Monday, February 19, 2007

In defense of Nigerian film

This post is a comment I wrote in response to Jeremy Weate's post on African cinema in relation to Nollywood video-films, in which he claims that "One sometimes despairs that while the rest of Africa is producing fresh and innovative painting, photography and film in the face of enormous existential challenges, Nigeria languishes in the laziest and most unsubtle forms of creative expression." I figured that since I spent about 20 minutes of my thesis writing time writing the comment (arghh), I should also post it on my own blog. Keep in mind that this is off the top of my head and not quite as well thought out as it should be. But rather than spend another hour polishing it, I'm going to post it and get back to my thesis!

1) Confession. I have actually not seen enough English Nigerian films to be able to make a sophisticated and example-filled defense of them. But my knowledge of literary history makes me suspicious of blanket condemnations such as the one you made in your last post. I am suspicious of critiques that privilige "high" art as intrinsically more valuable than "low" art. Who makes these decisions? And aren't there many historical instances of one generation of "high art" critics misjudging the value of their own generations's cutting edge experimentation? Here is one relevant example: The knee-jerk negative reaction of the Western-educated elite to Nigerian films reminds me of earlier reactions to Amos Tutuola's _The Palm Wine Drinkard_. He appropriated older oral structures to write what appeared to be an embarrassing "misuse" of form to those critics trained to recognize Hardy and Hemingway as great literature. Tutuola was not necessarily following any specific genre; he, in fact, was creating his own form. So, first of all, in relation to Nollywood films, in a desire to see Nigerians make films "on par" with more Western-influenced form, do we risk throwing out great storytellers like Tutuola? Secondly, Do we risk imposing Western literary/artistic aesthetics for judgment on an art forms that owe as much to indigenous art forms as they do to Hollywood/Bollywood/Hong Kong film? Thirdly, Is the technologizing and mass exportation of orality not innovative?
2) Although I have not seen enough Nigerian English movies to give you a lot of examples, I do admire how the trickster motif has been transferred from oral literature to Nkem Owoh's films such as Osuafia in London, Bus Driver, Ukwa, etc. These may not be as subtle or "sophisticated" as Francophone African films, but they do provide entertaining continuations of orality--both of oral tales and indigenous forms of theatre.
3) I am much more knowledgeable about Hausa films, which I haven't yet decided whether to class a part of Nollywood or not. So, here is a more extended defense of "Kanywood." A) I find the appropriation of Bollywood style song and dancing rather wonderful on an aesthetic level as well as a symbolic addition to the meaning of the text. Just as Nkem Owoh's films continue an older trickster tradition, the Hausa filmmakers are innovatively continuing older oral structures in which the use of song marked important junctures of the story. Of course, as with any film tradition, some are done much better than others. B) Since most of the camera work, directing (etc) is self taught, it may not fall within conventions of visual storytelling developed in other traditions. It may not appear as "sophisticated" or as "artistic" to a Western trained eye. What I'd like to argue is that the self-taught filmmakers are developing their own conventions of visuality, according to their own self-selected education of watching Indian, American, and Chinese films, as well as according to massive amounts of audience feedback.
C) Off the top of my head, here are a few Hausa films I find thoughtful, thought provoking, and innovative: Zazzabi directed by S.I. Belaz; 2) Albashi directed by Abbas Sadiq; 3) Sanafahna directed by Nura Sheriff; 4) Bakar Ashana, directed by Aminu Bala. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Like I said I'm writing off the top of my head, and I know I have left a few off whose names I cannot remember.
Anyway, I'm sorry for taking up space on your blog, but I get a little defensive when I hear people pooh-poohing emerging art forms because they don't fit with their expectations of what make "great art." This is in no way a denigration of the fantastic celluloid African cinema, but an urge to consider the Igbo proverb, "Where one thing stands, another thing will stand beside it." To enjoy one does not mean you have to throw out another.


Aimie said...

I agree with you.

If we are so bad why are western filmmakers coming to Nigeria to make documentaries about us ( e.g the Documentary " This is Nollywood). If we are so bad why are they writing about us in their Newspapers and holding workshops about what we do

There are only four movie industries in the world that are able to survive without government support and Nigeria is one of them. Consider that there are 193 countries in the world. The Nigerian movie industry accounts for billions of Naira and thousands of jobs every year and people want to condemn us for the simple fact that our technique is not on par with other movie industries or that we use digital video instead of film. Hogwash!! Please let us give credit where credit is due. What the Nigerian movie industry has achieved in 13 years other countries in the world have not achieved in 90.

People want to compare us with Bollywood and Hollywood forgetting that both have their own unique methodology and philosophy. What we have been able to do in the last few years should be applauded and I know for a fact that we will not remain stagnant but that the movie industry will get better and better.

To the author of this blog I identified with you when you said that you are not sure whether to group Hausa movies into Nollywood. I just wanted to let you know that the term Nollywood is a problematic and even colonial term in the sense that if our industry were just termed the Nigerian movie industry we would not have a problem with defining what movies fall into the Nigerian movie industry. The Indian movie industry is like Nigeria in the sense that there is the Bombay movie industry and other non-hindi movie industries within India that. They sometimes complain about the term Bollywood.

In addition, by using Hollywood to name other movie industries it gives Hollywood a false sense of dominance because in numbers Bollywood makes more movies and sells more movie tickets than Hollywood movies do. So technically Bollywood is the biggest movie industry in the world

Talatu-Carmen said...

