me the money movement!

Consider the refusal to identify with TIDAL in comparison to the cult-like followership with which people received enterprises like Wu Tang’s WU WEAR or Jay Z’s ROCAWEAR. In those cases people weren’t just buying into a brand, they were participating in a movement. More importantly, they felt they were contributing to a vision.

I reiterate: the business of show-business revolves around a healthy artist-audience relationship. When selling any piece of performance art (music, film, theatre etc) the superior producer aspires to create an artistic experience which transcends the financial cost of that art.

If after listening to that album or watching that film or play, the fan/audience is still ruminating on how much was spent then the producer and artist are doing something wrong. The least aspiration is to have the audience feeling it cost a little too much but it was still worth it. The highest aspiration is to have the audience feeling it underpaid for the art.

The greatest respect a person in show business can show an audience is return artistic value for their financial loyalty. Sadly, there’s not much respect for the fans in mainstream music and honestly even the fans show a lack of self-respect. This is one reason why Jay Z, an artist renowned for his skill in business is, at least for now, being disrespected for his business.

I for Indie

Is TIDAL doomed? I don’t know. Personally, I hope not. The music industry definitely needs a structural revolution. Even if its present format fails, I hope and trust Jay not-a-business-man-but-a-business-man Z will return to base and resurface stronger.

People do want to support platforms like TIDAL it just has to offer something to the people. And so does the music. Believe it or not some people take pride buying their music rather than downloading it. But when the system seems to be exploiting them, well, torrent sites are only a click away, no?

TIDAL needs to be pushed by the RIGHT FACES and super-star-rich Jay Z, Madonna, Beyonce ARE NOT THOSE FACES. Surprise-surprise but people don’t identify with mill(bill)ionaires asking for more money. Surprise-surprise but upcoming artists aren’t excited about bigger artists eating out of their pie.

I think, as do others, that TIDAL needs to have independent artists more at the forefront. I can’t figure out if Jack White, Jason Aldean and Arcade Fire are suitable or if they’ve been tainted by being part of the TIDAL 16. What independent artists would bring to the face of TIDAL is relatability; they’d bridge the disconnect in the artist-audience relationship.

To the audience their involvement would mean/suggest TIDAL does truly have benefits for indie acts. The impact of seeing indie artists being (sort of) backed by a Jay Z, Madonna or Jack White would also help break down barriers from the artist-audience disconnect.

Another advantage indie artists would bring is using the right language in trying to get people to connect with TIDAL. From day one Jay Z’s language has been wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It sounds like bullet points from a business proposal. Even reading about TIDAL is a bore. Nothing to get one excited about having better access to music. It’s all money, percentages, shares, subscriptions … egh! It should be about the love of music, the shared experience of art.

And just to reiterate, the artist-audience disconnect means that the super-star-rich likes of Jay Z and Madonna are not the right people to be talking about sharing the love of music (for $20 per month).

Niggas in Paris, Cousins in Nigeria

A quick word must be said on Jay Z’s comment about his ‘cousin moving to Nigeria to discover new talent. First off, his cousin moved to LAGOS, not Nigeria. Don’t get the wrong idea now, Lagos is in Nigeria (No, CNN it’s not the capital, and neither is Nairobi) but that cousin is highly unlikely to have any impact beyond specific vicinities within Lagos. Heck, beyond specific offices.

Secondly, that cousin is highly unlikely to discover any new talent. And no, not because there is no new talent but like any industry, those at the top will place a stranglehold on the cousin going beyond them – if said cousin even intended to search beyond them in the first place.

Indie artists in Nigeria are likely to gain nothing from the presence of Jay Z’s cousin, while a few already at the top will be presented to the global market as new talent. Indeed, to the global market they are new talent but it would be a deception to present rich Nigerian superstars as TIDAL’s contribution to Nigerian music.

Vulnerability: the art of empowerment

My final thought on TIDAL is this: I do believe Jay Z would put TIDAL in a better position to gain more patronage if he made himself vulnerable. Jigga maybe needs to just put himself out there, financially, reputably  – sometimes the safe card is your enemy.

