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Being the text of keynote by Prof Femi Osofisan – dramatist, actor and director and lecturer at the University of Ibadan – to the 6th ITPAN FORUM, held July 6 to 8, 2006, at the Lagos Business School, Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria.
Ladies and gentlemen,
1 The first appropriate gesture I must make, on this platform, is that of gratitude. With your kind permission, I want to use this opportunity to publicly express my gratitude to the entire artist community, my friends, and all well-wishers who have so warmly and so generously rejoiced with me on the occasion of my birthday. What a wonderful world – to paraphrase the great bard – that has such good and friendly people in it !
Next, please also allow me to thank the organizers of this Forum, for the honour of being asked to give this keynote address. I am not myself, as you all know, a film maker. I am just one of your customers.
I take it therefore that, if you have asked me to give the keynote address today, it is because you want some feed-back from your audience. That is something certainly that I can offer, and I hope I will not disappoint you. My business is literature, not film. I deal with words, with the texture and architecture of the written phrase ; you with pictures and frames, the tones of light and shadow, colour and chiaroscuro. As a dramatist, I tell stories, just as you also do ; but only for the stage, and not for the screen. However, already in that magical territory of fabulation, of story-telling and myth-making, you can see where we have a meeting place and share a common interest.
This means that we should be able to work together, we writers and film-makers, as indeed we have witnessed in other countries and in other film industries. But so far this kind of collaboration has been rare in the Nigerian film industry. And it is this lapse I intend to talk about today.
2 The enormous commercial success of the contemporary film in Nigeria – at least of the genre that has come to be known as « Nollywood » – is now a familiar, if astonishing, fact.
Everywhere you care to travel, both within the country and outside our borders, the Nollywood films, you will discover, would have preceded you with their ubiquitous presence. In most African homes on the continent or in the Diaspora, the films have established themselves conspicuously as the staple diet of domestic entertainment. And in places as far distant from one another as Nouakchott or Ndjamena, Banjul or Nairobi, even the minor stars are household names. Like the icons of the football field, they adorn the covers of glamorous magazines ; their lives provide the juicy menu of the gossip journals and newspapers ; some of them are better known than many heads of state.
Such has indeed been the scintillating tale of the Nollywood adventure that even the Federal government, not normally known to accord any importance to mere artists, however gifted, startled all of us recently by coming out openly to shower encomium on the industry and its practitioners. It even talks of collaborating with them for some future projects !
This is by any consideration a most phenomenal story, for a business that began almost by accident, was sustained by expediency, and has not benefited from the support of either the political Establishment or the orthodox financial institutions. A totally homegrown industry, all that has kept it afloat and buoyant has been the fabled ingenuity of the Nigerian entrepreneur !
It will never cease to be a marvel then, the fact that a group of half-literate dramatists of the popular travelling theatre tradition, seeing their trade tottering on the brink of extinction because of the harsh economic policies of the time, could, out of desperation and entirely on their own volition, seize a hitherto neglected and subsidiary technology, and, in alliance with spare parts traders and such small-scale businessmen, harness it with such inventiveness that they have turned it into a multi-million naira business, till their products have almost completely displaced the far more sophisticated, far more technically competent products of Hollywood and Bollywood.
Without any precedent example, without recourse to foreign assistance, without the benefit of hefty budgets or of any of the dazzling gadgetry of Hollywood, the Nigerian Nollywood outstripped all its former predecessors and competitors, within the first decade of its birth, and initiated a completely novel cinematic genre. It is worth a celebration.
3 So, in the wake of these sterling achievements that it has garnered, how does one dare voice any negative criticism of the industry – « that is, without the risk of subjecting oneself voluntarily to derision or abuse from its practitioners ? Especially if one has himself never produced a single film, how can one criticize without seeming to be asking to be fed with hemlock ?
