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Of MOPICON and Moping Cons: Nigerian Film, Theatre and the Ignorance of Fundamentals

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I came to know about MOPICON and its bill a couple days ago when I stumbled across this article on True Nollywood Story. I read the bill itself and my first reaction was a chuckle. Having grown bored, many years back, with the inanity of some of Nigeria’s so-called associations and their vehement dedication to purposelessness, my automated response was to chuckle and move on.

However, as controversy surrounding the bill continued to build on social media, I found myself, like many others, offended by the brazenness of some individuals to just poof and seek to become law over private enterprise – especially one the government hasn’t made any vital contribution to since Lord Lugard used Top Bond to glue us together.

I wasn’t going to blog about the MOPICON fiasco until I came across this Facebook post by verteran Nollywood producer and director Greg Odutayo in which he implies that young Nigerian filmmakers are “afraid of regulation”. Afraid! That word did my head in.

Okay then! Let’s examine this fear. Let’s actually assess this issue at its core. I will offer a retort to Mr Odutayo’s implied slight but first let’s deal with the fundamentals of this issue. For, indeed, that is what this is all about – fundamentals and the surprising ignorance about them.

For long I had intended to write an article about creative entrepreneurship in Nigerian theatre and luckily for me that topic aligns perfectly with the current controversy rippling through Nollywood; so luckily for you, you get two for the price of one.

So, Capua, shall we begin? First of all …

What the Hell is a MOPICON?

The Motion Picture Council of Nigeria, now more popularly known by its petrol-station-mimicking acronym MOPICON, is an association which seeks to position itself as a regulatory body, BACKED BY LAW, that will preside over Nigeria’s film industry – oh and television too – with the badass virtuosity of Judge Dredd. A bill which was drafted by the association about ten years ago has been puked forth for “review” and redrafting.

Essentially MOPICON claims its mission is to set standards which will drive practitioners in Nigeria’s film industry towards the achievement of excellence. What is quite different from global practice is that MOPICON seeks to do this by leeching on to the Ministry of Information/Culture and make itself the all-powerful law.

However this post isn’t about the problems with the MOPICON bill, no. For that you can read the in depth analyses done by Feyi Fawehinmi and Rotimi Fawole. What I am focused on here is a more foundational problem, one that stretches beyond MOPICON into the entire set up and operation of Nigerian film and theatre.

Potential is Overrated

As a kid I often heard about Nigeria’s film and theatre as industries having the potential to be great. Growing up I heard, over and over, how Nigeria’s film and theatre industries have potential to be great.  I went to University, ate a lot of kosh and dosh, graduated, spent one year in the shackles that are NYSC, started working in Nigerian film and theatre and here I am still hearing about Nigeria’s film and theatre industries having the potential to be great.

At some point common sense demands we stop and ask ourselves: of what use is the potential to be great? Usain Bolt isn’t great because he has the potential to run a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds; he is great because he runs a hundred metres in 9.58 seconds.

Potential (energy) is pointless if it never converts to actual (energy). The question before us is obvious: what is hindering Nigerian film and theatre from converting the potential to be great industries into actual greatness? The answer, which also posits problems of utmost pertinence, is equally obvious: there are no film and theatre INDUSTRIES in Nigeria.

Film and theatre in Nigeria aren’t actually industries. We just refer to them as industries because … well, how the hell else are we going to refer to them.

Industry, Fundamentals and Non-existence

Here’s the thing, just because a group of people produce and sell a product does not mean an industry exists. That may seem tricky and contradictory but think about it. Maybe the non-existence of industry is harder to grasp in the creative industries since they aren’t purely manufacture-based, but to practitioners in film and theatre – to professionals! – it should be obvious.

But why? Why despite well over a thousand films produced annually and various theatrical performances put up yearly and numerous people and companies engaged in the commercial enterprise of show business should anyone say that Nigeria has no film and theatre industries? This is where fundamentals come in.

All industries are built on four fundamental pillars:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Equipment
  3. Labour
  4. Industrial framework

Fundamental pillars. Should one of these be absent or ruined industry collapses. What use is infrastructure without equipment or labour? What is the point of equipment without infrastructure to contain or labour capable of utilising them? What’s the point of labour when infrastructure and equipment are not available? And if infrastructure, equipment and labour exist, but they are not structured by a cohesive industrial framework, can the resulting ramshackle of businesses REALLY be called an INDUSTRY?

Fundamentals. When we come to film and theatre, we must play substitution to understand what these four fundamentals are in the performing arts industries:

INDUSTRIAL FUNDAMENTAL FILM THEATRE
Infrastructure Production studios, sound recording studios etc. Theatre houses, artist hostels etc.
Equipment Cameras, lights, cranes etc. Lights, set design tools, make up tools etc.
Labour Actors, directors, producers, camera operators etc. Playwrights, directors, actors, choreographers etc.
Industrial framework Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3. Operational model (i.e structure) for distribution and sales based on platform created by above 3.

