I realized with dismay, when I emerged from my house yesterday afternoon to go find a copy of the Weekly Trust, that I had done several near-all-nighters this week working on articles for a paper that would probably be one of the least read this year. Because of the election (that was not), there were very few people on the streets and I had to ride for about 15 minutes on an acaba to find a vender selling a newspaper. Here is this week’s column that I wrote on my experience at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Yenagoa, Bayelsa. I’ve included a few extra photos below. To read at the Trust site, click here. To read in the original version, click on the photo below, which will take you to a large readable copy. To read on my site, scroll down below the photo. I will upload the interview I did with The Figurine director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan later in the day. For another excellent post on AMAA, written by my travel buddy Fulbright scholar Bic Leu, check out her blog.
Celebrating Africa’s film industries, building of pan- African cinema
As my readers may have noticed from recent columns, this month for me has been a mad dash from one film event to another, from the FESPACO Pan-African film festival in Ouagadougou from February 26 to March 5, to a presentation at the “Reading and Producing Nollywood” symposium hosted at University of Lagos from March 23 to 25, to, finally, a rather unexpected but delightful invitation to attend the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) held in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, on 27 March.
AMAA was a bizarre mix of the humble and glamorous that seems inherent to Nollywood. The flight from Lagos to Port Harcourt was filled with filmmakers, many of them from the diaspora, and we continued on to Yenagoa by bus. I sat at the back of a 12-seater between Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume, who won best Diaspora short for his film Precipice, and British filmmaker Wayne Saunders, who received a double nomination for Best Diaspora Feature for two feature films, Nothing Less and The Village. The next seat up, Nigerian Hollywood actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Hotel Rwanda, Wolverine), who most recently starred in Jeta Amata’s musical Inale [which later won the AMAA for best soundtrack] and the yet to be released Black Gold, was jammed in between Nollywood star Olu Jacobs and Aspire Magazine publisher Celine Loader. The cramped bus made it felt rather like a university outing, only with movie stars and filmmakers rather than students, and the three hour trip, through Port Harcourt traffic and over pot-holed roads, was long but jolly, with much loud debating about Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr, global inequalities, black consciousness, and quiet sharing of plans for future films. We ended up at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau, where hundreds of filmmakers milled about, eating food from buffet lines and trying to find places to sit before finally being transported to their hotels. The bureau became the defacto meeting and eating spot. The next day, I ran into Kannywood stars Ali Nuhu, Lawal Ahmad, and Rahama Hassan there.
At a press conference on the afternoon of 27 March, AMAA jury members pointed out the purpose of the awards to unite Africa. AMAA CEO Peace Anyiam-Osigwe said, “AMAA is about everybody that is a filmmaker in Africa…It’s about you. We are Africans. We have no borders.” In this pan-African vision, the body seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier African cinema movements such as FEPACI (Federation of African filmmakers) and FESPACO Film festival. However, unlike these earlier, mostly Francophone, African initiatives, AMAA does not merely promote art films made by African filmmakers and often funded by Europe, but emphasizes the importance of actual film industries.
Beirut-based Zimbabwean juror Keith Shiri pointed out, “I think people who are familiar with FESPACO are also familiar with other infrastructures, which are really suffering because of the negative attitude which we have about ourselves.” Shiri said it was important to recognize AMAA as “the only platform in the whole continent, which is, in my view, celebrating African cinema, and trying to build an infrastructure which enables us to begin to evaluate and consider the importance of this industry.”
The atmosphere of university outing transitioned to full-fledged Nollywood glamour by the time we arrived on the red carpet, Sunday night, where TV presenters hung out looking for interviews and camera flashes were constant. Outside, fans pressed their faces to the gaps in the wall. You could tell whenever a big star arrived by the volume of the roar outside.
