A house di­vided and stand­ing

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - By Oris Aig­bokhaevbolo in La­gos

Nige­rian di­rec­tors are ditch­ing their trade­mark genre in favour of a grit­tier film­mak­ing style

Au­ni­formed man ex­its a van parked on the hard shoul­der of the Magodo ex­press­way in La­gos. He is the ac­tor Wale Ojo, a face familiar to many Nol­ly­wood fans. He walks a few me­tres to­wards a group of men en­gaged in a scuf­fle as cars speed past obliv­i­ous. It is an­other day in main­land La­gos and a film crew at­tracts no more at­ten­tion from the traf­fic than the dust left in its wake. A boom mi­cro­phone hov­ers above them and a stout man in a jer­sey de­mands an­other take. The fight is reen­acted with three men ar­gu­ing nois­ily as Ojo re­turns, the scene end­ing with him scam­per­ing past his van in elab­o­rate alarm. A crew mem­ber laughs: “Wale is hav­ing too much fun!” Now out of frame, the ac­tor cack­les to him­self. His laugh­ter doesn’t spread to the stout man, direc­tor Akin Kongi, who tells the crew to pack up as there is a scene to be shot at a branch of the Fed­eral Road Safety Com­mis­sion (FRSC) of­fice, a few kilo­me­tres away. Since the shift to show­ing films at cine­plexes about a decade ago, Nige­rian cinema has ben­e­fited from an in­flux of tal­ent in act­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­tion. Mostly for­eign-trained, th­ese new en­trants, aware of the rep­u­ta­tion of Nol­ly­wood away from home, push against it as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Nige­rian cinema. “Nol­ly­wood is a genre and it has a huge fol­low­ing,” says Kongi, who trained at the New York Film Academy, a popular choice for new Nige­rian film­mak­ers. “But I went to film school to be a lit­tle more cre­ative in the way I make film. I am not Nol­ly­wood. I am an in­de­pen­dent film­maker.” In­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing is a bit of a mis­nomer in Nol­ly­wood. Es­tab­lished com­mer­cially in 1992 when busi­ness­man Ken­neth Nnebue funded

For more than 20 years Nige­rian film has been limited to the ‘Nol­ly­wood’ brand, but now a grow­ing num­ber of film­mak­ers are shak­ing off the tag

Living in Bondage, at a time when the only al­ter­na­tives were im­ported In­dian and Chi­nese pic­tures, Nol­ly­wood never evolved a stu­dio sys­tem. Rather, it be­came a col­lec­tion of loosely linked busi­nesses where in­di­vid­ual mar­keters pro­vided funds and were mostly re­spon­si­ble for as­sem­bling a crew – in­clu­sive of di­rec­tors, screen­writ­ers and ac­tors. Cine­mas hav­ing col­lapsed and the econ­omy in poor shape, their prod­uct went to VCRS around the coun­try and much later video CD play­ers. In 2004 the first mod­ern cinema was erected in Vic­to­ria Is­land. See­ing the coun­try’s ex­pand­ing mid­dle-class flock to watch Hol­ly­wood block­busters, lo­cal film­mak­ers wanted a piece of the ac­tion. But ini­tial for­ays were doomed. Early Nol­ly­wood pic­tures were shot on VHS cam­eras and edited in tele­vi­sion stu­dios. Pro­jected on the big screen, they were drained of colour and in some cases short of the screen’s mar­gins. Nige­rian cinema-go­ers, al­ready ac­cus­tomed to Amer­i­can fare, shunned those early ef­forts. Box of­fice su­per­vi­sor Jide Oyalowo says that when Nol­ly­wood first hit the cine­mas peo­ple were not in­ter­ested. “But now a good Nol­ly­wood film will trash Hol­ly­wood,” he adds.

