Category Archives: African cinema

Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen, argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflicks, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

Missing Kannywood

During the celebration of Kannywood at 20 (c) Sani Maikatanga

During the celebration of Kannywood at 20, Kano, December 2010 (c) Sani Maikatanga

There are many posts I have wanted to write, but I put them off because there is always something else I am supposed to be doing.  I am currently skipping over an important post I have been planning for a month, namely, the election and the euphoria of Buhari’s win (when people stood in line all day and all night to vote and partied on Twitter) and a series of photos I took in Lagos during the second election for House of Assembly members and governors. Hopefully I will get to that.

Today, though, I am missing Kannywood. Where I live now, in western Nigeria, I have made friends with a young Hausa girl in Junior Secondary 2. She comes to my house to visit me, and we talk in Hausa, she braids my hair and asks to see photos of Kannywood. I scroll through old albums. She wants to see photos of Adam A. Zango and Sadiq Sani Sadiq, who she calls “mijina.” I have so many folders ordered by month and day that I cannot quite remember where everything is, so I swoop in at random and pull things up, and usually it is something she wants to see. I think maybe on this blog, I should start posting random photos every week, if I don’t have anything else to write about.

So, here, today, I will post a few photos of the years I was in Kano and involved in Kannywood– it was equal parts glamor and exhaustion, occasionally terrifying for a shy me, at over-long bikis, on film sets, and industry meetings, workshops, and award ceremonies.  But more than anything, it was community. I felt like I had been adopted into a family, and I spent much of my time in Kano in studios and offices, hanging out, listening to gossip and political debates and jokes. I miss that. And those days in Kaduna, Zaria, Jos, on sets, smooshed five to a backseat in cars on the way to the next location, five ladies to a bed in hotels while one actress watches the Zombie Apocolypse on DSTV until 2am and another has long midnight calls, the times you sit around watching people saying their lines over and over again, the banter and the long conversations that happen behind the scenes, while waiting for the last scene to wrap.

Where I am now, people continuously shout “oyinbo” at me. It is nothing new. I grew up in Nigeria and I know that it is rarely malicious, often affectionate. But is alienating nevertheless. It reminds me that I am foreign, that I do not belong. In Kano, there was a familiarity, in my own small community that spilled over to the larger public once people began to recognize my face. I was not just a “baturiya.” I was “their” baturiya–a Baturiya Bahaushiya–a baturiya at home. Most of all I miss that. The ability to, if not to quite fit in, to belong, to be in a place where I was not just an alien but a “member” of a community who can straddle two worlds.

The last time I was in Kano was briefly in 2013. It was not the same as I remembered it. Homes left behind never are. Lives move on. Friends marry, move studios, leave film for other work. But from 2008 to 2011, this place was my community. These people, my home.

In the past couple of days, I have gotten phone calls from my Golden Goose crew, the studio I spent much of my time in the first few years in Kano. I thank these my friends for remembering me. Much love to them all.

Golden Goose Studio, 2008 (c) Nazir Ahmad Hausawa aka Ziriums

Golden Goose Studio, Kano, 2008 (c) Nazir Ahmad Hausawa aka Ziriums

Kannywood actress Fati Tage and me at the wedding of Binta Mohammed and Tahir I. Tahir in March 2009, Kano.

Dan Auta and me joking around on set of Likita, Zaria, May 2010.

On set Likita, Zaria, 2010

On set Likita, Baba Ari and Gatari, Zaria, May 2010

On set of Jidda, Kaduna, January 2010.

On set of Jidda, Kaduna, January 2010.

Golden Goose buddies at the wedding of editor, Sulaiman Abubakar MPEG, Mrch 2010.

Golden Goose buddies at the wedding of editor, Sulaiman Abubakar MPEG, March 2010.

With Kannywood peeps, BOB-TV, Abuja, 2009.

With Kannywood peeps, BOB-TV, Abuja, 2009.

Hanging out in the Sheraton parking lot, at BOB-TV, Abuja, March 2010.

Kannywood peeps hanging out in the Sheraton parking lot, at BOB-TV, Abuja, March 2010.

On set of Ibro Ya Auri Baturiya, 2009.

On set of Ibro Ya Auri Baturiya, Kano/Jigawa, 2009.


On set, Mutallab, directed by Aminu Saira, written and produced by Nasir Gwangwazo, Kaduna, August 2010.

Ali Nuhu and me on set Mutallab, August 2010.

The last day of the Mutallab shoot, Kaduna, August 2010.

The last day of the Mutallab shoot, Kaduna, August 2010.

Mirror selfie on set Janni-Janni, Kaduna, August 2010.

Mirror selfie on set Janni-Janni, Kaduna, August 2010.

On set of an AGM Bashir film, Kano, 2010.

On set of an AGM Bashir film, Kano, 2010.

On set of the Hajiya Aisha Halilu film Armala, April 2011

On set of Abbas Sadiq film, Jos, 2012.

On set of Abbas Sadiq film, Jos, 2012.

Sai na dawo.

Interview with Award-winning filmmaker Kenneth Gyang at the African Studies Association Conference, 2014

poster courtesy of Shadow and Act

At the African Studies Association conference in Indianapolis last November (2014), Nollywood scholar Connor Ryan asked me if I’d like to collaborate with him on an interview with filmmaker Kenneth Gyang, one of the founders of Cinema Kpatakpata. Kenneth’s film Confusion Na Wa won the awards for Best film and Best Nigerian film at the 9th Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2013. (It was nominated for four)

Kenneth is a friend, whom I have known since the set of his Blood and Henna in 2011, which was also nominated for six AMAA Awards (and eventually won Best Costume Design).


Kenneth Gyang on the set of his film Blood and Henna in Kaduna, November 5, 2011. (c) Carmen McCain


At the time we interviewed him (directly before the screening), I had not yet seen Confusion Na Wa! and I really wish I had, as I would have had even more questions. It is a brilliant film that, within a fractured tragi-comic plot, captures well the kinds of daily life and conversations Nigerians have. I need to see it one more time before I write a review.

In the meantime, if you are in Nigeria, Confusion Na Wa is currently back in cinemas via Filmhouse Cinemas, which has locations in Kano, Lagos, Ibadan Calabar, Port Harcourt, and Asaba. If you are in Kano, it is playing now at 10:10am Friday through Thursday. Go see it. If you are in the U.S., Kenneth Gyang has been on a tour, and I believe Confusion Na Wa will be screening at the University of Georgia on February 28, this Saturday, although I wasn’t able to find it on the UGA calender.

I didn’t project my questions very well in the video interview (only Kenneth was mic-ed), so some of my contributions got cut in the editing, but I loved Connor’s questions (he wrote one of the first and probably one of the best reviews of the film when it first came out in 2013) and Kenneth’s answers. Here is a link to some of Kenneth’s transcribed answers, and below is the video of the interview. Enjoy.

