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Nollywood as African voice to change the narrative

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Nollywood filmmaker, storyteller and CEO, Zuri24 Media Limited, Femi Odugbemi, was recently a guest on New York Film Academy’s 20/20 Series, anchored by Liz Hinlein. It was during a virtual conversation on film industry, particularly Nollywood. Odugbemi spoke on humanity as the core of Nollywood storytelling, its emergence as authentic African voice that will change the old narrative, and impact of COVD-19 on filmmaking, among other issues, Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports. 

You are of the view that all good storytelling is about humanity.   What do you mean by that?

Stories are important simply because they help us to understand our worlds, our culture and ourselves.  It is how we communicate really. So, all stories eventually are about humanity, about shared experiences and desires, regardless of where you come from. The desires for love, prosperity, connection and achievement, regardless of what ways your culture is structured. Those desires are the heart of your connections; and because film is about human connections and about us communicating in both language, gestures and so much subliminality in terms of contents, in terms of the world that surrounds from where the stories are located.

It’s all about the share of humanity, that’s why I would understand a Chinese film without speaking the language or an Indian film which were the films that were popular when I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Lagos. They were never subtitled, but we understood the humanity of love, anger and all that. So, all of these are why I say that, in the end, all stories are human stories so that we remove labelling. It is easy to simply call something an American story. Well it’s a human story from America; it is a perspective. A Nollywood story is not any less a human story. It just provides you information on the backdrop of perhaps a cultural experience you are not familiar with. I am not really keen on storytellers championing a culture. I want storytellers to champion the human experience, give us insights so that those of us who may not be of that cultural experience are still able to be engaged by the stories that you tell.

What are the insider and world views of Nollywood?

One thing everybody agrees with in  Nollywood is that it is an organically grown film culture from Nigeria that surprised a lot of people in terms of the quantity of its production, the passion of its practitioners and the fact that they were able to do so much with so little. And you will recall Nollywood came out of a space where there were really no grants and no funding per se. A lot of it is really driven by the passion of the story tellers to create something and, in doing so, I mean in the course of 25 or 30 years, it’s something that is grown organically, grown in terms of the quality of storytelling, grown in the terms of cinematic exposition, grown in performances as well.  It has also grown globally because there are a lot of Africans in the Diaspora who have introduced African cinema, which I call Nollywood as a way to connect to their neighbours to introduce their origin. It is also being used to get their children into a space where heritage can be visually communicated. So, for me, that’s the first thing.

But, in terms of insider views, I think that there is a constant understanding of possibilities:  the idea that beyond being successful, Nollywood needs to be significant because Nollywood may be the African voice for changing a lot of things that you would call the narrative about Africa. One of the things that I think have been powerful about Nollywood is that it has provided basic information to update what you would call the national geographic narrative of Africa where anyone who has never been to Africa or Nigeria thinks that everywhere is a forest. So, it’s in the most basic form, an interesting narrative side by side, with what has been where you only saw Africa from the perspective of poverty, disease and wars. Thanks to Nollywood, you will also see Africa that has cities, professors, beautiful cars and beautiful women as well as incredibly successful entrepreneurs.

I think it is very important that nobody is going to tell the new African story on our behalf. The time of colonialism is gone. Storytelling is now what I call the new soft power, and so whilst we may not be able to compete in terms of military power and economic power, we certainly can compete in terms of the soft power of storytelling to shape our view of the world and put a voice out there that says this is who we are; this is who we want to be. It is a work in progress but I think it’s something that Nollywood has been magnificent in achieving.

Has Nollywood been able to have an umbrella over other African countries?

I was invited to be part of a jury in Uganda for a few years and what I saw there was a whole load of passionate young people also trying to tell their story. They are taking advantage of technology and not waiting until there is a grant from some foreign organisations. They simply are inspired to go forward and tell their story at whatever level they can. I think that’s importantly the impact of Nollywood. Remember 25 years ago, there were a lot of people who just laughed at Nollywood simply because the films were made with poor cameras, the performances were works in progress, the storytelling were clearly not as educated as it needed to be. But, over the course of time, thanks to its audiences who were well aware of these shortcomings, but have decided that these stories were important. They were more important things in substances, in significance than they were in technical craft. And, over time, a lot has changed to inspire other African countries and other African cultures.

I don’t like to say that Nollywood has imported itself or exported itself. It is more like Nollywood has inspired filmmakers in neighbouring countries, in Francophone countries and as far away as South Africa and this is very important. I think for African storytellers to simply make that shift from waiting for funding, for validation, whether it’s from Paris, America or England, to simply understand that unless they are the authors and the owners of the narrative, then the authenticity of it will always be up for debate. This is because there is no way you get a grant from France and you are not subject to those who give you the grant. And that approval may simply be the small shape in the story, a little bit of editing, preference, but it’s still not entirely your story. And I think what’s clearly happening in Nollywood is that it is inspiring Africans to tell their story. Don’t wait till you have 50 million dollars to make a story. And I think that’s a movement that is also on-going locally because we are prioritising training. I am interested in using this whole movement to inspire the filmmakers. It is key because the passion is there and for it to be sustainable the passion has to acquire education. And I think it is important that an institution like Multichoice is investing and partnering the New York Film Academy, partnering filmmakers across the world to say can we give this young people a chance.