Studios and theatre houses, warehouses and hostels are the “factories” of film and theatre. These are the infrastructures which bring labour and equipment together; without these, equipment and labour cannot operate even near optimum hence industrial framework can never manifest because there is no platform upon which to form a structure. (See Alaba for further reference.)

Let He Who is Without Huzzle Cast the First Stone

In the absence of industry what we have are businesses subsisting on the sheer resilience and/or ingenuity of entrepreneurship, and/or on the exploitation of disorder. In other words, without these fundamentals in Nigerian film and theatre, what we have are HUSTLES not industries. (See Alaba for further reference.)

So ask yourself: how many state of the art production studios are there in Nigeria? How many theatre houses are there (NOT event centres and multipurpose halls!)? How many Dolby-Digital-standard sound studios are there? How many artist hostels/residencies are there, so that producers don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands to millions of Naira on hotel bills?

Ask yourself: how can theatre practitioners successfully make theatre with no theatres? How can filmmakers successfully make films with no film studios? How can doctors be doctors with no hospitals? How can you have a football league with no stadiums? How bankers bank with no banks? How can surgeons perform surgery with no operating rooms?

And even after Nigerian film and theatre practitioners surmount enormous challenges and somehow squeeze milk out of stone (See Alaba for further reference) how can this chaos be ORGANISED into industry without first establishing the platforms necessary for an intricate nationwide system to function?

And then MOPICON

It is in this environment that MOPICON (this really is a great name for a petrol station) rears its head and decides that the best way to rein disorder is by lording itself over the chaos. Never mind trying to understand how to actually solve the fundamental problems as unique to Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions, just make us the kings and queens of calamity and we will set firm rules – and, ehem!, membership fees – that will magically make our industries world class. Sorry? What do you mean that is pointless without infrastructure and framework? Gerrarahia men!

Regulate – Warren G ft. MOPICON

Facetiousness aside, regulation is ridiculous. You can’t focus on interior decoration when there are no walls. This is not to say that everything must come to a halt and the fundamentals required by Nollywood must first be put in lace before anything else can happen, no.

Priorities, however, must be set. We need to identify the essentials and prioritise them. This can be done WHILE Nollywood continues to do its Nollywood thing. We can pick the furniture, plan and conceptualize how to design the house, and work on the floors while the walls and roof (The roof! Can’t have a roof if there are no walls!) are being built. But the walls must be prioritised as primary because without them there is no “room”.

What the pro-MOPICON crowd don’t seem to get is that film practitioners aren’t protesting against the bill. There are two key problems with the MOPICON situation.

First is the fact that an association has the chutzpah to attempt to make itself LAW over PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. That pro-MOPICON people don’t understand why this is troubling, or do and don’t care, in my opinion, tells us all we need to know about them. I’m yet to find a pro-MOPICON person who can put forward a cogent argument as to why the association has to become the law. Even if MOPICON’s intentions were for the benefit of all, this does not justify their intent to become law.

The second problem is the attempt by the pro-MOPICON crowd to synonymise “regulation” with “setting standards”. Apart from being an insult to the basic education of the average Nigerian filmmaker, it is worrying that such a basic difference has to be explained to practitioners, in some cases, long serving practitioners.

Regulation of private enterprise infers that a system has been under exploitation and/or abuse hence government needs to take executive action so as to return it to decorous and optimal function. Hence, for one to say he/she/it/they want to regulate the Nigerian film industry is to infer that disorder has overtaken the industry.

However, this ignores a fundamental fact: there isn’t disorder because practitioners don’t want a system; there is disorder because there is no platform/structure/framework for a system to operate through. Regulation, then, which is a control mechanism has nothing to offer an industry where the necessities for practitioners to impose control upon themselves DO NOT EXIST. You no fit tell khaki make e turn leather, you no fit tell hustle make e move like industry. (See any failed attempts at organising touts for further reference.)

We should be thinking of how to achieve nationwide access to films so that filmmakers and audiences have a platform upon which to interact. Not regulation. We should be thinking of how to establish a chain of cinemas nationwide or provide top quality broadband which would enable mass streaming of content. Not regulation. Without either or both of these a film industry can’t operate like a film industry. Where’s the sense in restraining an already handicapped situation?

Theatrical Carts Before Tragicomic Horses

The same applies to theatre. Nigerian theatre needs a feasible plan which builds from the ground up; an operational model which is founded on the fundamentals required for the industry to function as unique to Nigeria’s social and economic environment.

