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20140910_192104

L-R: Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Department of State; Jeffrey Hawkins, U.S. Consul General in Lagos; Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

It has been five years since the inception of this blog and everything has come full circle. This evening, I went to the U.S. Department of State to attend a screening of Dawn in the Creeks: A Niger Delta Legacy, a reality series directed by Jeta Amata. It was beyond serendipitous to witness this collaboration between my current employer and my past research passion.

Nigeria is important for its promise.” U.S. Consul General Jeffrey Hawkins cited Nigeria’s economic and population supremacy in Africa when he talked about the right time to address the “negative narrative that violence pays.” Dawn in the Creeks follows 21 Niger Delta youths – ranging from okada drivers to ex-militants – selected by Amata to go through filmmaking and leadership training to make movies on non-violent resolution. Per the State Department, “Their films tell true stories of non-violent transformation and challenge the narrative that violence is a predominant legacy for the Niger Delta.” This project was the result of a yearlong collaboration among the Bureau of African Affairs, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Amata, and the Niger Delta Legacy Board of Advisors.

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With Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

Amata was emphatic on the power of the film industry to change attitudes and affect lives: “Our problem in Nigeria is that we have no way of expressing ourselves, which builds up a lot of anger. I wanted to give [the youths] a way to tell their own stories and how best to send a message than Nollywood?”

Hawkins mentioned an unprecedented poll of 3,000 households in the Delta is being rolled out to monitor and evaluate the impact of the program in changing communities’ perspectives. However, the biggest measure of sustainability would be if the project could continue without the monetary support of the U.S. government – which brings the discussion back to the twin Nollywood conundrums of funding and distribution. Amata, who has already signed on for the second season, believes that the key to monetization lies in building the series’ brand, which is being strengthened daily by millions of Nigerians viewers across eight national TV channels.  On a personal note, I am impressed by the Department’s creative deployment of “soft diplomacy,” but it is unclear how the project can continue without USG funds.  What do you think – how can Dawn in the Creeks become self-sustainable?

Over the weekend, Tunde Kelani and his dedicated crew completed their 170th slate. And with many more characters and scenarios to shoot, the production of Dazzling Mirage is not even yet on the home stretch. This gives you an idea of how many minute fragments it takes to compose a feature-length film. As each “slate” identifies a new camera position, a new angle from which to gaze on the action of the scene, you can also get a sense of how much time is involved in capturing these small fragments. In the past, Nollywood producers could not afford to take the time on set necessary to shoot a scene in such detail, which gave early Nollywood films their characteristically slow pace: long takes with lots of dialogue. Kelani, on the other hand, who was trained as a cinematographer, has always had a particular appreciation for storytelling through image making.

Kelani adjusts the settings on the monitor, checks composition and lighting. © Connor Ryan

Kelani adjusts the settings on the monitor, checks composition and lighting. © Connor Ryan

A cast with notoriety: Lala Akindoju, Taiwo Ajai Lycett, Bimbo Manuel. (And Bisola Ojo - continuity.) © Connor Ryan

A cast with notoriety: Lala Akindoju, Taiwo Ajai Lycett, Bimbo Manuel. (And Bisola Ojo – continuity.) © Connor Ryan

Dazzling Mirage - Sarafa Abagun

Cinematographer Sarafa Abagun changes the lens before second take. (Seun, Sarafa, Jelili, Kelani.) © Connor Ryan

Sarafa Abagun, pictured above, got his start as an assistant cameraman at Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in 1979, almost three years after Kelani had become a cameraman for the nation’s only television station at the time. In 1995, Sarafa left NTA to freelance on commercial advertisements and to work with Kelani’s Mainframe Studios shooting footage for BBC and Reuters. I asked how shooting for a film like Dazzling Mirage differs from shooting an advertisement. As it turns out, there is no difference. In terms of capturing a particular style of image and using a certain set of standard shots, the film “language” is the same, as Sarafa put it.

