Category Archives: African cinema

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.

END

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:

vlcsnap-2013-10-14-20h44m31s120

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.

vlcsnap-2013-10-14-20h46m34s76

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.

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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.”

END

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

Transcript:

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

Interview with Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume and review of four of his short films

This year on my way from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa to the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I was lucky enough to get to sit beside thoughtful Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume, whose film Precipice (2010) had been nominated for best Diaspora Short. He ended up winning the award.

On 12 November 2011, Weekly Trust published as a feature my email interview with Julius. Because of word limits for publication, we had to edit down a few of his responses, but because I don’t have word limits on my blog, I will include a slightly fuller (though still edited down) version of the interview here. After the interview, you can read my review of Amedume’s four short films made while in film school: “Mary and John” (2009), “Lorraine” (2009), “Mr. Graham” (2010), and “The Precipice” (2010). I have also included the short films within this post, but if you are on a slow internet connection (as I am), please wait for the entire video to download before attempting to watch it, as the jumpy start and stop of the download process will destroy your enjoyment of the film.

First, if you want to get a taste of Amedume’s work, watch his 2010 showreel here:

Second, the interview. If you want to read it as published by the Weekly Trust, click on this link or on the photos of the hard copy below. If you want to read the slightly longer version, which includes descriptions of his short films, read on below:

Julius Amedume: I’d love to tell more African stories in my films

Julius Amedume is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker based in the U.K.. He has over eleven films to his credit and a production company, Amedume Films. He won this year’s Africa Movie Academy Award for best Diaspora short for his film Precipice, Best Feature award at last year’s Pan African Film Festival for his film A Goat’s Tail and other awards at festivals around the world.

Could you tell us about your background?

My parents originated from Ghana but I was born in London, England and grew up Balham, south west London. I am the youngest of four children. Even though we were all raised in England, my parents being first generation Africans, always made it a priority to install western values as well as a strong sense of African values.  This has been fundamental to making me into who I am today.

Tell me about your journey to become a filmmaker. 

I first became engrossed in films when I was around four or five. I didn’t start school until I was seven because of health problems. My mum would work days and my dad would work nights. My dad would come home from work and teach me maths and English until he fell asleep at about 11am. I would be left in front of the TV watching westerns, musicals, war films, black and white movies and film noirs until my mum or my siblings came home in the evening..

My parents, especially my dad, kept abreast of technology and we were lucky to have a Betamax, VHS and even a Laserdisc player. I used to watch anything that came out, from art house movies to B movies. Throughout childhood and my early teens I would watch a film almost every day.

On leaving school at the age of 16, I enrolled into Saint Francis of Xavier College in Clapham and made my first short film as part of a media studies course. I ended up writing, producing, editing and directing it. I was originally working with a group of people, but as the amount of work involved dawned on them, they slowly dropped out, leaving me to finish the film.

The film was about the controversial subject of safe sex: three couples who meet in club and what happens later that evening when they have sex, either with a condom or without. The film then jumps to a year later. One of the couple is still together in a settled, stable relationship. The second couple has broken up and the male has a multitude of baby mothers. The last couple has also broken up, but the man learns he has caught AIDS. There was a big AIDS epidemic at the time scaring the nation and as I started to understand the facts, it made me start to think of different scenarios which people could or might find themselves in within the community.   This is what gave me the idea for the film.

This was my first attempt at a making a short film, it also set up the tone and types of films I would be compelled to make along my career path. Looking at the film now, it’s still entertaining , it still  has narrative, but the production values make it seem like a  low budget mess.

I played around for a year with a camera on a Youth Training Scheme which taught me the basics of different areas along the production route.  I went on to do A-level media studies which gave me another opportunity to mess around with video. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in film. I just knew I wanted to be around it.

