Monthly Archives: March 2011

Anchor Baby and the dark underbelly of the American Dream

I’m behind at posting my old columns, but I was reminded of this article that I wrote a month and a half ago, while briefly sitting beside Omoni Oboli at the dinner after the AMAA award ceremony. Omoni Oboli was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of the pregnant Joyce in Lonzo Nzekwe’s film Anchor Baby. She didn’t win the award, but she certainly deserved it. Her admirable acting in The Figurine and Anchor Baby puts her on my favourite Nigerian actress list. To read the article, which was published on 12 February, on the Weekly Trust site, click here. To read the hard copy of the article, click on the photo below, which will take you to a readable version of the article on flickr. To read it on this site, just scroll down past the photo.

Anchor Baby and the dark underbelly of the American Dream

Saturday, 12 February 2011 00:00 -

When anyone asks me what my favourite Nigerian movie is, I tell them it’s The Figurine, which was directed, produced, and acted in by Kunle Afolayan.

The film has a tight and continuously gripping storyline that polishes and refines Nollywood genres of spiritual thriller and family drama. But if I’m asked to recommend films, I’ll closely follow my recommendation of The Figurine with the film I went to see last week in Abuja’s Silverbird cinema: Anchor Baby, written, directed, and produced by the debut filmmaker Lonzo Nzekwe, who claims he taught himself filmmaking by reading books and watching “making of” documentaries. In Anchor Baby, which won Best film at the Harlem International Film festival among other awards, Figurine actress Omoni Oboli is compelling in her role as a pregnant Nigerian woman on the run from the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Anchor Baby, the title referring to the derogatory American term for babies born as citizens in the U.S. to non-citizens, is a cautionary tale about the dark side of the American dream. The disillusion of emigrants from Nigeria is a theme that has been dealt with in short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, EC Osondu, Helon Habila, and others, and is becoming a genre of Nigerian films produced in America as well. The yet to be released film Unwanted Guest directed by Daniel Ademinokan and set in New York, for example, explores the domestic complications an already married Nigerian man faces when he marries an American woman for a green card. The 2008 Hausa film Kano to Saudiyya directed and acted by the late Ziklifu Mohammed deals with similar immigration themes of disillusion with life in Saudi Arabia.

The United States doesn’t come across in a very flattering light in Anchor Baby, but it is an America I recognize, even though it was shot entirely in Ontario, Canada. I walked into the cinema five minutes late just as we see the character, Paul Unonga (Sam Sarpong), run across a parking lot and down the grassy incline of an industrial park, chased by American Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The film is shot on the film-quality digital RED camera, but the lush colours the RED is capable of capturing are toned down here into dreary grays and browns. It is winter, and the grass is dead. Paul runs past rows of dirty semi-trucks. This is the ugly side of America, not often seen in glamorous Hollywood films. ICE officials eventually catch him at home in the bleak white hallway of his low-income housing flat. Paul’s pregnant wife Joyce (Omoni Oboli) luckily misses the immigration sweep because she has gone out for an early morning walk. The rest of the film follows the trials of Joyce, as she tries to fulfill the couple’s dream of staying in the U.S. until her baby is born, so that the baby, the “anchor” of the title, will be granted U.S. citizenship.

The celebrated comforts of American life, the film points out, are available only when one is linked into an organized system of legal identity. Once her husband is deported, Joyce finds herself in an almost impossible situation. To escape the immigration officials, she is forced to leave their apartment. The isolation of American life means she knows no one well enough to ask for assistance. She can’t get a job because she has no work papers. Staying at cheap motels becomes too expensive for the small savings she has left, but she is unable to rent a new apartment without government issued id. Similarly, she is unable to receive pre-natal checkups at the clinic, because she has neither health insurance, government id, or the large sum of cash needed to see to the doctor. Eventually, Joyce becomes dependent on the kindness of strangers, the sympathetic free lance writer Susan, brilliantly acted by Terri Oliver, and her interior designer husband, Tim (Colin Paradise). But while she appreciates their kindness, Joyce becomes increasingly uncomfortable by her benefactors’ marriage problems. Her loneliness is portrayed best as she stands on the verandah of a cheap hotel, staring out over the dead winter landscape, an American flag flapping on the railing beneath her.

Although the focus of the film is on Joyce’s experiences, there is also a brief portrayal of the coping mechanism other illegal immigrants face, in the pathos of a Mexican family who make a living out of forging government documents. The film ultimately shows the price of the anchor baby, and the ironies lurking behind the American dream.

I would show this film anywhere, to Nigerians wanting to move to the often idealized U.S., and to Americans who don’t understand the challenges immigrants face. However, there are certain moments that, to my American eye, seem off. When Joyce stays in a basement apartment, the windows should be high, submerged in the ground at eye-level, yet there are points at which we see low sitting window sills and a light source that seem more appropriate for a first floor room. When Paul calls Joyce from the immigration detention centre and tells her to move out of their apartment, it seems strange that this phone call, placed from prison, is not tapped by the police and that Joyce is not picked up by immigration officials before she moves out of the apartment.

My own encounters with American immigration and customs have been few compared to what immigrants face. When I attended university in the U.S., I volunteered with Amnesty International to interview illegal immigrants being held in a prison for deportation to see if there was any way we could assist them with legal help. On a recent trip to the U.S. I wore an abaya and veil to see if I would be profiled by immigration officials at the airport. I was. The only person dressed like a Muslim in the line at a security checkpoint waiting to exit passport control into America, I was also the only one chosen for a pat-down body search. In both instances, the immigration officers I observed displayed more of a bored and unthoughtful officiousness, an institutionalized bias, than deliberate brutality, more like what is seen in the film where Joyce Unanga is denied an apartment and health care because she doesn’t have insurance card or government id. The kind but condescending and bureaucratic immigration officer in the airport, who calls up his boss and says he has an “illegal” for him, is likely more usual in America than the trigger-happy immigration officer Mark Castello (Michael Scratch), who drops racial slurs and blows cigarette smoke into Paul Unonga’s face. But the over-the-top villain works well for dramatic effect, and there are certainly many documented cases of police brutality from the assault against Haitian Abner Louima in a New York jail and the shooting of Guinean Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, New York, in the 1990s, to more recent acts of discrimination, torture, and secret extradition following Patriot Act laws of the 2000s. This is the dark underbelly of the American dream.