The awards ceremony was hosted by Jim Iyke and Nse Ikpe-Etim, with other appearances by Rita Dominic, Kate Henshaw-Nuttal, Kunle Afolayan, Ali Nuhu, Olu Jacobs, and performances by Dr Sid, Wande Coal, Tee Mac, Ebisan, South African group Malaika, among others. It went from around 8:30pm to 2:30am, and was followed by a middle-of-the-night dinner at the Yenagoa government house. Compared to FESPACO, which was arty, elitist, and seemed irrelevant to the tastes of a popular African audience, the glamour of the AMAA awards was generated by beloved Nollywood stars, who arrived in fancy dress, gave interviews on the red carpet, presented awards, and took photos with their fans. As Keith Shiri had pointed out at the press conference, this was an event that celebrated and promoted film industry infrastructure, not just film. Peace Anyiam-Osigwe reinforced this point at the ceremony, “We should celebrate ourselves year in and year out… but I’d also like to see our filmmakers make money from what we are doing. So wherever you are in the next few years, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, I’m sure all over Africa, you’re going to have the chance to say I need you to realize the input I am making to my industry and to my country.”
Perhaps because of this focus on commercially-viable films, the films nominated also seemed quite different from those on offer at FESPACO. Out of the over 56 films I counted from the AMAA nomination list and the 187 films in the FESPACO catalogue index, I could only find seven films that overlapped and only one overlap in prizes: South African film Hopeville won best film in the TV/Video category at FESPACO; At AMAA the film received nine nominations and one award for Themba Ndaba’s performance as Best Actor in a Leading Role. AMAA was much more Anglophone-focused than FESPACO, with fewer submissions from North and Francophone Africa.
Yet, it was a film from a Francophone country, Congo-Kinshasa, the edgy Viva Riva! that ended up sweeping the Awards, surpassing the five AMAAs won by Nigeria’s The Figurine by Kunle Afolayan last year, with six AMAAs for Best Film, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hoji Fortuna), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Marlene Longage), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Director (Djo Tunda Wa Munga). According to producer Boris Vanglis as he jubilantly accepted the “Best Film” award, Viva Riva, which had been absent from FESPACO, is “the first film in Congo-Kinshasa in 20 years in Lingala.”
Although Nollywood glamour dominated the evening and though there was a much larger presence of Nigerian and Ghanaian films nominated for the awards, only three Nigerian films won awards: Niji Akanni’s Aramotu won Best Costume Design and Best Nigerian film. Jeta Amata’s Inale won Best Soundtrack, and Obi Emelonye’s Mirror Boy won Best Young Actor for the performance by Ugandan actor Edward Kagutuzi. Ghana was represented by three awards for Sinking Sands, directed by Leila Djansi, which won awards for Best Screenplay, Best Make-Up, and Best Actress in Leading role for actress Ama K. Abebrese.
Unfortunately, the nature of the event, as an awards ceremony rather than a festival, meant that I had seen none of the films that were awarded, and it seemed somewhat problematic that despite the appeal to a popular audience in the glamour of Nollywood and celebration of industry, the films awarded, much like those at FESPACO, seemed inaccessible to an African audience beyond their own regions. AMAA selection committee chairman Shaibu Husseini noted this predicament, pointing out the difficulties of an award based on popularity since films released in one part of the continent are not always seen in others. “By the time you put it to popularity test, the text messages will come from the countries where these films have been produced. And by the time, you award the films, it will not be representational.”
Yet, despite the difficulties of such structures, I came away from the AMAA awards with a more positive feeling than I had from FESPACO. FESPACO felt like a tired old legend moving into its last days. AMAA, even with its moments of disorganization, felt vibrant and full of promise, like its Nollywood base. Even though the films awarded are still unavailable to most of their African audiences, perhaps the popular focus of the African Movie Academy Awards, will work towards building a canon of African films made by African film industries, not just by cineastes. And hopefully some wise distributer with pan-African connections will seize the opportunity and make these films available all over the continent, giving accessibility and a public face to a truly popular African cinema.
More Photos of the Event:
To see my whole Flickr album of AMAA, click here.