When I hit 19, I needed enough money to go to university, so I took a year out which turned into three. I worked in two sports shops and then spent two years as assistant manager in a shop called PROHIBITIO.  We sold high end designer clothes to celebrities and other characters who walked through the door. There were two things that helped me most on my journey to film when I worked there. The first was when American actor Jack Nicolson walked by and I enticed him into the shop. He came in and hung around for fifteen minutes whilst waiting for a lady friend. I was at a transitional stage when I really wanted to study film but my parents wanted me to follow a different path. Jack told me because he loved acting, it didn’t seem like work and he could put in as many hours as god sends. He told me you shouldn’t do any job that seems like work because it’s not making you happy. If you do a job that makes you happy then it doesn’t seem like work. Those words were what I was looking for.

The second thing was the experience dealing with the different types of customers. Because I constantly interacted with people and had only seconds to try to sell them something, I found the tips, tricks and senses gained later helped me in my career when I approached actors, tried to understand them, and bring out the best of their talent.

When I went to university, I did an intensive BSC Hons degree in Communication and Technology at a broadcasting university called Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. Their Film/TV module was a calculated plus, but the other courses taught me things which I would later utilize, like webpage design, DVD authoring, marketing, psychology, electronics, engineering, broadcasting, satellite distribution signals, etc. It also gave me a safety net. If film failed, I could get a job as engineer, which gave my parents peace of mind.

Upon graduating I immediately went back to doing what I love. By now I had worked out that I really wanted to direct. It incorporated all the other disciplines whilst overseeing the overall project. I got an unpaid runners position at a commercials company. I had been advised this was the easiest way to work your way up to being a director. I started on a Monday and the company went bankrupt on a Friday. I was back to square one but I read it as a sign. Never being someone to wait around, I threw caution to the wind and remembered ‘WE CREATE OUR OWN DESTINIES AND CALL IT FATE’. I decided to open up a production company. The birth of AMEDUME FILMS came in 2002, though a production company had been in my mind since 1999. I didn’t really have any money, but I also knew I had good contacts and good line of credit from working full time. I used this line of credit to gap fund projects whilst I sought investors.

Through my production company, I made three short films, THE MEETING, THE PHONE CALL and THE VIDEOTAPE.  The Meeting, about an intimate conversation between a baker and teacher as they wait for a train, won a best actor and a cinematography award at the Kent Film Festival in 2002. The Phone Call explores the repercussions when a young man receives a phone call from an old school friend asking for a favor. It was nominated for five awards at the 5th BFM international film festival 2002 and won the Best Screenplay award. It was also nominated for the best short film award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. As well as taking it to schools and prisons it also screened on various Satellite television channels and MTV Base.  The Videotape was my first fully corporate funded short film.

The Meeting trailer

The Phone Call trailer

The Video Tape trailer

Tell me about your feature film A Goat’s Tail. How was making a feature film different from making shorts? Were there any major challenges in shooting a film across two continents?  

Making a leap from shorts to feature films is a different kettle of fish. The pressures of the production can be catastrophic, especially if you intend to make a film, shot in two continents, on a micro budget.

I had gone to Ghana for three months with my parents so I could chill out and write a script.  When I arrived I suffered from writers block. Nothing managed to make it onto the page. To take my mind off the block, I started to relax and enjoy Ghana. Taking taxis everywhere, my face, body language and attire signaled to the taxi drivers that I was a foreigner. The majority of them tried to exploit me, by trying to double or sometimes triple the fares, but I showed them I wasn’t a “Johnny just come.” Taxi drivers are like your local newspapers, they know everything and have strong views. In our many conversations, they told me they would love to travel to England. The shared consensus was that that coming from there you must be rich. I tried to tell the cab drivers that compared to cost of living, prices were more or less the same. Living in Ghana actually has more benefits like constant sunshine and fresh food. My information fell on deaf ears, but this turned out to be the key that I was looking for to unlock my writer block. The idea for A Goat’s Tailwas born. I spent the rest of my time in Ghana writing out a treatment. The film was about Kojo, a Ghanian taxi driver, who is hired by a beautiful young British actress, Cynthia, to show her around for the day. The day ends with a sexual encounter and a reluctant promise from Cynthia to invite Kojo to England. Arriving on Cynthia’s doorstep four months later, Kojo soon realizes that the grass might not be greener in England and people are not what they seem.