In terms of world cinema, Anchor Baby reminds me of the Indian film, My Name is Khan, released last year. In the film, an autistic Indian immigrant living in California is discriminated against by his neighborhood and by airport officials because of his Muslim name. Seemingly made for a non-American audience, My Name is Khan sometimes fudges geographical detail and stereotypes non-Indian characters (I think particularly of the way African American characters are portrayed) but tells a compelling story of how differences strengthen, rather than weaken, American culture. And, to be fair, the exaggeration of detail that you find in My Name is Khan or Anchor Baby are nothing so extreme as the stereotyping of other cultures and countries found in Hollywood films. There is something quite satisfying about these non-American interventions into representations of America, which like the Al Jazeera coverage of the U.S., as opposed to the glossy portrayals of Hollywood and CNN, focus on the poor and downtrodden of “God’s own country.” In a time in which the film industries of an established Bollywood and a rising Nollywood have relegated America’s celebrated industry to number three, and where an economically depressed America seems to be struggling increasingly with xenophobia against non-citizens, we can expect more of the same. I eagerly await Lonzo Nzekwe’s next film.

UPDATE: 25 March 2012.  You can rent, buy, or watch a preview of Anchor Baby, in the embedded video here (Anchor Baby).

 

My translated excerpt of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! published in Sentinel Nigeria

The beat-up cover of my working copy of Kaico! (complete with little kid pencil scribbles)

I’m behind on this blog, and there is much more to post, including my trip to Lagos and Yenegoa, for a “Reading Nollywood” conference and the AMAA awards. (For an excellent post on AMAA, see my friend Bic Leu’s blog, which uses a lot of the photos I took while there.) But, in the meantime, here is a link to an excerpt of my translation-in-progress of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! that was published in the March 2011, Issue 5 of Sentinel Nigeria Online.

The excerpt comes from the first chapter of the novel, which I have completed three (rough) chapters of so far. In addition to needing to finish translating the entire novel, the translation of the three chapters I have completed still need a lot of polishing and editing. But I do appreciate Sentinel Editor, Richard Ali being so committed to start featuring translations of African-language works that he urged me to send this in as is.

Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino is the bestselling author of In Da So Da Kauna, a Hausa language novel that sold over 100,000 copies. Winner of the 2009 Engineer Mohammad Bashir Karaye Prize in Hausa Literature for his play Malam Zalimu, he is also a founding member of the Hausa film industry, and has produced or directed sixteen films in Hausa, including his most recent Sandar Kiwo, which has been shown internationally.

Here is an excerpt from the excerpt:

On Monday, the 23rd day of Ramadan, after we broke fast, my good friend Kabiru visited our house. I saw him as he came into the room, and I quickly got up and grabbed his hand.
“Kai, look who we have here in town today. Kabiru, ashe, are you around? Long time no see!” I said, holding on to his hand.
As we sat down, Kabiru said, “I traveled for a week, that’s why you haven’t seen me. You know that if I hadn’t traveled, it would have been hard to go for seven days without seeing you.”
“I was thinking maybe the fasting was keeping you from going anywhere,” I answered. “You know how the fasting wears you out when the sun is beating down.”
“Well, the sun may be hot, but there’s no sun at night. I was told that you came to my house looking for me while I was gone. Have you forgotten?”
“Oh, I know. I just asked to see what you would say.” We both smiled.
Kabiru looked at me. “Oho, so you want to catch me out, do you?”
“Ai, well, that’s why you should marry relatives. They know you. You know them. If you take the bait, it’s not my fault,” I laughed.
“Ok, well, jokes aside. I have something important I want to talk to you about.”
“I’m listening. What’s up?” I tilted my head to one side to listen.

***

Unfortunately, the English translation published by Sentinel extends beyond the Hausa that was also given, and I have currently misplaced my copy of the book, but as soon as I find it, I will put up the Hausa portion of this excerpt for a side-by-side comparison. To read more, see the Sentinel site.

Hausa novelist Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino and (translator) Carmen McCain in his office, August 2005.

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine, and Nigeria’s Rebranding Project at FESPACO

The past two weeks in my column “My Thoughts Exactly” in the Weekly Trust, I have briefly analyzed and compared the two Nigerian films, The Figurine and Champions of Our Time, that were in competition in the FESPACO Video Feature category. (The week before that I had talked about the politics of what FESPACO considers a film, in “FESPACO: Politics of Video and Afolayan’s The Figurine”). Champions of Our Time, directed by Mak Kusare, won the jury prize (second prize) in the category, as well as a special ECOWAS jury prize. I will copy the articles below (and will add the hard copy of this week’s article when I am able to find one. To read the hard copy, just click on the photo and it should take you to a version big enough to read.) To read on the Weekly Trust site, click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine and Nigeria’s rebranding project at FESPACO

Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

As Africa’s longest running and most famous “pan-African” film festival, FESPACO, kicked off last week, the absence of Nigeria’s sprawling film industry, cited as the second largest in the world by UNESCO, was glaring.

Out of the one hundred and eighty-seven films listed in the official festival catalogue index, only five films from Nigeria were scheduled. Restless City, made by expatriate Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu Waheed, was the only Nigerian film in the main feature-length film competition but was withdrawn before it could be screened. Didi Cheeka’s gut-wrenching Bloodstones and Julius Morno’s whimsical The Camera (and apparently Mak Kusare’s Duty [Please note this is a correction from my earlier mistake of identifying the film as Ninety Degrees, a feature length film directed in 2006 by Mak Kusare-CM 9/4/11], though it was not listed in the catalogue) were shown as part of a short film special screening but were not in competition. Only two feature Nigerian films Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare and The Figurine directed by Kunle Afolayan even made it into the condescending TV/Video Fiction Category, reserved for feature films submitted on digital formats rather than 35 millimeter film.