Award-winning documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta screens at upcoming film festivals (plus my review)

Publicity photo courtesy of MIND

A few months ago, I got an email from the NGO MIND (Media Information Narrative Development) associated with the NGO Cordaid asking me if I would be willing to review a documentary The Daughters of the Niger Delta. Not knowing what to expect from a documentary made by an NGO, I was a little reluctant to promise to review it, but I told them to send it to me, and I’d see what I thought. When I watched it, I was blown away. It is an important documentary made by nine woman that tells the story of the Niger Delta (and directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun) as seen through the eyes of the women Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi. Since I first published my review in Weekly Trust

courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta public Facebook page

on 3 August 2013, which I’ve copied below, it has won awards at two film festivals, the Best Documentary Award at the Abuja International Film Festival and the Best Documentary award at the LA Femme International Film Festival, and has been screened at nine other film festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival, The Kansas International Film Festival.

The film will be showing today, 11 November 2013, 2-3pm, and on Friday 15

courtesy of the Eko International Film Festival

November, 1-2pm, at the Africa International Film Festival in Calabar. The venue is Filmhouse Cinema, Tinapa Resort, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.

It will also show at the Eko International Film Festival in Lagos on Friday, 22 November.

It has also received several other rave reviews:

Hauwa Imam’s “Daughters of the Niger Delta” in The Nation on 31 July 2013 and the Weekly Trust on 17 September 2013.

My “The Daughters of the Niger Delta Speak Out Through Film” in the Weekly Trust on 3 August 2013.

Sa’adatu Shuaibu’s “Humanizing Poverty: the Daughters of the Niger Delta” in Leadership on 14 September 2013.

Gimba Kakanda’s “The Blues of the Southern Women” for Blueprint, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times etc on 8 November 2013.

You can read a 13 October 2013 interview with the director Ilse Van Lamoen-Isoun in the Sunday Trust, and watch her TV interview with Kansas City Live, and watch a trailer copied below:

And finally, here is the review I wrote in full. To read it on the Weekly Trust site, click here.

The Daughters of the Niger Delta speak out through film

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 August 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

 “You suppress all my strategies / You oppress, oh every part of me / What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer,” croons musician Asa in her song “Jailor.”

The song can be read as addressing many forms of oppression, but it is used over images of a Niger Delta riverside in the 2012 documentary film Daughters of the Niger Delta to comment specifically on what Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, following Mao-Tse Tung, calls the “mountains” on the African woman’s back. In “African Women, Culture and Another Development,” Ogundipe-Leslie identifies six mountains, which include “oppression from outside”; patriarchal “traditional structures” that devalue women’s work and seek to control her own body; “her own backwardness,” which includes poverty and ignorance; men, who refuse to give up their privileges; and finally race and a woman’s own self-defeating internalization of patriarchal ideologies.

Many of these forms of oppression and structural inequalities become evident in the testimonies of women featured in the documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta (55 mins) made by 9 women from the Niger Delta trained by the Abuja-based NGO Media Information Narrative Development (MIND), directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun  and sponsored by the German Embassy.  The documentary seeks to challenge disparities in media coverage. While the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the focus of the global media, there has been far less attention to the much greater oil damage in the Niger Delta region. Even recent accidents, such as the December 2011 off-coast Shell Bonga oil spill or the January 2012 Chevron gas explosion in Finuwa, Bayelsa, barely made a blip on the international news radar. Similarly, as the voiceover at the beginning of the film points out, headlines about the Niger Delta often focus on oil output, kidnappings and violence in the resource-rich Niger Delta.  However, in fact, as we learn by the end of the documentary, the maternal mortality rate in the Niger Delta is the second highest in the world and 65,000 children under the age of five die each year in the region due to lack of adequate health care and related issues such as pollution and nutrition. These numbers far outstrip the number of those killed due to armed conflicts but the poverty that causes these deaths is also one of the causes of the conflict. Such stories are often invisible not only to the world but also to other Nigerians. Yet it is only with the recognition of these stories that change can come.

 The film focuses on three women: Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi.  Hannah Tende, from Bodo City, Rivers State, is a widow who makes a living collecting

Hannah Tende (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

periwinkles from oily mud and working on other people’s farms. Her own home and the land she once farmed was taken over by her husband’s family when he died in 2005. She wants to send her daughter Uke to university, but does not have the money. In fact, her children now survive on two meals a day instead of the three meals they had when their father was alive. But Hannah has limited possibilities, as remarriage for widows is forbidden and her livelihood is threatened by the pollution of the rivers.

Rebecca Churchill, from Tuomo, Delta State, was married at fifteen to an already married man. She describes how she first learned of the marriage when her husband told her that he had paid her bride price to her father. Now, the

Rebecca Churchill (courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

pregnant Rebecca narrates how she has given birth eleven times. Only six of those children are still living. While her husband says it is Ijaw culture for his wife to keep having children, Rebecca herself wants to stop getting pregnant after her baby is born. She says she is not willing to let her daughters marry at fourteen or fifteen. Her dream for her children is for them to go to school and go to university.

The educated Naomi Alaere Ofoni, from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State (also a production assistant on the film), represents the dreams the other two women have for their children. Although Naomi’s father abandoned her mother when Naomi was a small child, her mother went back to school to become a

Naomi Alaere Ofoni (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

community health worker and worked to put Naomi through school. Ironically, although school is seen as the path out of poverty, Naomi faced another obstacle once she reached university. She was harassed by lecturers who demanded sex. She refused to sleep with the course advisor who had changed her B grades to two carryovers, and he finally gave her a third class degree only after she offered him money.  10 years after graduating with a disrespected third class degree in Industrial Mathematics, she was yet to find a job. But, like her mother, who took her future into her own hands, Naomi started her own business making soap.

There is a bitter irony here. In each woman’s story, men stand in the way of advancement by women and their children. “Modern day slavery” and “imprisonment” become motifs that run throughout the documentary, from the opening montage set to  Asa’s song “Jailor,”  to Hannah’s expression of frustration at her life in “bondage” as a widow. The film cleverly juxtaposes

(courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

shots of men sitting around drinking—one thirty-five year old man telling of his three wives and the 17 children he hopes to have—with shots of women chopping wood, fetching water, picking periwinkles from oily mud, pounding, grinding, and frying cassava. Patriarchal male culture is behind much of the suffering of women—fathers hand over their teenage daughters to husbands, husbands with multiple wives insist on each wife bearing many children despite not being able to support them, male relatives of a dead man confiscate his widow’s property, male lecturers prey on vulnerable girls in the university.   Yet, as Asa notes, “What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer.” Larger neocolonial forces imprison both men and women.

(courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

Multi-national oil corporations have so polluted the air and water that even rainwater is dirty and unusable. The fish in the creeks and rivers have died, so that the Niger Delta people, whose lives once revolved around fishing, now eat and trade imported fish. The government neglects healthcare and infrastructure for clean water.

The hope for the future, as Ogundipe-Leslie has argued in other essays, is for men and women to join hands in rebuilding their society. While patriarchal male culture is critiqued here, the film also shows male role models. Naomi’s husband, William Omajuwa Emmanuel, an engineer whom she met in university works together with her on her soap business and helps with the children. The male community worker, Inatimi Odio encourages men in the community to involve women in decision making. The film traces positive developments in postscripts, revealing that Hannah has begun to mobilize other women to protest the marriage prohibition for widows, Rebecca has convinced her husband to try birth control, and Naomi has become a principal at a school.