All the workshops and entrepreneurship training and associations upon associations and paper presentations upon paper presentations will not make this appear from thin air. Neither will one-off shows – theatre performances which run for a couple days then close – lead to the manifestation of industry. The, frankly very strange, belief that one or a string of shows can be so good they will kickstart the theatre industry is a myth I have discussed in the past.

One-offs aren’t bad, I’m certainly not implying they should be stopped – heck, I’m currently working on a one-off theatre show myself. However to expect them to lead to industry is ludicrous.

It’s like constructing a storey building starting from the first floor and believing that the sticks in place as makeshift pillars will hold the floor up, therefore a foundation is unnecessary. And sure, the sticks do hold the first floor up, for some time, but eventually the building collapses. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and start building from the first floor again. And once again the first floor is held up just long enough for us to throw a pretty cool party before it inevitably comes crashing down again. Some people escape, some get caught in the rubble. Then once again we raise the stick-pillars and … and so the cycle continues.

At some point one just has to ask oneself, why don’t we just build the damn foundation and start from there?

The Curious Case of Nigerian Music and Nigerian Stand-up Comedy

A common excuse as to why we shouldn’t bother with fundamentals is that there is no chance of the creative industries working successfully in Nigeria. No research or study is proffered as proof when this is stated, it’s simply stated and validated by Nigerianisations like “you know say Nigerians no get time for that kain thing”. This is very often averred by people who don’t work in film and theatre or people who – pardon my crassness but the truth is oft a hurtful bizatch! – have no business working in film and theatre.

We don’t need to state how insanely difficult it is to do business in the “giant of Africa”, not to mention show business! But the point isn’t to achieve flawless operation of film or theatre, rather it’s to figure out how to make them work within Nigeria’s unique circumstances.

About thirteen years ago the music industry in Nigeria was a wasteland inhabited only by vagabonds. Choosing a career in music was to crown oneself an outcast. Today? Well, I don’t need to tell you, despite whatever reservations you may have about creativity of content, how the music industry is and has been doing for more than a decade.

Here’s the question: what did they get right that film and theatre haven’t? Contrast that with Nigerian stand up comedy. An art form which rose, greatly due to the resilient entrepreneurship and creative genius of the Night of a Thousand Laughs team, alongside music. Both saw the rise of the telecommunications giants and expansion of corporate Nigeria at the turn of the 21st century. Here’s the question: why is the one doing better as an industry while the other is on a downslide? What did the one get right for itself that the other didn’t?

Disclaimer: I’m not saying the music industry is perfectville, of course it has its problems, but it certainly has left hustle territory and is operating in the land of industry.

Side note: With a potential to be a thriving industry, for the same reasons as music in the early 2000s, it’s quite sad that no one has figured out how to unleash the Kraken that is Nigeria’s entertainment television industry. We saw a demonstration of the power of this beast with the phenomenon that was When You Are Mine aka Paloma. By 8pm every Thursday, for the best part of a year, AIT owned Nigeria. It’s always impossible until someone else does it then it becomes standard and we forget it was once impossible. (See Telemundo for further reference.)

Moping Cons

“Regulating” Nigerian film and theatre “industries” is essentially a scam, a racket. Even if the initiators mean well, so long as their priorities are focused on regulating phantom industries, they will ultimately operate like a racket, wasting a lot of time and resources in the process.

They will receive funding which cannot be utilised to any concrete developmental ends because the platform for development does not exist. To continue the storey building metaphor, they will receive funding to build third, fourth and tenth floors but since the foundation doesn’t exist everything eventually comes crashing down.

And so the funding will only end up being partially used for the conveniently broad purposes of “regulation”, “development” and “setting of standards” – a seminar here, a workshop there, a training program here and there – which meet the vague mandates of the organisation while allowing them “save” most of their funding. And, well, you know, if we’ve met our mandates yet money is still lying around … well, you know …

It used to boggle me how organisations could do little to nothing and have long term plans to keep doing little to nothing, comfortably so, from big offices in nice and pricey parts of town. It used to boggle me. See, that’s the thing, our poverty – of the pocket and mind – has been efficiently financed by a buoyant oil-driven economy.

Noise

Veteran producer and director Greg Odutayo asked: why are the young [Nigerian] filmmakers afraid of regulation? Then he went on to describe said young generation as “social media noise”. Noise.

The implications of such questions and statements suggest why there is such a chasm between young Nigerian practitioners in film and theatre and the older generation, one that only further complicates already contorted state of affairs.