Considering the noticeable omission of Nigeria from the festival, I imagine that by the time the jury for the “Best work in TV/Video” category met, they were feeling a certain amount of political pressure to award a Nigerian film with a prize. They awarded South African film Hopeville directed by Trengoue John with the best video prize, and chose Nigeria’s Champions of Our Time directed by Mak Kusare, which was also awarded an ECOWAS special prize, for the special jury (second) prize.

Since I often argue that Nollywood films should be taken seriously, I should be ecstatic that the film Champions of Our Time, a heartwarming, nicely shot tale of a child in a wheelchair and her struggle to participate in a secondary school television quiz competition, did Nigeria proud by winning two prizes at FESPACO. Unfortunately, although I am happy that a Nigerian film received such recognition, I find the selection of Champions of Our Time for the video prize problematic, perhaps because it seemed such an obvious snub of the only other feature-length Nigerian film in the competition, The Figurine, a film I have mentioned in this column as being “the best Nigerian film I have ever seen.”

I had expected The Figurine to win the category. It pushes genre elements developed by Nollywood in a new direction with beautiful cinematography, a moving soundtrack placed at all the right moments, excellent acting and set design, and sophisticated story rooted in certain cultural obsessions as developed in both in Nigerian “high” literature and more popular art forms. I did not see Hopeville so have no point of comparison, but I saw Champions of Our Time, or at least enough of it, to conclude that, at least to me, The Figurine, is by far the superior film, in terms of literary and artistic merit, if not in terms of promotion of a certain social agenda.

Champions of Our Time deals with an important topic I’ve never seen featured in any other Nigerian film, Mak Kusare is a clearly talented director, and the film has a very real emotional power, featuring several touching performances between Segun Arinze and Treasure Obasi, and an electrifying one by Ejike Asiegbu, whose character observes on national television that people throw small change at him, assuming him to be a beggar simply because he is in a wheelchair. However, compared to The Figurine, Champions is formulaic and sentimental, the sort of “disadvantaged character comes out triumphant and teaches everyone else a lesson” that has been done hundreds of times in Hollywood and Bollywood. A formula is fine if it is done in an exciting way. After all, oral tradition is built of formulas, individual performances judged better or worse by the skill with which they are executed. But when it comes to a written screenplay, there’s only so much so much even the best director and actors can do with a stiff and didactic script that quickly reveals its government funding in long memorized textbook passages on Nigerian history parroted by the contestants in the quiz show.

I admit my viewing experience of both Nigerian films was not balanced and my comparison is perhaps not quite fair. First, Champions of Our Time and The Figurine are wildly different in genre, and ideally we should appreciate each on its own merits, the social motivation/advocacy film for what it is, the spiritual thriller for what it is. I would not normally discuss the two films in the same essay. In a different context, I would probably be more positive about the intentions of Champions of Our Time, which is geared towards children—the sort of film we need more of in Nigeria—and the laudable highlighting of difficulties faced by physically challenged people in Nigeria. Second, my viewing experience of the two films was not at all equal. I’ve seen The Figurine twice, once with a stunned audience at Zuma Film Festival in Abuja, and second at FESPACO. On the other hand, I have only seen a preview copy, not even the final cut, of Champions of Our Time at FESPACO after the official copy did not work in the projector. Not only did the picture have “preview” floating over it for a third of the screening, but I did not see the end of the film because the DVD stopped at the emotional climax of the film when Sophia, a young girl in the wheelchair, decides to speak out at the quiz show award ceremony.

In obsessing over what could have made both FESPACO and ECOWAS judges choose Champions of Our Time for their prizes, I have begun to think that the decision was rooted in privileging a simplistic interpretation of “third cinema” (even if funded by problematic sources) over the crowd-pleasing “popular art” of Nollywood. Perhaps Champions won because of its good intentions and because it dealt with a topic that has not been dealt with before in Nollywood—not because it was a particularly exceptional film

At first glance, Champions of Our Time is the film that more self-consciously deals with social issues in Nigerian society. It tells the story of a competition between a privileged girl, Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi), who wants to win the St. Flair’s NGO sponsored secondary school quiz competition so her father will give her permission to stay in Lagos, and a physically challenged girl, Sophia (Treasure Obasi), who wants to win so that she will have the money to have surgery abroad. Over the course of the competition, Sophia becomes “the voice” of those living with physical challenges in Nigeria. One scene in the film provides insight into the politics of award-giving. As the two girls reveal their equally competitive skills at memorization for the quiz, Sharon’s wealthy mother (Ayo Adesanya) tries to undermine Sophia’s credibility to an already wildly prejudiced committee member (Joke Silva). The mother argues that the committee should think about the international reputation of Nigeria, especially with the new rebranding exercise: if Sophia went on to represent Nigeria in France, people outside would say that the best Nigeria could offer is a “crippled girl.” This statement reveals the character’s prejudice and serves as a critique, on the part of the filmmakers, of such shallow ideas of “rebranding.” Of course, the film implies, the “more enlightened” St. Flair’s organization of France, which was so wildly misinterpreted by its Nigerian committee members, would see nothing amiss or embarrassing about a contestant in a wheelchair.

Ostensibly speaking out in defense of those with physical differences, the film appeals to film festival judges with its political correct ideology. We are the opposite of the prejudiced mother, the film, and its government backers, seems to say. We dare to present a film to represent our nation that features a girl in a wheelchair as the main character and reveals the prejudice of our citizens. This is Nigeria rebranded as UN-charter compliant.

The problem is that it is all too obvious. The film glosses over the complexity of actual experience. The committee member villains are just a bit too flat and stupid and willfully hateful, and the physically challenged people are portrayed as helpless victims until bright young Sophia “becomes their voice.” Even the man with the most powerful voice in the film (Ejike Asiegbu), a PhD holder in agricultural engineering who crawls up three flights of stairs to interrupt the quiz show in defense of Sophia, sighs that he has not been able to get a job. Of course, there are terrible prejudices in Nigeria, as well as a lack of public policy to address the needs of the physically challenged. An exposé of such discrimination in film is a necessary corrective, but it would have been even more empowering and ultimately more respectful to those many professionals with physical challenges living in Nigeria to at least allow the PhD in the wheelchair a job.