Tunde Kelani is well underway with his newest movie titled Dazzling Mirage, adapted from the novel of the same title by Yinka Egbokhare. The production has an ambitious schedule with scenes being shot all over the city of Lagos. Location, location, location, as they say. The crew and leading lady, Kemi Lala Akindoju, have all been up to the task though. Patience and professionalism are the order of the day.

TK snaps a portrait of lead actress Kemi Lala Akindoju.

TK snaps a portrait of lead actress Kemi Lala Akindoju. (Kemi Lala Akindoju and Tunde Kelani.) © Connor Ryan

Dramatic lighting takes time.

Dramatic lighting takes time. (Kemi Lala Akindoju, Seun Akindele, and Tunde Kelani.) © Connor Ryan

Reposition camera, double check lighting and action.

Reposition camera, double check lighting and action. (Tunde Kelani, Bisola Ojo, Kemi Lala Akindoju.) © Connor Ryan

Actor Seun Akindele in the kitchen, the weight of the world on his character's shoulders.

Actor Seun Akindele in the kitchen, the weight of the world on his character’s shoulders. © Connor Ryan

Alongside Kemi Lala Akindoju and Seun Akindele, pictured above, the cast of Dazzling Mirage includes Yomi Fash Lanso, Bimbo Manuel, Kunle Afolayan, Taiwo Ajai Lycett, Ayo Badmus, and Tosin Bucknor. I will be following the cast and crew as they continue shooting through September. You can also see updates at the Dazzling Mirage website.

The Federal Government attracted a lot of attention when it announced the creation of a $200 million “intervention” fund for creative industries two years ago. The excitement gave way to discontent when artists, musicians and filmmakers discovered the fund would go to NEXIM Bank to back loans – not grants – for the industry. Furthermore, in  something of a catch 22 scenario, the fund sought to encourage formalization in the creative industries by setting the criteria for securing loans so high that the only producers to benefit were those who already operate along ideal “formal” guidelines. See Bic Leu’s post on the matter from 2011.

At the beginning of 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan made good on a campaign promise to Nollywood and announced his plan for a N3 billion fund earmarked for the film industry. This money will be disbursed as grants to particular sectors of the industry with the aim of reshaping and boosting film production and distribution. The introduction of such a massive sum of money in the form of grants has stirred producers across Nollywood, though most still feel left in the dark with regards to how exactly the special fund will be administered.

Yesterday, as Shaibu Husseini reports in The Guardian newspaper, the Minister of Finance Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Minister of Tourism Edem Duke signaled the release of N300 million from the president’s fund, now called Project Act Nollywood. The funds will target capacity building efforts, the ministers say. Provisions have been made for every trade involved in bringing a film to life from producing, directing, and acting, to sound engineering, lighting, and scriptwriting.

The industry should welcome whatever investment the Federal Government is willing to make, as this is the certainly the largest amount the FG has released to the industry without first channelling them through the NFC, NFVCB or other state-run institutions. I am skeptical of the effectiveness of capacity building as a means of reshaping the industry. To the contrary, it seems possible to retrench some of the uneven professional capacity that we find in Nollywood. Sound engineers, lighting gaffers, production designers and scriptwriters should be the focus of training efforts, yet will training programs produce better screenplays if scriptwriters continue to be the least respected and worst paid artists in the industry? Where in Nigeria will a sound engineer go to improve his professional skills?

The released funds, ” will give grants to existing local private institutes that offer training courses, programmes and technical certification in the movie industry.” But most training centers today focus on acting, producing, and cinematography, and are intended to recruit and introduce new professionals into the industry. Will a producer with thirty films to his or her name go back to hone their skills at one of these schools, and if so, will they learn new techniques unlike those they acquired by experience that will translate to what we see on the screen? Training centers are, after all, often run by veteran actors and producers. What would be the effect of revamping the programs offered at the NFI, I wonder, to shift the focus of its curriculum away from an older cinematic style and toward the unique style of production practiced in Nollywood?