The non-existence of film and theatre as industries really is basic economics of show business, so it is troubling – I find myself reiterating – that this has to be stated in near-rudimentary terms to some who have been working in the industries for many years. It is scary.  These are the people still primarily in the positions of influence and if they don’t get the basic arithmetic at play here then … well …

In his Facebook post Mr. Odutayo speaks of “a conducive environment for creativity” and I find myself wondering how an environment which doesn’t even exist in the first place can be made conducive. Theatre departments across the country, for example, churn out thousands of graduates every year, how can we make the environment conducive for them when there is no directly related industry for them to progress into? This being just one layer of one example.

And no – hell no! – young Nigerian filmmakers are not afraid. To label a generation which has clawed and scratched to create some form of barely barest minimum cohesion in an environment where most of the predecessors left no legacy that can be built upon as “afraid” and “noise” is a disappointing choice of words.

We are not afraid, good sir, we are fed up! We are fed up with the Federal Gerontocratic Republic of Patriarchial Nigeria. We are not noise, good sir, we are voice! We are voice bellowing, in the immortal words of Paddy Chayefsky’s Howard Beale, that we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Africa Ukoh is a creative director, playwright, screenwriter and arts administrator. His works have been the recipients of the BBC African Performance prize and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House award, as well as being published and performed on various platforms.

He is currently working on a theatrical performance of his award winning play 54 Silhouettes and if you’d love to work with him, he’d love to work with you.

africaukoh@gmail.com

@Pensage

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Zola’s Story: A Master Lesson for the 21st Century Screenwriter

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Money, sex, kidnap, murder, Zola’s story – a neo-noir black comedy told with savvy grit – has it all and then some! You’ve probably read or heard of the story, the tale of a wild (or hell maybe regular) weekend in Florida as told by Aziah King @_zolarmoon.

Zola’s story isn’t just a great read, it’s actually a great study on how to tell a compelling story especially holding the contemporary audience-storyteller climate in consideration. I tried and successfully failed at resisting the urge to go all nerd-writer and do a structural analysis of Zola’s story, henceforth titled Florida Nights, and that’s basically what this post is.

So here I breakdown the nuts and bolts that make up Florida Nights and how they work to make the story compelling. Being such a visually vivid tale, and being a scriptwriter, I naturally assess it from the angle of a screenplay.

My focus isn’t whether the story is true or false but for the purposes of examination I treat it as a work fiction. This post is merely a structural analysis of the tale and is not in any way concerned with or a reflection of the broader (controversial?) issues surrounding the story and their implications.

If you haven’t read Zola’s story click any of these two links and read it before going any further:

Zola’s story on the Complex website.

Zola’s story on Huffington Post.

If you have read it, then let the analytic games begin! (sfx: dramatic theme music.)

THE PLOT

Florida Nights is told in such a fluid manner that I feel bad about reducing it to its key plot components, but well, necessary evils and all that. The story can be broken down to a three-act structure of sorts:

Act I

Exposition – working at a Hooters restaurant in Detroit, Zola meets Jessica, a fellow stripper. The two exchange contacts, promising to hook up on a stripping job. Jessica soon invites Zola on a trip to Florida. Cautious but enticed by the money-making prospects, Zola links up with Jessica, Jarrett (Jessica’s boyfriend) and Z (Jessica’s pimp).

Inciting incident – after failing to make any money on their first night out, Z suggests the girls go trapping (stripper slang for “sex work”) and Jessica agrees.

Act II

Rising action – Zola helps Jessica attract a high number of sex customers. Jarrett discovers Jessica went trapping and blows his top. Z humiliates Jarrett and orders him to drive Jessica to meet other customers. Jessica goes to a hotel to meet a customer and gets kidnapped.

Climax – Z goes to the hotel where Jessica was snatched. He shoots the kidnapper and makes a run for it with Jessica.

Act III

Falling action – Z sends Zola and Jarrett back to Detroit while he, his fiancé and Jessica remain in Florida to keep trapping.

Resolution – back in Detroit, Zola receives a collect call from Jessica who has ended up in a Las Vegas jail with Z. She reveals to Zola that Z is wanted for trafficking and murder. She asks Zola to help bail her out or get Jarrett to help. Zola declines, wanting nothing to do with any of them. Zola later learns Jarrett has a new girlfriend and Jessica is also in a new relationship and expecting a baby.

Now let’s look at features which contribute to Florida Nights being such a compelling story:

The set up

Probably the most popular way of setting up a plot is through a climactic plot. A climactic plot is basically the hook which is meant to keep the audience curious to the very end (e.g Will Neo become “the one”?). However, decades and decades of movies and series have seen audiences become so accustomed to climactic plots they scarcely carry any genuine weight anymore.

Movies have largely failed, or refused, to adapt to the 21st century’s audience’s familiarity with climactic plots. Thus their presentation has become so formulaic they have mostly lost the additive value of excitement and anticipation. Most hooks end up presented with mechanical drabness, as if the storytellers (studios, producers, directors, scriptwriters) are prescribing an analgesic – you know what it will do, so just take it.

