Saturday, February 02, 2008

Ousmane Sembene on Nigerian video films

I have spent all day reading articles on Nigerian film that I realized I had not yet read and needed to do so speedily before finishing my proposal. Via my library link I was able to get access to a fabulous issue of Film International (2007) 5:4. Most of the articles seem to have gotten beyond the cliched and simplistic haranguing of Nigerian films for not fulfilling some "universal" standard of "quality," and instead delve into the complex and revolutionary contributions Nigerian film is making to world cinema.

However, when I finished reading John McCall's article “The Pan-Africanism we Have: Nollywood’s invention of Africa”, I had to post his postscript, which described what tha Ousmane Sembene, (may he rest in peace), often proclaimed the "Father" of African cinema, recently said about the Nigerian film industry:

I quote from John McCall:
"A few years ago I was fortunate to be among a group of American scholars gathered in Dakar for an NEH Institute to discuss the current state of African cinema. Over the course of the Institute, the question of whether Nollywood movies should be taken seriously became a point of heated discussion. One day we were fortunate to have Ousmane Sembene as a guest speaker. When he completed his presentation, the first question he was asked was what he thought of the new Nigerian video movies. We were all eager to hear what the venerable father of African cinema had to say on this subject. Sembene smiled just a bit, removed the ever-present pipe from his mouth, and said that the Nigerians had found a way to reach the African audience--and that, he acknowledged--was a very great accomplishment. A true revolutionary, Sembene said that the Nigerians had shown the way to reach the African audience, and that African film-makers should rethink their devotion to celluloid film and recognize that video was better suited to the vital task at hand" (McCall 96).

McCall, John C. “The Pan-Africanism we Have: Nollywood’s invention of Africa.” Film International. 5:4 (2007): 92-97.

And, so, my brothers and sisters, I stand vindicated for, in a recent paper, comparing the farcical portrayal of a neocolonial elite in Sembene's film Xala to the farcical portrayal of said elite in Kingsley Ogoro's Osuofia in London, (for those who have seen it think of the "mirror scene" in which the British-Nigerian lawyer begins to lose his accent). I rest my case....


jinni said...

Being a Nigerian and a film maker,I applaud the achievements of Nollywood.But I still have issues with the low quality and wrong messages they send about Nigerians.Nollywood films by and large,portray Ibo culture and could end up being a tool for Ibo imperialism over other Nigerian culture.I do not find withcraft,fraud,prostitution,arm robbery,and excessive pursuit of material things etc palatable(themes they always portray).That is not all that Nigerians do.
Secondly,I wonder what all the Idumota,Alaba nd Aba home video makers do with all the millions Nigerian government and corporate bodies give them each year.Also most of them are so called film school or theatre arts graduates.Methinks they should have been able to do something about quality of their works,instead they end up churning painfully nonsensical works.In the name of being modern,they ape the white man while speaking bad english and being stupid,and in the name of being epic or traditional,they portray Africa as being hopelessly wicked and full of witchcraft.
while video revolutionised the art,celluloid is still unbeatable and I am shocked at why some of the nollywood heavyweights havent embraced it.
Nigerian film was better when Jos was still the film capital(the days of the soap operas e.g cockcrow at dawn,behind the clouds etc and the celluloid works of Sadiq Balewa etc).Things took a turn for the worst when the lagos and Aba charlatans took over.
I will like to point out that Hausa films,despite its many problems(iliteracy,lack of funds and patronage,harsh censorship by society and government)has put out better works than nollywood.

Talatu-Carmen said...


thanks for your comment! I'm not going to get involved in a debate between regional filmmakers--esp. because I still haven't seen enough of the Igbo/English/Yoruba films to make an intelligent critique--but I would agree that I have enjoyed the Hausa films a great deal--the acting in the Hausa films, for example, seems more "natural" to me than much of the acting I have seen in English language films.