We should all be asking, as the FG continues to reveal details about how it is administering the Project Act Nollywood funds, how does this solve matters of distribution and financing in a way that makes the industry better able to stand on its own after the fund is exhausted.

We are all anxiously awaiting the release of Half of a Yellow Sun, the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie‘s acclaimed novel. Last week, Al Jazeera broadcasted a clip from the film and sat down with the executive producer, Yewande Sadiku, and the director, Biyi Bandele, as well as Nollywood Workshop’s own Franco Sacchi, the documentarian who brought us This is Nollywood. You can also find this at Al Jazeera’s website HERE.

 

Bishop shoots comic chase scene. © Connor Ryan

Bishop shoots comic chase scene. © Connor Ryan

Over the weekend I was able to catch up with the comedian actor Ime “Bishop” Umoh on the set of his upcoming film “The Champion.” The new film is the project of Morris Sesay (executive producer, producer, and story concept), the head of Believe Media production company which also produced “Cat and Mouse” and “Believe.” The story of “The Champion” follows a comic villager, Ifiak (Ime Umoh), who travels to Lagos after his womanizing lands him in hot water. Old habits are hard to break and Ifiak continues to create conflict and comedy in his new environment. The story resembles Ime Umoh’s most recent hit, “Okon Lagos,” a film that became one Royal Arts Academy‘s highest grossing films, according to the producer/screenwriter, Uduak Isong Oguamanam. I asked Ime Umoh why the scenario of a villager coming to Lagos was inherently humorous. Our conversation honed in on the question, why do we laugh at the incongruity between “civiliation” and “illiteracy” (or rather our social perceptions of them)? Ime Umoh, who was trained in philosophy at the university and is remarkably insightful and articulate about his craft, explained that this type of humor both disrupts the way things “ought” to be and also teaches us the value in doing things from a reasoned standpoint. In his words, “If you learned to read and write a little, you would’ve read somewhere that you ought not to live or behave that way, in this way, taking the spoon, stirring the tea and than drinking the tea like soup. Okay? It’s funny. You’re turning the whole action upside down. It ought not to be that way. So that’s where the illiterate man is funny. And the exposed man and the literate man will just look at him and, ‘Oh my god, where did they bring this one from?!'” But there is a message in this type of humor as well, he insists. The viewer will understand that, “by the time you are educated it opens many many many doors of possibilities for you.”

Plaza Cinema's two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

Plaza Cinema’s two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

The streetscapes of Lagos are packed tight with a jumble of new and old structures, commercial exchanges of every type in any space that can support them, and what one notorious architectural theorist described as the “friction” created by millions of people passing through the city. Most of Lagos’s historical structures get buried as the city rushes to keep pace with and accommodate the needs of its exploding population. The cinemas halls offer one example.

We hear often that Nigeria’s cinema halls, once a center of modern urban leisure, disappeared into oblivion with the crash of the naira (due to foreign pressure for Nigeria to accept economic “structural adjustment” (SAP)) and the rise of home video. As the story goes, when the cinema exhibitors were pressed out of business, the new wave of evangelical churches moved in comfortably with a few renovations. We often forget that Lagos is a remarkably young city, both in terms of built environment and population. Most Lagosians were not around to experience cinema at its height. With time the cinemas have faded from popular memory, even though their physical structures remain as landmarks. The buildings continue to evolve with the neighborhoods they used to serve, but they also still retain a trace of the past. These cinema halls are examples of what Rajeev Patke calls an “archive of involuntary memory” (p. 7). They are somewhat like the Brazillian architecture that spots Lagos Island, immediately recognizable to the eye and indelibly linked to a period of the city’s history. One is struck by a flash of memory walking past the Plaza Cinema near Tafawa Balewa race course (image above), a visual trace of the Post-Civil War/Pre-SAP years, the height of cinema culture in Lagos.