Florida Nights does NOT do this. Rather than a clear cut climactic plot (e.g will Zola make it back to Detroit alive?), the story looms with a pervading sense of something. An uneasiness that suggests things are going to get ugly. But the story doesn’t define this something and never presents it, rather it lets it unravel as we meet the characters and begin to understand the interplay of character relationships.

Zola starts the story by letting us know it’s about a falling out, so we begin knowing things will go wrong. Knowing they are strippers we have a suspicion of what could go wrong, but the mastery of the telling is in not hinting at how things will erupt by putting forward the stakes. Instead Zola’s story makes us wait and watch as the pieces fall in place like a game of Tetris then fall apart like a house of cards.

We can identify the hook as “will Zola make it through the weekend”, yet Zola manipulates this hook expertly. “Bitch you got me fucked up! I’m not about to play with you ho. I’m going home!” This is the first line in which Zola suggests the climactic plot’s angle yet she immediately switches it by feeling pity for Jessica when the latter starts crying.

Essentially, Zola goes from wanting to escape the weekend to wanting to see Jessica through it and not minding making some money while hating the weekend. The climactic plot is distorted from its typical linear format and turned into a zigzag. The hook doesn’t latch unto us, it sinks into our skins. Slowly. Patiently. Disbursing sensation across our senses.

Conflict

Key to a great story is conflict; a gripping interplay of forces that drive characters such that the tale remains in a continuous eruption of fluctuating tensions. Conflict is very simply about a clash of desires. That’s all. How this clash is complicated or simplified is up to the writer.

Three prominent problems with conflict in lots of today’s movies are:

  1. The save the world factor – which is basing conflicts on overly grand scales arising from the erroneous assumption that being bigger will make more people relate to the conflict.
  2. Forcing the conflict – which is a) failing to establish a strong link between the characters and their desires, and b) failing to establish unique desires and counter-desires. Both cases lead to the use of generic or cliché clash/interplay of desires.
  • Cushioning – which is softening the degree of crises involved in the conflict (maybe the writer goes soft on his characters, maybe the producer or studio goes chicken) thus depleting the emotional and psychological impact of the story.

Florida Nights deftly avoids each of these pitfalls.

The scale of the conflict is very personal. In fact, the story never leaves the world of these particular sex workers before us. This draws us into it wholly because that’s how highly personal conflict works. We all, after all, identify with wanting something desperately, whether trivial or major.

We are never left in doubt about the value of these desires to each of them. Being sex workers they all have a common desire – getting paid, but the clash comes from what they are willing to open themselves to in pursuit of the Benjamins. Two crucial characters in this regard are Z and Jarrett.

Z, being the dominant physical presence, lords himself over everyone, forcing them into situations they may opt out of where it not for him. This factor of forcefulness is vital to the sense of danger in the conflict.

Jarrett, being the only one who isn’t a sex worker, provides a very important counter balance to Z’s bulldozing. He doesn’t need Z and he interferes with Z’s desire (Jessica). Despite his physical weakness, structurally Jarett is a very strong character. Conflict wise, he’s a crucial opposition, keeping Z’s character from running amock unchecked.

As far as cushioning goes Florida Nights pulls no punches. The tale unveils its world the way it was seen by our point of view character. Whether that is or isn’t too much is left to you.

Subtext

One thing Florida Nights does well is that it never comes off as being on the sleeve. Our point of view character, Zola, guides – and perhaps, suggests – what our feelings should be but never such that it feels like we are being told what to feel or think, or what stance to take.

We live the entire story through Zola’s eyes, and expressing her feelings towards the occurrences rather than about them allows the story’s subtext rise to the precise level it needs to be – just beneath the surface where we can see enough of it to tempt us to dive in further.

The wild adventures of the weekend stretch from the very beginning to the very end, permitting only very little time when the drama of events isn’t revolving. Structurally this is a stroke of genius. It allows the story maintain momentum without forcing the characters into a position where they reflect on the situations which would compromise the subtext.

Suspense

A major reason the suspense works is because the writer understands a crucial factor about suspense – it’s all about information. What is there to be known? Who knows it? When does it become known to other characters? When does it become known to the audience?

These four questions are the pillars of suspense. Great suspense is created from the manipulation of these four points, the more the information moves around those four questions in a non-linear manner, the more complex the suspense.

In Florida Nights, even basic information which other stories may toss aside becomes fodder for suspense. Take Z for example, for a quarter of the story we and our point of view character, Zola, don’t know his name – an uneasy feeling for a “”hulking black” stranger we just took an interstate trip with.