(To be concluded)

Part 2 (click on link to go to Weekly Trust site version)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Last week, I questioned the motivations behind FESPACO and ECOWAS juries awarding Champions of Our Time, a film dramatizing a quiz competition between two secondary school students, the wealthy Sharon (Feyisola Owuyemi) and the underprivileged and physically-challenged Sophia (Treasure Obasi). I argue that the more deserving Nigerian film in the FESPACO “video feature” competition was the The Figurine, which depicts the changed lives of several Youth Corpers after they find a figurine of the goddess Araromire.

The politics of prize-giving in Champions of Our Time, and the competition between the privileged Sharon and the marginalized Sophia, becomes a prescient introduction to the politics of prize-giving at FESPACO and other award ceremonies. On the face of it, it seems that Sophia has symbolically triumphed. A film highlighting a social problem in Nigeria, featuring a young girl living with a disability, was up against an unapologetically commercial film that had won five AMAA awards and had played to sold out theatres in London. In competition, it might seem that Champions of Our Time was a David against the Goliath of The Figurine. But is this really a fair comparison? Not to me.

While Kunle Afolayan worked independent of established funding structures, funding his film with product placement and a bank loan (which he paid off after screenings at sold out theatres, apparently accomplished by innovative word-of-mouth marketing on facebook), Champions of Our Time was apparently funded by the Lagos State government. Although, The Figurine won 5 AMAA awards, official structures in Nigeria seem to favour their own Champions of Our Time, which rebrands Nigeria as actually being concerned about social issues rather than just embarrassing “ritual films,” a theme The Figurine uses and questions rather than avoiding. At the Zuma Film festival in Abuja, I was shocked when The Figurine, which blew away the audience, received only an honorable mention. Champions of Our Time (which I had not yet seen) won best film category.

If, as I suggested last week, award juries are rewarding Champions for its compliance with the ideals of Third Cinema—outlined by theorist Teshome Gabriel as a “public service institution” which presents the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples” and works as “an ideological tool,” by performers “speaking indigenous language”—how well does the film measure up? On the surface, the exposé of how people living with disabilities are ostracized, seems to well fit the goals of such a political cinema. When one digs deeper, less so.

First, the dialogue was scripted in an over-formal English nobody, other than perhaps the Queen, actually speaks, and which the best of Nollywood has moved past. Second, the entire story revolves around a rather boring quiz show contest, to which the secret of winning seems to be how well one can memorize information in a study manual. If the producers were going after Slumdog Millionaires style success by dramatizing a quiz show, their intentions fell flat.

Even more problematic, while Champions of Our Time follows self-consciously in a “third cinema” tradition of national development, it also reveals a dependency on the affirmation of a Western audience, just as FESPACO and Nigeria’s rebranding program do. Despite all its Nigerian government sponsorship and reciting of Nigerian history, the characters in Champions of Our Time seem to look outward for help. St. Flairs, the organization that sponsors the competition, is based in France, and when the doctor (Segun Arinze) challenges the prejudiced interpretations of the Nigerian St. Flair’s members, he appeals to the more enlightened sensibilities of the European main branch. He goes into such a long description of St. Flairs that I had to google it afterwards to see if the protracted speech was part of a product placement. (It was not, though such valorization of a French NGO could be seen as a plug for French film funding.) The French founders are obviously more enlightened about “physically challenged” people than the Nigerian members. So is the UN, which, the doctor repeatedly claims, has “expunged” the term “disabled” from its language, though such a vocabulary distinction would only matter to an English-speaking audience, and I could find no evidence for this claim on the UN website for the “Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.” The superiority of NGO work in Nigeria or the appeal to the outside as the arbiter of “more enlightened” views and source of aid is not questioned.

As a teacher, I was particularly disturbed by the kinds of vague questions, expected to be answered in a few minutes, asked in the quiz show (one being “Explain Islam and its Origins”). At one point when Sophia gets stuck on a question, even though she is portrayed as an intelligent girl who reads Time Magazine and is interested in international politics, she doesn’t venture any response from her own general knowledge but rather complains that the answer was missing from the manual she was given to memorize. Instruction which encourages memorization of government textbooks rather than critical thinking is exactly the sort of neocolonial education that Burkinabé filmmaker Dani Kouyaté critiqued in his film Keita: the heritage of the Griot. But, this pedagogy, apparently endorsed by St. Flair’s of France, is not questioned here. Finally, while certainly understandable, the intention of Sophia to use prize money to travel abroad for surgery further reinforces a dependency on outside structures. Ultimately, though the film nobly attempts to “give voice” to the those living with disabilities in Nigeria, thus self-consciously following in a political “third cinema” tradition, Champions seems more an appeal to an elite to be more politically correct in their language than an actual challenge to the deep power structures of society. That said, if the film motivates the elite to use their power to to lobby for more inclusive policy changes, it will have done its job.

The only political claim Kunle Afolayan makes for The Figurine, on the other hand, is that it is an “all-Nigerian” production made by Nigerians in Nigeria. I would venture to argue that its success as a “national Nigerian film” comes from its independence of international, NGO, or government funding, as well as its story rooted in structures of Yoruba storytelling. The Figurine has much more in common with the concerns developed in Nigerian theatre and literature than Champions, asking deeper questions about the psyche of people who often shrug away from personal responsibility with spiritual explanations. It resonates with popular Yoruba plays from the traveling theatre, and intellectual plays by Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan; with Nollywood films, and novels by writers like Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Helon Habila, which question how one navigates the complex interaction between one’s destiny as foretold by the gods and personal responsibility. The film makes self-conscious, though subtle references, to such influences as can be seen in the tributes to Soyinka scattered through the text and the casting of artist Chief Muraina Oyelami, one of the founding members of the Duro Lapido Theatre Company, as the Professor who explains the myth of Araromire (as well as using Oyelami’s gallery as a location and paintings as props).

