(a post in which I meditate on my research obsessions and recommend a recent opinion piece on “Art and Censorship in Kano” by multiple award-winning Nigerian novelist Helon Habila)
In Helon Habila’s first novel Waiting for an Angel, which was the subject of my MA thesis, he blurs the boundaries between his characters’ fictions and the reality of the world they live in. Originally self-published as a collection of short stories Prison Stories, the novel is fractured into stories told from multiple perspectives about “ordinary” people living out their lives in the “prison state” of Nigeria under the Abacha regime. The artist, Habila implies, provides a challenge to oppressive structures by gathering up the voices of poor ordinary people, so often lost in official propaganda, and putting them into print. The novel is not merely a litany of hopelessness, although the hardship of poverty is illustrated, but also captures the loud irreverent conversations in a Lagos “Mama Put” joint on Morgan street, which has been re-named “Poverty Street” by its inhabitants and the vivid dreams of ordinary people for a better life.
One striking scene shows the main character Lomba, a journalist and aspiring novelist, watch a fictional scene he had written for his paper come to life. Lomba’s characters reflect what his editor James tells him to capture: the “general disillusionment, the lethargy” of being trapped into a story where “One general goes, another one comes, but the people remain stuck in the same vicious groove. Nothing ever changes for them except the particular details of their wretchedness. They’ve lost all faith in the government’s unending transition programmes. Write on that” (113). The story that Lomba writes is filled with “ubiquitous gun and whip-toting soldiers,” “potbellied, glaucomatous kids” playing in gutters alongside the carcasses of “mongrel dogs worried by vultures” (118). This story does, indeed, seem to reflect the despair of life in a prison until the end of the story where he writes of “the kerosene-starved house-wives of Morgan Street. I make them rampage the streets, tearing down wooden signboards and billboards and hauling them away to their kitchens to use as firewood” (118). This moment suggests both the extremity of the environment, which has forced the people of Morgan street against the wall, as well as the agency of the women who take their futures into their own hands. And although James removes the celebratory conclusion before publication, telling Lomba he is “laying it on a bit too thick,” on his way home, Lomba sees an angry mob of women who “set to hacking and sawing” at a large billboard advertising condoms. It is Lomba’s knowledge of the script that allows him to tell the man next to him that “‘They are not crazy. They are just gathering firewood’ I explained to him. It was my writing acting itself out. And James thought I had had laid it on too thick. I wish he were here to see reality mocking his words.”
Although Lomba’s first reaction is one of hopelessness that “we are only characters in a story and our horizon is so narrow and so dark[,]” this episode is a revolutionary moment in the text (119). While Lomba, as well as the women outside the window of the Molue, may be characters in a story, this moment marks a remarkable departure from the prophecies of prison and death foretold by a marabout in another “story” in the novel. The porous borders between Lomba’s fiction and his reality that allow his writing to act itself out indicate the possibilities of the imagination—the possibility that while caught in a the literary metaphor of a prison, the “prisoners” might turn around and revolt. Lomba, and subsequently the mob of women, take the text into their own hands and appropriate the property of the state to sustain their own needs
In recently thinking about my research interests on Nigerian films and “meta-fictions,” I realize that what obsessed me about Waiting for an Angel is also what obsesses me about Nigerian and particularly Hausa films, both in the reflection of the stories of “ordinary people” so often seen in these films and in a projective imagination that often (although certainly not always) challenges injustices by acting as what Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentions as a crucial aspect of art, that of a mirror, which “reflects whatever is before it—beauty spots, warts, and all” (1998, 21). People are rarely passive in these films. Beloved comedians like ‘dan Ibro often skewer the rich and powerful in their satirical stories.
I’ve heard people complain that there is too much “shouting” in Nigerian films, yet to me this “shouting” becomes a powerful metaphor for what Nigerian films have done for the “voiceless.” Gayatri Spivak has asked if the “subaltern can speak”? While I want to be over-cautious about over-romanticizing Nigerian films, which often do reproduce Nigerian society’s worst stereotypes of women and offer alarmingly unhealthy “solutions” to problems, I think one of the reasons I love the films so much is because they do seem to allow the “subaltern” to speak, both literally (in that so many of the film participants come from poor backgrounds) and metaphorically.
Attempts to suppress these films, therefore, seem like the attempts of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel to suppress and co-opt the voice of the writer Lomba. The writer is imprisoned, seemingly muzzled, but attempts to suppress his voice ultimately prove to be impossible. Lomba smuggles stories about his “life in prison” through metaphoric language in his “love poems” commissioned by the prison superintendent for the woman he is woo-ing.
Hausa films are often dismissed for being “just love stories.” But stories of love can be powerful. There is often more going on than the reader of surfaces will find.
I was thrilled, therefore, this morning to find that Helon Habila has recently brought together my two research obsessions in a recent article in one of my favourite new publications, NEXT: “Art and Censorship in Kano.” In the article, he both challenges simplistic critiques of Nigerian films and meditates on the “politics” of censorship. As Habila points out, while Nigerian films are not always polished “cinema” pieces, they have “made movie making a grass roots experience.”