I wrote the script when I arrived back in London. I gave myself a time limit of two years to make this film. My business plan was based on a lot of high calculated risks. In my passion to make the film, I knew nothing could go wrong, but it did, in more ways than one. First, I never managed to raise all the money I needed, and I decided to gap finance the film on about 10 credit cards, which I had amassed with 0% interest over a year from my good credit. This failed me by the end of the film, leaving me vastly over budget and with huge debts. I also decided that renting equipment would be too expensive so I decided to buy all my own equipment from ebay and then sell it after the shoot, so I could reinvest the money into the post production schedule.  When the shoot got delayed, the depreciating costs of the equipment came back to haunt me. I decided to cast a Ghanaian non-professional actor for the lead role. He had never left Ghana before—talk about life mimicking art! Having flown to Ghana with my crew and equipment to shoot the first part of the film, I had scheduled to return back to England with the actor  to shoot the last part, but his visa was denied, not once, not twice, but three times. I fought to exercise his right to come to England especially since all the required paper work was in order. I even had a letter from the Ghana High Commission endorsing the film. I took the decision to an appeals court and got the case transferred to London.  This delayed my film for just over a year but I did feel victorious when I defended myself in the UK case hearing and won.

I am only really touching the surface of the problems I faced and experienced making that film. It’s true when they say everything that could go wrong will go wrong. Physically, it was the hardest film I have made to date. I spent over three years of my life on it. In the darkest hours of wanting to quit, I realized how much I wanted my career and what I was prepared to do to make it happen. Making this film, I would say, was my film school and I grew more confident and learned how to tell stories better. I also understood the different types of problems I could face in the future on any given production.  Having shot, written, produced and directed the film, it confirmed to me I wanted to be writer-director but also gave me a understanding of the other disciplines. The film went on to be nominated for six awards, and it won best feature at the Pan African film festival.

A Goat’s Tail clip

Tell me about your Masters in Directing Fiction at the National Film and TV School. What were the benefits to going back to school when you were already making films and had a production company?

I was accepted into a scheme called Compass Point, with the National Film School and B3 media. Paul Moody, the organizer of the course, and Nik Powell, a visiting guest speaker, both encouraged me to apply to the film school.  I had tried before and was unsuccessful, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do. I had some successes independently and had set up a production company which I had been running for 5 years. But one day I sat back and asked myself –if being a director is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, if I was to apply and got in, wouldn’t it be like taking two steps back to go three steps forward? With that attitude I applied and beat 450 other applicants to one of the eight places available on the Directing Fiction masters program. I had never been to film school before. I had done a few technical courses in and around film, but instantly I knew this was it. The National Film and Television School is the best film school in Europe. I felt I had been touched by an angel to have the opportunity to go there. I was still financially hindered from A Goat’s Tail and wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the fees. But I was blessed and received a full scholarship from Toledo Productions.

Just being in an environment surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your passion and knowledge for film was enough. But to be lectured  and have master classes by  some of the greats like Stephen Frears, Pawel Pawlikowski, Roger Michell, Ken Loach, Udayan Prasad, Danny Boyle and  Mike Leigh, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. What I also found confidence building was realizing that some of what I was learning from these directors I already knew and had picked up through making my films. Understanding why I did something instinctively made me stronger in assessing my own strengths and weaknesses and more precise at what I wanted from the course.

The films I made during my course of study each had specific learning objectives. With Mary and John, I wanted the experience of working with old people.  With Lorraine, how do I direct up to seven people at the same time and within limited time create believable group dynamics? With Mr Graham, how do I tell a story honestly when the subject matter is something I feel strongly against, and how do I make the audience care about and understand someone who society tells us not to. In Precipice, how do I make a genre piece on a micro-budget, without having the audience dismiss it if it doesn’t live up to the higher budget aesthetics they are used to? If A Goat’s Tail was my film school, then the National Film School was the polishing and prepping I needed for a life long career. The film school really did change me as a person and as a director.