In The Figurine the dialogue effortlessly transitions between Yoruba, English, and pidgin in the way Lagosians actually talk and adds to social characterization in the same way that codeswitching between French and Wolof does in Ousmane Sembene’s celebrated films. The pidgen banter between youth corpers and their trainer provides a crowd-pleasing humour I imagine got lost in translation to the FESPACO jury.

Of course The Figurine has its share of imperfections. When I first watched the film at Zuma Film Festival, I was looking for them. I wasn’t sure I believed all the characters were as young as they were supposed to be at the beginning. Tosin Sido, who plays Femi’s (Ramsey Noah) sister, sometimes has that Nollywood whine. I was initially annoyed by the dramatic excesses of Femi’s girlfriend played by Fulola Awofiyebi-Raimi, who is desperate to land a man in her life. I thought she embodied an unfair stereotype of the aging single woman, but, by the end of the film, she won me over as her character deepens and we see her giddiness harden into steel. On a technical level, there are a few moments where it looks like the camera operator was having trouble pulling focus, and the lighting in the storm scene seemed off.

But those moments are less important to me than the brilliance of the overall effect: the story, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the acting. It may be that The Figurine’s defiant independence, unapologetic Naija-ness, and unrepentant commercial appeal is what turned off the FESPACO judges. Yet, it is these same aspects that have made Nollywood Africa’s largest cinema and the second largest film industry in the world. And it is the snobbery against popular audience appeal and an uncritical promotion of tired interpretations of “third cinema” that make FESPACO increasingly more irrelevant.

Concluded.


UPDATE 9 April 2011

Here are the trailers for both films [NOTE that these trailers are embedded in this blog under Fair Use laws, for review purposes]:

Champions of Our Time

The Figurine


As I noted in my review, it was probably not fair of me to be so hard on the multiple award-winning Champions of Our Time without seeing the entire film, while comparing it to The Figurine, which I have now seen twice and am judging on overall effect. The reason I did so was because I didn’t know how I could see the entire film, which is not yet released on video, before the relevance of my article on FESPACO passed and I felt what I had seen was enough to make the specific critiques I made. As I also noted, the two films really shouldn’t be compared, as they are doing two very different things–my problem was in the politics of the award-giving. To read more positive articles about the film, see these links:

“Creatively packaged films that empower the Voiceless submitted to Nairobi’s 5th Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival” in Art Matters, 12 May 2010

“Nollywood Goes Abuzz as ‘Champions of Our Time’ Premiers in Lagos” in Modern Ghana News, 26 November 2010.

‘Champions of Our Time’: Another Big Nollywood Movie Already Winning Awards” in Leadership, 5 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time is a Must See Nollywood Movie” in 24/7 Nigeria, 10 December 2010.

Champions of Our Time Wins Multiple Awards” in Supple Magazine, 10 December 2010.

“Mak Kusare: Nollywood’s Finest” in NEXT,” 11 January 2011

“Nigerian Film Wins Award at FESPACO 2011″ in The Compass, 19 March 2011

Governor Ibrahim Shekarau on Hisbah, censorship, and Kannywood in the Presidential Debates

For those who did not see the Nigerian Presidential Debates, between General Muhammadu Buhari, Nuhu Ribadu, and Governor Ibrahim Shekarau, you can watch the debates online, here:

I have transcribed the questions Governor Shekarau was asked regarding the hisbah, censorship, and Kannywood during the debates. Emphasis in red mine:

Timecode: 42:56

Moderator: Now Malam Shekarau, Nigeria is a plural society and yet in the state that you govern, Kano State, the hisbah, which is the morality police, is known to brutally enforce sharia and in the process sometimes trampling on people’s rights as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. How do you reconcile this intolerance with your desire to be the leader of a country as diverse as Nigeria.

Shekarau: Thank you very much. In the first place, I do not agree that the hisbah was brutalizing and overriding the constitutional right of our citizens. We did not just wake up and create the hisbah without going through the legislation.  We used the same constitutional provision that allowed any state to create any policy, any program, any law that will maintain law and order within the state. The hisbah is no more than what today you call community policing. We have the hisbah in virtually every community. Their duty is to ensure there is peace, there is law abiding, and this is exactly what they do. It is those who violate the rules of the land, and we did challenge anyone, whoever thinks that the hisbah has done anything to him contrary to the rules and regulations that rule the land to take his case to the law courts and challenge the creation of the hisbah. So we didn’t just by the wave of a hand create the hisbah, it went through the legislation. There was law promulgated. In fact, the first item on the law of the hisbah is that the hisbah is to assist the Nigerian police in the maintenance of law and order.  (Clapping)

Moderator: Now, you say that but in practical terms the impact of the hisbah in Kano has included killing a film industry that was providing employment, what is known in Nigeria as Kannywood. So there has been an exodus of filmmakers out of Kano, who get harassed when they are on shoots, who have been asked to submit their scripts for inspection, and a total disregard of the people’s rights to express themselves through art in that particular way.

Shekarau: No, I think that is totally wrong. The hisbah has nothing to do with the censorship. We have a full fledged censorship board, created by law through the legislation. And the censorship board has created rules and regulations that govern the conduct of any film industry. We have a right to decide what is right for the community. The government has the moral responsibility to protect the right, the interest, the instant transformation (?) of the society. (Clapping). So all we did, all we did, we said, if you want to register and run a film industry, you should comply with A,B, C, D, F, and we told anybody who feels any of these rules and regulations contradicts the provision of the  constitution of  the Federal Republic of Nigeria should challenge us in court, and nobody has done that anyhow.

Moderator: You seem to be very strong in terms of protecting the rights of the majority. What about the rights of the minority inside the state that you govern.