Aimie, thanks for your comment! I agree that the Nigerian film industry is extremely exciting. I read somewhere that (in addition to being the third largest film industry in the world) it is one of Nigeria's largest exports. And whether or not the filmmakers see all of that money (I know they don't), what I love about it is that this is not a non-renewable resource like oil or minerals, which can be stripped and taken abroad, or even a cannibalistic industry like tourism that creates money out of objectifying national myths, but a constantly growing and changing industry based on human creativity and ingenuiety (sp?). And if any place in the world has creativity and ingeniety, it is Nigeria. Although , I certainly think criticism is a good thing--the energy of debate that can drive an argument forward--and given in the right spirit can aid filmmakers to improve their films, I am bugged by the criticisms I often hear that imply that Nigerian filmmakers must follow the direction of foreign filmmakers to make their own films. Certainly, give people options and choices and workshops if they want them, but don't say that anything that doesn't fit in with your personal taste is rubbish. Who exactly makes the "rules" for what is good and what is not? And if huge numbers of people disagree with the minority who make those "rules," is it perhaps time to re-evaluate the "standard"? That's exactly what many of us in postcolonial studies are trying to do--challenge assumptions that European aesthetics, philosophy etc are necessarily the standard by which everything else must be judged. Yet, these assumptions are so insidious, we have been educated into them. Growing out of them, "unlearning" them, is a process that will probably take the rest of my life. (That's not to say that I do not appreciate excellent European art; Shakespeare and Jane Austen (and Coppola) always appear on my "favourites" list, but that I am wary of saying that all artists in the world must then try to "measure up" to Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Coppola)

And, yes, I agree with you that the term Nollywood is not unproblematic. I've taken to using it because it is so common, and it trips so well off the tongue, but I've often thought about it in relation to the whole Bollywood/Lollywood, etc. etc. problem of lumping all Indian/Pakistani films into Mumbai films.

Aimie said...

"I often hear that imply that Nigerian filmmakers must follow the direction of foreign filmmakers to make their own films. Certainly, give people options and choices and workshops if they want them, but don't say that anything that doesn't fit in with your personal taste is rubbish. Who exactly makes the "rules" for what is good and what is not? And if huge numbers of people disagree with the minority who make those "rules," is it perhaps time to re-evaluate the "standard"? That's exactly what many of us in postcolonial studies are trying to do--challenge assumptions that European aesthetics, philosophy etc are necessarily the standard by which everything else must be judged. "

Very well said. I could not have said this better.

airmanchairman said...

I am generally supportive of the fledgling Nigerian film efforts to date, but it must be said that I take issue with the adoption of the term "Nollywood" itself - it is too much of a cringing bow, curtsy (or prostration if African terms should be used) to Hollywood, which simply reacts with a patronising, condescending smile of weak encouragement. This is the way I reacted decades ago to the term "Bollywood" and I see no reason to feel any differently to Nollywood.
Given the obseqious nature of the term, is it any surprise that many consider that our film industry merely apes the foreign form, and rather poorly at that?
One thing is for sure: after the pioneering efforts of Eddie Ugboma, Ola Balogun and Hubert Ogunde in the 60s and 70s, it is really difficult to consider the present crop of offerings as an evolution of the art form, whether in terms of plot, ethos and philosophy not to talk about technical expertise.
Having said that, one feather in the cap of the Nollywood film industry is the groundbreaking creation of its own market, rather like the Hip-hop moguls that emerged in the USA on their own initiative, utilising word-of-mouth and leveraging the leaders of the 'hood (neighbourhood) gangs and communities - this is a laudable feat, and no doubt will constitute the engine that will galvanise the improvement of the genre through competition and innovation.
Lessons can be learnt from the study of the American and Indian genres - for example, it is not generally known that the Hollywood Western "Cowboy" genre borrowed heavily from the Japanese films of the great Akiro Kurosawa (his "The Seven Samurai" was the spiritual inspiration for "The Magnificent Seven" and his "Yojimbo [the Bodyguard]" the same for "A Fistful of Dollars". There are many more examples of Akiro's Japanese films having Hollywood equivalents). Akiro is regarded with awe and admiration in Hollywood for inspiring a generatation of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah among others.
Wjile I wish Nollywood well, I would encourage the adoption of a more exciting and original name for the genre, and urge its central movers and shakers to continually seek to "think outside the Box". All the best and Happy new 2008 to you all.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Airman chairman,

Thanks for your comment. I use the term "Nollywood" because it seems to have become inevitable, but I understand your discomfort with the term.

Certainly, Eddie Ugboma, Ola Balogun and Hubert Ogunde were the pioneers and did good work (although I have read about their films, I have yet to see one of them--where does one find them?), but I'm not sure why there is this idea that because the pioneers did good work that what follows cannot be as good. Of course, whenever there are hundreds of films coming out at one time, there will be some that rise to the top and some that are rubbish. It is the case with any film industry in the world. But I dare say that there are quite a few contemporary Nigerian films that are just as good as those made on celluloid by the pioneers. (see Odia Ofeimun's essay that I posted last month for a lucid and beautiful reflection on these issues).

And, yes, the case of Hollywood imitation of Akiro Kurosawa is fascinating. George Lukas's blockbuster Star Wars series in particular was in part inspired by Akiro Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. And this is how I would respond to those who criticize Nigerian filmmakers for borrowing elements from other film traditions: which film tradition has not? Cross fertilization is how creativity works. And one Hausa filmmaker I interviewed, Abbas Sadiq said as much. I'll try to post that later.

thanks again for your comment!