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Posts Tagged ‘The Figurine’

Collaborative exercise underway between screenwriter, director, and cinematographer participants.

Collaborative exercise underway between screenwriter, director, and cinematographer participants.

In the business of film seminar, participants will be engaging with Kunle Afolayan today, who will be speaking on his recent handling of the DVD release of The Figuring, and the negotiations with OHBox for the online broadcasting of his latest film, Phone Swap. I think this should be an invigorating class today, as we will also be hearing from a representative of Iroko TV, the online platform for Nollywood boardcast.

Today the participants look forward to putting the principles developed over the last three days into practice. The screenwriters will be pitching their works to the business of film seminar participants. In the mean time, the directors have received copies of the scripts and are already underway storyboarding and scheduling the shoots. I still see the cinematography crews shooting on sites around the training center. All the participants are clearly excited to see what they have collaboratively produced over the course of the week. All will be unveiled tomorrow, on the final day of the workshops.

Personally, it has been encouraging to see the intense competitiveness inherent to Nollywood slowly dissolving over the last three days into a generally collaborative learning environment. Without any over-sentimentality here, I want to emphasize the degree that collaboration between the Nollywood professionals in attendance has and can continue to benefit the industry’s stakeholders. The American trainers must be commended for bringing some thought-provoking ideas to the table, especially in the business of film seminar where Nollywood professionals need to start thinking imaginatively about strategies of distribution that have never been tried before in Nigeria. However, the trainers leave in two days, and yet the discussion on Nollywood’s future will continue among the participants and stakeholders.

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I would like to thank culture journalist Derin Ajao for her very comprehensive profile of my work in the Daily Times last week, the publication of which marked more than 18 months since I first set foot in Nollywood. As I begin a new job next week, it seems to be the right time to retire this blog.  I hope that FindingNollywood.com continues to serve as a resource and a discussion platform for Nigerian cinema enthusiasts in the years to come.


A Nollywood adventure
Fulbright Scholar and film researcher Bic Leu talks to Aderinsola Ajao about finding and loving Nollywood.

ARTICLE | MARCH 2, 2012 – 6:21AM | BY ADERINSOLA AJAO

Stumbling on a Nigerian movie in Ghana set Bic Leu on an exploration to Nollywood. For the young American studying abroad, the films she saw back in 2005 would leave a lasting impression on her even after her graduation from Tufts University, where she studied Art History, Business and African Studies. The economic recession and a stint at the New York-based Museum of Modern Art would seal the inevitable return to Africa; this time to Nigeria, to find out more about the booming film industry.

“From what I knew of Nollywood, it was started by Nigerian entrepreneurs without any government support or any kind of international aid, or any type of formal sector intervention. I thought that was fascinating and I was just wondering at that moment – about 2008, 2009 – why it wasn’t getting the international recognition that it deserved. I really (wanted) to explore that more as an alternative mode of development and to move away from that traditional aid model and towards more sustainable market initiative,” Leu said.

Applying for and receiving a Fulbright grant was, for her, “the perfect way” to realise that dream. Leu hailed her mentors at Tufts as being “very knowledgeable” about Nigerian film and providing her with helpful information prior to her departure. With everything else in place, Leu contacted Duro Oni, Theatre Arts Professor and Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Lagos, who agreed to sponsor her.

TOUCHDOWN

In September 2010, Bic Leu arrived in Nigeria and Mission: Nollywood was well on its way.  “It was so much more than I expected,” enthused Leu, whose Nollywood adventure is recorded on the weblog ‘FindingNollywood.com’. “When I landed in Lagos, I didn’t know anybody. I was here because of that curiosity, that passion to discover how the film industry works. ‘I don’t actually have any plans in place! What am I going to do?!’” she thought.