Shekarau: We are protecting. In fact it may interest you to know that Kano state today is the most peaceful state in Nigeria. If you ask any of the so-called minority or non-indigene, they are quite happy, they are quite peaceful. In fact, today, you will be surprised to find that those you call non-indigenes or even the non-Muslim prefer to go for settlement of disagreement within the community either to the hisbah court or to the censorship board. We don’t have any problem at all. The rules are working. The society has accepted it. The film industry is thriving very well. All we say is abide by the rules and regulations. And there is no community that will live without guiding principles, without rules and regulations and will think that there will be discipline and order in that community.

Although I thought the most impressive performance in the debate came from the moderator, Kadaria Ahmed, who had no qualms with interrupting these “big men” with hardtalk style questions (and would gladly vote her for president if I had a vote), from the feedback I saw on Facebook and Twitter, the majority opinion seemed to be that Governor Shekarau “won” the debate. He did speak eloquently and seemed well-prepared.

However, in terms of his response to the questions above, one might want to keep in mind a few things, and I will focus here only on what I know about the government’s interaction with the film industry, and leave aside the question about the hisbah, whom I’ve heard praised for their intervention in police corruption as well as railed against for alleged “abuses”.

Shekarau claimed :

“we told anybody who feels any of these rules and regulations contradicts the provision of the  constitution of  the Federal Republic of Nigeria should challenge us in court, and nobody has done that anyhow.”

And

“We don’t have any problem at all. The rules are working. The society has accepted it. The film industry is thriving very well.

From my observations of the interaction between the Kano State Censorship Board and the Hausa film industry based in Kano (and, most recently, in Kaduna) for the past three years, these statements, especially the claim that there has been no legal challenge to censorship implementation, are a bit disingenuous. Below find copied a list of blog posts I have written since 2009 on legal challenges that have been made either to the Kano State government, the Kano State Censorship Board, the Kano State police, and or the head of the censor’s board in his personal capacity.

Here are just a few examples.

On 12 February 2009, I posted an interview with Sani Muazu, President of the Motion Pictures Practitioners Association of Nigeria, about the various lawsuits against the Kano Censor’s Board that MOPPAN was involved in. He told me:

Well, you know, we started this whole process of going to court with our case on Hafsah when it was arrested in the market, and we challenged the authority of the Kano Censors Board to do so. We have since then initiated another suit against the Kano Censors Board, as a national body, that is MOPPAN, challenging the legality of the board as well as bringing out the issues to do with conflict between the National Film and Video Censors Board and the state Censor’s Board as enacted by the state assembly. It is interesting that ever since we did that, we expected the Kano State censors board to allow status quo to remain until when these issues were clearly explained by the legal authorities. But the state censor’s board has gone on to arrest our members indiscriminately without any cogent reasons.

On 16 February 2009, I posted another interview with Dr. Ahmad Sarari, the then Vice-President of MOPPAN and brother of the filmmaker Hamisu Lamido Iyan Tama. Iyan Tama was at that time in Kano’s Goron Dutse Prison after being sentenced in a mobile court for supposedly illegally selling his Zuma-film festival award winning film in Kano. (Iyan Tama has since been cleared of all charges). In addition to my questions about his brother’s case, which you can read by clicking on the link, Dr. Sarari also spoke about the court cases MOPPAN was involved in:

What principally we needed was an injunction restraining Kano State Censors Board from attacking, harassing, humiliating and imprisoning our members. We dragged four bodies to the court.  One is National Film and Video Censor’s Board for issuing a license to our members which gives them the right to exhibit, to sell, and show their films throughout Nigeria, yet a particular state attacks or arrests them for doing that, and they have not come out and said anything. Is the registration they issue our members fake or does it not have jurisdiction in Kano? So here I’m saying there’s a clash between the national and the state jurisdiction of two boards. What we understand in accordance with discussion with our lawyers is that when there is a clash between state and federal law, the federal law takes precedence, so does the interpretation of that in the court. We dragged the Kano State Censors Board to court for its action. We dragged the DG of the Kano State Censor’s Board for the guidelines he issued out which we believe are quite unconstitutional. They contradict some fundamental human rights because the guidelines are too stringent and are quite unbearable. And we dragged the speaker, Kano State House of Assembly for allowing the section of the law establishing the board which contradicts national law. We need them to review the law. We have to look at the laws establishing the board because most of them contradict national laws.  That’s why we dragged the four of them to the court.

The case was going fine in the court. We brought our evidence. They said we had to exclude the DG of the censor’s board out of the case. Our lawyer vehemently defended that he had to be in. They said we had to include the Kano State government. We said we sued Censor’s Board and the state house of assembly, because the state assembly are the lawmakers, so Kano State Government is automatically included in the case. He slated 26 of October for the final ruling of the case, and unfortunately [Sarari laughs]… there was this strike [of court workers]. They just resumed this month. So we are just urging our lawyer to find which date are they going to give, and we are very much hoping that the ruling is going to go in our favour.

On 27 March 2009, I sat in on a case in which the Federal High Court struck down the objections filed by the Kano State Censorship Board to MOPPAN’s lawsuit.

The last I checked, this lawsuit is still in the courts, two years later.

There have been other lawsuits, such as the one posted by Iyan Tama in a personal capacity over alleged defamation of character by Abubakar Rabo Abdulkareem, the Head of the Kano Censor’s Board on DITV, Kaduna. The case was settled out of court.

On July 21, 2010, I reported that a lawsuit was filed at a Kaduna State high court:

between the applicants 1. Ashiru Sani Bazanga, 2. Mohammed Rabiu Rikadawa, 3. Aliyu Abdullahi Gora, 4. Sulaiman Sha’ani, 5. Musa Aminu, 6. Jamilu Adamu, 7. Abubakar Sani, 8. Tahir I. Tahir, 9. Tijjani Asase, 10. Yusuf Haruna, 11. Yakubu Lere, and 12. Adam Zango and the respondents 1. Commissioner of Police, Kano State; 2. Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Kano State, 3. Chief Magistrate Court 25 Kano, Kano State; 4. Abubakar Rabo. The applicants are seeking damages of Ten Million Naira as compensation for the “violation of the applicants fundamental human rights.”

