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I just found out that my article was published in The Guardian today without the original first paragraph or the last three paragraphs, making this a very different piece than I had intended. I have pasted the original article below in its full glory, or you can read the published version here.

 

Keith Shiri, Tunde Kelani, and Kunle Afolayan at FESPACO 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

 

FESPACO 2011: African cinema through Nollywood’s lens

Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00 By Bic Leu

From February 26 to March 5, 195 films were shown at the 22nd edition of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO), scattered across cinema halls and outdoor theaters in Burkina Faso’s capital city.

The event’s official newsletter declared an “opening under the sign of Panafricanism with a growing diversity of film productions from Africa and the Diaspora.” Yet despite this claim of unity, the Festival raised many debates regarding the definition of cinema and revealed divisions among countries with different colonial histories and the impact of those histories on the development of respective film industries. For example, official regulations excluded films not shot in 35 mm format from the main competition. Films shot in digital format were relegated to the TV & Video category, which included Nollywood’s only representatives – Mak Kusare’s Champions of our time (2010) and Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009). Ultimately, the lack of 35 mm projectors in most viewing centers rendered this rule moot, so films were screened in DVD format for Festival-goers.

The only movie by a Nigerian filmmaker to compete in the Feature Film category, Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless city (2010), was not shown to audiences. Several sources reported that the filmmaker was unexpectedly unable to attend and screen his film due to organizational mishap on the part of Festival managers. While this slight was unintentional, the incident did not help to ameliorate the rift between Nigerian filmmakers and their Francophone hosts. Nigeria’s already poor representation at FESPACO is disproportionate to the number of films that the country releases per year. (The National Film and Video Censors Board recorded 1,612 local movies submitted for classification in 2010).

Indeed, “African cinema” has been historically synonymous with Francophone African films, according to film curator and Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) jury member Keith Shiri. The primary source of funding for these movies is the French government, which allots an average budget of €500,000 to €2 million per film to its former colonies, thus allowing filmmakers to purchase and process pricey celluloid stock abroad at the cost of $400 to $500 per minute of film. These products are then distributed globally at film festivals and are seldom watched by their native audiences. Recent international attention has been directed at the robust volume of independently financed and lower budget productions from Nigeria and other Anglophone African countries.  These films are shot on much cheaper digital formats and are enthusiastically consumed by Africans, thus challenging the traditional concept of “African cinema”.

Director Tunde Kelani confronted FESPACO’s definition of film at the African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of New Technologies workshop organized during the Festival by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) on February 27 and 28. While he is listed as a “video-maker” in the workshop program, Kelani has worked with a variety of audiovisual media over his 30-year career: super 8; super 16; 8 mm; 16 mm; 35 mm; all video formats; and now digital format. He emphasized the false contradictions between cinema and video, stating that new technology allows digital cameras to use film lenses and for some digital formats to have higher resolutions than 35 mm film. Kelani forecasted that celluloid production will disappear in the near future due to cheaper digital alternatives to shooting high-resolution film, such as the RED ONE camera.

Kelani is not alone.  Chairman of the AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini privately conceded the need for FESPACO to adapt to technological changes: “They need to modify the rules to accommodate recent developments in technology. There shouldn’t be rules on making films in celluloid.”

Yet at the CODESRIA workshop, Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouedraogo countered Kelani and Husseini’s position by maintaining that a hierarchy exists between celluloid and video because “the beauty of the image is in the celluloid” and that video is unable to capture a wide range of contrast. He continued by asserting that movies made in Nigeria are more commerce than art, referring to Nollywood’s rapid production schedule as “business, not cinema”.

Director Kunle Afolayan tried to find common ground among these viewpoints at a Centre Culturel Français Ouagadougou screening of The Figurine on March 1. He emphasized his film’s self-sufficient financing and production structure as an advantage: “The film is self-funded and made entirely by Nigerians.” But he also stressed that collaboration between Anglophone and Francophone filmmakers is the key to take African cinema to the next level: “The camera knows no language…The sky is the limit if we come together as Africans.”

Afolayan’s appeal for intracontinental cooperation may be coming true: three films nominated for the Nigerian-produced AMAA also competed at FESPACO: A small town called Descent (South Africa, 2010), Zebu and the photo fish (Kenya, 2010), and Dina (Mozambique, 2010). In addition, FESPACO awarded Champions of our time the second prize in the TV & Video category, fueling expectations that more Nigerian directors will be recognized in future editions.

