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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
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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.

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?

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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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