The Kaduna lawsuit was filed after Kano State Police were sent to arrest the above named filmmakers on an accusation that they had supposedly sent the DG of the Kano State Censor’s Board, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkareem, a death threat by text message. Aliyu Gora II, the editor of FIM Magazine, was the only one the police were able to find, and he spent nearly a week without trial in Kano’s Goron Dutse prison, after being transported by police from Kaduna to Kano. The suit was the latest in a series of lawsuits following Rabo’s alleged defamation of the Hausa film industry on DITV Kaduna.

Other Posts, in chronological order, that may be of interest in learning about the relationship between the Kano State Censorship Board and the Hausa film industry:

On the Current Censorship Crisis in Kano, posted13 January 2009

Kano State High Court Chief Justice Postpones Iyan-Tama’s Appeal posted 22 January 2009

2:15am Raid on Iyan-Tama’s Family posted 23 January 2009

Iyan-Tama’s Case Not Listed posted 26 January 2009

Triumph/Trust Editorial Convergences posted 29 January 2009

Interviews with Alhaji Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, Director General of the Kano State Censorship Board, and Dr. Ahmad Sarari, Vice President of the Motion Pictures Practitioners Assocation of Nigeria posted 30 January 2009

The Mysterious Asabe Murtala/Muktar Writes Again posted 10 February 2009

Interview with Sani Mu’azu, President of Motion Pictures Practitioner’s Association of Nigeria (MOPPAN) posted 12 February 2009

Interview with Alhaji Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, Director General of the Kano State Censorship Board posted 13 February 2009

A Surprising Move by MOPPAN, and my friend Sulaiman Abubakar (MPEG) arrested on Tuesday posted 15 February 2009

Interview with Dr. Ahmad Sarari, Vice President of MOPPAN and brother of Iyan-Tama posted  16 February 2009

More Arrests along Zoo Road yesterday, and my article on Iyan Tama makes IPS front Page posted 17 February 2009

Update on the Iyan-Tama Case: Bail Hearing set for 5 March posted 19 February 2009

Updates on the Iyan-Tama case and other articles on the crisis in Kannywoodposted 14 March 2009

Iyan-Tama granted bail, The Judge calls for a new Trial posted 17 March 2009

Raids on a film set last weekend and other developments in “Kano State Censor’s Board vs. Kannywood” posted 24 March 2009

Federal High Court strikes down Kano State Censorship Board’s objections; MOPPAN’s Lawsuit will go on posted 27 March 2009

Mobile Court bans listening to 11 Hausa songs posted 8 June 2009

Recent news on the activities of the Director General of the Kano State Censorship Board posted 24 June 2009

Arrest of singer Aminu Ala and the most recent scuffle of MOPPAN with the Kano State Censorship Board posted 6 July 2009

Breaking News: Singer Ala denied bail posted 7 July 2009

My notes on the court case of Aminu Ala today at the Mobile court attached to the Kano State Censorship Board posted 7 July 2009

Aminu Ala given bail on condition that he does not speak with media posted 10 July 2009

DG of Kano Censor’s Board taken before shari’a court posted 5 August 2009

The latest on the Iyan-Tama case from Nigerian News Service, plus new fees from the National Film and Video Censor’s Board posted 2 October 2009

Kano State Censorship Board shuts down Kano Music Festival hosted at Alliance Francaise, Kano posted 28 February 2010

Update: 3-day international music festival cancelled by Kano State Censor’s Board posted 1 March 2010

French Ambassador rejects the conditions of KS Censorship board for lifting ban on music festival, Punch reports posted 3 March 2010

Arresting the Music. Arresting Hope. Arrested for playing at a wedding “without permission” posted 11 March 2010

Interview with Hiphop artist Ziriums in this week’s Aminiya posted 18 April 2010

FIM Magazine Editor Arrested on accusation of Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, DG of Kano State Censorshop Board posted 4 July 2010

Kaduna State Filmmakers Association take Kano State Police, Court, and DG of Kano Censor’s Board to Court over breach of “fundamental Human Rights”posted 21 July 2010

Iyan Tama takes Rabo to Court for Defamation, and Other Lawsuits posted 18 August 2010

DG of Kano Censors Board Caught in Alleged Sex Scandal with Minor, Sunday Trust Reports, posted 29 August 2010

Press Release from the Motion Pictures Practitioner Association of Nigerian (MOPPAN) Calling for Investigations into the “allegations of  Sex Scandal against Abubakar Rabo,” posted on 31 August 2010

The Latest on the Iyan Tama Case from Nigerian News Service, plus new fees from the National Film and Video Censor’s Board, posted 2 October 2010

Iyan Tama Reaches Settlement with Director General of the Kano State Censorship Board, posted on 17 October 2010.

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine

I have just arrived back home after a nearly three week trip, as follows: Kano -> (public taxi) -> Abuja -> (flight) -> Lagos -> (public taxi) -> Cotonue -> (bus) -> Ouagadougou -> (private car) -> Niamey -> (bus, motorcycle, and private car) -> Sokoto -> (public taxi) -> Birnin Kebbi -> (public taxi) -> Kano. It’s very good to be back in my own space, to my internet modem, and to my battery and inverter which allows me to charge my laptop and phones even when there is no electricity (as is the case right now).

Hommage to bygone days at the Siege du FESPACO, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

I thoroughly enjoyed my first FESPACO film festival, although I felt the politics of it were problematic. It seems that FESPACO is torn between being an international film festival (that seems to privilege a European [particularly French] aesthetic and audience), a national Burkina Faso tourist attraction promoted by a head of state who has been in power for over twenty years, and a Pan African cultural event that celebrates progressive politics and “third cinema” while showing evidence of being more concerned with a “second cinema” and equally problematic conservative ideas about what make good films. There are many breaks and fissures between these identities, and the absence, in particular, of the largest African film culture of Nollywood, Ghollywood, et al. is quite noticeable.