The documentary is beautifully shot and edited. Despite the pollution, the Niger Delta is still exquisite, and the women’s stories are compelling. Indeed, I thought the best parts of the film were the moments where the women were allowed to speak for themselves.  The most obvious flaw may have been the extensive use of Inatimi Odio, a man, as the one “expert” to explain the problems facing the community. While this was somewhat balanced by Bogofanyo Inengibo’s  female voiceover and a few comments from the teacher Caroline Giadom, the focus on the male expert risks reinforcing the idea of women as uneducated informants and men as the authorities who explain them.  Overall, however, I think the documentary is an important and thought-provoking piece that personalizes our understanding of the Niger Delta. In the same chapter in which she identified the mountains on the backs of African women, Ogundipe-Leslie suggests policies to enable women to benefit and control their own labour, the use of media to educate, and assistance for women artists so that they can express their own stories. This film made by women about women seems an appropriate response to her suggestions, giving subaltern women a platform by which to speak to the world.

Daughters of the Niger Delta was screened and received a special mention at the Pineapple Underground Festival in China on 16 July and the Rwanda Film Festival on 25 July. It will be screened in Nigeria at the Lagos-based Eko International Film festival in November, as well as other venues yet to be arranged.


For other documentary (and documentary-esque) reviews I’ve done see:

“There Is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle” on Tarok burial customs produced by Dul Johnson and Sylvie Bringas.

“Equestrian Elegance” about the durbar and parades during the eid sallahs in Kano, produced by Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata.

Duniya Juyi Juyi, a docu-drama about the life of almajirai, scripted and acted by almajirai themselves and produced by Hannah Hoechner.

A Film to Remember: Dul Johnson’s Tarok documentary “There is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle”

Dul Johnson at his 60th birthday celebration with the Association of Nigerian Authors, Jos Chapter, September 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

Dul Johnson at his 60th birthday celebration with the Association of Nigerian Authors, Jos Chapter, September 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

The Plateau International Film Festival, which is scheduled to take place from 24-26 October 2013, will kick off at the National Film Institute, Jos, tomorrow at 9am. There will be film screenings, workshops, seminars, exhibitions etc, and Dul Johnson’s documentary There is Nothing Wrong with My Uncle will screen Thursday at around 11am.

I wrote a review of the documentary last week, which I have copied below:


still used by permission of Dul Johnson

A Film to Remember: Dul Johnson’s There’s Nothing Wrong with My Uncle

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 19 October 2013 05:00
Written by Carmen McCain

Dul Johnson, Head of the English Department at Bingham University, author of the feature film Widows Might and two collections of short stories Shadows and Ashes (a review here) and Why Women Won’t Make it to Heaven (another review here), has recently released a documentary on Tarok burial customs via his production company Topshots Productions.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The 62-minute documentary, There is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle, co-produced with French filmmaker Sylvie Bringas, is the kind I like, one that lets characters speak for themselves without any overbearing voiceover. Dul Johnson’s poetic narration in Tarok, with English subtitles, does not explain, it questions. The documentary is about Tarok burial and reburial practices, but it is also a story about the filmmaker’s quest to find his identity between the Christian tradition he has adopted since childhood and the tradition of his Tarok ancestors.
We see Dul at a desk writing in the middle of a green field, driving to Langtang through the breathtaking hills of the Jos Plateau, drinking kunu as he asks questions of a bereaved family or the old man Domshal Nden, to whom the film is dedicated.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The film does much to defend and contextualize sometimes misunderstood practices. The Ibyari ceremony, in which the skull of a deceased elder is taken to the mountains to be buried, is performed out of respect. The skull is carefully washed, gently wrapped in white cloth, and placed softly into a clay bowl for burial inside a mound. A chicken and sheep are sacrificed, and the elders pray that the spirit will bless their family left behind.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The title of the film is a quote from the man who is sponsoring the Ibyari ceremony for his uncle. “There is nothing wrong with my uncle,” he says. “He has made me proud. May God bless the person who will take care of him.” By using these words as the title of the film, the filmmaker makes a similar statement of the Tarok community’s collective pride in their traditions. “There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle,” becomes a larger assertion that, though it may be denigrated by adherents of other religions, there is nothing wrong with their culture. The spiritual leader of the Gbak, asserts that, although there are some tensions between the two communities, Christians and Tarok traditionalists co-exist peacefully. “Everybody is mine. The church standing there I contributed to building it. I, the Spiritual Leader, I made the gruel for the workers. I am invited to every wedding.” “God is like me,” he says, “he doesn’t reject anybody. […] What we are doing at Ibyari is calling God.”

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The film is formally quite beautiful. While a few of the hymns inserted whenever Christians pray at the funeral sometimes feels a bit abrupt and distracting—perhaps the intention—the soundtrack of the abwa, dinding, and ntali flute at other moments fit the mood perfectly. The sound, recorded by Alfa Vyapbong and mixed by Philippe Ciompi, is crisp and atmospheric. You can hear footsteps on dry grass, a fly buzzing, voices emerging out of the murmur of the crowd. The cinematography is often quite beautiful. The crisp close-up shots during the interview with the elder Domshal Nden draw out the quiet charisma of this old man. And the landscapes alone make the film worth watching: the road winding through misty purple and green hills, the long shots of neat villages on the plains, round houses with thatched roofs under an old Baobab.


still used by permission of Dul Johnson

Perhaps the only drawback to not having an authoritative voiceover is that the audience is forced to draw connections for themselves, which can sometimes be confusing. The speakers are rarely identified by name.  The entire film, including the voiceover, is in Tarok and occasionally Hausa—the English coming through only in the subtitles. However, the language and the poetic subtitles are among the things I like best about the film. Unlike the exoticizing documentaries of the sort made by National Geographic, this film establishes these traditions firmly in a modern present. By subtitling even off camera remarks, it allows a non-Tarok audience to hear the jokes and debates surrounding the ceremonies. The reburial of a man’s skull is not a silent mysterious ritual, but more like a family picnic, filled with laugher and a patter of commentary from many different voices.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The subtitles also allow us to hear the opinions of the people being filmed about the filmmaker. As the camera focuses on the mourning widow, a woman off camera remarks, “This woman is grieving, and the man is busy filming her. Lebong, be quiet so that the man will stop filming you.” Elsewhere, the elder Domshal Nden, when telling about burial customs women are normally not allowed to see, looks around and says with a laugh, “I hope there are no women nearby.” His immediate male audience laughs, but of course, the audience of the film (including me and the editor and co-producer Sylvie Bringas), watching and listening to him through the camera, is made up of women.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

Elsewhere during the reburial ceremony, an elder complains, “In the olden days, the Elders did their thing alone. It’s the breakdown in our belief system that causes trouble. You said children should be allowed, so that they learn. Isn’t this asking for trouble? Your heart must be mature. Because this is no child’s play. Now our people have broken the beehive, exposed our secrets.”  This is a dilemma that has long been faced by those who want to preserve traditions but in capturing them divest them of the secrecy that made them sacred, such as Camara Laye who in his autobiographical novel The Dark Child exposes secret manhood rituals.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

Dul Johnson here seems to defend himself to the elder about the presence of the camera, telling him, “I am Tarok. I stayed in this village before, and this is my Uncle here. I would not do anything that would hurt the Tarok. Everything you’ve said can be done in the presence of women. There is nothing you’ve said that is a secret in our culture.” And his argument seems to have prevailed since people, for the most part, good-humouredly participate in the film. Children laugh as they pass by climbing the mountain. “They want to take our picture!” As he’s wrapping the skull with cloth one of the men says, “Damn, this cameraman is not giving me space.” Everyone around laughs, “You brought them here,” says another, “shouldn’t you let them do their work?”

