Tag Archives: Kunle Afolayan

I left banking job to direct movies – Kunle Afolayan (Weekly Trust Feature Interview)

Kunle Afolayan at FESPACO filmmaker hangout, Independance Hotel, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

I usually post the edited versions of my articles that are published in Weekly Trust. This week, however, I’m going to post the original version of my interview with Kunle Afolayan as submitted before publication in the Weekend Magazine feature of the Weekly Trust last Saturday.

While I agree with some of the editorial cuts made for tightening purposes and take a few of them here, some of the questions I was personally the most interested in got cut in publication. I was also a little dismayed that the published version mentioned that The Figurine got ten African Movie Academy Award nominations but not that it actually won five of those. If you would like to read the published version (with the edits made), here is the link to the interview on  the Weekly Trust site. You can also click on the photos below to be taken to a large copy of each page on my flickr site. Here are the other posts I’ve written on Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine:

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine, posted on 13 March 2011

Champions of Our Time, The Figurine, and Nigeria’s Rebranding Project at FESPACO, posted on 19 March 2011

I conducted this interview the day after I met Afolayan at his first screening of The Figurine at FESPACO. Having since had more conversations with him, seen both of his feature-length films and read a lot more about the production of both, I now have deeper questions on language-use and philosophy, but this is a start. I saw Afolayan’s first feature film Irapada last night. It wasn’t as technically polished or tight as The Figurine, and I missed some of what was going on because the subtitles were too small and fast, but it was just as thought-provoking and rooted in Yoruba theatre/literature as The Figurine, if not more so. Although I disliked the synthesizer piano track, I loved the rest of the sound track which fit the mood of the film and included songs in Yoruba and Hausa, which (at least the one in Hausa) contributed ironic commentary on the story. While it may not necessarily work for a popular audience who don’t like reading subtitles, I’m a big fan of what Afolayan does with language in his films. He unapologetically switches between multiple Nigerian languages, subtitling each in English. The Figurine included Yoruba, pidgen, and standard Nigerian English. Irapada was even more ambitious in this regard with conversation in Yoruba, standard Nigerian English, Hausa, pidgen, and a short segment in Igbo. Some of this may be an influence of Afolayan’s mentor, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, whose films also make brilliant use of codeswitching. In Magun (Thunderbolt), for example, the Igbo father of Ngozi, the woman struck with the curse of magun curse, converses in Igbo with her in front of the Yoruba babalawo. (If I’m remembering correctly), Her landlady also hides her own conversation with her nephew from Ngozi by using Yoruba. There’s a dramatic irony that comes with the revelation to the audience via subtitles what is hidden through language from other characters. In Afolayan’s films, language flows in the way Nigerians actually use it. In The Figurine, Sola and Femi switch to Yoruba for intimate conversations; youth corpers use pidgen in informal situations at their NYSC camp; Sola and Mona use English at home in their mixed-ethnic marriage but make a point of teaching their son greetings in both languages. In Irapada, comic relief comes when the Yoruba-speaking mother of the main character Dewunmi attempts to communicate with a Hausa-speaking porter at a train station; or when the Igbo-speaking Amaka, Dewunmi’s wife’s best friend, overhears some mechanics planning to cheat her Hausa-speaking friend, Shehu. (See the trailer below for a clip of each). In addition to the use of language, you can also see Kelani’s  influence in other aspects of Afolayan’s of films (although some of this could be the influence of Yoruba theatre and film in general) in the questions about destiny vs independent human choices and the nods to the many cultures that make up Nigeria.

Before I paste the interview, here are trailers for Irapada and The Figurine. Enjoy.

IRAPADA (for a review from NEXT click here)

THE FIGURINE

‘Think of Nigeria First’: Kunle Afolayan on The Figurine, filmmaking, and Nollywood

Interview by Carmen McCain

Actor, producer, and director Kunle Afolayan grew up in the richly creative environment surrounding the Yoruba travelling theatre and early Nigerian cinema, of which his father, Ade Love, was one of the pioneers; however, it wasn’t until later in life, while working as a banker, that he became interested in making films himself. Mentored by one of Nigeria’s foremost filmmakers Tunde Kelani as he moved into an acting career and with training from the New York Film Academy, in 2010, Kunle Afolayan released his second film The Figurine, which earned him ten 2010 Africa Movie Academy Award nominations and five awards, including AMAA Best Picture Award, Heart of Africa Award for best film in Nigeria, Award for best actor in a leading role for Ramsey Nouah, Best Cinematography, and Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Carmen McCain spoke with him for the Weekly Trust on 2 March at FESPACO film festival.