But it is a gamble nevertheless that one has to take, if only because the industry is one that has enormous implications for our people’s development. The films have been proven to exercise a tremendous impact on our people’s minds, on their ways of thinking and their habits of perception, on their attitude to the world, to work, to family, to their neighbours. The films also have significant influence on the way that others see us, and hence on the way they relate to us. We cannot but be concerned therefore about what they are saying, what attitudes they are promoting, what image of us they are projecting.
Precisely because they have deservedly won ovation everywhere, the Nollywood films have come to assume an authority over our values and our lives, such that what people see in them comes to be taken not as just a fictional projection by one imaginative consciousness, but as the true, authentic mirror of what we really are, as a veritable marker of what our society represents, and much worse, of the ideal that we aspire, or must aspire, towards.
This is where the films present us with a great dilemma, and where, in spite of our pleasure, we must take a stand in the interest of our collective survival. For we cannot but remark that, however popular the films may be, and however much in demand, the picture that the majority of them present of our world is one that we must not only interrogate, but indeed reject very strongly, if what we seek is the transformation of our society into a modern, progressive state.
I will not, as you know, be the first to make this complaint. Even our friends outside have voiced the same unease about the ambiguity of Nollywood. The common question that people ask, as you know, is – « why this unceasing preoccupation with juju, this relentless celebration of dark rituals and diabolical cults ? Practically every Nollywood director seems to have been caught in the spell – « mix a diet of grotesque murders and cacophonous chants and bizarre incantations, and smile all the way to your bank !
Then, again, those who wish to be different from the rest, who want to demonstrate the ineffectual power of juju rituals, what do they do ? They show us scenarios where the brutish African cults and priests are overpowered and devastated by the agents of Christianity ! Thus one mythology replaces another – « this time the one imported from abroad simply replaces the barbaric local variant. Tarzan is reborn, only this time in black skin, and wearing a cassock ! And it is a sign of the deep damage done to our psyche and our consciousness by decades of European proselytizing that the filmmakers themselves are blissfully unaware of the racist and cultural implications of this fare they offer to the public !
4 What I am saying is that, with all their commercial success, our films parade a number of serious deficiencies, viewed from the cultural and ideological perspectives. These have been summarized before into four broad areas, and I will rapidly recall them here, as follows : – First, is their lack of thematic profundity, of subtlety and complexity in characterization, and the repetitiousness of the scenarios ; – Second, the lack of adventurousness in the area of filmography, or is it « videography » ; with the most basic rules in such matters as costuming, lighting make-up and so on, being regularly compromised ; – Third, the promotion of superstitious habits, of the belief in miracles and witchcraft rather than in concrete, empirical extrapolations and direct physical participation in social struggle. This, ironically in spite of the fact that all the special effects they employ to conjure up their magic are achieved only with the aid of technology, with scientifically-manufactured implements ; – And the fourth, the most serious of them all, is their open promotion of cultural alienation and inferiority complex among our people, even more brazenly than the colonialists and their films did.
It is not of course that the films deliberately set out to do these things. Rather, these perceived deficiencies are due, obviously, to what one may describe as the intellectual deficit of the people involved in the profession. [Now one has to be careful here, not to appear to be patronizing these practitioners or to be undervaluing their intelligence.]
What I mean, to be more precise, is that those who provide the financial means, as well as those who conceive the scenarios for Nollywood are, for the most part, only interested in film as a fast business, as a means merely of making quick money and raking a quick profit, (just like their imported spare second-hand goos), and so can not be bothered by the larger aesthetic or ontological dimensions of film production.
This is why indeed there is most often no script available at all for the actors on most locations ; what you will get is only a scenario, or a series of scenarios, which will be verbally announced by the director or producer as a general guide for improvisation, just as in the old days of the travelling theatres.
5 Given all these problematic areas, all these cultural and philosophical anxieties, the suggestion has been made that what we need for Nollywood is a stricter and more extensive form of censorship. Some have even called for an outright ban.