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The film is built around several conflicts, conflict between older and younger generations, conflicts between Christianity and Tarok traditional practices, conflicts over which aspects of culture should be open to which people. These conflicts war within the filmmaker himself. When he attends the Ibyari ceremony, he says, “I felt like a total stranger and a great sense of loss”. His discomfort is related to a larger conflict between the old and young generations. Throughout the film, the elders complain about the inattentiveness of the younger generation. Dul Johnson asks, “I wonder… what will happen to the Traditional man?” Part of the solution he seems to have found is to record it. He asks as many questions as he can on camera. The spiritual leader of the Gbak tells him that a son or nephew performs the Ibyari ceremony, “because he does not want to forget his father’s name.” It is not hidden from women, or small boys, even from Christians. Everybody is welcome to attend.  Dul states that his own Christian head will not go to the mountains, but he has found another way to honour his father and his ancestors, another way to remember their names: through a film, which like the Ibyari ceremony, is welcome to all, and a film, which like the ceremony, keeps the memory alive.


still used by permission of Dul Johnson

“The death of a person does not mean he’s gone,” says Domshal Nden, “Otherwise we wouldn’t dream about them. But we dream and see people, and we talk to them. You see the shadow that walks with someone? It is the person.”

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

A dream, a shadow, a prayer, a film. They help us remember.

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

still used by permission of Dul Johnson

The documentary has previously screened at Brown University and at the 13th RAI International Festival of Ethnographic film in Edinburgh, Scotland. It will be showing at the Plateau International Film Festival in Jos on October 24.

In conversation with four Tiv filmmakers

Tiv filmmakers in Makurdi after a Nollywood conference at Benue State University: (left to right) Director Ralph Ogbaje, Producer John Agbaingya, Producer Kenneth Iornumbe, Producer and scriptwriter Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi, and Director Shadrach Ukuma. (c) Carmen McCain

My Weekly Trust column on May 19, 2012 summarized an interview I did with four Tiv-language filmmakers I met at a conference “Nollywood, Women, and Cultural Identity” hosted at Benue State University in Makurdi. For some reason, the Trust web editor never put it online, so my blog is apparently the only place you will be able to read it. I’m excited about putting this information online because in various google searches, I have not been able to find anything else about Tiv filmmaking.

I first heard that Tiv filmmaking existed at the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists “Nollywood and Theatre for Development (TFD): Exploring the Bridges of Interaction” conference hosted at Ahmadu Bello University in November 2011. While there, Joel Avaungwa Fanyam of the Department of Theatre Arts, College of Education, Katisna-ala, Benue State, gave a paper “Influencing the Target Audience for TFD and Nollywood’s Practice in Nigeria: the Case of Selected NKST Media Services Home Videos.” In the paper he discussed Tiv films being made by the NKST church in Benue State. I was delighted, therefore, to meet some Tiv filmmakers while I was in Makurdi. They had not been officially invited but found out about the conference online and decided to attend. Several times throughout the conference the Director Ralph Ogbaje and the Producer John Agbaingya stood up and pointed out that actual filmmakers should have been invited to the conference to share their perspectives alongside the academics (who often tend–and this conference was no exception–to point to all the “wrong” things filmmakers are doing. In this instance, many of the papers dealt with how women were being badly represented in the films.) I was glad they had shown up and glad they insisted on the necessity of hearing from filmmakers themselves at conferences of this sort. I had been surprised at the conference hosted at ABU that, although a few southern axis filmmakers, like Mahmud Ali Balogun, had been invited, not a single Hausa filmmaker was invited to take part, even though ABU Zaria is in the heart of Kannywood, centred between the cities of Kano and Kaduna where most Hausa films are made. Although according to National Film and Video Censors Board statistics, Nigerian language films were 88% of the Nigerian films submitted to the board in 2010, these indigenous language industries are often marginalized in academic discourse about “Nollywood.” At many of the conferences I have been to since 2007 (about 9 in all, I think), the research presented often focuses on diaspora, transnationalism, and migration, with less attention paid to “local” discourses. This article was my attempt to help draw a little more attention to films being made in minority languages–which I am becoming more and more interested in. (And at this juncture, it might be appropriate to congratulate Dr. Edward Ossai, who has just defended his PhD dissertation, on the topic of multiple language industries, in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Jos.)

I am including, as usual, a hard copy photo of the column, which you can click on to read, and a soft copy that you can read on this blog below. After the article, I will also include a transcript of my conversation with four of the filmmakers and a few of the photos I took, as well as some of the photos that Producer Kenneth Iornumbe sent me later. Happy reading!

In Conversation with Four Tiv filmmakers

(first published by the Weekly Trust, Saturday, May 19, 2012, page 48)

In previous articles, I have written about the large numbers of Nigerian language films that are being made in Nigeria. The National Film and Video Censor’s Board reported that in 2010, of the 1,114 Nigerian films approved by the board, around 55% were in Yoruba, around 30% in Hausa, with only around 12% in English. Around 3% were being made in other languages, including Bini, Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, and others. At a conference “Nollywood and Theatre for Development” hosted at Ahmadu Bello University in November 2011, I heard about film industries in Ebira, Igala, and Tiv. Elsewhere I have heard of films being made in Fulfulde and Nupe.

Last week, therefore, when I went to Makurdi from 9-10 May, for a conference “Nollywood, Women, and Cultural Identity” being hosted at Benue State University (BSU), one of the highlights of the conference for me was meeting several Tiv filmmakers, who had found out about the conference online and decided to attend. By the time the conference ended on 10 May, five members of the Tiv film industry were at the venue: Producer John Agbaingya, Director Ralph Ogbaje, Producer Kenneth Iornumbe, Director Shadrach Ukuma, and Director and scriptwriter Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi. Following the closing session, they agreed to do an impromptu group interview with me about the film industry in Makurdi and their thoughts on the conference at BSU.

The first Tiv-language film, Anchovul (Orphan), the group told me, was made in 2002 by (the now late) Chris Ioryisa. Now, ten years later, while the average Tiv film sells about 10,000 copies, they are beginning to sell more. Nyekaa Solomon’s 2011 film Adanwade Kohoga, a “classic Tiv story,” about a man who travelled on a long journey, returning only to find his wife dead, sold over 30,000 copies. Part 2 of the film was released by Uncle N. Productions this past Saturday on 12 May.

Iornumbe, who owns Mimidoo Production and had been involved with the Tiv industry since near its beginning in 2002, told me that “what made us start” was “to promote our culture.” Agbaingya agreed. A consultant with a Masters degree in Economics, he recently opened his own production outfit, Timeless Wins Entertainment, after years of assisting and sponsoring other producers. He argued that much of the appeal of the films on the market was their cultural specificity. “There are some stories and practices that are particular to Tiv culture. […]We have discovered that those who shoot films

From a poster for a Tiv movie Orfetarga (courtesy Kenneth Iornumbe)

in their local languages tend to get better earnings from the work. The sales are better.”