In the end, FESPACO 2011 was defined by a missed opportunity to unite filmmakers across the continent regardless of production format, budget, or colonial histories. Shiri observes an excitement surrounding the “new wave of directors from Nigeria who understand the importance of aesthetics, sound, pacing, and the strength of the story.”  As Nigerian and other Anglophone cinema cultures gain global prominence, FESPACO’s continued alienation of them over politics of production will be detrimental to the Festival’s standing as the preeminent place on the continent to view and discuss African cinema.

Bic Leu is a US Fulbright Fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.

 

 

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Serendipitously, my article–Nollywood as Popular Art?–has just been published in the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos newsletter one week before the Reading and Producing Nollywood: An International Symposium at the University of Lagos. I have copied and pasted the text and photos below, or you can download the original PDF here (see pg. 11).

Film marketer in Idumota Market. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Nollywood as Popular Art?
Bic Leu

The Nigerian film industry has become one of the principal forces of popular art on the continent. Its commercially accessible format distinguishes it from other African cinema cultures–in particular that of the Francophone countries, where filmmakers produce highly stylized “art films” driven by socio-political messages.  Francophone films are primarily funded (and thus shaped) by the French government and distributed internationally to film festivals and other noncommercial channels. On the other hand, Nollywood films are privately funded, with (until now) little government subsidy or foreign aid. While most of the Francophone products are rarely seen by African audiences, their Nigerian counterparts are characterized by their capacity to transcend local ethnic and national boundaries and be voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across the continent, the Diaspora, as well as everywhere else in between.

Nollywood production is prolific compared to its anemic Francophone equivalent. The Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board received 1,612 local films for censorship registration in 2010, which averages to an astounding 31 new releases per week. The industry’s basis in the informal economy means that this number does not include the countless scores of films released on the black market and thus not accounted for by the Board.

As African anthropologist Karin Barber (1987) observes, popular arts attempt to appeal to as large a market as possible through a system of repetition. In Nollywood films, aspirations for social mobility are addressed through revolving sets in interiors of posh homes with HD television sets and elaborate sound systems, refrigerators, and black SUVs. Urban anxiety is conveyed through stock shots of Lagos streets and skyline, since harassment from “area boys” and authorities demanding bribes make it exceedingly difficult to shoot exterior scenes. Common fears are written and rewritten into narratives revolving around love, betrayal, greed, and the power of religious faith as a panacea for all social ills. From film to film, actors play the same roles and even repeat the same lines, like Ramsey Noah’s “Wakey, wakey, baby”–which awakens sleeping lovers in both Guilty Pleasures (2009) and A Private Storm (2010).   Even the crews remain constant as producers and directors carry them from set to set. As such, Nollywood films communicate with its African audience through a series of endless reflections intended to reinforce the shared conventions and desires of contemporary Nigerian society.

However, Nollywood is starting to defy Barber’s widely-accepted definition of popular art, which states that all commercial popular arts are produced within the African informal sector. Nigerian films are increasingly disseminated through recognized official channels, as exemplified by the box office success of recent cinema-only releases, such as Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009) and Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé (2010). Nigerian films are also screened at the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the high-brow bastion of Francophone African films that had banned Nigerian products from its line-up in the recent past. The industry has also become the subject of countless academic articles and international film festivals; its practitioners are frequently invited to participate in film panels all over the world. Formal institutions are also becoming involved in the development of the industry. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the Bank of Industry would administer the $200 million Special Entertainment Fund (which includes support from the World Bank) as low-interest loans designed to improve training, production, and distribution.

But the embrace of the mainstream often means sacrificing inventiveness to regulation and standardized expectations.  The question remains: as Nollywood begins to interact with the formal economy, will it lose its mobility and accessibility as a popular art form? Or will this new development elevate Nigerian filmmaking to the same status as other established international film cultures, to be no longer derided as a low-cost novelty in guerilla filmmaking?

Bic Leu is a US Fulbright fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.

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Siege du FESPACO. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

While I wait for my impression of FESPACO to be published in the Thursday issue of The Guardian, my intrepid FESPACO travel partner, former Fulbrighter, and Kannywood expert–Carmen McCain–has published her own very thoughtful account of the festival. I’ve pasted the text below, but you can also read the original here.