How and when did you become interested in film-making?

I developed interest in filmmaking right from before I was an actor. All I wanted to do then was write my own story. I just felt there was a need for change in the Nigerian film industry, and I’m talking as far back as 1995. But there was no way I could achieve it because I was not a writer, I was not in any aspect of filmmaking. So, I went to Tunde Kelani, because I used to see him around when my father used to shoot film. I went to him to let my feelings be known. He said to me, “Instead of you wanting to start filming, why not start by being an actor? That might really work better.” So I said, ok, and I told him that I would like to be invited for audition, whenever they have any film. I got invited when they were going to shoot Saworoide in 1998, and I got selected to play the role. Saworoide was a blockbuster, and even up today is relevant in the Nigerian film circle. That was how I started acting.

Kunle Afolayan examines a toy camera at Independance Hotel, FESPACO. (c) Carmen McCain

Could you tell me a little bit about your father’s films? Were you ever involved in those?

I was never involved in the production. My father started as a theatre person, travelling theatre all around Nigeria and West Africa. His full name was Adeyemi Afolayan, also known as Ade Love. They started travelling theatre. He got invited to be part of a film project by Dr. Ola Balogun, who started commercial filmmaking in Nigeria in 1976. They shot a film titled Ajani Ogun, which featured my father. And thereafter, my father decided to go into filmmaking fully. So he shot his own first film, right after Ajani Ogun in 1978 or thereabout. That was how he started. He had eight celluloid films to his credit, and most of these films travelled to film festivals all over the world, especially Ajani Ogun, Ija Ominira, Kadara, and the rest of them.

Do you remember being at home and having other filmmakers around?

Well that was the memory. Cause, I grew up—sometimes I found myself on their sets. Myself and some of my sisters and brothers. We’d just go there to make noise and see how they do their things, and after some time, they’d be like ok, go home, you guys are disturbing us. I was familiar with some of the cast and crew, at that time, but I didn’t learn nothing. It was just children messing about at their father’s workplace. That was just it. So I didn’t start aspiring until the man was late.

So you started acting in 1998. How many films were you in?

They are not up to 15. Saworoide by Tunde Kelani and Agogo Eewo, which is a sequel to Saworoide, Dark Days, which is English, and some other films, but it’s not such a large number like some of my colleagues who have featured in about 1000 films. I resigned my appointment from the bank in 2005, and went to film school at New York Film Academy, studied digital filmmaking, came back, and set up Golden Effects, which is a production house.

How many films have you directed?

I’ve done two short films and two feature films. The first short film was a project in film school, and the second one was a collaboration with an American producer by the name of Catherine Sullivan. We shot with an all white cast and crew project, and I directed it. I co-directed Irapada, which is my first feature film, and soley directed The Figurine, which is the second.

Could you tell me a little bit about The Figurine, how you came up with the idea for it, and the process of producing, directing, and acting?

Ok, well, the idea came about in 2005, right after film school. For me, I think most Africans, most Nigerians, an average African is superstitious. So, I was looking around doing something that would not totally demystify the power of the gods but at the same time reveal human participation in our predicament and what happens in our lives. So that was what brought about the idea. I narrated my idea to a guy called Jovie Babs, who came up with the first draft, which we titled The Shrine, you know for like two years. We got the script ready, then Kemi Adesoye wrote this version of The Figurine. We had a script conference and did a lot of work and then we came and did the treatment and final script.

What was your biggest challenge in shooting?