Ukuma, a lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department at BSU who had directed stage productions before becoming involved in the Makurdi film industry this year, pointed out that local language films “have a heterogeneous audience. The people that don’t understand English, even in the local places, if they have access to electricity and they have an electronic device to watch the movies, they watch them and they are entertained. So you can sell in the urban areas. You can sell in the rural areas.” Making films in Tiv also aided in artistic integrity, he added. “There are some things that are hard to interpret into English. So they lose their originality the moment you attempt to produce them in English. But when you produce them in indigenous languages, people are quick to identify with them and get the true meaning of what you’re saying.”

“People seem to be tired of the conventional English movies, you find around Nollywood,” said Agbaingya. “They are looking for something that has a different flavor, which is our culture really portrayed in it. So they actually look out for these movies. Even beyond the shores of this country.”

The recent move to subtitle in English helped expand the market, he said, telling me of a woman living in the U.S. who had first seen a Tiv film when someone brought it from Nigeria. On a trip to Makurdi, she bought more cds for other people in the U.S. The reach of the film really depends on the producer, he told me. Some producers have a “narrow vision. […] They just want a small market to get their investment back and some little profit. But those who are more visionary, their films sell beyond the shores of Benue State.”

Although so far there are an average of five to six Tiv films released a year, the industry in Benue State is large enough to support a full-time film industry, in part because of the diversity of films being made. “It’s not just Tiv movies” said Agbaingya, “there are Idoma movies coming up strongly.” And “not just the Idoma and Tiv sections,” pitched in Ogbaje, who had worked in Lagos since 1999 as an actor and scriptwriter before becoming a producer/director and returning to Benue State. “We also go into English films.” Crews often overlap on multiple language film sets.

The challenges they face seem to be similar to those faced by other film industries in Nigeria. Agbaingya said, “We have a situation where most of the people making movies are young people. They have challenges of either funds, or ideas, or at times the connections they need. Those who have the finances enough seem not to be sincerely interested in it. […] Then, we still have the battle to fight with piracy.”

As for their opinions on the conference they had just attended, where scholars had largely criticized Nollywood for negative portrayals of women, Ogbaje said “The main thing is that there is this gap between academia and those who are in the field. We need to come together and understand ourselves.” Agbaingya continued, “You don’t solve a problem by focusing on the problem. You solve a problem by focusing on the solution.” He suggested that instead of academics focusing so much on the negative aspects of Nollywood, “why don’t we massively produce films that portray what we want to see in the movies. The major financiers of the industry are people that may not be interested in these kinds of conferences. Those who have the intellectual know-how do not seem to be interested. Some of the professors who present papers have not attempted to produce one movie. […] There is a serious disconnect.”

He pointed out that the Association of Movie Producers of Nigeria, Benue State Chapter, founded in February 2012, had organized one seminar for filmmakers this year and were hoping to do another one in June, but they needed more assistance. “Government has failed woefully in funding. You see these young men, they are working full time. The increasing challenge they have is equipment. […] We travel outside this state to get the equipment hired. What does it take to get funding so that this equipment is put into place? […]When there is a fusion of ideas between academia and those in the field and the respective ministries of culture and tourism, there will be a better result.”

Ultimately, said Ukuma, the conference had “provided producers an opportunity to get feedback […] We’ve dialogued. We can see that if these kinds of engagements continue, there will be a true success story.”

Agbaingya ended by stressing, “In subsequent conferences, they should not forget to carry these people in the field along. Invite them. If they choose not to come, it’s their business. But I believe they will come.”


Below, I reproduce a partial transcript of the impromptu interview following the conference out of which I based this article. (I later clarified some of the details that appear in the article by phone and email). I usually do one on one interviews, so having a conversation with four people at once was a little challenging, but I also liked what the interaction of multiple people added. This is really just a preliminary conversation, and I hope in the future to either do more in depth interviews with Tiv and Idoma filmmakers or encourage someone else (who speaks the language) to do so. I think it is really important to understand what is happening in minority language filmmaking when one is theorizing “Nollywood.”

Tiv filmmakers in Makurdi after a Nollywood conference at Benue State University: (left to right) Producer John Agbaingya, Director Ralph Ogbaje, Producer Kenneth Iornumbe, and Director Shadrach Ukuma. (c) Carmen McCain


Conversation with Producer Kenneth Iornumbe, Producer John Agbaingya, Director Shadrach Ukuma, and Ralph Ogbaje

Could you tell me a little bit about the Tiv film industry? When did you start making films? When was the first Tiv film made? How long has the industry overall  been going?

Tiv Producer and Director Kenneth Iornumbe (Courtesy Kenneth Iornumbe)

Kenneth Iornumbe:  The first film was in 2002: Anchovul (orphan)

Carmen: Do you subtitle?

John: Not all. The initial movies  for some time were not subtitled, but most of the films coming out now are subtitled mostly in English.

Carmen: How big is distribution? Where are they sold? Are they sold mostly in Makurdi or are there other markets?

John: There is this marketing network. There’s a particular guy here who is interested in marketing that takes the movies beyond here. Especially with the subtitling. Recently a woman came from the U.S., that somebody took the films there and was so interested. So she came to buy more cds for other people in the U.S who were interested in the films, so they go beyond here. But it often depends on the producer. Sometimes you find that the vision is so narrow. They have the film, based on the quality and the input. They just want a small market to get their investment back and some little profit. But those who are more visionary, their films sell beyond the shores of Benue State.

Carmen: How many on average does each film sell?

John: Presently, they sell between 150 and 200 naira.

Carmen: The number of copies? How many do you usually print when you’re doing your cd?

John:  It depends. This guy. Prince, Aso Prince.  (CHECK NAME)

Kenneth: He sold more than 10,000 copies.

John: About 10,000. Uncle Win sold over 30,000.

Shadrack:  The initial mass production is 10,000, you  go to Lagos, make 10,000 copies, you come back and sell and there is no further production for the initial 10,000.

Carmen: So you usually do it them in Lagos?

John: The mass production is always done in Lagos. There is this person who sold more than 30,000 copies, Uncle N. (CHECK NAME). Adanwade Kohoga, that’s the name of the film.

Shadrach: It’s a Tiv classic story.

Carmen: What’s the translation in English?

Shadrach: Adanwade is the name of someone. So “Adanwade Kohoga,” which literally means “Adanwade could not reach it.” The story is someone who travelled and left his wife. And so many trips happened, and when he came back, he could not meet his wife again. The wife died. So, he came back and could not meet what he left behind.

Carmen: And who did you say produced that?

John: The production office Uncle N.

Carmen: Are most of you directors?

John: Ralph is a director.

Shadrack: I’m a producer.

John: Kenneth is a producer.

Carmen: You said the first one was made in 2002? Who was it that made that?

John: Kenneth will know that.

Carmen:  When did you become involved? Could you tell me when you became involved and what made you interested?

John: My interest in the movie industry first started with acting. The industry is very broad, and there’s so many avenues through which anybody can participate. When I got closer, I saw the opportunity to become a producer. So I became active in production very recently. I had been involved in supporting some independent producers, I would sponsor them, guide them, hire equipment for them. My own outfit started just a few months back.

Carmen: So you were acting before then?