If Jay Z set TIDAL up in a way that he (and all/some of the TIDAL 16) are taking some sort of pain or loss in order for new artists and music lovers to have a better artist-fan relationship (which actually means more patronage for TIDAL) people would be more willing to back the enterprise with massive support.

Vulnerability is a reverse way of being in control. It’s an art no other artist knows better than actors. In order to gain control of the audience, the actor makes him/herself vulnerable by opening up completely. This forces the audience into an emotional and psychological corner from which they capitulate by giving themselves over completely.

The rule of thumb is: all things being equal, if two actors are in a scene and one is naked, that is the one who is in control because he/she is more vulnerable. However, that’s not to say I’m suggesting Jay Z should get naked on TIDAL, especially not when Alicia ‘Aphrodite’ Keys is in the building.

5 Things to Avoid When Making Your Nollywood Action Film (Part 1)

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From its inception to date, Nollywood has struggled to achieve success in the action film genre. While the industry’s releases have certainly advanced beyond the pishaun-pishaun action flicks of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, we still haven’t created that action film which stamps its authority as the groundbreaker. Why is this so?

To answer that, we must understand a defining nature of the action genre. What an action film essentially does is cinematize the presence and threats of violence (real or perceived) within a society. In other words, filmmakers take the manifestations of violence within a society, or the ways it threatens to manifest, and explore that through cinema.

Four types of violence

This presence and threat of violence can be categorised into four groups: physical, psychological, emotional and philosophical violence (i.e a belief system regarding violence and its place in that society, think the USA’s gun culture or East Asia’s martial arts culture). Thus in film industries around the world we find action movie genres reflecting a society’s experiences with, reactions to, and perspectives on violence.

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Cinematically this could result in serious cinema like Nicholas Winding Refn’s DRIVE where the film is defined by psychological and emotional violence which erupt in gory physical violence; or Yimou Zhang’s HERO (the one with Jet Li) where physical violence provides an aesthetic backdrop to the exploration of themes such as leadership/rulership, patriotism etc, underlined by philosophical violence; or any of Steven Seagal’s movies where physical violence is the defining element, underlined by a celebration of violence in heroism.

The Nollywood dilemma

Contrary to popular belief, the restraints holding Nollywood action movies back are not LOGISTICAL (budget, equipment, tech, etc) but CONCEPTUAL (idea, approach, thought). The problem isn’t HOW to shoot a Nollywood film; the problem is how to translate the presence and threats of violence in Nigeria into distinct and compelling cinema.

We could examine the four categories above in this light, but that’s another blog post for another day.

What this article aims to do is examine 5 different trends in Nigerian action films which appear to be favourable approaches when making a Nollywood action movie but actually, and slyly so, do way more damage than good.

Here I examine 2 out of these 5 things to avoid and in part 2 of this article I examine the remaining 3. So here we go!

  1. It is vital that you avoid … HOLLYWOODIZATION

Hollywoodization refers to a (Nigerian) film made with such overt use of Hollywood styles and techniques that it ends up an imitation of Hollywood cinema rather than a film with a unique identity. Hollywoodization plagues Nigerian cinema as whole (indeed it’s the defining factor behind the industry’s identity crisis) but it is especially noticeable in action films because of how distinct the genre’s nuances are.

Imitation is not to be confused with influence. Like societies, film industries are influenced by foreign cultures and cinema. Hollywood’s cowboy films where massively influenced by Japanese Samurai films, yet the former is a respectable genre in its own right.

Where an industry swerves off track is when it fails to ADAPT those foreign influences to its indigenous nuances. This is what Nollywood is yet to do successfully. As a result, rather than a Nigerian action film gaining recognition as a work of its own merit, it gains recognition for being a replica of a superior (Hollywood) counterpart.

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This is often summarised, often not deliberately, in the much popular expression: ‘they tried oh, it’s almost like oyibo film’.

Why should you avoid it?

Because art is imitation but imitation is not art. A filmmaker with any dignity in his/her art aspires to be recognised for his/her film art, not for its qualities as a knock off, no matter how impeccable the imitation.

Is an impeccable imitation even possible? The stringent circumstances of Nollywood means the imitation has almost no chance of being as good as the original. But even if it is possible, why aspire for such a lowly achievement?  Is being a second rate Hollywood knock off the best a first rate Nollywood film can hope to achieve?