What are the specifics of Nigerian storytelling that are very essential to its culture?

One of the things that clearly make our storytelling different is that it is in many ways three-dimensional. There is the added dimension of our spirituality; the fact that our stories are both physical and meta-physical. There is the idea that we can tell a story where someone interfaces with an ancestor or a dead character. You do not have to prepare the audience for it, it is not unusual, because it is part of the culture. You know, we believe that life is an on-going existence in realms, and it is possible for your protagonist or antagonist to be unseen.

In one of the Nollywood films, especially in the early years, we talked about witches and wizards and people killing people by blowing powder on them and for you, it does not pass the test of possibility. But for us and our audiences, it works totally fine. There are things that you would have a problem with in a narrative, like a traditional man having more than one wife, having five wives when he is actually poor. To you, it would be weird and illogical. But, to us, it is not, because it is part of the culture. So, there are many cultural themes that emerge in a Nollywood film that also represent our city experience, contemporary experience, historical connections of families.

There are things that we do here that are accepted. Like I can arrive in my brother’s house without warning. And it would be unthinkable to ask me why I did not give him a call before coming. Whereas anywhere else, such things could be weird. So, there is a way in which I do things, subliminally there are many things I put on the table. The context of our stories are in themselves, provides a lot of information about special relationships, cultural relationships in terms of parents, children and lovers. It takes a village to raise a child, that concept is essentially African. The idea of care and the fact that every person in a community is to be taken care of by the nearest adult are things that we used to find in our storytelling.  I think that allows us to present a unique world view of our stories.

Do you find that culturally Nigeria wants to retain the past as well as move forward into modernity and success?

I think there is a whole section of Nollywood that does a lot of traditional stories. There is a huge chunk about our contemporary experiences. There are one or two sections that I have also foreshadowed. I am very keen that over the 25 years or so that Nollywood has been there are lot of stories told about the past. And I would like to involve us in connecting because we also have an incredibly rich literary heritage. We have a lot of authors who have done great stories. My uncle, the late Chief D.O Fagunwa, was one of the first authors of novels in Yoruba Language. Some of those stories we really need to bring to cinema to connect them to very important aspects of the past. I do think that foreshadowing is a critical space we must move into. Our storytelling needs to model a future that we all desire. I think that when we talk about our ambitions in terms of good governance, more rapid development and economic progress, our films need to begin to create heroes along those lines because right now we have stories that are contemporary. But, in many ways timid.

And I think that’s really critical. And I tell my students the first idea that a black man could sit behind the resolute desk, it is from cinema and that is very important that people are able to store away that image as a possibility in the sub-conscious, and so in the fullness of time, it happens. And for me I think that’s something our cinemas have to reach into the future, not only to talk about Nigerians going to the Moon or Mars but something that connects us to our ambition as a people. Perhaps more prosperous, more organised and less corruption. We just need to create those heroes through our storytelling.

You have some ideas about how COVID-19 will affect filmmaking not only in Nollywood but also globally. I will want to hear about that.

COVID is honestly something that is inviting all of us to rethink everything. The impact of it in a film culture like Nollywood is that it doesn’t have a lot of funding and actually struggling in terms of the size of its budget. The impact of that is that it introduces a cost element to its budget that would have a huge impact, and you now have to deal with insurance for that possibility. You have to deal with all sorts of protocol issues, test people; and today in Nigeria a test for COVID done in private hospitals cost over N50,000. So, all of this, if you put that cost into the budget of a Nollywood film, it is a lot that’s not ending up on screen so that’s going to be quite a challenge. I think the other challenge is how we begin to mind these stories that are evolving and how we express these in terms of storytelling.

I keep asking people, is a case still a case in our post-COVID world? There are so many things that I think come into play that impact a smaller film culture. The distribution part is going to be a huge hit, because we don’t have that many cinemas to start with. We got less than a hundred cinemas for 180 million people. If you start to socially distance at cinemas, coming from the impact of people having to get back into the cinema-going culture after being home for months, it looks really difficult. And you understand that government already has a budget deficit, healthcare infrastructure was always a work in progress, so the industry is really going to be badly hit and it needs conversations with other professionals. The insurance industry is particular about how we need to get the impact of this, especially on the budget, because when the budget is affected, choices are affected in our direction, in the ambition of the story itself, choices are affected even in the selection of performance. So, that’s really where it is at the moment.

And there is a global film crisis as well and every producer and filmmaker is having this impact and also getting on the Do It Yourself (DIY). Issues like production planning, you won’t be able to do as many of them as you were doing before. Maybe you do a few using videos, zoom conferences and casting. Technology will provide a solution, but it will require all us to think in terms of how we can be more efficient because we absolutely will have less. That’s for sure.

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