Tell me more about your film Precipice, which won this year’s AMAA award for best short film from the Diaspora.

Precipice had been with me for a while. I grew up watching film noirs and thrillers, and in terms of subject matter, I was first inspired by the case about the scandals surrounding the American company ENRON in 2001/2002 , and the American stockbroker Bernie Madoff .  But ultimately with the lack of ethnic action heroes on screen, I wanted to create a character that would fill that void whilst being able to tell an entertaining commercial, universal story.  My ideas were originally a lot bigger than the short film could handle, but I took one or two strands and streamlined it into a short film. Working with the actor Jimmy Jean-Louis was the essential key to the short film. He is the person I always envisaged and was best suited to fill this void in mainstream cinema.

What was it like winning the AMAA?  How far have your plans gone for remaking Precipice into a  a full-length feature?

Julius Amedume with his AMAA award for Best Diaspora Short film (photo credit courtesy of Julius Amedume)

Winning the AMMA award was extremely invigorating and truly amazing. It’s something I will remember forever and tell my children about. I honestly never expected to win anything that night and I was just thankful I was nominated. I have a saying that “As a director my job is to serve, to serve the audience.” I believe as along as my audience are engaged, inspired, educated, challenged, entertained and happy with my work, my job is done. Audiences keep you going, Nominations are a great pat on the back, and winning awards is a surreal added bonus. I did enjoy winning. I was grinning from ear to ear. It felt great to be embraced by Africa. The film also won the Pan African Film Festival Board of Directors award.

I have developed the ideas around Precipice into the feature length script.  Some of the script takes place in Africa. Roman’s character has been developed to give insight into how he became who he is and where he is going. The ideas, the scenarios, the characters’ motivation, wants and needs can stretch into a franchise of three films. I want Jimmy Jean-Louis to stay as the lead, and a there are parts for a number of integral supporting characters from the different international territories the film is based in. The script has all the original entertaining set pieces an action thriller should have, but it also has a strong emotional core and social message which, like all my work, will create topics for debate.  I have had a lot of interest in the project, pitched as a Black Jason Bourne. We know this film is going to profitable, but Jimmy and I want to make the film the way we want to make it and with the right people. So building the right team and attracting the right investors is key.

What is your creative process like?

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me to be seen and not heard. That stuck with me and I got used to sitting back and just watching people, watching the world, whilst trying to interpret and understand it.  I have a very selective memory, and I tend to only remember stuff that I feel is important to me. For example, I might meet you and instantly forget your name, but if you make an impression, I will remember when we met, what we spoke about, and even what you were wearing. Instead of your name, I remember your spirit or your energy.  If a story, a person or a situation stays with me, I think about it to the point I become obsessive and need to understand every angle of it, every side. Once I understand, then I can let go.  My brain goes through this process with every film I make. But mostly, I have to find something challenging, mentally or physically, or I won’t do it. I have written and directed most of my films. I am a slow writer and always write at night. But I feel I am more of a director than a writer. Ultimately I would love to direct something I have written every five to six years and direct other people’s work in between. At the moment I am working with a handful of different writers on different projects and reading scripts my agents send through.

What is your philosophy of directing actors? How do you get such profound performances?

I put actors through a process. They might not even know it at the time, but I build them up in layers. I do a lot of research and make it available to them so they can see where my mind is. I am quite a deep thinker and it comes across in my conservations with them, which ultimately reflects in their acting.  Acting is about what you think. Everything else is secondary to me. When I do casting sessions I actually hate when actors come with monologues. Most of the time in castings, I never even make them act or read. I just have a nice chat with them and then make my decision. I have worked with professional and non professional actors, and I always find the right person for the right role.

What are your thoughts on Nollywood and Ghallywood and the popular African film industries?

The Nollywood and Ghallywood market is saturated. There are too many films that have flooded the market making these African movies lack high production values, because producers want to make quick money on as small financial outlay as possible. But now the film industry has reached a stage where films with better quality acting, better storylines and higher production values will rise from the rest and will open the doors for bigger investment in movies and the industry so they can compete on an international level. The African market is the second largest film producing market in the world after Bollywood. It has taken a while but they are getting there.  My only experience of working in the African film industry  was when I shot A Goat’s Tail. I am interested in working in Africa, but it depends on the story.