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine

Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

I write from a backless bench in a dark open air theatre on the outskirts of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where I’m waiting with director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan for the second screening of his film The Figurine. It is far from the city centre where it seems Ouagadougou, with its roundabout monument shaped like a ciné camera, and film fliers at every hotel, has been entirely modified to accommodate the FESPACO.(Festival Panafricaine du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) film festival. This is my first time in Burkina Faso’s capitol city, which is perhaps best known outside the region for this biennial festival, now in it’s 22nd incarnation. During the festival, one wanders from cinema to cinema, from film to film, from lunch to party, with people who talk about aesthetics and history and cuisine and the politics of film in Africa. In the city centre, this morning, women cycled past on their bicycles and motorbikes. European tourists wandered in gaggles. Street musicians with loudspeakers provided a distant soundtrack. I jumped with startled delight when suddenly the familiar sound of P-Square’s “Do Me, I Do you” filled the air.

Here at Cine Patte Doie, the electricity goes off and comes back on two minutes later. The stars are bright overhead. “This reminds me of growing up, in the cinemas,” Kunle says, remembering his father Adeyemi Afolayan, one of the early Yoruba filmmakers who translated travelling theatre to the screen. Dead Weight, the Ethiopian film scheduled before The Figurine plays in jumps and starts. I tell the Burkinabe man beside me in French that the electricity is worse in Nigeria but that everyone has backup generators. “We are a poor country,” he tells me. “We can’t afford generators. We get our electricity from Cote D’ivoire, but with the war, it has gotten worse….”

The first two days of the festival, I attended the Pan-African social research organization CODESRIA’s workshop, “African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of the New Technologies” attended by scholars of African cinema, video, and filmmakers. Much of the symposium was spent in discussions of the relationship of African cinema to the growth of Nollywood, which is challenging old assumptions about how and why African films should be made. While Nollywood scholars like Onookome Okome celebrate how Nollywood reflects the imaginary of ordinary people, telling the stories of the streets, other scholars, particularly Ethiopian scholar Professor Salem Mekuria, currently at Wellesley College, MA, in the United States, were dismissive of the phenomenon. Though she had only seen a few “bad examples” of Nollywood, Professor Mekuria thought the symposium spent too much time talking about Nigerian films. Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge mentioned to me that though she was very interested in Nollywood, especially in its relation to the Kenyan video film industry Riverwood, she thought that too much clichéd rhetoric about Nollywood dominated the discussion. The discussions seemed to revolve around the same old arguments about Nollywood: the rituals in films are giving Nigeria a bad name, the sex in Ghanaian films is getting out of control, the quality isn’t high, people shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide they can be a filmmaker. Even renowned playwright Professor Femi Osofisan didn’t add anything new to the discussion as he repeated his regularly stated concern about the potential harmfulness of Nollywood, although I did enjoy his witty conclusion that the name “Nollywood” was apt because Nigerians traditionally sent bad things to the evil forest—here the “wood” of Nolly. There was little discussion of the internal variances in Nollywood films, and almost no mention of films made in Nigerian languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and smaller languages, such as Nupe and Itsekeri. Though most of the perspectives at the symposium were scholarly, it was refreshing to hear the perspectives of actual filmmakers, particularly Nigerian director and producer Tunde Kelani, who spoke of his frustration at being identified as a video maker when Francophone directors also working in a digital medium were listed as filmmakers.

This problematic discourse referring to Nigerian popular video vs.Francophone art cinema ran throughout much of the festival, with the snickers from a largely European audience at a Nollywood-style Senegalese short film involving a mammy water spirit, to the listing of Kunle Afolayan’s stunning thriller, The Figurine, shot on a digital camera with cinema lenses, under the television and video competition rather than the main film competition, because it was not submitted on a 35 millimeter print. Ironically, all the films I saw in the main competition were projected from dvd, rather than from the film prints that were supposed to have been submitted. The director of the Toronto International Film Festival told me that other than FESPACO very few film festivals around the world differentiate between films shot on digital and film anymore. Apparently, the transportation of fragile 35 millimeter film prints are usually the most expensive parts of film festivals, and more and more festivals are moving to digital film projection, just as more and more filmmakers are going digital.