One of my biggest challenges was getting the funding for the film, which took a while, but eventually we were able to. Then another major challenge was the location. Because of the time difference in the film, we had to do seven years, the first seven years, then the next seven years. There had to be a lot of make up differences, location differences. All those kind of things delayed, so we couldn’t move on to the next phase until we finished with the first seven years. So if any time we paint any scene, any shoot, it just keeps piling up, and that really slows it down. I had a bit of sound issue, because our 50K generator fell into the sea when we were trying to move to the location. So the shoot had to stop. A whole lot of things got messed up. When we eventually got smaller generators to power our stuff, the thing got burnt. I don’t know what happened. There was a spark and everything plugged to it got burnt. That set us back again. The lights, the laptop, the camera charger. The camera was pretty new, so we had to wait to order another charger.

What was the most rewarding thing for you?

The most rewarding thing for me so far is the acceptance. The film has really set a new standard, not only in Nigeria, but among the other filmmakers from other regions. Don’t forget that the film got ten nominations at the most prestigious African Movie Academy Awards and won five. And the dream of an average filmmaker is to win Best Picture category in any awards. I’m glad that the film has really travelled around to so many film festivals. And as a matter of fact, it was in competition, official selection and competition in some of them like FESPACO, Pan African Film festival, etc. Any time a festival is doing a retrospective on Nollywood, they are always inviting the film to be able to differentiate between the normal Nollywood style, and the New Nollywood, that is what I call it.

Kunle Afolayan at the 'Reading and Producing Nollywood' conference held at University of Lagos, 24 March 2011. (c) Carmen McCain

What kind of feedback have you gotten at other film festivals?

I realized after the screening, a lot of people want to wait for question and answer, to find out how we were able to do the film. Most of them seem surprised that such a high quality film could come out of Nigeria. An example is [Kenyan author] Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] when we were in Pan-African film festival. He came with his wife, and they stayed and watched the whole film and they stayed for the question and answer. And he stood up to commend the film by saying that he feels so proud to be an African, and he wrote me a letter, recommending the film to another film festival, saying he has not seen such in a long time, even as a writer, he feels so impressed. And that is like the review from every festival we’ve been. Amakula, Rotterdam,  the talent contest at Berlin, New York Africa Film Festival, Tarifa in Spain and the other ones. The same thing at FESPACO, a lot of people stayed and wanted to find out, so it has been good.

So, right now, we are actually at FESPACO, and you were put in the video category rather than the main competition. Would you like to talk about that?

Well, that’s like strange, because all the festivals we’ve been to, the film has always in the same category with every film, even films from Hollywood. Even big budget films worth 50 million dollars fall into the same category with this film. So it’s going to be the first time that there will be a segment for video and for 35 mm.  I mean, in this age and time, a lot of people would rather shoot on cheaper format but still achieve the same high quality. A good film is a good film regardless on what format it is being shot. If it looks good, it looks good. If it sounds good, it sounds good. There are no two ways to it. So I don’t think that is fair, and I don’t think that should continue. A lot of people were bitter about this, not just me. I met with other filmmakers, and a lot of them seemed to have a bit of issue with such decision.

You had also earlier talked about distribution of the film. Are you planning to release it anytime soon on video.

Yeah, we are now working on dvd release. We are discussing with the distribution company. Already we are in the middle of signing the agreement, and hopefully it should be out by April. Every copy will be encrypted, and it’s going to be well circulated. We have regional distributors, national distributors in the north, south, east, west part of Nigeria. It’s going to be all over Africa, UK, and it’s going to be online as well. So, I mean, we can rest assured that an average Nigerian will have access to the film.

To you, what are the major challenges of Nollywood, what does Nollywood need to do to go to the next level?

I think there is a lot of training [needed] within the industry, because a lot of people would rather say, we need infrastructure, we need sets and studios, and stuff like that. But what is the essence of building all those things if we don’t have people who will run them? Aside from training, there is need for a lot of support on government side. And that is why I’m glad that the president just channeled some money, two hundred million dollars toward the entertainment industry because that will help people who’ve really gotten trained and a good business plan to really benefit from such a gesture. I believe strongly that will take the industry to the next level. Especially if the money is given to the right people who can utilize it. Like, let’s say distribution, for example. There are quite a number of people who are trying to set up a proper distribution framework, from cinema to dvd and pay-tv, and all of it. So, if all those people can benefit, then content-providers as well, if they can benefit from this, I think it can change the industry. Distribution, I believe, is our major, major challenge. If we have all these benefits in place, I believe it will help change the industry.