What projects do you have on your plate right now? What are your hopes for the future?

I am working on five or six projects at the moment but I would like to see PRECIPICE get made and make films that change how we think or view the world.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Stop talking about making a movie and go and make one.

(End)

Third, here is my review of his four short films made while he was at the National Film and Television school. The review was first published in Weekly Trust on 29 October 2011:

On the Precipice: The short, dark films of Julius Amedume

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 29 October 2011 05:00

This year when I attended the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I rode in the bus from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa seated beside Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume. Amedume’s short film “Precipice” had been nominated for the best Diaspora short and his feature film A Goat’s Tail had won the best feature award at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival. He told me about his love of suspense films and how he hoped to remake “Precipice” into a full-length feature.  The next night at the award ceremony, he was called up to receive the award for Best Diaspora Short. When after the festival he sent me a DVD of four short films made as part of his MA in Fiction Directing at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School, I realized why “Precipice” had won.

Julius Amedume wins the AMAA for the Best Diaspora Short Film (c) Carmen McCain

The DVD that he sent me included the short films “Mary and John,” “Lorraine,” “Mr Graham,” and “Precipice” all of which are set in the U.K. but deal with human emotions and failures that resonate with almost any culture. After watching the first film “Mary and John,”I sat back and breathed out. I realized I had been holding my breath for much of the film. Rather than proceeding on to the next one, I turned it back and played it again. I ended up re-watching all four of the films that way. Watching it once holding my breath in suspense and then watching it again to savour the details. In the first film in the collection, “Mary and John” (2009, 6 mins) are an old British couple, apparently played by a married couple in real life (Marlene and Eddie Price). In the absence of any other obvious loved ones, the couple seems to be waiting to die. John sits motionless and expressionless, mouth half open watching TV (staring into the camera so his audience becomes the TV he watches), while Mary vacuums the carpet in front of him. The cord of the vacuum machine tugs around his leg, but it is as if he is made of wood. He doesn’t seem to notice. Mary’s life is taken over with taking care of her husband. She feeds him, bathes him, dresses him. Her life is marked by the clicking open of the pill box which is divided into dosages for each day of the week. Other than a powerful flashback with a texture and sound that makes it the emotional centre of the film, each day is the same. The faces of the old couple are mostly still and emotionless, making the heartbreak on Mary’s face and the expression in John’s eyes in the moments where he lifts his face to her and opens his mouth like a child so that she can feed him, all the more devastating. Yet what initially seems to be a short quiet film about old age, has room in it for an unexpected twist. There are powerful understated performances here as well as a thoughtful use of sound.

Watch “Mary and John”

In the second film, “Lorraine,” (2009, 14 mins) the protagonist after whom the film is named is a new girl at school who desperately wants to be accepted. But the story quickly gets much darker than the typical high school movie about teenage angst. There are moments that feel like William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies here, school girls in uniforms capable of stunning cruelties. This is the film that perhaps stuck with me the most. The actress who plays Lorraine(Lisa Diveney) acts with depth and passion, emotions playing over her face as she contemplates the violence she is complicit in. The other girls, too, reveal more about themselves in their expressions and glances than they do in their words.

Watch “Lorraine”

“Mr Graham” (2010, 14 mins) is the slowest and most brooding of the films but contains perhaps the most hair-raising twist of any of them. Mr Graham (Alexis Rodney) remembers the legacy left by his father who “died when I was too old to forget.”  As he travels home at night watching a train slither over the tracks and into the darkness, his father’s spirit blossoms and grows in him. The next day as he goes about his daily duties, he struggles with a secret obsession that threatens the life he had hoped to build.