Although many Nigerian films reflect the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples,” and although the Nollywood industry began as a grassroots initiative, “managed, operated and run for and by the people,” both aspects of the “combative phase of third world cinema” formulated by theorist Teshome Gabriel, the Nigerian video films have long been dismissed by many Francophone African filmmakers and their critics, as “subpar” productions “concerned only with making money.” However, there are ironies in this critique considering most Francophone African films are seen mostly at festivals attended by a mostly Western and Western-trained elite, have very little accessibility to popular audiences in Africa, and make hardly any money. They are thus unsustainable and have seemingly little responsibility to the preferences of their audiences. African film scholars Manthia Diawara and Roy Armes have pointed out that Francophone African filmmakers often had the topics and style in which they made their films strongly directed from France, where they received their funding, and by the European crews which shot and edited the films. At the workshop it was also pointed out that many French technicians and film graduates who had little working experience in France were pointed to Africa as a place to improve their skills while working on African films. Ironically, with a few exceptions, many of the Francophone films that self consciously responded to imperialism or proudly presented “African culture” were mediated through the aesthetic and thematic preferences of their funders in France. While the filmmakers often subtly subverted outside expectations, it still strikes me as incongruous that despite all the lofty ideals of “cinema” filmmakers, their films often have more relevance to elite festival audience than to the mass viewing public of Africa.

Although Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine was shunted by FESPACO organizers to a premier on a small screen at the Institute Francaise and a later screening at the open air theatre with the epileptic electricity, rather than one of the larger theatres, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud when Afolayan introduced his film saying that “The film was shot, produced, edited, […] all the members of crew […]are all Nigerian. Everything was done in Nigeria by Nigerians.” I remembered the stunned feeling I had after first watching the film at the Zuma Film Festival, realizing, as I watched the closing credits that almost every name there was Nigerian. The Figurine takes the certain genre elements developed by Nollywood, the ritual horror, the family drama and love triangle, the glamour of wealth, and pushes it to the next level. It is seen at its best in the cinema, as most Hollywood and European films are, but it is a film that stands on its own. It inserts itself, an unapologetic commercial film made in Yoruba, English, and pidgin, defiantly into the artsy programme FESPACO. It doesn’t need validation from the West or European art critics to be a good movie. Though not perfect, the Figurine has an aesthetic integrity that provides the best role model I’ve yet seen for Nigerian filmmakers, and whether FESPACO film critics agree with me or not, I would say that Kunle Afolayan is not just one of the best upcoming Nigerian filmmakers but one of the best upcoming African filmmakers

In the end we leave the theatre early. There are only about twenty people there, sitting in the dark under the stars. But before we leave, a man stands up and introduces his wife, telling Kunle, “This is a very good film. I can tell from even just the beginning.” At the FESPACO premiere, Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge stood up at the end and said, “I’m from Kenya, but I’m as proud of this film as if I were Nigerian.” She didn’t know it but she was echoing an earlier statement of the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who told Kunle, “I stand tall as an African, when I see this film.”

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TCV bus arrives at the Benin-Burkina Faso border. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

After 30 hours on th road and more than 20 police checkpoints (mostly in Lagos), my fellow intrepid researchers, Alex and Carmen, and I arrived in Ouagadougou yesterday afternoon for the 22nd Annual FESPACO Film Festival.

We are very excited to see the films–from feature-length to shorts to documentaries–from all corners of Africa in the 13 cinemas in the city.

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iREP 2011 was a whirlwind of insightful films and thought-provoking discussions. See below for a list of highlights from the last several days:

Deji Adesanya, Toyin Akinosho, Tunde Adegbola, Busola Holloway, and Mahmood Ali-Balogun at the symposium, "African in Self-conversation: Documentary and Democracy", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Symposium: African in self-conversation: Documentary and democracy
According to moderator Professor Tunde Adegbola (University of Ibadan), Nigeria’s position as an “oral society” makes the population receptive to interpreting documentary films as “instruments for the promotion of democracy”.

Busola Holloway and Mahmood Ali-Balogun at the symposium, "African in Self-conversation: Documentary and Democracy", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Busola Holloway, President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria, defined documentaries as “cinéma vérité: You’re trying to tell the truth; you’re trying to say what is happening at that time.”