Then just when he is threatening to kill someone we learn his name – Z. A single letter. In that subtly blistering moment when Jessica cries, “don’t kill him Z, just kick his ass”, Z is simultaneously humanised and dehumanised. We learn his name yet more mystery is instantly thrown on it: what does Z stand for? Why just the one letter? Why that letter?

Contrast

Black comedies are tough to execute. The line between humour and darkness is very thin, and in today’s highly cause-oriented society it has become even thinner. Yet Florida Nights straddles it excellently.

The contradiction between Zola’s narration and the grim nature of the events leaves us in a restless middle point – we laugh at the situations, we laugh with Zola, yet we are appalled by the dismal happenings and at our delight towards them. This middle point is the Shangri-La of black comedy.

The contrast executed thus keeps us bouncing between distanced participation (which allows us laugh at the situations) and closer introspection (which makes us discard laughter and take a serious look at things). It’s the mirror-image technique used exquisitely and this becomes key to the story’s moral ambiguity (examined below).

A second way contrast works in the story is an adept manipulation of vulnerability. The general rule of vulnerability is: the most vulnerable person in the scene is the strongest one in it. Florida Nights applies this rule to .

The characters are stripped of their guards and laid bare. This exposure of everyone’s vulnerability creates a dynamic flow of ever-present energy. At any point in time this energy from vulnerability is surging through individual characters or the entire group. This is why it works so well as an ensemble cast.

For the audience this energy becomes a constant feeling of thrill. A feeling which doesn’t slump when the energy of one or two characters slows down, because when one character’s surge takes a breather, the surge of another rises and fills the space. And when the vulnerabilities of all characters collide (the scene where Z has sex with Jess in front of Jarrett, the scene where Z rescues Jessica, the scene where Jarrett attempts suicide) what beautifully smouldering intensity erupts.

Another intriguing aspect of vulnerability is in the relationship between the viewers and Zola the narrator. Zola’s control of the story as its narrator contrasts her lack of control in the events of it. And to be able to tell a story from the position of one who is now safe yet create a gripping sense of danger really is masterful. For the viewer that middle point is again evident – we are safe with Zola as she tells this tale yet at risk of harm as she is in it.

Moral ambiguity

“In the place where there is neither good nor evil there is a field, I will meet you there”. If this quote from Rumi was advice to writers it would read, “…I will write you there”. If you’re not interested in a didactic tale and also want to create a work that will stir group debates and personal reflections, you need to embrace moral ambiguity.

Discard notions of good and bad, forget right and wrong, toss aside black and white and allow your characters embrace the beautiful shades of morally ambiguous grey.

Two lessons from Florida Nights about moral ambiguity.

Firstly, no moral judgment is passed on any character/situation by the characters or the narrator. And if any is suggested it is weighted with a counterbalance so as to keep the scales in the ambiguous zone.  Secondly, the story’s central character relationship – Zola and Jessica – is also where the strongest moral ambiguity lies. This allows the ambiguity to seep into other characters/character relationships connected to the centre.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding moral ambiguity in the story is: does Zola abuse Jess by pimping her?

Voice

Much has been said by others about Zola’s narrative voice so I’ll just highlight two other key angles to it. One reason it works so well is because Zola genuinely sounds like she’s talking to a friend or a close knit group of friends.

The presence of this quality, more importantly than being in the style of the narration, is in the energy of it. That indescribable quality we can’t or don’t want to put into words but which resonates with us.

The second aspect of vitality to the narrative voice is how extremely personal it is. The narration is ZOLA talking to us. ZOLA. Not a stripper. Not an ex-stripper. Not a ghetto girl. Not an African-American woman. If any of these aspects are present in the voice they are present merely as that – aspects, features. But at the heart of Florida Nights is a story told not by a stereotype or an archetype but by Zola aka Aziah King aka @_zolarmoon.

Contemporary Awareness

The last thing I’ll say about Zola’s story is the reason it is a master-lesson for 21st century screenwriters.

Writing for a globally linked world which has access to over a century’s worth of cinematic content, the 21st century screenwriter (and filmmakers as a whole) is in a peculiar position. Additionally, the information age has long burst the bubble of exclusivity to the tricks of the trade.

Hence, just like a corporation announcing its quarterly reports for public scrutiny, today’s audience is or can be as aware of the traits of storytelling as the storytellers themselves. The challenge then for the storytellers is to be able to use the same tools which audiences are conversant with to entertain that very same audience.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge on the creativity of storytellers, the answer is very simple: tell your stories from your unique perspective. That perspective of you as a person. Bring to the tale that indescribable quality which can only be present if you tell it the way you know how to.

This is the summation of what Zola does in her story. The components used are not new, nor does she reinvent any but she uses them in a way no one else but Zola can.