John: I never really acted but that was my interest. I would always be there on set, I would want to know what was happening. People would want to produce a film, I would fund it.  I’ve been running around with the industry for a while.

Carmen: What is your other business?

John: I’m with more resource consultants. I have a Masters Degree in economics.

Carmen: Kenneth, what made you interested in becoming involved?

Kenneth: To promote our culture. That’s what makes us to start. To show our culture… People should know all about our culture. The duties of the ….

Carmen: When did you become involved?

Kenneth: As early as 2002

Carmen: Did any of you have experiences with any of the other industries? Hausa or English?

Ralph: I was into the industry in 1999. I started as an actor and a scriptwriter, and later developed into a continuity person and went into full time directing. That was in Lagos. Later I went into Producing/directing. Normally we would move around to Lagos, Enugu, Asaba, Owerri, Port Harcourt. I specifically went into English movies. Just as he rightly said, some few months back, we were trying to make sure the industry in Benue State has a stand. That is why some of us are around. I’m from the state also.

Shadrach: I read theatre arts at Benue State University. So, naturally, it has been my interest to practice what I went to school and read. I’ve always had it in mind. I’ve been acting. I majored in directing, actually, in my graduate studies. Since then, well, I haven’t been doing major film productions. I’ve been directing stage productions.  In 2008, I went to Lagos with an outfit. I studied direction and production. From there I came back home, got involved with the department. And there was a movement to see how the industry could be repositioned in the state. I joined and so belonging to the association this year. It’s this year 2012 that I joined, and we’ve been working on some films around.

Carmen: And you’re lecturing in the department?

Shadrack: Yes, in the Theatre Arts department.

Carmen: Before you were telling me before about 10 films a year?

John: We produce 6-10 films a year, the entire industry. We want to ensure we get more now, but more qualitative films.

Carmen: So, you said before they are submitted to NFVCB in Jos?

John: Sure, sure.

Shadrach: you asked before about who produced the first film.

Carmen: Yes, sure? Who produced the first film?

Kenneth: The late Chris Ioryisa produced the first film.

John: And the person who produced the film, Adanwade Kohoga, that we  told you sold over 30,000 copies was Nyekaa Solomon.

Shadrach: Part 2 of the same story will be launched this Saturday.

Carmen: So what happens when you release? Do you have a film show before you release the film or do you just release it into the market.

Ralph: So, far we have not been doing premiering. That’s why we are trying to just make sure all hands are on all deck.

Shadrach: We have not really been doing that. That’s why we have made this board to regulate. And also to make sure there is compliance with professional ethics.

John: And also to encourage people to get good rewards for their efforts. You know there have been a lot of challenges in the industry. We have a situation where most of the people making movies are young people. They have challenges of either funds, or ideas, or at times the connections they need to get these things to work. Those who have the finances enough seem not to be sincerely interested in it. So we put up with a lot of challenges. After then, we still have the battle to fight with piracy.

Shadrach: There is the story. When it was out of the market, after the initial print run, when he was ready to go back and produce. And some guy had already gotten a copy and was already selling it. They would just burn the cd and sell. When they got wind of it and went to his shop he ran away.

Carmen:Is it a supply problem or is it people getting a hold of it before you

Tiv Movie “Tar Taver” (Courtesy of Kenneth Iornumbe)

finish selling the copies?

Shadrach: No, they don’t get a hold of it before you even start selling. It’s when you sell it, they have access to the copy, they buy and reproduce.

John:  The supply problem also comes in. You said something about a supply problem. That also comes in to a certain extent. It’s in order.  In addition to that, at times when they mass produce, they reach places that you didn’t reach with the original copies. So, they take a segment of the market.

Shadrach: Even when you are selling here in Makurdi, they are selling somewhere in Boko. Before you get to Boko, they’re somewhere in….

Carmen: So, if there were some way of legalizing the pirates, you would have a much larger marketing network.

Shadrach and John: Yeah.

Carmen: What is the major difference between Tiv films and others on the market. Is it just language?

John:There are differences, one in the language. 2. Storylines. Some of these storylines are defined along—the difference comes along as cultural difference. There are some stories and practice that are particular to the Tiv

Kenneth Iornumbe on set after shooting (courtesy Kenneth Iornumbe)

culture, you portray in these movies that you can’t get in any other culture. I want to draw your attention to something else. The Association of Movie Producers, for Benue State State chapter. Almost every movie Tiv movie in Benue State, but it’s not just Tiv movies. There are Idoma movies coming up strongly. It’s another part of the industry that is coming up very well.

Carmen: Do Idoma and Tiv moviemakers mix and share on films or are they all on their own?

John: They are all under the Association of Movie Producers, Benue State chapter.

Carmen: So they may share the same crew.

John: Yes, they do. Especially if you are privileged to understand the other language. The only challenge we have is for instance, he may not understand the language in Tiv, so he’s a bit deficient in directing, so you need somebody like Shadrach, who understands the language.

Shadrach:There will be pieces of advice, or technicalities and interpretation of roles that is difficult when you can’t understand what is happening in the language…. The other difference is that there has been concern about saturation of the market from other cultures, like Igbo,  Hausa and Yoruba films. People have been watching the same thing. The Tiv

Tiv actors on set (courtesy Kenneth Iornumbe)

films give people an alternative to watch something new and different, especially the films that come with subtitles, you are able to understand what the story is about and all that.

Carmen: Just because my own area of research is Hausa films, are there a lot of people watching Hausa films in Makurdi?

Shadrack: Not a lot. But if you want to be specific, go to certain areas in Makurdi that are Hausa dominant. The households there are Hausa  households and you can find them watching Hausa movies, part of cultural identity.

Carmen: The industry is it large enough for people to be able to do that alone and make it their career?

Ralph: Yes, because it’s not just the Idoma and the Tiv section. We also go into English films.

John: Yes, we go into English films.

Carmen: So there are people who are fulltime filmmakers? Are any of you fulltime.

(They all talk at once. Three of them are full time.)

Shadrack: We all own production houses.

Carmen: In ending, Number 1, what is your reaction to this conference? What is the relationship with what is happening in academia? Is there any relationship? and 2. What is the overall thing you want other people to know if they read a newspaper article about the industry?

Ralph: the main thing is that there is this gap between academia and those who are into the field. We really need to come together and understand ourselves. That’s one basic factor, and another major factor is the marketers. As long as it has to do with independent sponsorship and the government is not coming in or private agencies are not coming in, it’s really going to be difficult to match them one for one because they have the final say. That is where the finances come in.