Watch “Mr. Graham”

The award winning “Precipice” (2010, 25 mins) is the most ambitious of the films in scope, telling the story of a corrupt London banker Jasper (Martin Turner), who has embezzled money and is on the verge of being discovered.  Roman (Jimmy Jean-Louis, who also played in another AMAA award winning film Sinking Sands) is hired by Jasper’s partners to spirit him away. But, although this was supposed to be a simple job for Roman, it becomes complicated when Jasper asks him to make one stop on their way out of town. The two criminals, the embezzler and the hired gun, discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. This short film certainly has enough emotional punch and complexity to carry the full-length film, Amedume wants to make of it.

Watch “Precipice”

Although these four short films have great emotional power, they are anything but sentimental. Almost all of them have suspense and unexpected twists that lead to chilling discoveries. Amedume directs his actors extraordinarily well, in powerful understated performances.  The dialogue here is on the surface, the real drama happens in the moments of silence, where the horrors lurking within even the most innocent looking characters slither into the open. Many of the short films I’ve seen are clever but without well-developed characters. Here, however, the expressions of the actors, the pacing, the framing, give you insights into character that make you feel like you have watched a feature-length film by the end.

Despite the maturity and polish of the films, there were occasional flaws. The sets sometimes seemed a bit too pristine, not lived in enough. In “Lorraine,” an abandoned house suddenly yields forth bounties of food from the fridge. In “Precipice” there are moments in the dark car scene where the cinematographer seems to have trouble pulling focus on Jasper’s face and, as in some Nigerian films that attempt to project great wealth without having access to it, Jasper’s office seems a little modest for a bank executive. But for me, what is best in a film is in its script and the power of performance, the kind of story that forces you to sit down and be pensive afterwards. Amedume’s films do that.

Read together these four films explore the depths of the human psyche in a way that reminds me of the W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming” from which Chinua Achebe took the title “Things fall apart.” The films that frame the collection, “Mary and John” and “Precipice” are bitter-sweet. These characters on the precipice of death think back on the moments and people in their lives most precious to them. The two films enclosed within this frame, “Lorraine” and “Mr. Graham” explore young characters, their lives stretching out before them, who struggle with passions, in some ways, more horrible than death. Lorraine’s simple search for friendship turns into betrayal, as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In ‘Mr. Graham,’ there is an ugliness welling within him that makes one wonder “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

If you are intrigued enough to want to check out these films, you are in luck. You don’t have to wait for a film festival or travel to the UK to hunt them down. Amedume told me he plans to upload the four films to his website by 1 November 2011. If you plan to watch them online, though, I beg of you to download them in full before you start watching. They are too good to be ruined by the jumpy start and stop of a slow internet connection. Enjoy.

“Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time”: a review of the documentary by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata

A little late, but Barka da Sallah! Eid Mubarak. Da fatan an yi sallah lafiya.

In today’s column in Weekly Trust, I reviewed the documentary Equestrian Elegance, written, narrated, and produced by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. To read the column on the Trust website, click on the link, to read the hard copy, click on the photo, or if you have slow internet, just read the piece below:

Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 November 2011 05:00

Before I moved to Kano in 2008, I had heard much about the Sallah celebrations as a “tourist attraction.” Expatriate acquaintances both in Nigeria and outside the country told me of travels to Kano to experience the colour and pageantry of the annual event. In 2008, I attended my first “Hawan Sallah” at the emir’s palace and two days later stood with a friend as the parade of horses and riders, hunters on foot and men on stilts, processed past her Fagge house on the outskirts of the old city. At the centre of it all was the magnificent emir Alhaji (Dr) Ado Bayero, who rode under a twirling silk umbrella. He was greeted with cries of blessing from the crowd, their fists upraised in salute. [For photos of the the "Hawan Nassarawa" during Eid el-Fitr I attended in 2010, click to my flickr album here or for the blog post about it, click here]