Yet the regular films at the cine­mas are Amer­i­can fea­tures. Nol­ly­wood re­ceives an av­er­age of four films monthly, placed by lo­cal dis­trib­u­tors keen to avoid com­pe­ti­tion with other lo­cal fea­ture films. The suc­cess of one Nol­ly­wood film is an­other’s demise. When the hit com­edy 30 Days in At­lanta played for about six months last year – a run trun­cated only by the on­slaught of piracy – it was on its way to be­com­ing the high­est-gross­ing Nige­rian film ever. Other films suf­fered. The au­di­ence may want Nol­ly­wood but, as Oyalowo puts it, “It can’t be the only thing they come to see.” Hol­ly­wood films typ­i­cally re­ceive bet­ter sched­ul­ing and up­wards of 10 new re­leases each month. There have been in­stances where whole pro­grammes are changed in Nige­rian cine­mas to ac­com­mo­date the lat­est Hol­ly­wood block­buster. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is not ideal for lo­cal film­mak­ers, but is a vast im­prove­ment on Nol­ly­wood’s be­gin­nings. The wa­ter­shed mo­ment came in 2011 when Tango with Me, di­rected by Mah­mood Ali-ba­lo­gun – the first film shot wholly in Nige­ria that found a sig­nif­i­cant au­di­ence – was re­leased. A flurry of films be­gan to show in the cine­mas with lav­ish and glam­orous Hol­ly­wood-style pre­mieres. With Nol­ly­wood’s tra­di­tional mar­keters un­able to cope with the new sys­tem and aware that a large sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion are un­able to af­ford tick­ets sell­ing for N1,000-1,500 ($5-7), the in­dus­try split along class lines.


Still, di­vi­sion isn’t nec­es­sar­ily progress. While pro­duc­tion costs may have in­creased, many re­main un­con­vinced by the change. “The new Nige­rian cinema is al­ready dead,” says critic and film­maker Didi Cheeka. “A lot of our new film­mak­ers be­lieve show­ing films at the cinema makes them dif­fer­ent. But it is larger than this.” Cheeka ar­gues that film prac­ti­tion­ers still have a way to go to im­prove the stan­dard of act­ing, writ­ing and di­rec­tion. Kongi re­sumes shoot­ing some 30 min­utes later at the FRSC of­fice.

Im­me­di­ately, the in­dus­try’s lack of in­fra­struc­ture be­comes ap­par­ent as sounds from pass­ing ve­hi­cles over­whelm the voices of the ac­tors, and of­fi­cers from the com­mis­sion keep get­ting in the frame. Kongi goes in to speak with the of­fice, and an­other take is ar­ranged with the boom mic low­ered. “Re­mem­ber,” Kongi calls out to his ac­tors, “Project!”