So you suggest government set up structures that would allow people to make use of that?

The government doesn’t necessarily have to set up structures. But I mentioned the two hundred and fifty million dollars which the president has put in entertainment for people to apply for a loan. It’s not a grant, it’s a loan, but it’s only going to be subject to single-figure interest rates. So, instead of going to a bank where you have to pay 20-30 percent, this one will really help the industry.

Is there any major thing that you would like to tell other Nollywood filmmakers or young filmmakers starting out if they want to get to the place you are now.

Well, I think they should first consider starting at home. Because their primary audience are Nigerians. They should start by thinking of stories that will appeal to the average Nigerian before they start thinking of the outside audience, the international audience. When you think of Nigeria, then you think of Africa, because we reason alike, and the distribution channel that the likes of Silverbird is trying to put in place, will definitely cut across Africa. So you have platforms to distribute your films, all within Africa. And also there is need for them to really study whatever area of filmmaking that they may want to specialize. Be it scripting, be it lighting, hands-on-camera, sound, makeup, and you know the other departments, set design and all that. It’s better to get trained, so that, even if you’re getting people to do stuff for you, you’ll have a basic understanding of how things run. And also they should try to attend film festivals, even if they don’t have films there, at least, to see how things are run, to see what are the parameters for getting your film into festivals. You have opportunities like AMAA awards in Nigeria. You can explore such options. So majorly, story and production value. Those are the two major things that make them have a film that will be successful commercially and will be international.

Kunle Afolayan and Ghanaian actor Majid Michel on the red carpet at the 2011 AMAA awards. (c) Carmen McCain

So, when you say “get training,” do you mean on set or going to school for it?

I mean going to school for it. If you can do both, it will be nice because experience really counts. But if you go on set in Nigeria, you’ll only know—the capacity of the people you are working with is where your knowledge will end. But if you get others, even like short courses, workshops outside Nigeria in whatever area you want to specialize, it will broaden your thinking, broaden your mind.

You said that Tunde Kelani suggested that you act first before you made films. Do you feel like the acting experience helps you as a director?

Yes, and the fact that I watch a lot of films, even before going to film school. And I’m always conscious of the area that I want to specialize. I picked a few directors, I look out for films that are in that genre, and I watch them, do a case study on them, so that has really helped me.

Are there any particular films that are your favourites?

Apocalypto is one of my favourite films and Forest Gump. I love Forest Gump. The last Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds. Films like that.

What about Nigerian films?

Hostages by Tade Ogidan, most of Tunde Kelani’s films, Owo Blow by Tade Ogidan, as well, and some of the films that were shot in the 70s and 80s and Ogunde’s films, Ade Love films.

Along with that are there particular directors? You mentioned Tunde Kelani, what about Hollywood directors?

Like I said, Tarantino, Mel Gibson, Spielberg. I like Spike Lee as well because he’s very experimental. I watch a lot of Indian films, as well.

There’s a lot of criticism of Nigerian films. People say they are all about rituals, they’re corrupting the youth, they’re bad quality etc, even the idea of relegating your film to a video category, how do you respond to people who look down on Nigerian films?

Well every industry has got their style, and if that is the style Nollywood has adopted right now, and it is working for them, then so be it. They’ve been able to create a market for their films, and if there is anyone who wants to do otherwise, like something not in that direction, then of course the industry is very, very big. But I just think that we all can’t continue to do the same thing. Most of those people who are criticizing. In Burkina Faso, I know that they used to do about ten films before, but now I’m sure they don’t do more than two films a year. Is that a growing industry or a deteriorating one?

The Nigerian industry is a phenomenon, because we are moving from one phase to another. There was a time that it was strictly celluloid, then people moved to video because it was cheaper to shoot, and now people are moving back to higher formats, higher definition. Mahmood Ali-Balogun just shot on 35 mm, and the film was actually submitted to FESPACO, but it wasn’t selected.  So, if it was all about format, then what are we talking about? Then, when you say story—an average Indian film portrays their police as being corrupt. So would you say that is affecting their economy or the Indian film industry? No. So, they should look inward and look at the best way to have a pan-African film industry, instead of condemning a growing industry from Nigeria.