He also warned that conflicts of interests created by sources of funding detract from film makers’ ability to tell the truth: “Who pays the pipers dictates the tunes. Now, documentaries are usually produced for propaganda purposes in democracies by sitting powers. I would rather be an independent film maker to tell the truth.”

Film: The Manuscripts of Timbuktu, Zola Maseko (South Africa, 2009)
Zola Maseko
uncovers the history behind Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts–numbering in the hundreds of thousands–through dramatizations of the life of Ahmed Baba, the West African medieval scholar who authored more than 40 books. This film made me want to curl up with a cup of coffee and browse through the 18,000 manuscripts stored in the Ahmed Baba Institute, the only public library in Timbuktu.

Sola Olorunyomi, Onookome Okome, Tunde Babawale, and Awam Amkpa at the round-table discussion, "Motifs of black consciousness in African documentary films", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Round-table Discussion: Motifs of black consciousness in African documentary films
Professor Onookome Okome (University of Alberta) criticized existing documentaries about Nollywood for their failure to reflect the black consciousness:

All of documentaries about Nollywood–’Nollywood Babylon’, ‘This is Nollywood’, ‘Welcome to Nollywood’–are from the outside and they just tell me one thing: They hammer on the very, very grotesque. They hammer on the idea of fetish practices and if you read those ideas in terms of the rationality of modernity, what it means is that those people who are making these films are still living in the crude era of cinema and in the crude era of cultural articulation.

Okome identified the need to change the frame of reference in looking at Nollywood:

Once we begin to understand that Nollywood is popular art and it is not ideologically located in any premise, then we will begin to understand what Nollywood is all about. Let me troubleshoot a little bit. We must understand that the phrase ‘black consciousness’ is a way of speaking and it’s a way of speaking to something else: another discourse, or another set of discourses, one of which is racism, slavery, blackness versus whiteness…it simply means that black consciousness itself may just lose its temperament because it still speaks to something else without defining itself. You cannot tie your narrative to another narrative and say that your narrative is independent. So if you say ‘black consciousness’, what are you responding to? A white consciousness? A blue one? A green one? Until we make that clear, it becomes something that we need to talk about.

Okome concluded by defining Nollywood as a form of “spontaneous, grassroots” Pan-Africanism:

Nollywood is consciously imitated in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana. Nollywood film producers and directors are doing co-productions everywhere on the continent–and what is more Pan-African than that? It is Pan-Africanism from the people, for the people, by the people.

On another note, Professor Awam Amkpa (NYU) emphasized the potential role of Nigeria as a leader in documentary film making:

We have a highly visually literate population–something that Nollywood has produced–and a very highly literate way of reading images on the screen, so we don’t have to persuade people to watch these things. So the challenge for film makers is how to diversify their story-telling so that they can move from fictional to the documentary process, and by that process they’re retooling and retraining themselves as well as creating new publics for their work.

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In the 1930s, Ralph Bunche (1904–1971) pioneered “the view of the native” in the field of African Studies. According to the prominent Africanist Pearl Robinson, “He believed that a deep, empirically based knowledge of Africa provided a better understanding of the vital interests of the general population than many of the positions articulated by political authorities on their behalf.”

Nollywood films first inspired my imagination on board Ghana’s regional buses during my junior year semester abroad. As I spent countless hours crisscrossing the red dirt roads from Accra to Tamale, I became captivated by the vivid storytelling of family dramas, rags-to-riches tales, and tensions between new and older forms of spirituality. As African stories told by African voices, these films were my cultural ambassador, introducing me to the immanent challenges and triumphs of West African urban life undisclosed in classroom lectures.

So what would Ralph Bunche think of the Nigerian film industry? At the beginning of his career at Howard University, he would have valued Nollywood’s “native perception” as the most valid data in documenting the social, political, and economic welfare of Nigerians. But by the time that Bunche arrived in the Congo to head its UN Operation in the 1960s, the lack of local knowledge often resulted in UN policies made without an understanding of the local context. It was during this period that Joseph Mobutu seized power, whose thirty-year dictatorship of the Congo is often referenced in textbook definitions of kleptocracy.

Perhaps Bunche’s example teaches us that African Studies should not be an aloof pursuit, but one that relies on the locally produced knowledge for which Nollywood is known.

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