It however proved a smooth ride for the inquisitive scholar as she was easily accepted on film sets. “The practitioners are so open to outsiders coming in and learning about it. The level of hospitality that I’ve been shown has been really overwhelming. I can’t go to Hollywood and knock on Stephen Spielberg’s door and say “Hi, I’m Bic, I’m a scholar and I would like to follow your set for a couple of weeks. I probably won’t even get that far; I’d probably meet with the assistant to an assistant to an assistant…” joked Leu.

Within two weeks of her arrival, Leu was in touch with Nollywood scholar and professor, Onookome Okome, who was doing a sabbatical at the Pan African University in Lagos. Okome linked her up with ace filmmaker, Tunde Kelani, who was then shooting Maami. “That was a great start,” said Leu, of her first location visit. “Once you got on TK’s set… everybody’s so connected and open, so willing to introduce you to their colleagues.” From Kelani’s set, she moved to Funke Akindele’s Jenifa set, to Emem Isong’s and Desmond Elliot’s for Kiss and Tell and to Daniel Ademinokan’s for the DaGrin biopic, Ghetto Dreamz, getting the chance to observe, interview and record as the months passed by. “That was such a great introduction to the film industry,” Leu reminisced. Her exploits on these sets were not limited to research though. Her presence incurred a few acting roles: a spot in the Jenifa trailer, her hair makes an appearance somewhere in Ghetto Dreamz and, “I believe my wakapass in Maami is on the cutting room floor somewhere,” Leu said.

IMPROVING NOLLYWOOD

Work on these sets was also very professional and punctuality was not to be messed with, she said. Leu initially thought it was “complicated” for Elliot and Isong to be shooting two films simultaneously. That impression soon changed. “In reality it was like this machine; some days we pumped out like 40 scenes a day, which is insane. And it worked!” This time it sounded like a confident boast.

For Leu, the productions she tracked were far better than her first Nollywood encounter in Ghana back in 2005. “This is much better. When I came on TK’s set, he was very excited about mounting a RED camera, which allowed him to shoot digital images that were indistinguishable from celluloid pictures and of course at a much cheaper cost and much more accessible in post-production.” It was an epiphany. “That was when I realised that this is really not the Nollywood of the low-budget production: the guerrilla filmmaking that I’d been reading of. This is really the start of this revolution to increase capacity in the industry and look at different re-distribution methods.”

With the conversation tilting towards distribution, the issue of piracy reared its head. “In terms of distribution, I think the way a lot of filmmakers have been able to tackle that is through cinema-only release,” Leu replied, referencing the newfound love for premieres and cinema screenings. “As soon as they release their films straight to DVD then the pirates will illegally duplicate them.”

More cinemas will lead to better quality films; a standard that will help the industry’s international image and also boost employment, Leu argued. In her words, Akindele’s intention to upgrade production quality influenced the hiring of DJ Tee as director on the third Jenifa installment. “She really wanted to improve her production value, show at cinemas and probably at film festivals. The downside to this is that there really aren’t that many cinemas in Nigeria. I think maybe nine or ten, and for a population of a hundred and fifty million people; that doesn’t cover the demand that’s out there and also the cost of access.

ALL GOOD IN NOLLYWOOD

Despite the many challenges on film locations, I couldn’t resist asking if Leu and her research questions didn’t end up an unnecessary nuisance for the cast and crew.

“I would just wait in between takes,” she said. “Basically I tried really hard not to be a distraction.” Working out what times would best be suited for questions also helped. “100% of the time they were super happy to enlighten me about what was going on in between takes,” Leu said gleefully.

A number of things stand out for her, especially the on-set professionalism and quality of output in Nollywood in spite of the same challenges referred to earlier. “What stood out to me was that in spite of the challenges of filming in Nigeria, the cast and crew just really bound together to make it work. My few challenges were pretty standard throughout all of the productions,” she said, listing disruptions from area boys, extra-long scenes, generators and corrupt district officials as challenges unique to Nigeria’s film sector. “For them to exist here and for us to be one of the most productive film industries in the world, that’s absolutely fascinating to me. (The practitioners) not only surpass them but also produce such work that captures the imagination in Nigeria and anywhere else.”