If people say Nigerian film are giving Nigeria a bad image, how do you respond?

I don’t think it is giving Nigeria a bad image. If it was giving Nigeria a bad image, all those actors would not be celebrated all over Africa. Wherever it is they go… people are stuck on those films. That is where the Caribbeans, that is the only way they see that we actually have big houses and big cars. Those films might not be doing well in the world film circle, but commercially they are doing great. I’m not into such films but I think they are playing their own mark in the world film circle.

In conclusion, is there anything you would tell an audience, anything you think they should know about Nollywood or their films.

Keep supporting Nollywood, and you can get details of The Figurine from figurinemovie.com. Keep supporting Nigerian films.

Kunle Afolayan presents an award at the 2011 AMAA awards. (c) Carmen McCain

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be concluded)

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

Saturday, 19 March 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluded.


UPDATE 9 April 2011

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

Champions of Our Time

The Figurine


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

I write from a backless bench in a dark open air theatre on the outskirts of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where I’m waiting with director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan for the second screening of his film The Figurine. It is far from the city centre where it seems Ouagadougou, with its roundabout monument shaped like a ciné camera, and film fliers at every hotel, has been entirely modified to accommodate the FESPACO.(Festival Panafricaine du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) film festival. This is my first time in Burkina Faso’s capitol city, which is perhaps best known outside the region for this biennial festival, now in it’s 22nd incarnation. During the festival, one wanders from cinema to cinema, from film to film, from lunch to party, with people who talk about aesthetics and history and cuisine and the politics of film in Africa. In the city centre, this morning, women cycled past on their bicycles and motorbikes. European tourists wandered in gaggles. Street musicians with loudspeakers provided a distant soundtrack. I jumped with startled delight when suddenly the familiar sound of P-Square’s “Do Me, I Do you” filled the air.

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

Here at Cine Patte Doie, the electricity goes off and comes back on two minutes later. The stars are bright overhead. “This reminds me of growing up, in the cinemas,” Kunle says, remembering his father Adeyemi Afolayan, one of the early Yoruba filmmakers who translated travelling theatre to the screen. Dead Weight, the Ethiopian film scheduled before The Figurine plays in jumps and starts. I tell the Burkinabe man beside me in French that the electricity is worse in Nigeria but that everyone has backup generators. “We are a poor country,” he tells me. “We can’t afford generators. We get our electricity from Cote D’ivoire, but with the war, it has gotten worse….”

The first two days of the festival, I attended the Pan-African social research organization CODESRIA’s workshop, “African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of the New Technologies” attended by scholars of African cinema, video, and filmmakers. Much of the symposium was spent in discussions of the relationship of African cinema to the growth of Nollywood, which is challenging old assumptions about how and why African films should be made. While Nollywood scholars like Onookome Okome celebrate how Nollywood reflects the imaginary of ordinary people, telling the stories of the streets, other scholars, particularly Ethiopian scholar Professor Salem Mekuria, currently at Wellesley College, MA, in the United States, were dismissive of the phenomenon. Though she had only seen a few “bad examples” of Nollywood, Professor Mekuria thought the symposium spent too much time talking about Nigerian films. Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge mentioned to me that though she was very interested in Nollywood, especially in its relation to the Kenyan video film industry Riverwood, she thought that too much clichéd rhetoric about Nollywood dominated the discussion. The discussions seemed to revolve around the same old arguments about Nollywood: the rituals in films are giving Nigeria a bad name, the sex in Ghanaian films is getting out of control, the quality isn’t high, people shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide they can be a filmmaker. Even renowned playwright Professor Femi Osofisan didn’t add anything new to the discussion as he repeated his regularly stated concern about the potential harmfulness of Nollywood, although I did enjoy his witty conclusion that the name “Nollywood” was apt because Nigerians traditionally sent bad things to the evil forest—here the “wood” of Nolly. There was little discussion of the internal variances in Nollywood films, and almost no mention of films made in Nigerian languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and smaller languages, such as Nupe and Itsekeri. Though most of the perspectives at the symposium were scholarly, it was refreshing to hear the perspectives of actual filmmakers, particularly Nigerian director and producer Tunde Kelani, who spoke of his frustration at being identified as a video maker when Francophone directors also working in a digital medium were listed as filmmakers.