So what have the cinema halls become today? Of the 13 I managed to track down only two had be demolished outright, whereas the majority now serve several purposes at once: church, market, warehouse, residence, viewing center. The Plaza Cinema, for example, is occupied by Redeemed Christian Church of God, as well as a restaurant, travel agency, and petty traders. Ajegunle neighborhood’s God Dey Cinema, constructed in 1978, once accommodated up to 2000 viewers. Today the stage, screen, and the 400-capacity “reserve seating” balcony remain in good condition. It continued showing films until 2008 when the cost of operating the hall exceeded what the exhibitor could recuperate from tickets sold at N100 a piece. Today, the grounds outside the cinema function as a warehouse for tires, refrigerators, and cars imported and unloaded at nearby Apapa Wharf. Also in Ajegunle, Onishowo Cinema has become a school where the old seating has been arranged into five classes under one roof. The balcony, where big screen TVs have been rolled in, still serves as a viewing center of 30-40 seats. On the other side of Lagos in Agege one will find Pen Cinema, converted now to a fast food restaurant, and Danjuma Cinema, the only facility I visited that still operates as a cinema. Unfortunately, the site has in effect been surrendered to area boys and the risk of theft or assault makes the spot a no-go for all but the young men who enjoy pirated Hollywood and Bollywood films there at N80-100.

The buildings left are material structures, but in their heyday these cinema halls supported an “immaterial urbanism” (Larkin), which is to say an intangible but immanent experience of the city. It is increasingly difficult to find Lagosians who frequented cinemas in the 1970-80s and can recall the experience in detail. Perhaps there are some readers out there who could fill in the history a bit.

*Patke, Rajeev S. “Benjamin’s Archades Project and the Postcolonial City.” Diacritics 30.4 (winter 2000), 3-14.

Kunle Afolayan, Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola, Tunde Kelani (L-R) at the National Film Development Corporation of India in Mumbai.

Nigerians and Nollywood producers alike are outrageously underserved by the nation’s existing cinemas. A quick glance at the industry’s Indian cousin, Bollywood, proves my point. In Nigeria today, there are just over 50 screens for a population of some 150 million. That makes the ratio of screens per capita something like 1 screen per 3 million Nigerians. As Tunde Kelani discovered on his recent trip to Mumbai, Indian has nearly 13,000 theater screens serving its 1.2 billion citizens, or 1 screen per 100,000 viewers. When I spoke to Kelani upon his return, he was clearly struck by India’s love for cinema. He heard it rumored that 15 million people visit the cinema in India every day. To put that in perspective, that would be like every Lagosian from Ojo to Ikorodu to Ajah visiting the cinema every day.

Why is this important for Nollywood producers to know? The answer is simple. When Kelani and Kunle Afolayan met with India’s National Film Development Corporation, the director informed them that they no longer permit a film to stay in cinemas for 25 days as was once the custom. This is because a film in India can make its cost-of-production investment back in a single weekend. With nearly every major producer in the Nigerian industry struggling today to recuperate their cost of production and, having secured that, find financing for a follow project, Nollywood should be asking itself what it can learn from Bollywood.

A note of caution is in order, however. To premier one’s film at any of the six cinemas around Lagos does not ensure a film financial success. At best, a producer will supplement the bulk of their earnings, which still come from DVD/VCD sales within Nigeria. At worst, one’s investment in publicity and premier will exceed ticket sales.

A lesson Nollywood producers might learn from Bollywood: cinema is a numbers game. With the six cinemas in Lagos, and the six or seven cinemas across the South that premier or screen Nollywood films, a producer can never make significant box office revenue. Cinema remains an unreliable distribution platform that cannot yet supplant the marketplace-based distribution of home video. For Bollywood, however, the sheer number of screens and spectators has made cinemas the foundation grounding its industry.

Nigeria needs screens. Not every cinema needs to be a Silverbird or a Genesis cinemaplex. As I will post tomorrow, one screen per theater was the norm for the old cinema halls that have largely been converted to churches but still spot Lagos’s cityscape. Is it possible that Nigerian investors could explore the potential of innumerable, low-cost one- and two-screen theaters across Nigeria?

