The Way Forward For Nollywood By Télesphore Mba Bizo

in 23rd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Télesphore Mba Bizo

One of the heated debates at the Fribourg Festival was on Nollywood. No Hollywood in Nigeria or Nigeria’s Hollywood. The industry has made headlines across the African continent. For now, the time for fascination is over and the business is about to decline or collapse, should directors keep offering people the same stories. But it is an unprecedented phenomenon as even Francophones rush to watch Nigerian home movies.

The Nigerian Home video sector has been making waves for close to two decades now. The industry has made a name the world over thanks to its achievements in various domains. Poverty alleviation is one of its landmarks as over 500 families are fed through the profits it makes out of direct employment in a context of widespread unemployment. Economists, business people and the government of Abuja even have it that this new cinema is the promising alternative to petroleum; it is said to be near exhaustion. The African giant is known to be the world’s largest feature producers as Nigeria records a minimum of 2,000 releases per year. India, the country of Bollywood, and the United States of America, the country of Hollywood, are outnumbered by far. The particularity of Nollywood lies in the fact that it is a totally independent film industry. The government does not invest a single naira or penny in it. International donors prefer to sponsor other activities. This self-funding factor empowers Nollywood. It is the kingdom of freedom of expression. Films can fearlessly attack the Federal State. Censorship is less visible. The situation seems incredible in a country that has witnessed several coups and bloody, tribal or interreligious wars.

Central and West Africa are predominantly French-speaking sub regions. As such, films in the English language hardly make an impact, regardless of their quality. This is the reason why films in English are not screened in theatres in the designated sub regions. In a word, films in English have no audience here among people from a French background. However, Nollywood represents the sole genre of film in English that has been breaking new ground in the whole of West and Central Africa.

Nigerian home video movies have become products of mass consumption in an area that has always neglected any production made in the said language. Francophones in Niger, Benin, Gabon, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo… watch thousands and thousands of Nigerian home movies each day. They do not need any English subtitling or dubbing as messages readily get across thanks to the simplicity of the mise-en-scène, lighting, framing, recognizable settings and the themes that are common in these films. Nollywood the viewers’ aspirations.

Witchcraft, Easy Money And Death

From a theoretical perspective, classical African cinema shows the influence of neorealism. Films are made to teach lessons on thought-provoking themes such as colonialism, neo-colonialism, privatization… Ideology reigns supreme. On the other hand, Nigerian video films make widespread use of realism and surrealism to narrate day-to-day life. The favorite topics are witchcraft, easy money and death. They allow people to have fun. Here entertainment is the key word. This is enough reason to see Francophones glued to Africa Magic, AIT or Nollywood. These international channels broadcast Nigerian home movies round the clock. Others go to video rentals to buy or exchange copies at dirt cheap prices: three CDs for one US dollar. Some local Television stations like STV or Ariane TV also broadcast them. I conducted a survey on film consumption in Cameroon in 2007. According to my findings, Hollywood and Nollywood run neck and neck, that is 37 and 34 % respectively. Chinese and Indian films which were people’s favorite choice in the past are on the verge of extinction in theatres nowadays.

However, the success story is surrounded by heavy controversy. The presence of Nigerian films in FESPACO 2009 was next to nothing; the country hardly offered up five productions, be they features, short films, fiction or documentaries. Yet, the Ouagadougou festival is the continent’s greatest film jamboree. It seemed that Ezra, by Nigerian- born Newton I. Aduaka, the FESPACO 2007 Gold Stallion winner, would not have any successors among Nigerian films.

Something must be done. So FIFF 2009 has managed to kick-start the beginning of that “something” by launching the reflection on the way forward for Nollywood to challenge the obstacles which are keeping the industry in a stagnant situation. The uphill task is to fight the on-going piracy that has become so rampant. A legal framework which is capable of sanctioning defaulters is greatly desired. It should be stressed that television stations have to get films broadcast only six months after they are released as is the case elsewhere in the world. The respect of such a deadline is crucial for the survival of Nollywood.

Online Piracy

There is another form of threat which is growing fast. It is online piracy. The Nigerian Diaspora goes on downloading films owing to Internet facilities and sells them cheaply among Black communities. First, it should be reminded that Nigerians represent Africa’s largest Diaspora. One African out of seven is Nigerian. Ibo people are called the Jews of Africa as they excel in business.