For a much-disparaged industry, Leu’s praise for Nollywood is hugely encouraging. She defends the industry even in relation to other African films, especially at festivals like FESPACO.

“The more I saw of FESPACO; obviously the African films that were shown were very different from the Nollywood films that were shown. In terms of production quality, their history is very different than in the Nollywood films. They showed like maybe three Nigerian films (at FESPACO); Kunle Afolayan’s film (The Figurine) was the only one I watched and didn’t fall asleep,” Leu said with a short laugh.

“I feel like (the films’ improved quality) really speaks to the level of audience engagement that Nollywood has been able to cultivate. Everybody has this mindset that they’ve really come up with a few movies that people actually want to watch.” According to Leu, the storylines were also “solid”, making special mention of Kelani’s collaboration with Nigerian playwrights Akinwumi Isola and Femi Osofisan.

And the relevance of these stories to the audience?

“I would say that the Nollywood films that I’ve seen have really portrayed society’s reaction to certain socio-political conditions that have happened. It certainly shows that our filmmakers and our creative professionals are definitely aware of the nuances and what’s going on in politics and the socio-political environment and are able to translate that very articulately on film.”

WORK IN PROGRESS

Are these nuances apparent in the productions, I ask, especially with the overuse of words rather than non-verbal hints in the plot. “I believe it’s something that they’re working on. The film industry has its roots in the Yoruba tradition, which is a lot of talk, so I don’t think it’s bad as long as it’s portrayed in a way that’s also visually engaging, that moves the story along. I believe that the roots of why the Nollywood films are talky have a very valid and cultural reason,” she argued.

During her stay in Lagos, Leu coordinated Nollywood-themed seminars both within and outside the academia. She commented on the probable disconnect between Nollywood as theory and Nollywood as practice. “I don’t see the link as particularly strong just because we don’t have any formal film studies programme at the universities here. A lot of these professors who are speaking about Nollywood are coming from either the English departments or the Theatre Arts department, so I feel like maybe the film practitioners feel it’s not speaking directly to them. Not to take anything away from the point that we’re making, the industry hasn’t been established long enough for there to be a very established culture of film criticism. As you know, many newspaper articles about Nollywood, it’s not really like an in-depth article, it’s mostly gossip.”

We both agree here and I ask if the academy is not trying too hard to intellectualise the popular. For Leu, such international exposure can only be helpful to sustaining Nollywood’s growth. “There’s a whole field of scholarship talking about popular arts. So, for me to take modern Nigerian cinema and to have it taken seriously on the international stage, you do need people to intellectualise it. You need to do more academic papers published in reputable international journals to speak intelligently about what’s going on in these industries. You need these papers to be cited in doctoral theses that are written all over the world. And you need this scholarship to come from Nigeria.”

Such scholarship need not be overly critical, though. “Constructive criticism is really important to any industry. It’s just that that discourse needs to be encouraged. The more that literary discourse is encouraged and is publicised, the more the industry will be respected internationally.”

THE END?

Leu’s research year ended in July 2011 and she was swiftly snapped up as Head of International Relations and Project Management at Del-York International, a media and communications company with a focus on capacity building for economic development and international branding of Nollywood. She described this experience as “really exceptional” for Nollywood scholars, who usually have no chance to test their research findings. The Del-York experience was specifically helpful to Leu, whose interest was in how Nollywood directly or indirectly provides employment across different professions. “I was going to take that to Del-York and truly implement this job creation model.” As part of the outfit’s training curriculum for aspiring media practitioners, Leu also introduced a weekly roundtable called ‘Filmmaking in Nigeria’, inviting Nigerian practitioners to discuss the history of Nollywood, distribution and piracy, entrepreneurship, on-set challenges and the like.

By the end of her research period, Bic Leu had come full circle from the stuttering newcomer to a fulfilled researcher with positive impact on the lives of aspiring filmmakers. “It’s great to be a part of that and not to just look on as a scholar,” she said with pride.