Naturally the long-standing factory process of filmmaking frowns at the individual voice, it goes against the factory formula. Boosted by advances in the marketing industry mainstream cinema will persist with factory processed films for as long as it can. And if history will, as it almost always does, go in a circle, we will at some point revolve into a period where the individual perspective will become the thrust of mainstream stories once more.

And that’s that! And like Zola said, if you stuck with this analysis to the very end, you’re absolutely awesome!

On Art and the Element of Play

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Great works of art carry a distinct mark about themselves – an element of play. Not play in the sense of drama/theatre but play as imaginative freedom, as unrestrained and childlike creativity. Play as a surpassing of ‘reasoned’ and ‘logical’ approaches to creation and tapping directly into the intuitive, the superior knowing of the aesthete needed for the art to truly be, to come alive.

Perhaps more than ever in the history of civilization, artists must protect this element of play in their works. Stubbornly, determinedly, artists must strive to see this element of play makes it into the final form of the art that reaches its audience.

Art in the 21st century exists against a backdrop of centuries upon centuries of predecessors, and having the methods and products from so so many years means producers/studios/financiers today have a large enough database to restrict (reduce?) art to a formulaic process. This, combined with advances in the craft of marketing which has improved the ability to sell (even questionable creations), means that the element of play becomes, to the producer, bothersome.

Why so? Because the element of play brings a strongly personal and often experimental voice to artistic creations it very often falls outside the scope of ‘creativity’ within the formula which producers and financiers are comfortable with. Also, misconceptions about what constitutes serious art makes some erroneously reject the element of play as juvenility.

For these two reasons (and possibly more?) artists who understand the true power of the element of play in their works must strive that bit extra to guard it. Sometimes this may mean playing the politics of the business behind the show, other times this may require educating the powers that be on the necessity of the element of play to the work.

Sometimes this element of play is enforced by artists who have attained top level of respect in their fields, enough to demand creative control. A favourite example is John Travolta’s reported insistence that the only way he would play the part of Charlie Wax in From Paris with Love is if he got to keep a goatee. The contribution of that element of play to the performance is obvious, Travolta had a blast! (Despite the movie being meeeh.)

Other times this element of play is enforced by unknown artists who merely posses the requisite testicular fortitude or care so much for it they are willing to sacrifice losing the job/contract/deal if that playfulness isn’t going to be part of the work.

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Producers, administrators, marketers, and people from the business side of creative industries will always hold little value for the inclusion of this element of play in artistic works. Often it is those with a background in the artistic side (former artists, appreciation for art developed in childhood, genuine desire for artistic/cultural development) who understand and/or are willing to take chances on the element of play in works of art.

What makes these people unique, and in my opinion, superior, is that they understand the value of creative ingenuity, of the element of play, to the business prosperity of the art. They understand that a work of art needs that incomparable spark, that inexplicable thing which can then be used to the benefit of the work’s financial viability.

Among artists and audiences we find, worrisomely so, a loss of value – or worse, of understanding – for the relevance of the element of play. Two reasons stand out for this: one is caving to the ever growing pressure from the business side to submit to the formula, the factory process of creativity. A second reason is the massive access to massive amounts of information in a global society whose cultural and artistic development isn’t being supported as much as its technological development.

Terms of the suspension-of-disbelief contract seem to have been forgotten, or breached. But not destroyed. Such is the innate beauty of art that at worst valuable aspects can only be forgotten for a very long period of time, but not destroyed. Art is energy, it cannot be destroyed.

However, now is the time to reignite ourselves with the power of play in art. The fire still burns in many. Among the best of humanity’s works of art we find this common thread – the element of play, that freedom and energy and endless possibilities of a child at play. Picasso said it best, “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain a child when one grows up.”

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Whether the creation is comic, dramatic, horrorful, sorrowful, thrilling ecstatic … it is always there. That element of play. It’s Pacino on a saying hello to his “liru fren”. It’s Gaiman playing with gods in America. It’s Fugard murdering Sizwe Bansi. It’s Jim Carey yelling “sssmokin’! ” It’s Soyinka revelling in the duplicity of Baroka. It’s the swagger in Cumberbatch as he adorns Sherlock Holmes’ hat. It’s Coelho alchemising. It’s Sartre in a hell-room with three strangers. It’s Denzel Washington in the final scene of Training Day. It’s Ocampo finding faces in leaves and clouds, finding the beauty of a woman’s curvature in hills and flowers. It’s Rod Serling welcoming you to … It’s Achebe tearing the centre apart. It’s Donne daring death’s pride. It’s Shakespeatre at the steps of the capitol with Mark Anthony. It’s Nas telling you how It Was Written. It’s Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. It is Stan Lee swinging around New York on spider webs. It’s Kendrick Lamar going “Tu-tu-tu-tu!“. It is Okigbo summoning Idoto.