What most struck me as I stood with crowd on both days was the community feel of the festivities: onlookers calling out the names of the riders, riders shouting down greetings to friends, the genuine affection in the salutes to the emir. This sense of familiarity is captured beautifully in the 2009 documentary film, Equestrian Elegance: the Kano Sallah Pageantry Festival written, produced and narrated by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. Professor Abdalla of Bayero University is one of the most grounded and prolific scholars of Hausa popular culture, with dozens of books and articles published both locally and internationally. His most important contributions, however, go beyond academic scholarship to actual interventions into popular culture: among which was his founding and moderation of the Finafinan Hausa and marubuta yahoogroups, important critical forums for dialogue about Hausa popular literature and film;  the organizing of concerts and award shows for Hausa musicians, and his innovative creation of what he calls “Hausa classical music” by recording Hausa traditional instruments being played without singing. Professor Abdalla also spans the world of scholarship and art with the films put out by his production company Visually Ethnographic Productions.

The documentary Equestrian Elegance (1 hour 28 mins), which was shot in 2008 but has not yet been released for commercial distribution, covers the four days of parades through Kano city during Eid al-Fitr: “Hawan Sallah,” “Hawan Daushe,” “Hawan Nassarawa,” and “Hawan Dorayi,” and the additional day of pageantry “Hawan Fanisau” during Eid al-Adha. A narrative voiceover by Professor Abdalla, explains the events and an innovative animation traces along a map the parade route taken each day, but the film mostly celebrates the details of the festivities from the sunrise on the first day of Sallah to the sunset on the last day. Within this symbolic frame, the rhythm of Sallah is measured out by each procession out of and back towards the palace.

While I admittedly grew a bit weary about an hour into the film, I think the attention to detail here is important. Professor Abdalla told me that the unhurried pacing was intentional: he wanted the film to “unfold in very slow motion, so you can absorb the details.” The focus here was on capturing “the pageantry. Every horse is different. Every rider is different. People stay out there three hours watching and don’t get tired.” His goal was to show the “high level of refinement” in the Sallah parades and the “structural elegance of pageantry.”

Such elegance is captured in the beauty of the cinematography: the close-ups of the courtier crouching to perform the morning gun salute and his graceful almost balletic twirl through the gun smoke; the rich texture of both horse and rider being robed in layer after layer of damask in preparation for the parade; the hazy glow of Kano swathed in harmattan during the final day of “Hawan Fanisau.”

But beyond presenting the elegance of the event, Professor Abdalla told me that another goal was to present to a global audience that sense of community surrounding Sallah. Although Kano’s Sallah festivities are probably some of the most photographed annual events in Nigeria, the photographs taken by tourists are often formally beautiful but distancing. There is little knowledge or intimacy in them.  Here, however, as Professor Abdalla points out you “can see the sense of community. It’s like carnival, a street party, with mom and dad and kids.” And it is this sense of community and lived tradition that I like most about the film. Kano is often either romanticized by the national and international media as a place of “timeless tradition,” an ancient exotic city of fairy tale, or denigrated as, what one foreign blogger termed, “an overgrown village,” a backwards northern outpost with a medieval mentality. Equestrian Elegance explodes both stereotypes, presenting the richness of tradition from insider’s perspective. One of the moments that best captures this delightful mix of light-heartedness and ceremony is in a shot where the dignified male space of the emir’s speech at the government house is playfully undermined by the little girl playing with a balloon directly behind him. As opposed to stereotypes about Kano under shari’a, women are not excluded from the celebration. While they may not be a part of the main spectacle, they take part in the larger community event. Girls and women hang off of balconies and push into the crowds to catch a glimpse of the horses and riders. As Professor Abdalla points out, Sallah is a family affair.

Part of what contributes to this “insider’s perspective” comes from the camera operators’ ability to get up close to their subjects, not the flattened close-up of a zoom camera but the intimate close-up of someone who is a part of the celebration. The subjects of the camera’s gaze sometimes seem to recognize the person behind the camera, and the film is often self-referential. While tourist photographs often attempt to capture the “timelessness” of the event, avoiding shots of other photographers or signs that situate their subjects in a particular modern moment, this film cheerfully revels in contemporary local knowledge of the event. The parade, as Professor Abdalla points out in his narrative commentary, is located in a very specific and recent history, including a route which began as part of the current emir’s Sallah visit to his mother.