The “something to be done” condemns cinematographic or professional associations and the powers that be to work hand in glove so as to seize the equipment that produces pirated film copies. It shall also be their shared duty to denounce and punish those who perpetrate what is to be named a crime to creativity, accordingly. An option could be the elaboration of a comprehensive list of these enemies of the arts and get it disclosed “to whom it may concern”. A more practical attitude to combat piracy may consist of releasing a greater number of copies the same day at all money-making outlets nation-wide. The originality of such an approach is that it would take the pirates aback. For the initiative to succeed, trade-unions that bring filmmakers together should reinforce its structure. Associations must be able to organize, gain, and exercise power in order to admit and dismiss members on objective grounds.

Film people could be ready to form a board which shall be assigned to praise hard-working colleagues and make intelligent use of the metaphorical cane against those who tarnish the good name of the profession. Awards, recognition, suspensions and dismissals should go together according to the gravity of the crimes committed. Failure to do so would result in Nigeria in particular and Africa at large ending up by having directors exclusively having settled overseas.

Away-based Filmmakers

No connoisseur of the continent’s cinematographic landscape shall ever deny the contribution of away-based filmmakers to the progress of the industry in terms of aesthetics and philosophy in Africa. However, here are facts that speak louder than words. The FESPACO 2009 Gold Stallion winner, Haile Gerima, lives in the United States of America. So does the FESPACO 2007 runner-up. Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama, former Silver Stallion, is no longer living in Cameroon. The same story holds true for Newton Aduaka. He left the mother continent almost four decades ago. To say the least, a different voice needs to be echoed in the continental scene. Boubakar Diallo is an exception to this brain drain. He is said to be performing miracles in West Africa. This Burkina Faso director has successfully set the record of releasing eight features in four years, all low-budget productions. Again, his enthusiasm gets on his counterparts’ nerves. His fellow African directors are frustrated that he is trying to set an example out of the poor strategy which consists of getting the budget narrower and narrower in a bid to please producers. In a way, it’s high time Africa multiplied the Boubakar Diallos in order for locals to also have a say.

Technical Guidance, Cooperation

The next challenge concerns equipment. The continent could forget about armament to concentrate on the cultural weaponry. Tax exoneration on cinematographic accessories could be accepted as a good start. Having people trained on how to use the electronic material shall be a major step. The strategy of picking a selected few and sending them for crash courses overseas has failed to bear fruit. The reverse is catastrophic as well; that is to assign a well paid and well fed engineer from the Western world to land in Africa with the mission to give a three-year degree program in a couple of days. The common agreement arrived at in Fribourg is that producers could invite high-profile technicians on sets. They do not come to teach lessons. What is expected from them is the technical guidance of the production crew. The general feeling is that only specially gifted individuals can catch up on a three-year training in two weeks. However, talented people form the minority group within most communities. As such, the most advisable attitude is to welcome the know-how of a foreign expert and allow directors-to-be to learn from the trial-and-error process. On the one hand, this proposal prevents Africans from wasting their time in unnecessary small courses. On the other hand, donors avoid spending their funds for almost nothing as these initiatives are commonly said to be nipped in the bud. Each party wins; no section complains.

Cooperation is what should be treated as a matter of emergency. It is a two-fold strategy. As concerns South-South bilateral and multilateral relationships, for sure, Nigeria has a lot to learn from countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal and even Cameroon. This is not from the point of view of quantity, but it is crucial as regards the production of quality films. As to North-South cooperation, it is high time Nollywood was opened up to the know-how of Western countries. Nigeria can undoubtedly benefit from both the superior technology and expertise of the Netherlands, Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, just to name a few. Cinematographic autarchy, as experienced within Nigerian home movies, is out-dated and detrimental. Indeed, the era of coproduction has come. They shall help the Sub Saharan leading economy to gradually abandon the present popularist filmmaking approach and, therefore, adopt auteurism. Such a new policy shall widen the exposure or visibility of Nollywood to the world. By so doing, the world’s largest home filmmaking industry shall be presented with several awards at significant festivals.

It was agreed in Fribourg that Nollywood should remain what it is: a self-funded industry. It may lose its present identity or have it diluted if the state and donors start pouring money in anyhow. Both shall be eager to influence its content and, therefore, destroy its spirit. However, the form of assistance which is acceptable should be related to acquiring equipment and new techniques from others in the domain of film. For European cinema could be consulting Nollywood for guidance in the years to come. Cinema in the old continent have lost contact with the public. Nigeria shall eventually provide clues so as to have the on-going crisis under control. In this regard, Dorothee Wenner from Germany, one of the panelists in Fribourg, was asked at a similar conference on Nollywood in Canada: “Please, teach us how to reach our audience because we have lost contact with it”.