The Filmmaker.... part of a sculpture display at the Siege du FESPACO, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

The event was, however, attended by several Nigerian filmmakers: Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Movies (who attended the CODESRIA workshop on African film and video but did not have a film screened at FESPACO this year), Kunle Afolayan (whose film The Figurine was competing in the rather condescending Video Feature award, for those films not submitted on 35 mm film) , Mak Kusare (whose film Champions of Our Time ended up winning second prize in the [as noted condescending] FESPACO video feature award, and who also apparently had an impressive short film 90 Degrees there as well, although I did not see it) from the southern industry. Dr. Ahmad Sarari, Nasiru B. Mohammad, and Mikail Isah Bin Hassan (Gidigo) from the northern Hausa film industry of Kannywood also attended the event. There may have been a couple of other Nigerian/Ghanaian filmmakers I missed meeting.

Hausa filmmakers Mikail Isah bin Hassan (Gidigo), Dr. Ahmad Sarari, and Nasiru B. Mohammad at Cinema Burkina, the main cinema for FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

Although the main events, such as the opening and closing ceremony, were conducted simultaneously in English and French and while the CODESRIA research workshop I attended was dominated by English, the film screenings themselves were not particularly friendly to non-French speakers. Most of the films I saw (whether in Arabic, or other African language) were only subtitled in French (even when the audio was also in French). Since I speak a little, very poor French, I was able to, with the often stunning visual language of the films, get the basic gist of much of what was going on, but a few of my colleagues who spoke no French had a hard time enjoying many of the films.

The list (in French) of the final winners of the FESPACO awards can be found at Fasozine:

The Golden Yennenga Stallion prize was won by «Pegase» directed by Mohamed Mouftakir  of Morocco, (Maroc), with a value of ten million CFA francs

The Silver Yennenga Stallion  was won by «Un homme qui crie» directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Tchad), at a value of five million CFA francs

And the Bronze Yennenga Stallion was won by «Le mec idéal» directed by Owell Brown (Côte d’Ivoire), with a value of  2.5 millions CFA francs.

Notable for Nollywood were the prizes awarded in the TV/Video Feature category:

-The Prize for best  TV/Vidéo Fiction went to «Hopeville» directed by Trengoue John (South Africa), with a value of two million CFA francs.

-And the special jury prize for for TV/Video fiction went to  «Champions of our time» directed by Mak Kusare (Nigeria),  with a value of one million CFA francs. «Champions of our time» also did Nigeria proud by winning a special ECOWAS prize.

Champions of Our Time, the Nigerian jury prize winner for the FESPACO Video Feature category

Of the films mentioned here, I only saw the Chadian «Un homme qui crie» and Champions of Our Time, and both of those only partially. (One of my frustrations at the festival was that I didn’t see nearly as many of the films as I had hoped to see.) I love Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s films and I imagine he deserved the Silver Stallion, but I must admit I fell asleep during the entire middle section, which is crucial for understanding the story. It was me, not the film. It was a 10pm showing, the final screening of the film. I was exhausted from late nights, and I had gone all day without eating anything. What I saw of the film, a reflection on an old man and his relationship with his son who has taken over his position at a hotel swimming pool, was pensive and beautiful, the sort of film that wins festival prizes (and indeed won a jury prize at Cannes), but which a non-art-house audience would not go to see. Nigerian film Champions of Our Time was geared towards a more popular audience, using the old formulas of “disadvantaged character competes against privileged characters and teaches everyone a lesson along the way,” in the story of a young girl confined to a wheelchair whose dearest wish is to compete in a televised secondary school quiz show sponsored by the St. Flair’s organization of France. Unfortunately, I went to see it on its third screening, and the official festival dvd that had worked in the two other theatres did not work at this cinema. Director Mak Kusare had not been given a personal copy of the final cut by the producers, so he ended up slotting in a preview copy that was not a final cut and had “preview” floating in big white letters over half the film. The DVD shut off at the emotional climax of the film and refused to go further, so I  did not see the rest of the film.  The problems with the screening here were also experienced with the showing of the other Nigerian film in the competition, Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine, which on its first screening at the small venue of the Institute Francaise took about four tries to get the thing started with sound. Similar problems were experienced in the screening of Zimbabwean film I Want A Wedding Dress directed by Tsitsi Dangarembga, also the author of one of my favourite novels Nervous Conditions (Though her novel is one of my favourites, I was less impressed with this film, an “HIV film” which seems dominated by NGO aesthetics.) The European technician ended up cutting short the Q&A after The Figurine screening, saying the schedule was running late (due to the technical problems on the previous films at the venue.) This seemed yet another instance of perhaps unintentional marginalizing of Anglophone films at FESPACO. And although shuttling many of the films out to empty open-air cinemas on the outskirts of Ouagadougou was done in an attempt to draw a local audience into the film festival, I wonder if the extremely low turnout I observed at a screening of Kunle Afololayan’s The Figurine had to do with people assuming the films were just “FESPACO films” and of little popular interest. In several of the screenings I went to, the audiences were 70% European….

I intend to write more reviews of the films I saw at the festival for my column in Weekly Trust and will post them as they are published. But for a sneak preview of what I think about Champions of Our Time winning out over The Figurine in the video competition…..  Let’s just say for now that I am very unimpressed with the jury on this decision…. Stay tuned for why….

And now for the column I published on 5 March 2011 in the middle of the festival, published,  in the Weekly Trust: “FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s the Figurine”

Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, sporting a Kenya cap, promotes his The Figurine, a naija-centric film with Pan-African appeal, at FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

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.

Cine Patte Doie, on the outskirts of Ougadougou, where Kunle Afolayan's film The Figurine was screened. (c) Carmen McCain

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.

Nigerian heavyweights, Filmmaker Tunde Kelani, Film scholar Onokome Okome, and Playwright Femi Osofisan at the CODESRIA workshop on film and video. (c) Carmen McCain

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.

Filmmaker Kunle Afolayan waiting for The Figurine to begin at Cine Patte Doie on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (c) Carmen McCain

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.”

Kunle Afolayan's film The Figurine plays under the stars in Cite Patte Doie, on the outskirts of Burkina Faso, during FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

In Ouagadougou for FESPACO, stay tuned for more updates

Siege du FESPACO (c) Carmen McCain