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

This problematic discourse referring to Nigerian popular video vs.Francophone art cinema ran throughout much of the festival, with the snickers from a largely European audience at a Nollywood-style Senegalese short film involving a mammy water spirit, to the listing of Kunle Afolayan’s stunning thriller, The Figurine, shot on a digital camera with cinema lenses, under the television and video competition rather than the main film competition, because it was not submitted on a 35 millimeter print. Ironically, all the films I saw in the main competition were projected from dvd, rather than from the film prints that were supposed to have been submitted. The director of the Toronto International Film Festival told me that other than FESPACO very few film festivals around the world differentiate between films shot on digital and film anymore. Apparently, the transportation of fragile 35 millimeter film prints are usually the most expensive parts of film festivals, and more and more festivals are moving to digital film projection, just as more and more filmmakers are going digital.

Although many Nigerian films reflect the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples,” and although the Nollywood industry began as a grassroots initiative, “managed, operated and run for and by the people,” both aspects of the “combative phase of third world cinema” formulated by theorist Teshome Gabriel, the Nigerian video films have long been dismissed by many Francophone African filmmakers and their critics, as “subpar” productions “concerned only with making money.” However, there are ironies in this critique considering most Francophone African films are seen mostly at festivals attended by a mostly Western and Western-trained elite, have very little accessibility to popular audiences in Africa, and make hardly any money. They are thus unsustainable and have seemingly little responsibility to the preferences of their audiences. African film scholars Manthia Diawara and Roy Armes have pointed out that Francophone African filmmakers often had the topics and style in which they made their films strongly directed from France, where they received their funding, and by the European crews which shot and edited the films. At the workshop it was also pointed out that many French technicians and film graduates who had little working experience in France were pointed to Africa as a place to improve their skills while working on African films. Ironically, with a few exceptions, many of the Francophone films that self consciously responded to imperialism or proudly presented “African culture” were mediated through the aesthetic and thematic preferences of their funders in France. While the filmmakers often subtly subverted outside expectations, it still strikes me as incongruous that despite all the lofty ideals of “cinema” filmmakers, their films often have more relevance to elite festival audience than to the mass viewing public of Africa.

Although Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine was shunted by FESPACO organizers to a premier on a small screen at the Institute Francaise and a later screening at the open air theatre with the epileptic electricity, rather than one of the larger theatres, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud when Afolayan introduced his film saying that “The film was shot, produced, edited, […] all the members of crew […]are all Nigerian. Everything was done in Nigeria by Nigerians.” I remembered the stunned feeling I had after first watching the film at the Zuma Film Festival, realizing, as I watched the closing credits that almost every name there was Nigerian. The Figurine takes the certain genre elements developed by Nollywood, the ritual horror, the family drama and love triangle, the glamour of wealth, and pushes it to the next level. It is seen at its best in the cinema, as most Hollywood and European films are, but it is a film that stands on its own. It inserts itself, an unapologetic commercial film made in Yoruba, English, and pidgin, defiantly into the artsy programme FESPACO. It doesn’t need validation from the West or European art critics to be a good movie. Though not perfect, The Figurine has an aesthetic integrity that provides the best role model I’ve yet seen for Nigerian filmmakers, and whether FESPACO film critics agree with me or not, I would say that Kunle Afolayan is not just one of the best upcoming Nigerian filmmakers but one of the best upcoming African filmmakers.

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

In the end we leave the theatre early. There are only about twenty people there, sitting in the dark under the stars. But before we leave, a man stands up and introduces his wife, telling Kunle, “This is a very good film. I can tell from even just the beginning.” At the FESPACO premiere, Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge stood up at the end and said, “I’m from Kenya, but I’m as proud of this film as if I were Nigerian.” She didn’t know it but she was echoing an earlier statement of the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who told Kunle, “I stand tall as an African, when I see this film.”

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