In November 2011, Leu co-curated the first Nollywood film Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Aimed at bringing Nollywood deeper into an international audience’s consciousness and titled ‘Bemvindo a Nollywood’, the festival featured discussion panels around the Nigerian Video Film sector. Nine Tunde Kelani films were screened during the event. “For me, it’s interesting seeing how Nollywood films are seen abroad and to form this partnership, this really shared cultural exchange, it’s awesome!” she gushed.

Bic Leu is currently in South-East Asia preparing for a new job back in the United States. There is little doubt though that her love for Nollywood will someday bring her back to Nigeria.

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Is there a way to make money in Nollywood? This CNBC Africa Entrepreneurial Edge segment attempts to answer this question, but I was distracted by the slew of misinformation; the most glaring of which is the claim that “not a single Nollywood movie has been recognized internationally“. This statement is refuted by the global acclaim of such films as Kunle Afolayan‘s The Figurine (screened at FESPACO and festivals in London, New York, Tokyo and Rotterdam) and Mak Kusare‘s Champions of Our Time (winner of the Special Jury Prize for Best Television/Video Award at FESPACO).

Most of the segment depicts Nollywood as “the Other“, fetishizing the so-called guerrilla filmmaking techniques of Kingsley Okereke as it follows his low-budget production powered by “one camera and just one boom microphone“.

It is all tired material until the viewer encounters Jason Njoku, CEO of Iroko Partners and creator of the NollywoodLove YouTube channel. His answer to the problem of piracy and distribution is the internet. Njoku has purchased more than 400 audio/video on-demand licenses to stream Nollywood films online for free. His revenue stream comes from an advertising deal with YouTube, thus making content accessible to viewers while putting money back into the hands of the filmmakers. At last count, NollywoodLove has 24,525 subscribers, 1,303,678 channel views and 32,530,182 upload views.

Full disclosure: The author contributed to the “tired material”. Watch around the 1:05 mark.

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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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Go out and buy The Guardian today, everyone! My article on New Nollywood’s innovative distribution methods is published under the Friday Review section. I’ve pasted the text below, or you can read the original web version here. Many thanks to Gabe for lending his editor’s eye to this piece.
Friday, 14 January 2011 00:00 By Bic Leu 

THE domestic and international media have been buzzing about the emergence of a New Nollywood. A wave of recent features — including Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine and Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé — flout traditional Nollywood conventions such as low budgets and poor production value and eschew the Nigerian film industry’s straight-to-video format for a theatrical run. It appears that there is a new vigour among filmmakers to tackle the rampant piracy and poor distribution linkages that have plagued the industry.

Beyond piracy
Pirates have usurped Nigerian filmmakers’ profits at the end of the distribution chain for years by replicating and distributing films within days of DVD release. According to writer and director, Amaka Igwe, “Piracy makes up 82 per cent of the Nigerian market.” However, she identifies the real problem behind revenue generation as distributors’ ignorance about market supply and demand: “If people had a choice of buying the real copy, they would buy it, but they can’t find it.”

Igwe laments that distributors often print fewer copies than what the customers demand in fear that surplus inventory will remain unsold. As a result, pirates fill the gap with illegal copies.  Despite having completed work on six films, Igwe refuses to release any until a massive distribution system that she has been working on is unveiled in March 2011: “I’m not doing any new films, because that’s like pouring water into sand; you don’t get any returns.”

Revitalizing cinemas
Other filmmakers have turned to cinemas. Kunle Afolayan’s Irapada (2007) was the first Nigerian film to be shown at Lagos’ Silverbird Galleria. Instead of relying on the traditional system in which the marketer serves as the production’s main funding source, Afolayan subsidized his budget by negotiating product placement deals — which recouped 50 per cent of expenses before the film’s release.  Irapada went on to gross over N5 million at the box office and changed the industry’s perception of cinema release, a custom that had died out in the 1980s along with celluloid filmmaking in Nigeria.  Afolayan also screened the film at small venues like the National Arts Theatre as well as campuses across the country.