On the business side Hollywoodization is also a bad idea. Why? Because you can’t outdo Hollywood. You can’t out-Keanu-Reeves Keanu Reeves, you can’t out-Statham Jason Statham, you can’t out-Woo John Woo. (Don’t get the wrong idea, this isn’t an indictment of lack of talent in Nollywood, as, from Hollywood’s perspective, the reverse is also true: they can’t out-Loko Sam Loko, they can’t out-Pete Pete Edochie, they can’t out-G Mama G.)

If you plan to market your action film to Western audiences Hollywoodization is your worst enemy. To Western audiences the imitation factor of your film will be more heightened and so will its inferiority.  Think about it, would you watch a Japanese actor TRYING AND FAILING to act like a Nigerian actor when you could simply watch a Nigerian actor?

What can you do?

There’s no definite or quick way out of this dilemma. Its solution comes down to the development of a visual and performative language that is uniquely Nigerian in the presentation of an action film.

The onus rests on directors, screenwriters and actors to explore themselves, their society and their influences so as to discover this language. Nigerian filmmakers need to find and extract the defining principle behind their influences, then filter redundant aspects. Every film industry around the world has done this at some point.

The succession of trial and error this implicates may scare off producers, but glory awaits whoever is bold enough to take on the challenge – you’d essentially be defining an entire genre!

  1. Alert! Alert! Must avoid … CRAPPY LOOKING CGI (COMPUTER GENERATED IMAGE)

We are coming into the animation game at a very very late point in time, and we’re not moving fast enough.

The nineties were a key transition period for CGI in film. Through the 20th century groundbreaking movies like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK and THE MATRIX, signalled an upsurge in the quality of CGI at the turn of the century.

Today, CGI quality is so far advanced and growing so rapidly that any film industry only now venturing into animation has to climb a mountain to catch up – and, if that wasn’t tough enough, a mountain whose apex is continuously growing.

For Nollywood to catch up to the international standard of CGI in film a large scale influx of resources is compulsory. Whether the industry has a structural set up to make such a large scale influx profitable is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is that such an influx is nowhere in sight.

As such, Nollywood filmmakers who want or, more importantly, need to use CGI in their films are forced to manage standards their international peers abandoned years, maybe decades, ago.

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Why should you avoid it?

Simple, crappy looking CGI makes your film look crappy. Audiences have been exposed to high quality CGI for so long that anything below standard is instantly rejected, likely ridiculed.

When used carelessly, even good CGI can disrupt the experience of a film, how much more when the CGI sucks. Crappy CGI turns your film into an object of ridicule and in the age of the internet troll … well.

Some Nollywood filmmakers often attempt to appeal to the empathy and brotherly support of the Nigerian audience. Basically taking the ‘at least we tried’ approach, appealing – directly or indirectly – to audiences to appreciate them for at least making the attempt, no matter how low in standard.

The problem with this approach is that its impact is only momentary. Audiences continue to be fed such a rich diet of quality CGI that they can’t enjoy anything less. Appealing to audiences to tolerate low quality CGI out of some sense of nationhood is like asking a guy who’s used to enjoying more than a fine glass of Romanée-Conti to drink shekpe because patriotism.

What can you do?

First of all, DON’T USE CGI if you don’t NEED it. CGI is a tool NOT a requisite of action films, if you don’t need it, and, most especially if you’re struggling with low quality CGI, DON’T USE IT. That alternative you think doesn’t exist exists.

If you need or you (stubbornly) WANT to use CGI, then be smart about it. Your best bet is for the director, producer, screenwriter and graphic designer to work closely together. The four can optimize CGI use in relation to story, technical capacities, and budget.

It could be tricky but a good scriptwriter can craft a story such that the designer’s CGI strengths are emphasised while his weaknesses are de-emphasised or eliminated altogether.

Another option is what I call the Kill Bill approach’. This basically means using 2D instead of 3D graphics. 2D is comparatively easier to render and getting high quality 2D is very much achievable. The problem is it completely changes the visual feel and style.

I call it the Kill Bill approach’ because it refers to Quentin Tarantino’s use of 2D for the ‘Origin of O-Ren’ sequence in volume 1 of his 2003 classic. The effect is compelling and one of my favourite movie moments.