Asked what his film, Ogere, is about, Kongi de­scribes it as an adventure com­edy about two friends on a road trip to Ibadan for a job. “This isn’t Nol­ly­wood,” he in­sists. “I am try­ing to form an­other genre of film [mix­ing] sus­pense, drama, and then we try to pick your brain a lit­tle.” The direc­tor laughs and pauses. New Nol­ly­wood, Off-nol­ly­wood, and New Nige­rian Cinema are some of the names be­ing bandied about for the emerg­ing new or­der. Kongi’s “In­de­pen­dent Cinema” is yet to catch on. Yet, be­yond a sep­a­ratist im­pulse driven by a cre­ator’s ego, a le­git­i­mate con­cern about the name Nol­ly­wood has al­ways ex­isted be­cause of its ori­gins. “It is a term coined by a white man deroga­to­rily to de­scribe low-bud­get home videos,” says Kongi, re­fer­ring to the New York Times re­porter who used the word in an ar­ti­cle back in 2002. His view is echoed by Cheeka. “The name Nol­ly­wood puts us in Nige­ria,” he says, then nar­rates an episode where he sub­mit­ted a script to a for­eign cul­tural at­taché. “With­out look­ing at the script the man told me: ‘I don’t want part 1 and part 2’” –a ref­er­ence to Nol­ly­wood’s pen­chant for se­quels. The project never took off. “It looks like a friv­o­lous de­bate over names,” con­tin­ues Cheeka. “But it is a search for an au­di­ence. What does the au­di­ence want? This is what it is about. Why do we fight over names? The im­por­tant thing is, are you go­ing to come and see my film?” It is a fair ques­tion. Still, New Nol­ly­wood wants more. The di­rec­tors and ac­tors crave ac­claim for artistry. “We want to show at fes­ti­vals,” says Wale Ojo. In pur­suance of this aim, newer di­rec­tors are ex­pand­ing Nol­ly­wood’s tra­di­tional nar­ra­tives. Three re­cent lauded re­leases, Ken­neth Gyang’s Con­fu­sion Na Wa, Eric Aghimien’s A Mile from Home and Daniel Ori­ahi’s Mis­fit, deal with ni­hilism, youth un­rest and psy­cho­log­i­cal an­guish – a far cry from the do­mes­tic melo­drama and gar­ish mys­ti­cism of old. But while of­fer- ings from less popular film in­dus­tries on the con­ti­nent rou­tinely get of­fi­cial se­lec­tion spots at the big Euro­pean and Amer­i­can fes­ti­vals (Kenya’s Sto­ries of Our Lives won an au­di­ence award at the 2015 Ber­li­nale, Rwanda’s Things of the Aim­less Wan­derer opened at Sun­dance and later played at the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val Rot­ter­dam), Nol­ly­wood – in its old or its new in­car­na­tion – doesn’t. It is dou­bly trou­bling for newer film­mak­ers be­cause more artis­tic fea­tures do not have a bud­get for pub­lic­ity and so don’t fare well at the box of­fice. The box of­fice re­turns on the three films men­tioned above have been neg­li­gi­ble. A Mile from Home and Mis­fit never played in La­gos be­fore their DVD re­leases. Con­fu­sion Na Wa had a brief, less-thanstel­lar run at the box of­fice. Spend­ing an av­er­age of a mostly self-gen­er­ated $25,000 for shoot­ing, the lead­ers of the new epoch are stranded at home where they ex­ist in a limbo be­tween com­mer­cial in­dif­fer­ence and the snob­bery of fes­ti­vals. Be­fore this year’s elec­tion, many high-pro­file Nol­ly­wood di­rec­tors and ac­tors were very vis­i­bly be­hind out­go­ing Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan, who they said was a strong sup­porter

Re­cent re­leases are a far cry from the do­mes­tic melo­drama and gar­ish mys­ti­cism of old

of the in­dus­try. But the end of Jonathan does not spell the end of Nol­ly­wood, says Cheeka, who thinks that given the in­dus­try’s po­ten­tial, a lot more can be done. “A few of the pro­grammes by the past gov­ern­ment weren’t de­liv­ered prop­erly,” he says. “The new gov­ern­ment should look into why this hap­pened. It is only fair that an in­dus­try that has con­trib­uted enor­mously to the GDP should be en­cour­aged to move for­ward so that some of us can still be film­mak­ers.” Kunle Afo­layan, per­haps the most suc­cess­ful of the new film­mak­ers, has lamented his in­abil­ity to make back the $2m spent on his lat­est fea­ture, Oc­to­ber 1. How­ever, for all of its short­com­ings, Nol­ly­wood knew how to make a rapid turnover with a frac­tion of the bud­gets used for Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood films. “The so-called old Nol­ly­wood made a name and made money,” says Aghimien. “They may not have made great films but I re­spect them. It is time for us new di­rec­tors to raise the stan­dard.”

Di­rec­tors and ac­tors are ex­pand­ing Nol­ly­wood’s tra­di­tional nar­ra­tives, crav­ing ac­claim for artistry

left: Na Wa Ken­neth Gyang’s Con­fu­sion had an all-too-brief run at the box of­fice right: Shoot­ing for Akin Kongi’s Ogere bot­tom: The lat­est fea­ture film by Kunle Afo­layan

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