That element of play is an electrifying spark, an erupting force, an indescribable energy that ignites your art. Find it! Create it! Protect it!

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.

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?

Dear Nollywood … A Love Letter

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Dear Nollywood,

How are you? It’s been a while since we hooked up on here, hasn’t it? Forgive me, I’ve been occupied with a bunch of personal stuff. While I was away I did keep up with all the exciting stuff going on in your life, though! You aren’t ever a boring girl, are you? I remember you celebrated October 1st in style, and everyone loved that (in fact I hear the party is still going on). And I must confess, I got a bit jealous when I heard you asking some other guy what happens When Love Happens? Anyway …

Nollywood, there’s something I really want to talk to you about. It’s a sensitive topic and I hope it doesn’t get you mad, yet strangely I hope it does get you mad. Not mad like never-want-to-talk-to-him-again mad, or mad like hire-Lasgidi-area-boys-to-kick-his-ass mad; certainly not mad like cancel-our-traditional-wedding-and-return-his-bride-price mad. But mad like I-have-to-do-something-about-this mad; mad like I-have-to-be-responsible-for-myself mad, you know?

Here’s the thing babe, these days, it’s getting harder to recognize you for who you are. Your identity is fading away, Nollywood. Perhaps more specifically, the uniqueness of your identity is fading away, vanishing, and frankly that worries me. You’re in an identity crisis, babe, and we have to address that.

Now, I’m going to say something and I don’t think it’s something you’ll like to hear, so I’ll just come out and say it: Nollywood, this identity crisis all began when you started hanging out with that American girl, Hollywood. Yes, yes! I know, I know! She’s very pretty, has a great rack and an ass that won’t quit. And she’s also friend’s with the Kardashians … I know. I’m not saying it’s bad to be friends with her, no. I’m also not saying it’s bad that she influences you, no. What I am saying is, it’s messed up that you’re letting her influence on you distract you from discovering and exploring who you are.

See, Hollywood is doing her thing, being herself, and that’s inspiring. But rather than that inspiring you to do your own thing and be your own self, you’re abandoning your identity and trying to be Hollywood. Nollywood, that’s messed up. You’re not Hollywood and Hollywood isn’t you. Would Hollywood be a cool chick if she was trying to be like that Indian babe that lives across the street, Bollywood? Would Bollywood be so hot if she started acting all European? And what if Euro chicks started pretending to be like those sexy girls from the Orient and the sexy girls from the Orient started behaving like South American mamacitas? See where I’m going?

I’ve been doing some thinking, Nollywood, and I think I get it. I mean, why you’re so hung up on Hollywood, I get it. You spent your life watching Hollywood! Think about it! From childhood to your teenage years you watched out the window as Hollywood teased her cleavage and swung her hips and all the guys just fell under her spell. And now that you’re beginning to grow into a beautiful lady yourself, you think that in order to be sexy and beautiful you have to be like Hollywood.

But it’s a big world out there, Nollywood. A big big world and there are so many ways to be beautiful. What makes you sexy, and what will make all those guys swoon because of you, are the things that are unique about you. (I mean, why should they toast a Hollywood-wannabe, when they can actually toast Hollywood?) I’d really really like to go out on a date with you to the cinema (our favourite spot, right?), get some drinks and popcorn, and watch a movie that doesn’t feel like a pitiful knock-off of J’Lo’s romantic comedies from the early 00s, or a poor photocopy of thrillers from the late 90s, or action movies that look like The Matrix shot on a deficit.

One very cool influence Hollywood has had on you is providing some pretty awesome things with which you can accessorize your persona. I can’t tell you how so damn good you look anytime you step out in that form fitting DSLR dress that accentuates your curves, and those Red Dragon heels that push up your booty, and that flashy F55 handbag, and… whoo! So so so much better than that VHS outfit you used to wear before. But these things are meant to aid you find yourself Nollywood, not lose yourself.

Take the world by the scruff of its neck! Don’t be afraid to explore what it means to be Nollywood. Experiment! Get adventurous! A great discovery of who you are awaits you, but you have to take the leap. The lovers you are trying to attract, whether it is a true love or a sugar daddy, will be way more attracted to a “you” that is like no one else, not a “you” that is a cheap imitation of someone else.

Learn from the errors of your elder sister, Federal Government. For many years have people not been encouraging her to get involved in other ventures apart from that her crude oil business? Did she listen? No! Now the price of oil barrels is dropping like a hot piece of ass in a Snoop Dog video and she’s getting all confused and panicky. Don’t wait until you are at the fringes of a crisis, Nollywood, please don’t.

The myriad of identities are what make life on this third rock such a beautiful and captivating experience. Be part of that adventure Nollywood, a full part, not just an imitation of it.

With relentless love,

Pensage.

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