I have been defending the value of Yoruba Nollywood on the USA-Nigeria Dialogue Forum, where Kayode Ketefe has opened a debate on the industry’s shortcomings. As it turns out, Ketefe is a journalist for the National Mirror newspaper. Who knew, right? He published a large portion of my statements in this week’s column (without my permission). But I stand by my defense of Yoruba Nollywood as “distraction.” Nollywood’s detractors often reproach video films as “mere distractions” which do little more than offer mindless escapist fare. I want to turn that disparaging notion of “distraction” on its head. The films are distraction in the sense that Siegfried Kracauer meant when he describe early popular German cinema as a “cult of distraction.” As Kracauer observes, “the shows which aim at distraction are composed of the same mixture of externalities as the world of the urban masses,” and that they, “lack any authentic and materially motivated coherence, except possibly the glue of sentimentality which covers up this lack.” For Kracauer, the hope is that such popular films “convey in a precise and undisguised manner to thousands of eyes and ears the disorder of society.”

Ketefe has edited out some of these details from my online statements, but I’ll reproduce his article here for anyone interested.

From National Mirror (January 17, 2013)

Re: Lamenting decline in Yoruba Nollywood

Kayode Ketefe

Since last week when my piece “Lamenting decline of Yoruba Nollywood” was published, a deluge of reactions has poured in. Some were denunciatory, others exhortative, and still there were a few others that agreed with my postulations.

My intent here is to put the record straight through clarification on some areas which had engendered controversies, as well as purveying one of the reactions I found interesting.

What actually led me to write the piece was a discussion with a friend, who claimed to have bought 10 Yoruba Nollywood videos of which nine featured supernatural elements that mocked reality. I watched some of them with him. While I won’t give real examples, let me give fictitious imitations of the kind of storylines we usually encounter.

A banker, who had offended somebody, put money he had taken on loan in the safe in his room, then an incensed spirit materialised in the dead of the night and took the money away! A lady, who was looking for husband for many years, became desperate, and despite warning that she needed more patience, she picked the next wealthy guy that came along only to discover that the man was a corpse, who had died many years before!

Let any intelligent person tell me if that is the way the real world operates. I venture to think every profession has some responsibilities that inherently devolve on it – these filmmakers are supposed to be social educators; but pray, would a child who has been constantly fed on the staple of superstitions, magic and empirically unverifiable assumptions like that turn out to be a highly rational adult with a profound analytical mind? Some people also accused me of “wrongly” ascribing emergence of Nollywood to Yoruba artistes.

This point ought not to generate any controversy as it could easily be resolved by appeal to history.

The pioneers in the indigenous filmmaking in Nigeria (with the celluloid filming technology) were legends like late Hubert Ogunde, Ola Balogun, Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo et al. Even when the home-video revolution occurred, it was started by late Alade Aromire and his Oriire Productions before the emergence of the more business-minded compatriots who now claim to have started Nollywood.

Be that as it may, now I reproduced below a reaction from one Mr. Connor Ryan, whose submissions I found interesting on the grounds that it expands the scope of discussion instead of degenerating into unnecessary vulgar abuses and ad hominem vituperations, like some reactions. He, via the USA Africa Dialogue series, wrote: “My Ketefe, I agree with a number of the points you made. I also agree the subtitling could be improved, though I don’t think the subtitles hinder a viewer’s comprehension of the film. And the titles do have many misspellings.

But this point on cultural representation sidesteps what I take to be your main critique, which is that Yoruba videos do not take social education as its responsibility. The freedom of creativity afforded to producers of popular culture is a hallmark of Nollywood.

It is an industry that never envisioned itself within the paradigms of filmmaking that predominated in canonical African cinema. We frequently are reminded of Sembene Ousmane’s adage that his films were “the night school” of Africa. In films, audiences could see the source of their alienation and oppression revealed. Nollywood filmmakers have refused these terms of filmmaking and embraced the freedom to shoot whatever stories compel them and their audience.