John:You don’t solve a problem by focusing on problem. You solve a problem by focusing on the solution. The theme for this conference is “Nollywood, Women and cultural identity.” Instead of focusing so much on that why don’t we massively produce films that portray what we want to see in the movies? The major financiers of the industry are people that may not be interested in these kind of conferences.   Those who have the intellectual know how do not seem to be interested. Some of the professors who present papers have not attempted to produce one movie and they are professors of movie production. There is a serious disconnect. And I have said earlier in the conference, there is this mutual suspicion. When there is a fusion of ideas between academia and those in the field and the respective ministries of culture and tourism, there will be a better result. Government has failed woefully in funding. You see these young men, they are working full time. The  increasing challenge they have is equipment to  equip their ideas. Because we travel outside this state to get the equipment hired, what does it take to get the funding so that this equipment is put into place. I trust these young men so much on directing. I trust the DOPs we have on set. A number of them are doing so well. This man [Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi] is a

Producer John Agbaingya shows off the script for his upcoming Tiv-language film: IMBORIVUNGU, written by Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi. Producer Kenneth Iornumbe (in white shirt) and scriptwriter Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi (in black shirt) look on. (c) Carmen McCain

scriptwriter. That is what he is bringing right now, one of my scripts.  So, if you see the quality. When I came here, he could tell a good story, but he couldn’t write good scripts. We taught him how to write good scripts now, and I’m proud of what he has to offer. But we need to organize seminars to put them through. We organized one seminar already, we want to organize another one in June. We expect that through these fora we will push them through. But there is a challenge of funding. One, this gap should be bridged. The academia should find a way to liaising with those in the field and liaising with the Ministry of Culture and tourism. But it is a very wonderful effort. I liked all the papers presented and issues raised.

Shadrach:  To pursue the matter further. Since they’ve said so much on the other side on the differences between the people in the field and academia. It has provided producers an opportunity to get a feedback from what the audience says about what they have produced. So now the producers, myself included, are aware of the yearning, the direction of things, what the audience expects us to improve upon, what they want to see in subsequent production. We cannot rule out the fact that there needs to be a synergy of ideas from both sides to make sure we come up with what is expected. This conference is a test case.  We  being here and the academia being there. We’ve dialogued. We can see that if these kinds of engagements continue, there will be a true success story.

John:In subsequent conferences, they should not forget to carry these people in the field along. Invite them. If they choose not to come, it’s their

Kenneth Iornumbe on set with actors and actresses. (courtesy Kenneth Iornumbe)

business. But I believe they will come.

Carmen: It’s the same thing that happened at ABU, they didn’t invite all the Kannywood people.

John: Yes!

Carmen: Rough estimate, do you have any idea how many Tiv films there are now?

John: We will have to look at statistics. We will get that across to you.

Recording 2: (On multiple people doing multiple tasks)

John: It is more challenging to stick to one thing, especially financially. If you’re just an actor, you don’t have any other alternative in the industry. It’s challenging. I see many actors go broke. The association is urging people to go beyond just producing, do something else.  He’s [Shadrachi] a producer and screenwriter. Now this script. I’m paying him something for it. Ok, He’s going to earn something. So before his movie comes out he won’t go entirely broke. He’s writing some more, so he can be selling three or four in a month. It is profitable.

We have discovered that those who shoot films in their local languages, tend to get better earnings from the work. The sales are better.

Shadrach: Yes, because they have a heterogeneous audience. The people that don’t understand English, even in the local places. If they have access to electricity and they have an electronic device to watch the movies, they watch them and they are entertained. So you can sell in the urban areas you can sell in the rural areas. The market is broadened

John: And people seem to be tired of the conventional English movies, you find around Nollywood.  They are looking for something that has a different flavor, which is our culture really portrayed in it. So they actually look out for these movies. Even beyond the shores of this country.

Shadrach:  There are some things that are hard to interpret into English, you understand. So they lose their originality the moment you attempt to produce them in English. But when you produce them in indigenous languages, people are quick to identify with them and get the true meaning of what you’re saying.

Carmen: Sometimes I think people act better in their own language as well. Sometimes I look at Hausa actors and the way they act is very natural, whereas you know sometimes in the English ones, it is very stiff.

Shadrach: stiff.

John: It’s true

Producer John Agbaingya shows off the script for his upcoming Tiv-language film: IMBORIVUNGU, written by Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi. (c) Carmen McCain

Carmen: Do you follow scripts very closely? Is there a lot of improvisation or does everyone use scripts?

John: There is a lot of room for improvisation. In fact, before now, most of them would just. […] Yeah, they study them and they just voice them out and giving the message, not really minding the words. They use this as a guide. You mustn’t follow it verbatim. But you want them to know the  standard, having a proper script.

Shadrach: It helps with documentation.

John: Before this, most of them got out into the field without a proper script. They would go put the scene and say, you and you, this is what you should tell this person and this is how you should respond, like that verbally. It leaves a lot of room for mistakes.

Carmen: So this script that you have. Not everyone uses this kind of script?

John: No, but it is a guide. Ideally, everybody partaking has a copy.  You get to understand the story first. Then, you are told your own role. You look at the various scenes. Each scene you look at it, you have an idea of what to say, but you are allowed to say it your own way to convey the message.[…] But everybody goes through the script. He mustn’t quote everything perfect. It’s just conveying the message for that scene. And it has proven to be more effective, because some people perform better when you give them some room to improvise, and you see that more and more.

Tiv filmmakers in Makurdi after a Nollywood conference at Benue State University: (left to right) Director Ralph Ogbaje, Producer John Agbaingya, Producer Kenneth Iornumbe, Producer and scriptwriter Shadrachi Tsokar Dangi, and Director Shadrach Ukuma.

Duniya Juyi Juyi: Life through the eyes of the almajirai

Much has happened over the past few months, and I haven’t had the time I’d like to chronicle it on this blog, though I would like to catch up in the next few weeks.  Bear with me. More will come soon.

Today, though, I did want to quickly post a link to a film that is worth watching, Duniya Juyi Juyi.  I just heard from my friend and colleague Hannah Hoechner, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford who is doing research in Kano on the almajirai, Qur’anic students who often leave rural areas to study with urban teachers. Because so many of the boys end up begging on the streets with little oversight from their teachers, the almajiri system is often blamed on much of the violence in the north. Hannah, who interacted with many almajirai and their teachers, has a different perspective. She was able to source funds from the Goethe Institut in Kano to help several of the almajiri boys she knows produce a film to tell their stories from their own perspective. Kannywood filmmaker Nasiru B. Muhammad helped them develop their stories about their experiences into a ‘docudrama’ script, and then the boys directed, acted in, and shot the film themselves. Kannywood editor Auwal Kabir Indabawa edited the film and seemed to provide a lot of support to the boys during the process of making the film. The film provides a unique look at the life of an almajiri through the eyes of the almajirai.

Before the screening of Duniya Juyi Juyi at the Goethe Institut on 27 October 2011, (left to right) Hannah Hoechner, Kabiru Idris, Abdullahi Yahaya Sa'ad, Muhammad Naziru Usman, Buhari Murtala, and Auwal Kabir Indabawa. (c) Carmen McCain

The film has now been uploaded and is available for watching on flash here, with this introduction by Hannah. For those in Nigeria, it’s best to pause it and let it download for about 5 minutes before starting to watch. I have had my bitmeter tracking how much bandwidth it takes up, and I didn’t think it had taken up that much (then I checked my MTN credit–and it has used more than I thought… though I do think MTN is actually eating up more credit than it should be recently.)

Below is the column I wrote about the premier of the film at the end of October:

Duniya Juyi Juyi: Life from the eyes of the almajirai

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 05 November 2011 05:00

“I don’t give to them,” a friend told me one of the first times I came to Kano and saw the young children begging with their small plastic bowls in traffic, in front of restaurants, hanging around offices. “I don’t like to encourage the system.”  This was one of the first times I heard an explanation of the almajiri (disciple) system, in which young boys travel from mostly rural areas to attend Qur’anic schools in town, usually depending on contributions from the community or compensation for labour for food and clothing. The seeming incompatibility of the almajiri system and the “modern life” has meant there has been much public denunciation of the system.  The almajirai are seen as the source of urban crime and ready recruits for sectarian violence.  Little attention is paid to the voices of the almajirai themselves.