The stark shift in visual appearance, from live humans to 2D, is potentially a tough one to handle but with experimentation and bold storytelling we could create a compelling style/convention in Nollywood.

It goes without saying that if you have the financial capability to foot high quality CGI then have at it! AND DO NOT HOLD BACK! Again, if this will eat up a bulk of your budget work closely with your screenwriter so as to maximise the balance between budget and script.

No point having great CGI but a shitty story; no point having a great story but shitty CGI. If the CGI in your film cannot be ahead of its time, the least it should be is of its time. To deliberately be behind its time is inviting disaster.

NEXT WEEK ON THE PENSAGE SCROLLS …

They say the sequel is never better than the original? Well, we’ll find out won’t we? Be on the lookout for …

  1. Don’t be kobo wise, naira foolish, avoid … A Weak Ass Story/Plot
  2. Do everything in your power to avoid … Poorly Conceived Combat And Action Scenes
  3. May the force guide you to avoid … A Pointless Trailer

Movie Talk On Sundays (#MTOS) for April 26: Weird Films

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Movie Talk on Sundays (MTOS) is a Twitter chat that takes place every Sunday at 8:00pm (UK time). Fun and insightful, it’s a great hangout for cinema lovers. Just follow the hashtag #MTOS – and you can bring your own popcorn! I’m hosting this week’s chat and the topic is: weird films.

Art is founded on the unusual

The weird, the whacky, the bizarre, the quirky, the wonderful! Some films give us cinematic experiences that are nothing like the ‘typical’ encounters. Cinema as a whole was once a strange art form, in due time distinctions developed between the conventional and the not so conventional. Today there is a seeming split between the (somewhat) usual and (so-called) weird films. Whether they make us laugh, cry, grimace, puke, shock us, amaze us, or confuse us, they leave a mark. Let’s talk about weird movies!

  1. Do you love weird films, deliberately seek them out? Do you hate them, deliberately avoid them? Are you indifferent or undecided?
  2. What are the best and worst weird movies you’ve seen? What do you think made the best work and the worst fail?
  3. Sometimes ‘weird’ can stray into ‘pretentious’. Which film do you consider guilty of this? Which do you consider wrongly accused?
  4. Atmosphere is vital to film. What production designer/art director or cinematographer best captures the ‘atmosphere of the weird’?
  5. Aronofsky, Lynch, Burton, so many others. Which filmmaker is the undisputed master when it comes to making weird films?
  6. What are the best & worst weird acting performances – one male, one female – you’ve seen in a film? (Emphasis on just the acting)
  7. In your opinion, what little known weird film is an absolute must-watch?
  8. If you could live in the world of one weird film, which would it be and which character would you live as?
  9. You have a blank cheque and creative carte blanche, what’s your idea for a weird film? Who would you cast? Who would direct?
  10. Is ‘weird’ the right word to describe films that ignore convention? Is the term a misnomer? Prejudicial? Or spot on?

Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA – A Study in Film Narrative

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A slapstick crude-and-cruel-taste prank-film by Johnny Knoxville and his crew of jackasses is the last place I expected to find an intriguing study in film narrative, but that was what I got from Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.

Having gorged on the five star meal that is DePalma’s Scarface for the 10, 000th time, I needed to feed my brain something less intense before submitting to the temporal death of sleep. Despite my affinity for indulging in mischief and madness I had no desire to see Bad Grandpa since it came out last year. However this seemed like the perfect condition – a no-brainer movie for a no-brainer mood. I certainly did not expect to be taken on an interesting screen-ride.

Right before the titular Grandpa sticks his penis into a soda machine (it’s Jackass, what else did you expect?) 2 of the final 3 opening credits grabbed my attention: “story by” and “screenplay by”. The suggestion that there is a story here intrigued me. A story means narrative, structure, a creative and technical way of telling. This opposed what I expected: a showing of randomly organized or loosely connected sketches much like the other Jackass movies or The Onion Movie. But if there was a story here, and if Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Her) is one of those telling it, I was surely going to pay attention.