But censorship is never safe nor fool-proof, nor even predictable. It is not to be trusted ; it can be a dangerous tool in the hands of dictators. Especially with our experience so far of government as terrorism in Nigerian history, it will be most careless of us to assume that the ogre of dictatorship can never rise any more to haunt us. To approve of censorship in such circumstances is to deliberately shut our eyes to danger, and help prepare the way for our own eventual subjugation.
In any case, the effect of censorship is quite often to drive the forbidden good underground, and, like cocaine, make it even more attractive to the consumers. There is such a fervent demand by our people for films that whatever they find available will be gobbled up as soon as it comes out, whatever its quality, and however much they complain afterwards about it. This compulsive appetite of our people, this uncritical and almost insatiable demand for film products should, in my opinion, be a guide about what solutions to suggest.
I want to recommend therefore that, instead of wasting our time with censorship, the line that will be more productive for us to pursue, in order to displace the deficient films from the market, is simply to embark on the production of an alternative repertoire of films, and to making sure that they are abundantly available for consumers. Now, this is where I believe that we writers can come in, as it has been done in other places. An alliance between film makers and the producers of literature is what I believe is most urgent for the necessary recuperative work that Nollywood requires, and deserves.
Our writers are not only good story-tellers, but they have proved for the most part to be story-tellers concerned not primarily with material gratification, but rather, with the overall wellbeing of the community. They entertain, but also instruct and enlighten. They propagate our cultural heritage, but without necessarily glorifying superstition or on the other hand, deliberately demonizing our local religions and customs. They have, that is, the ingredients to enrich and radicalize Nollywood, even while boosting its revenue potential. A good number of books are there on the bookshelves that can be made into profit-yielding projects on film.
Only Tunde Kelani, (and the younger less well-known Demola Aremu), have tried so far, to my knowledge, to exploit the potentials of this fruitful collaboration, but it is no exaggeration to state the immense success that TK has reaped, and is still reaping, from the venture. Almost all his films, until recently, were film adaptations of the works of Professor Akinwunmi Isola, one of our most talented writers, and they helped catapult TK to his position of eminence among the film producers.
There are two possible ways of undertaking the kind of collaboration that I am calling for. The first is to select from a number of successful books already in print, and adapt them for the screen. Here, one can suggest a few titles, apart from the already much-recycled Things Fall Apart. There are also the same author »s Arrow of God, Man of the People, or Anthills of the Savannah. From Cyprian Ekwensi, there are Jagua Nana, the sequel, Jagua Nana »s daughter, The Passport of Mallam Illia, Iska, and so on ; Elechi Amadi »s The Great Ponds ; Onuora Nzekwu »s Danda, Chukwuemeka Ike »s Toads for Supper, Wole Soyinka »s Ake, Isara, and Season of Anomy ; Saro Wiwa »s Sozaboy ; and numerous recent works by Eddie Iroh, Ifeoma Okoye, Zaynab Alkali, Ogochukwu Promise, Akachi Ezeigbo, Maik Nwosu, Okey Ndibe, Helen Oyeyemi, Tony Marinho, Chimamamba Adichie, Sefi Atta, and others.
Apart from novels, there are also very dramatic plays which could yield exciting film scripts, such as the works of Sam Ukala, Olu Obafemi, Ahmed Yerimah, Akinwunmi Isola, Bayo Faleti, Emman Nwabueze – ¦ the list is long ! Nor does the choice have to be confined to only those books written by Nigerian authors. In both East and Southern Africa alone, there are thousands of books waiting for an adventurous film maker !
The second approach I can recommend is for you to liaise with some of the established writers mentioned above, and to commission them to produce original scripts. You will be amazed by what you would generate from them, and then from others who will be inspired by them. Certainly the current bogey of thin stories and trivial or merely sensational themes, of insipid dialogue and worn verbal and lexical garbage, of dull and uninspiring plots, and so on, will become a thing of the past, if the film-makers agree to exploit this idea of collaboration with our writers.
And instead of « Nollywood », what we will be celebrating, come next season, will be the advent of « Nollyweight ! »
I thank you for your attention,
///Article N° : 5752