On Set of Duniya Juyi Juyi (left to right) Ikira Mukhtar, Muhammad Naziru Usman, and Ismail Abdullahi (c) Hannah Hoechner

This lack of representation has been addressed by a new docudrama Duniya Juyi Juyi (How Life Goes), which was directed, shot, and acted in by almajirai themselves. At the beginning the almajiri system is explained in the voice of one of the boys as we see the streets of Kano from their perspective. At the end the nine boys from the three different schools involved in the project, Abdullahi Yahaya Sa’ad (director), Buhari Murtala (assistant director),  Auwalu Mahamud (location manager), Isma’il Abdullahi (welfare), Sadisu Salisu (camera),  Muhammad Naziru Usman (assistant camera), Ikira Mukhtar (lead actor), Kabiru Idris (lighting), and Anas Ali (actor), introduce themselves and speak their messages directly to the audience.

The almajirai crew with Kannywood's Nasir B. Mohammad and Lubabatu Mudaki (c) Hannah Hoechner

The drama enclosed within this documentary frame is a simple linear story about a young boy Aminu’s (Ikira Mukhtar) life from his father’s (Sani Garba S.K.) decision in the village to send him to the city for school because “it is difficult for a boy to study in front of his parents” to his introduction to the malam (Husaini Sule Koki) who will teach him the Qu’ran.

Aminu leaves the village with his father to go to school. (c) Hannah Hoechner

Aminu learns how to survive without the comforts of family, from finding a place to sleep, water for ablutions, the ever-present search for food, and the struggle to study while hungry, to settling into the life at school, being given domestic work by a housewife (Lubabatu Mudaki) and work in a shop by a shopkeeper (Mustapha Musty), and finally the happy completion of his studies. Although their hardships are highlighted here, this is a fairly positive portrayal of the life of an almajiri, presenting arguments about their own worth made by the boys themselves, all of whom are now in their teens but many of whom started their Qur’anic studies as young boys.

Aminu (Ikira Mukhtar) with his malam (Husseini Sule Koki) (c) Hannah Hoechner

The malam is rarely critiqued here. Though he threatens Aminu with a beating should he run away, he is a reasonable and kind man who puts up patiently with the many young boys in his care. The critique the boys make and the message they have are instead for the communities in which they live, to the people who assume they are thieves and rascals, those who sneeringly tell them their parents don’t love them, or those households who think of them only as nearly free labour and not as people.

A housewife (Lubabatu Mudaki) hires Aminu but places more priority on the work he does in her house than on his studies. (c) Hannah Hoechner

What I found most remarkable about the film was that although the boys were trained in filmmaking by Hausa film professionals and several Kannywood actors helped add polish to the film, the preproduction and production of the film was carried out by the almajirai themselves.  The film medium becomes a powerful way to communicate their experiences to a larger audience.

I attended the premier of the film on Thursday, 27 October, held at the Goethe Institut in Kano, the sponsor of the film. Arriving at the Institut around 3pm, I was given food by the almajirai and spoke with producer Hannah Hoechner, a German PhD candidate at Oxford University whose research on almajirai had inspired her to make a film in which almajirai could speak for themselves. The nine boys who worked on the project came from schools in Sharada, Sabuwar Kofa and Albasu. In Albasu, the malam chose from the oldest ones to participate in the project. In Sabuwar Kofa, Hoechner chose those she knew best, and the boys from Sharada were those almajirai she taught English through the NGO, Child Almajiri Empowerment and Support Initiative. She approached Frank Roger of the Goethe Institut to fund the film and spoke warmly of his untiring encouragement. Although there were some fears from parents about the boys appearing in films, the malams were fully supportive of the project, not as a way for the boys to make money (the film was distributed for free rather than sold), but for them to tell their own stories.  In the evening before the film was shown, a bus arrived from Albasu with several malams and dozens of their students. The malams sat on the front row of the crowded outdoor theatre and seemed to fully enjoy the show, laughing and nodding in appreciation as they saw their lives re-enacted on screen.

I was also struck by the presence of Kannywood professionals, who interacted kindly and easily with the almajirai. Nasiru B. Mohammad who had trained the boys in scriptwriting and directing, did not make the screening, but when I arrived at the Goethe Institut, Auwal Kabir Indabawa, the Kannywood cinematographer and editor who taught the boys how to use the camera and had edited the film, was already there. He seemed to have become something of a mentor to the boys, guiding them as they prepared for the screening, listening to their ideas and making suggestions about how to present themselves to the crowd. He stayed with them until the end of the show. He described to me how he would leave their mistakes in and then teach them during the corrective editing process how they could improve next time they make a film.

Director of Duniya Juyi Juyi, Abdullahi Yahaya Sa'ad, and editor, Auwal Kabir Indabawa, share a laugh before the premiere of the film at the Goethe Institut, 27 October 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

Beyond a project for the almajirai to tell their own stories, the training the boys received opened up a potential career in film to them, a possibility the boys I spoke to expressed an interest in.  During the time for feedback after the screening, Mustapha Musty called on the government to support these students for further education in filmmaking.  Among other Kannywood practitioners who came to show their support were Bala Anas Babinlata, Hafizu Bello, Mustapha Indabawa, Lubabatu Mudaki, Maryam Sulaiman, Hajara Usman, and others. Also in attendance was the Commissioner for Information of Kano State and members of the Department of Mass Communication at Bayero University who had done initial training sessions with the boys.

The almajirai with Mustapha Musty. (c) Hannah Hoechner

While this film is groundbreaking in the presentation of the stories of almajirai as told by themselves, there are still voices that are not completely heard in this story. As male-centred as the almajiri system is, almost all of the women in the film were shown in a negative light. The selfish housewives who employ the boys were contrasted with the kind and fair-minded male shopowner who takes Aminu under his wings. In the making of the film itself, the boys most featured were teenagers, rather than the youngest and smallest boys who are often the most vulnerable. However, the representation of women might be explained by the fact that this film actually is from the eyes of these boys and that in work as domestic servants they likely interact with women most often. Similarly, the boys stage a conversation, where they critique the way the littlest boys are sent away from their parents, saying that parents who send small children should come and regularly check on them to make sure of their conditions. The film illustrates that the almajirai can both appreciate the benefits of and be critical of the problems of their system of education.

Little boys in the village draw water from a well under the eyes of politicians in the early part of the film. (c) Hannah Hoechner

Ultimately, the film reminded me of what drew me to the study of Hausa films in the first place, the way the industry gave ordinary people the power to tell their own stories. While Kannywood is a professional industry with a thriving star system, in projects of this sort, you can catch a glimpse of its roots and the exciting potential that a low budget film technology offers to the smallest and most often maligned members of society to tell their own stories and make their voices heard.

At the screening for Duniya Juyi Juyi, (left to right) Kabir Idris (lightner, in yellow), Abdullahi Yahaya Sa'ad (director, in gray), and Buhari Murtala (Assistant Director, in yellow) with supporters (c) Carmen McCain