They don’t seek to plunge down to the root of social immiseration, or bring us to a higher, idealist plane of understanding. They rest at the surface of everyday life and discover the romance, pleasure, misfortune, and humour that exist there.

Yes, Yoruba films are disjointed, selfcontradictory, and messy. Yes, they are produced to give viewers pleasure. Yes, they are fixated on the superficial: money, sexy women, sexy men, flashy cars, fine cloths.

But I am more drawn to what film critic, Siegfried Kracauer, says about the “distractions” of popular culture. The audience encounters itself in these films, insofar as they encounter the fragmented, disintegrated, and contradictory nature of social reality. Moreso than the refined culture of scholars and artists, popular culture is more intimately related with the people who buy and enjoy it.

These videos are far from banal, and that they are suffused with magic and humor is part of their virtue. In any film or play reality is refracted (or “distorted) through the film/play’s project of representation.

In the genres most common in Nollywood, reality is refracted through melodramatic codes, supernatural deus ex machina, and comedic caricature. Whatever lesson or instruction they depart to viewers is offered not from above, but from below; it grows out of the common place stories that the videos depict.”

The workshop wrapped up on Friday as Governor Fashola’s Deputy Chief of Staff Moji Rhodes, and other Lagos State Government representatives came to review the progress made by all the participants over the last week. The highlight, undoubtedly, was the screening of nine short films created by the participants as a way of experimenting with the lessons learned in the classroom. These films were shot over the course of two days by director/screenwriter/cinematographer crews grouped at random. It was my hope that this would mean a reshuffling of the hierarchies one finds on most Nollywood sets (with directors dictating to DPs, and screenwriters often totally absent, having finished their task) and more creative collaboration between participants. The films were based on three scenarios imagined and composed by the screenwriters seminar. The film concept goes something like this. The film opens on an argument between Bolaji and his wife Sandra that climaxes with Sandra shooting her husband in a fit of rage. We then cut to exactly one year earlier, on the night of Bolaji’s inauguration as Governor. In the later scenarios, Sandra tries to warn Bolaji that her own father, whose powerful patronage secured the governorship for Bolaji, has been maneuvering to exploit his influence over Bolaji. In the final scenario, Bolaji’s young mistress is chased down by a mysterious assailant. Is the attacker sent by Bolaji to silence the young woman or by Bolaji’s father-in-law seeking to use her against Bolaji?

The nine films presented us with nine very different interpretations of the scenarios. Four of the films were more conservative in their style, choosing to start from familiar ground for Nollywood professionals. This means long establishing shots from perhaps too far away, static camera work where a POV or tracking shot could be employed, and medium shots in interior spaces. These films did mix in several new techniques as well. The other films were impressive for their experimentation with expressive camera work. Some tricky depth of field work was executed to the applause of viewers in two of the films. Editing was swift. Shots of objects and detailed motions were included as a means of conveying narrative without dialogue. And finally, one of the films shot between Bolaji and Sandra featured a tastefully passionate and, frankly, quite touching kiss, for which the actors received the cheers and applause of their peers.

Over the last week I did some hand-wringing, as I’m sure so did others who are sensitive to the cultural politics of film style, especially the long tradition in African cinema of creating aesthetic challenges to world-dominant Hollywood dream-machines. If anyone worried that this workshop would steer Nollywood filmmakers into a Hollywood mode of storytelling and image-making, they can relax a bit. The role of the American (and Nigerian) trainers was, from my observations, more to bring ideas and small technical lessons into a forum where Nollywood professionals could pick and choose what they found helpful and ignore what failed to inspire them. The final films demonstrate that Nollywood’s two-decade tradition of making films in its own particular style will not be wiped clear in a week of training. However, film traditions are like living creatures, they must feed to grow. I only hope that these training workshops gave Nollywood professionals some food for thought.

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