There are multiple references to the way in which the event is viewed both through foreign and homegrown eyes.  The tourists become part of the spectacle. They are depicted laughing on the palace balcony or lining up in front of the crowd with their zoom lenses. But more significant are the frequent moments of easy familiarity when local photographers and videographers enter the camera’s view. The camera repeatedly captures the parade processing past photography and video shops, a subtle tribute to the many Kano residents who use the camera to tell their own stories. Professor Abdalla himself makes a cameo appearance towards the end of the film.

The cosmopolitan mix that makes up Kano is also found in the soundtrack of the documentary. The most striking piece of music is Babangida Kakadawo’s praise song “Sarkin Kano Ado Bayero” to the accompaniment of the kuntigi, used to great effect in the moments where the emir appears. However, the soundtrack is also sprinkled with Malian musician Ali Farka Toure’s guitar pieces and another song featuring Egyptian musician Hassan Ramzy. (Professor Abdalla argues the inclusion of these tracks follows international standards of fair usage since the looped excerpts are less than one minute.) While I initially thought the use of non-Nigerian music detracted from the “authenticity” of the film, I find convincing Professor Abdalla’s argument that he wanted to expose people to music from other parts of Africa, a goal in keeping with Kano’s history as a cosmopolitan trade centre.

The borrowed music, along with the slow pace, could be an attraction or flaw depending on the taste of the viewer. I was not a fan of the digital effects in the transitions, which I thought distracted more than they added to the film.  But these moments of imperfection are far outweighed by the strength in the completeness of the film, which moved beyond the picturesque palace durbar to cover the entire procession and its connection to the people of the city. Equestrian Elegance is an important historical resource that is valuable to outsiders trying to learn about the culture and traditions of Kano but perhaps even more so to those from Kano, who want to remember the richness of a lived tradition, Sallah as performed in the first decade of the 21st century.

 

Congratulations to Kannywood actress Sakna Gadaza and Musa Bello on their wedding, 9 July 2011

booklet distributed at dinner for Sakna Gadaza and Musa Bello's wedding

First of all, another apology for such a long delay in updating this blog, which had to do 1) with my internet server going on a near 2-3 week near-shut-down, 2) travel to Lagos to present at a “Nollywood in Africa, Africa in Nollywood” conference hosted by Pan-African University, 3) the electricity going out in my neighborhood for 1 week and 1 day (in which case, the battery and inverter I celebrated in my last post, has it’s limitations. There has to be a certain amount of electricity for the thing to charge). 4) A nasty case of food poisoning, which put me out of operation for at least two good days.

So, I am only just now posting this piece of Kannywood news, namely, the wedding of Hausa film actress Sakna Gadaza and Musa Bello on 9 July 2011. I attended two of the wedding events, an “Arabian Night” on 7 July, which I arrived scandalously late to even by “African-time” standards only about 15 minutes before the bride took off, partially because I was out shopping for the appropriate “Arabian” attire. 2) The dinner on 8 July, which I arrived on time for and got lots of photos.

So, congratulations to Sakna and Musa. A few photos below:

Sakna sings to her new husband Musa at the wedding dinner. (c) Carmen McCain

Money sprayed for Sakna, as Musa looks on (c) Carmen McCain

The beautiful bride, Sakna Gadaza (c) Carmen McCain

Camera phones were out in full force and Sakna's friend Kannywood actress Zainab Idris pulled out her best dance moves for the occasion (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood actress and comedienne Saratu Gidado was a great dinner companion. (c) Carmen McCain

Kannywood actors Umar Gombe and Fati Bararoji trade thoughts before the event begins. (c) Carmen McCain

Hausa novelist and film producer Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and a friend at the Arabian Night celebration for Sakna Gadaza and Musa Bello's wedding. (c) Carmen McCain

Baballe Hayatu has a quiet moment before the beginning of the event. (c) Carmen McCain

I have more photos not yet uploaded to flickr that I may add as I have internet time, so stay tuned for more pics.