I think internal debate between filmmakers is a good thing; "iron sharpens iron"; a filmmaker who does something innovative and new will be imitated by others. I respect opinions about the industry coming from filmmakers, who have been practicing their craft and obviously know what they are talking about. What irritates me are the "armchair" critics who do not make films but yet claim that there is NO aesthetic value to video films. Obviously some of the films are nonsensical trash, and other ones are really good. I think the audience is sophisticated enough to distinguish between and to even determine the aesthetic they look for. The question is: what exactly are those elements that determine the difference between the good stuff and the drivel? I'm still trying to work on a conceptual framework for that, but I'd welcome your thoughts. I think, though, that audience reaction must, necessarily, be considered at least one of the factors in determining what is "good" and what is "bad"--not the ONLY factor, mind you, since popular audiences often prefer those things which reinforce stereotypes over those that challenge them, but they should be at least one part of what is taken into consideration....

And, of course, you are quite right in pointing out the problematic representations of "tradition" as necessarily wicked. I'd say that gender representations are another problematic element of many Nollywood films, and, true, we mustn't celebrate all-things-Nollywood at the expense of losing our critical thinking along the way. At the same time, if film is a mirror of society, I don't think we can say that films about prostitution/fraud, etc must not be made. Those things exist. At the same time if those are the ONLY things that are made, then, yes, a focus on more positive themes is needed.

What worries me is an elitist aeshetic that ignores the local audience in pursuit of international laurels. There is certainly nothing WRONG with FESPACO and other film festivals--they have played a necessary part in giving voice to African cinema, and I hope to attend FESPACO next year; yet, very few of those films have reached the audiences that they were ostensibly made for. Rather, they are often shaped by the critiques of outside audiences and follow more of a European artfilm aesthetc. (The Cameroonian filmmaker Jeanne-Pierre Bekolo has taken on these questions about African cinema in his strikingly original Quartier Mozart, Aristotle's Plot, and Les Saignantes.)

Nollywood, on the other hand, has played an important role in challenging the hegemony of the outside critic and developing a new model that is beginning to be copied elsewhere (I just read an article about some South African filmmakers who were copying the video film model).

I agree that celluloid films are very beautiful, but, at the same time, I think that the digital medium is what allows the Nollywood model to work. As Ousmane Sembene observed, Nollywood figured out how to get the films to the audiences the films are made for. And, as I'm sure you are aware, digital can also be manipulated to an extremely high quality image, depending on the type of camera and lens that is used. (The latest Star War films being an extreme example.) My brother, (to use a more "affordable" model), is a freelance filmmaker who shoots on digital but uses lenses that create a "film look." So, while I love celluloid films, I don't think that we should limit our conceptions of "quality" to only a technology that is not practically available to most filmmakers in Nigeria. (An exception to this would be the film Amazing Grace that was just made on celluloid.) Would it not be a better investment to invest in these high quality digital cameras to produce films that can be more easily and cheaply shot and edited than to go back to celluloid which requires much more expensive equipment, film stock, etc?

Again, I am pretty much an armchair critic at this point, my opinions formed mostly by what I've read. I respect your opinions and insights as a practicing filmmaker "on the ground," and I look forward to learning more about the mood in the Hausa film industry when I return to Nigeria next month.

Christian Writer said...

Dear TC, one day, when I grow up and I sabi proper grammar, I will write like you.

By the way, my sister read your profile for the first time (to find out why I always chortle to myself when I'm on your blog) and let out a huge hurray. You see, she's a HUGE Bollywood fan. You've got yourself a virtual Bollywood mate. Hope you can withstand the stalking...

Talatu-Carmen said...

CW, bring it on! I posted my latest post "Barack OBollywood" just for you! {-;

real livin said...

wasn't sure if there was another way to get this info to you.

For Immediate Release

Real Livin' Films Presents

"God's Own Country"

Movie/Mixtape set to be Most Downloaded in African History

Real Livin' Films is proud to present the groundbreaking worldwide release of "God's Own Country", the debut film by director Femi Agbayewa. The film chronicles the life of Ike Ajayi, an immigrant from Africa who came to get his piece of the "American pie" but soon finds that life in America isn't how it's depicted on television when he gets caught in a sinister web of deception, betrayal and greed.

"God's Own Country" is a gritty, true-to-form depiction of the trials and tribulations that face new citizens every day.

