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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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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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