What followed was an interesting and unique twist on film narrative. A hybrid of fiction and filmed-reality. An experiment (Inadvertently so?) in the film art of storytelling. What is it about this creation which most would shudder to call a film that makes it intriguing? First let’s look at …

Story and Structure

Bad Grandpa is a standard road-trip buddy-comedy with a simple character arc and three act structure:

Exposition: 8 year old Billy tells complete strangers in the waiting room of a law office about his crack addict mum who will soon be going to jail. In another part of town Grandpa Irving Zisman learns that Grandma has finally passed away. The sad news comes as a great delight to Grandpa, he is now free to chase tail, having not got any “nookie since the 90s”. At Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum tells Grandpa he has to take care of Billy. She abandons the kid with Grandpa Irving and bails.

Rising action: this unexpected responsibility is an obstruction in the way of Grandpa’s newfound freedom, so he arranges to pass Billy over to his father, Chuck Muski – an irresponsible computer hardware salesman (he has like 3 old computers for sale) who only wants Billy for the $600 the state will assumably pay him for being a single (unemployed) parent. Grandpa and Billy set out on the drive from Nebraska to North Carolina. What starts out as a tedious trip soon turns into a bonding adventure as Gramps and Billy revel in their shared love for pranks and juvenility.

Resolution: Grandpa reluctantly drops Billy with his father and leaves, fearing for the kid’s well-being. However he has a change of heart and returns to rescue Billy from his abusive father. The duo head over to a beauty pageant for one last prank (in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine) before throwing Grandma off a bridge – her preferred burial choice.

In total there are 23 major prank scenes, which make up the main scenes, 22 junction scenes (non-prank scenes which link the narrative) and a few minor/sub prank scenes in the spaces between. The plotting shifts from prank scene to junction scene in alternate progression. Mostly one prank scene followed by one junction scene; occasionally two or three prank scenes followed by a junction scene or two. Combining the three act structure with the prank and junction scenes gives us this:

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Three act structure in “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

This structure blurs the line dividing reality and fiction, delivering an unexpected narrative.

Constructed Narrative/Anticipatory Narrative

All narrative in fictional films is constructed. The phrase “making a movie” aptly defines what filmmaking is – a process of building. The idea, premise, script, acting, cinematography, editing, aesthetics, style etc, are the blueprints, foundation, blocks, rods, roofings and more which are used to build a film. These features drive conscious narrative.

Bad Grandpa, however, delivers a narrative which is not defined by construction alone. On one hand it is a collection of pranks caught on camera, thus categorizing it as filmed-reality. Yet the fictional story is cohesive enough to be called a film. Prank scenes (so long as they are not staged) cannot be wholly constructed, they can only be set up then left to develop themselves based on reactions of the pranks’ targets (who become catalysts). The pranksters (actors, director etc) may aim to steer these reactions towards preset destinations or just go with the flow.

A story being a feature of the film means the prank scenes in Bad Grandpa are not independent entities but part of the narrative. Thus we expect them to ask or tell us something about the plot, characters and character relationships. Since prank scenes cannot be wholly constructed pranksters can only go into the scene with expectations. For the viewer this circumstance creates a sense of thrill, which to my surprise has strong playback value. Most importantly, the expectation arising from this circumstance creates an element vital to the telling of the story: an anticipatory narrative.

The story is therefore shaped by this dual/hybrid way of telling – a constructed/anticipatory narrative.Three features about this narrative captivated me:

Unity and Continuity

The narrative’s unity lies in the scenes where the filmed-reality and fictional story merge inseparably. The strength of this merger prevents the story from collapsing in the second act which mostly consists of pranks with very thin story value. The junction scenes provide motivational shifts from one prank scene to the next, a continuity needed for the unity to make sense. This is strongest in the first act and the beginning of the second act:

Prank scene: Grandpa learns about Grandma’s death.
Junction scene: Grandpa, happy to be free, tries but fails to get into an oriental massage parlour and a strip club.
Prank scene: horny and frustrated Grandpa decides to satiate himself by sticking his penis inside a soda machine.
Prank scene: at Grandma’s funeral Billy’s mum abandons her son with Grandpa.
Junction scene: in his car Grandpa further expresses reluctance to take care of Billy. So…
Prank scene: Grandpa, Billy, and a (really sweet) guidance counselor chat with Billy’s dad and agree to drive Billy over to his father in North Carolina.
Prank scene: Grandpa tricks 2 movers into putting Grandma’s corpse inside the trunk of his car.
Junction scene: driving to North Carolina Billy asks that they stop and get something to eat.
Prank scene: while getting his meal Billy tries to play on a broken ride. Grandpa tries to test the ride but it malfunctions and sends him flying through a huge glass window.
Junction scene: back in the car an angry Grandpa decides he absolutely cannot take care of Billy. So …
Prank scene: Grandpa hides Billy inside a box and tries to send him to North Carolina by courier (the shocked attendants actually consider whether a kid can be couriered or not).
Junction scene: realizing he can’t get rid of Billy so easily Grandpa resigns himself to a long ride.

Without the junction scenes we would be watching a poorly told story progressing with missing portions that would make certain prank scenes insensible. For example, if we don’t see Grandpa failing to get into the oriental massage parlour and strip club, sticking his penis inside a soda machine would just be a random prank.

Acting

The most enjoyable thing about any prank is watching the targets react to the situation, and Bad Grandpa takes this a step further.The presence of a story turns the targets from victims of a prank into co-actors; co-actors who do not even know they are being co-actors. They are telling a story without knowing they are telling it. They are in the fictional world of Bad Grandpa yet they are not of it.

They play an important role by giving the narrative that clinical bit of unity and continuity. For example, when the two women at the courier office refuse to mail Billy to North Carolina they actually motivate Grandpa and Billy to take the road-trip, this later becomes crucial to the duo bonding.

In another scene a bystander watches in shock as Grandpa drags Grandma’s corpse into a motel room, Grandpa asks for directions to a strip club which the bystander gives. Unknowingly “acting” as a bystander the man i) makes the story of the scene effective through his shock and ii) furthers the narrative by linking it to the next scene. The narrative wouldn’t break if the bystander doesn’t give the directions, the scene could simply cut from the motel to the strip club and still make sense, but in giving directions the bystander adds that extra bit of value and detail.

The quality of comic timing and line delivery from these co-actors is impeccable and stands as a testament to the inherent hilarity of life. Replicating such natural rhythms with equal efficacy in a wholly fictional movie is a challenge which I doubt can be fully achieved.

Suspension of Disbelief

The constructed/anticipatory narrative turns conventional suspension of disbelief on its head. Suspension of disbelief is an age long agreement between storytellers and audiences: I am going to tell you a fictional story but I will make it credible; I am going to treat your fictional story as a reality unto itself. So the audience willfully ignores any data or stimuli which reminds them that this thing being watched is a lie so as to see its truths.

In prank shows or other filmed-reality productions viewers are aware they are watching reality, thus there is no disbelief to be suspended. In reality TV shows, fiction (i.e constructed narrative) is frowned upon. What the audience seeks is not an imaginative involvement but a voyeuristic one.

Bad Grandpa fuses these two worlds into one, resulting, at least for me, in a rather unique and pleasant state of perception. The viewer’s mind bounces from suspension of disbelief to awareness of reality in a topsy turvy thrill-ride. Again the junction scenes are very important here; as the prank scene asserts the reality of what you’re watching, the junction scene snatches you back into the realm of fiction. The climax delivers the strongest sensation from the fiction-reality fusion.

Set in a bar where a group of bikers known as Guardians of Children are hanging out we immediately sense the tension. What will a group of hardcore bikers who love to protect children from harm do when they realize Chuck Muski is an abusive father? The fictional story and filmed-reality flow into each other in a seamless symbiotic relationship leaving the viewer simultaneously in the pleasant spots of two separate worlds.

***

The experience of watching Bad Grandpa turned out to not be the brain cell massacre I had expected. I found myself weighing the possibilities of how else this dual/hybrid narrative can be put to use. The problem with Bad Grandpa is the juvenility of its content which makes viewers not take what I found to be a delightful technique of storytelling seriously. For me the jackassness takes nothing away from the narrative. I find myself pondering the possibilities of telling a story using this constructed/anticipatory narrative in a more intricate way. What if we could tell a detailed fictional story which uses real people and heads towards unplanned destinations?

The Grand Nollywood Plan … Or Lack Thereof

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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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