"With God's Own Country, I wanted to take people down the path of an Immigrant, the arrival process, the expectations and all the pitfalls that happen in between, " notes the Bronx-based director. "All these different elements make up an experience, and I wanted this to be an inclusive story, rather than exclusively Nigerian. I think the ability to tell universal tales of the black experience should be the goal of Nollywood. That's why I attached USA at the end of it."

The Nigerian film industry, commonly called "Nollywood" began in the '70s and currently is the most successful movie market in the world, only behind Hollywood and Bollywood.
"God's Own Country" is a vivid, gripping story that hits close to home no matter where you're from, and coupled with an intense hip hop soundtrack, this is as real as reality gets. Packed with love, loss and retribution; the streets paved with gold are about to turn red.
The Movie:
"God's Own Country" is set to be released in a way never before done: the viewers set their own price and can download the movie directly from the official movie site This is the first urban film to do such a thing and it has been estimated that this will be the most downloaded African movie in history. Released February 26th in time for Black History Month, it was important that every nation realize that beyond the film lies the dire need for communication. At, viewers can do just that—communicate via forums and represent where they're from with a global tracker. Truly an event like no other.
The Mixtape:
A free download from the official movie site, and featuring such artists as Lil' Wayne and Akon, Franchize and Dizzee Rascal, this mixtape/soundtrack is the perfect companion to the movie. Never before has there been such a musical camaraderie between the U.S., Africa, France and the U.K. to create a necessary human dialogue. Hosted by world renowned DJ Green Lantern, it is guaranteed to have something for everyone.
For press kits, DVD requests, etc., please contact Malik Scott at Real-Livin at 646-315-2196 or email at

1. DJ Green Lantern Intro

2. God's Own Country--Franchize (Nigeria/USA) featuring Mr. S.I.N. (USA)

3. I'm African--Dead Prez (USA)

4. Outstanding--Lil Wayne (USA)

5. Achterstandsbuurt--Severe Ill & J-83 feat. Vieira (Cape Verde/NL)

6. Dipset freestyle

7. Mama Africa--Akon (Senegal/USA)

8. Uncle Murda (USA)

9. Esperance-- Moubaraka feat. Soprano (Comores/France)

10.Swizz Beats/Nore (USA)

11.I Go Yarn-- Eldee the Don (Nigeria)

12.Exclusive Wyclef (Haiti/USA)

13.Hardback Industry--Dizzee Rascal (Ghana/UK)

14.Nore/Styles P (USA)

15. Africanthem--Krukid (Uganda)

16. Zoo--Lil Wayne (USA)

17. Farafina--Amkoullel (Mali)

18. Swizz Beats (USA)

19. Telema mpo na Kongo-- Lopango ya Banka (Congo)

20. Akon and Plies (Senegal/USA)

21. Picha Hailsi--X Plastaz feat. Jimmy Rage (Tanzania/Jamaica/NL)


tabdi jam, aiki sai mai shi, wane mutum, a gaskiya my happiness can not be expressed by mere saying, its beyond that. Though I have to reserve it, since this is my first time i stumble on your blog while searching for a different thing. Nayi murna matuka and promised to be frequenting for your sake.

Keep it on and watch out for my full (unedited) comments.

Anonymous said...

Hey Talatu,
Hope you're well!
Reading that quote of Sembene's, it almost sounds like he is saying that the "medium" of video is important and worth considering, but he is not necessarily supporting the content of said videos.... or maybe I'm reading into it too much. -tx

Talatu-Carmen said...

tx, thanks for the comment. I'm sure that's probably what he was saying. A friend of mine recently met Soyinka and asked him about the video films. Soyinka supposedly said that he said he thought they were "tawdry" but worthy of attention. I would imagine any of these great artists of a certain era would have the same half-admiring/half-askance perspective.

Everyone doesn't have to be as enthusiastic about the films as I am, but I think everyone does need to sit up and take notice of the brilliant innovations the Nigerian video film industry has brought to the world of cinema--and I think that is what Sembene (and Soyinka) were commenting upon.