[UPDATE: 19 October 2013. While I was doing a little blog maintenance, I was afraid I had lost access to this article because NEXT went out of business a few years ago and took all their content with them. Fortunately, Sola at Naija Rules had copied the article over on her site. I've previously been irked when Nigerianfilms.com and other such sites have copied my blog content without permission, but I am beginning to be grateful for these sites that make articles available long after the original sites have gone down. I am re-copying Helon Habila's article here for archival purposes.]
Art and censorship in Kano
By Helon Habila
It is so easy to underestimate the achievement of the Nigerian film industry, and this is because we always measure such achievements using false parameters—we compare Nollywood to Bollywood and Hollywood.
Whenever we do that, Nollywood will always come short of our unreasonable expectations. How long has it been in existence? Ten, maybe 20 years? What of Hollywood, over a hundred years? And Bollywood, when was Sholay made, 1960?
The extent of what our film makers have achieved in the short time they have been here was pointed out to me by a Nigerian/South African director friend.
When I asked him to compare the two film industries, he said, South Africa has all the right tools and techniques, they make movies on celluloid and with multiple cameras and have the right post-production requirements, but Nigeria doesn’t have all that, yet South Africans can’t get people to watch their movies whereas the Nigerian movies are practically jumping off the shelves.
It is true South Africa makes great movies, like Tsotsi, every once in a long while, but Nigeria has made movie making a grass roots experience. That is the paradox: whereas movie making in Nollywood is nondemocratic and cliquey, yet the consciousness towards it, and the patronage, is widespread.
This mass patronage and consciousness is indispensable if any nation is going to have a viable film industry. And we are achieving all this without government participation, or should I say, in spite of government participation.
And government participation is what brings me to Kano. The industry here is called Kannywood (what else?) Most people outside the Hausa speaking world aren’t really aware of it, but it has been going on for a while. Just as Nollywood’s progenitors are the early Nigerian soap operas like “Behind the Clouds”, “After the Storm”, etc, Kannywood also grew on the back of popular Hausa TV ‘dramas’ like “Samanja”, “Karkuzu”, and of course “Kasimu Yero’s Gagarau”.
Other unmistakable influences are Bollywood movies. The Indian influence on Hausa films can at best be described as odd, at worst weird—here I am not only talking about the excessively romantic nature of Hausa movies, the love theme could easily have come from Hausa literature, but I am talking about the song and dance numbers. It seems each film has about three songs and dances.
I remember the first time I saw a Hausa film, nobody had warned me that there was going to be singing and dancing, and so when it came I was taken totally unawares, and yes, I was disconcerted to watch these Nigerians singing and dancing on the streets of Kano.
That was the first impression. The second impression was: Well, the songs are really not that bad, if you are a song and dance kind of person. All in all one wished the songs would end quickly so the movie would resume.
But this piece is not really about aesthetics, it is about art and politics.
These actors would have gone on singing and dancing in peace, and mostly unnoticed by most Nigerians outside the Hausa speaking world if not for what has come to be dubbed the “Hausa Film Porn Scandal”. It seems in August 2007, a popular Hausa film actress, Maryam Hiyana, was filmed making love to her boyfriend, by the said boyfriend. In their defence they said it wasn’t for commercial purposes, so that technically means it is not porn, but somehow the eight-minute clip was leaked to the public and this began a series of what can only be described as a siege on the film industry by the Kano State government. And to quote a source, “So far, according to Ahmed Alkanawy, director of the Centre for Hausa Cultural Studies, over 1000 youth involved in the film industry and related entertainment industries ‘have been arrested in the name of shari’ah and sanitization.’ … However, although shari’ah law is invoked, most ‘censorship’-related cases are being tried in a state magistrate court, a mobile court on Airport Road presided over by magistrate Mukhtar Ahmed.
Defendants are often arrested and convicted within an hour, without the benefit of legal representation. Some are given prison sentences while others are given the option of paying a fine.”
A popular actor, Rabilu Musa (Dan Ibro), was arrested for “indecent dancing”!
What I find most chilling is a book-burning ceremony staged in a girls’ school. Book burning, in a school! The government may as well close down the school, for by burning books in front of students, the whole aim of educating them is defeated.
Even individual writers were required to register before writing!
The most recent case is the arrest of a former gubernatorial candidate Hamisu Lamido Iyan Tama—a film maker whose film, “Tsintsiya”, is an adaptation of the Hollywood classic, “Westside Story”. He was first arrested in May 2008 for three months and fined 2,500 naira, then in January 2009 he was sentenced to 15 months with a fine of N300,000. It seems in the movie, he acted the role of a governor and carried out an investigation into the causes of sectarian violence.
Here, at last, the government is showing its hand. Whenever an art form begins to go beyond entertainment and to appeal to people’s political consciousness, the people in power become scared. That seems to be the case with Kano.
The question to ask is, are the censors working in the interest of the people, or are they using religion for political ends as we have seen so often in the shari’ah states? Any society that seeks to silence the artist is attacking the people, for often it is only the artist that can articulate the secret hopes and yearnings of the people.