Afolayan expanded Irapada’s distribution model when The Figurine premiered in 2009. On top of the cinema release and product placement, The Figurine was one of the first Nigerian films to tour the international festival circuit, gathering critical acclaim in Berlin, New York, Rotterdam, Tarifa, and Kampala.

Afolayan’s equal mix of the artistic and the commercial attracted audiences to theatres in record numbers. He claims, “Many people who weren’t cinema-goers started going to the cinema because they were interested in seeing the film”.

It raked in N30 million during its eight-week theatrical run and was recognized as the most successful Nigerian cinema release at the time. On the back end, Afolayan has experimented with new distribution schemes.  When Irapada was distributed on DVD, Afolayan enlisted the help of a China-based disc replication firm for the encryption, which he believed “cut out piracy by 80 per cent”. He has big plans for The Figurine’s DVD release in February 2011: a subsidiary of the satellite TV service HiTV will distribute one million copies domestically and more abroad via website sales.

If Kunle Afolayan re-introduced cinema culture to the Nigerian audience, then Chineze Anyaene cemented its viability with her directorial debut, Ijé (2010). The film made N50 million at the box office last year, thus displacing The Figurine as the highest grossing Nigerian cinema release of all time. Next, Anyaene plans to distribute Ijé in Kenya, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

A grassroots approach
Veteran director, Tunde Kelani is thinking beyond cinemas. Recognizing that most Nigerians cannot afford the average N1,000-N1,500 cinema ticket price in the only nine functioning multiplexes in the country, Kelani is looking for more accessible alternatives. On top of the regular cinema circuit, he is working with the Lagos State Viewing Sports Center Association to use their 700-1,000 viewing centers to show his next feature, Ma’ami (2011), whenever there is a free slot in the programming schedule.

Kelani’s team, which includes Production Manager Jamiu Shoyode, is currently reviewing the locations. With an average capacity of 100 seats per center, Kelani hopes to reach at least 70,000 Lagosians by the end of Ma’ami’s release — although this conservative estimate doesn’t account for multiple screenings per center.

Kelani plans to charge N150 per ticket, hoping that the low price will encourage whole communities to see his film. The egalitarian approach also extends to the series of free open-air screenings that he is planning in conjunction with the viewing center release.  Kelani already proved the success of this method in 2009 when he reached over 2,500 people in 57 local councils at free outdoor viewings of his last film, Arugbá. He hopes to attract another sponsor to cover the costs for Ma’ami and to help him accomplish his goal of capturing “the masses”.

A high-tech distribution solution?
The Internet is also becoming a viable option for distributing Nollywood movies. In December 2010, telecommunications giant Glo joined its counterpart MTN in giving their subscribers access to DStv Mobile, a service that enables users to watch DStv live on their mobile devices. Available programming includes the Africa Magic movie channels that broadcast a never-ending rotation of Nollywood films.

Supporting this new Internet platform are two international submarine cables that were landed in Nigeria in 2009: Main One, operated by privately-owned Main One Cable Company, and Glo 1, operated by Globacom. The cables link Lagos to Europe and other West African countries with the goal of providing affordable and high-speed Internet services across the continent (though the author has yet to notice any improvement in Internet bandwidth).  Main One commenced commercial services in July 2010 and Glo 1 followed suit in October 2010.

The World Wide Web has the potential to become a virtual Idumota Market, though with a more manageable distribution chain than the real Lagos bazaar. The New Nollywood may not need to look beyond its laptop to reach the masses both near and far. Ultimately, the defining trait is innovation since piracy has become a catalyst for reinvention. Rather than fight in the trenches, filmmakers are sharpening their business sense, creating models for exhibition and distribution that demand rebranding the industry precisely because up-and-coming Nollywood fits in a future that, for now, is still running to meet itself.

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