Nigeria : Focusing more on quality

Interview with Victor Okhai

Fespaco 2011
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Firstly, could you introduce yourself and tell us your different activities?
My name is Victor Okhai. I’m a Nigeria filmmaker and producer. I also run a film school in Lagos called The International Film and Broadcast Academy. I don’t want to use the term « Nollywood specialist », but I was one of the pioneers of Nollywood. I was also one of the founders of the Directors’ Guild of Nigeria. I’ve been a member from the beginning, and often get invited to talk about Nollywood from an academic perspective. People want facts, figures and proper analysis of the industry. I get invited all over to talk about it. I’ve also sat on some international juries and was president of the international Digital Jury at the Kara Film Festival two years ago. I consult a lot of organizations on film as well, locally and internationally.
You are involved in training, directing, producing, but also in presenting new films and bringing new perspectives through the short film festival you are preparing.
Yes, we have created a new short film festival in Lagos, Nigeria, called « In Short ». Short film because the real talents, not just in Nollywood, but throughout the African continent, are young people. Many are film school graduates looking for an opportunity, but don’t have funding. Many of them are busy experimenting new things on the Internet, on You Tube, but they don’t have an outlet. We don’t want these talents to be wasted and believe that if we are to tap into the true future talents of Africa, we must catch them young by creating a platform.  » In Short  » aims to provide such a platform to expose new talents in Africa, both locally and globally.  » In Short  » is also unique in that we are also thinking about including mid-length films. There are so many great films made for television, but nobody will invite them to the main feature film competitions, and they are too long for short film sections. Many film school graduation films fall into this category. You can imagine the directors’ frustration. They need an outlet. They need a platform to give them exposure. Hopefully, our festival will thus become an important destination for such filmmakers globally.
Our principal partner is the Goethe Institute. They are represented in over a hundred countries around the world and thus offer a fantastic network. They are on the ground, know and are in contact with the local filmmakers, the young talents. So they can be an eye for us and get the best films, globally, whether from the Arab world, from the Americas, from the Hispanic world, from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. We value this partnership, which is more useful than just funding. They understand what we are doing and why.
How would you describe the present situation of Nigerian film ? Nollywood is world-famous. But production figures have fallen from about two thousand fiction features a year to around 300 and sales are lower than expected. Is the industry in crisis ?
It’s in a transitional phase. Like any product. Product managers, band managers, marketing managers will talk to you about product life cycles. The cycle begins, peaks and begins to drop. You have to recognize when it peaks and begins to drop; that’s the time to reinvent the product. And then you will see new, improved, repackaged, re-branded forms of the product destined to appeal to the consumers again. Nollywood has gone through the first phase. It’s now in a transitional phase ; it will not die, I can tell you that, but it needs to reinvent itself. It’s doing so. Films are still being made, but the novelty of Nollywood films has worn off. The consumer is now more discerning. Producers are forced to think twice about their marketing strategies, because of piracy. They have also discovered something that in psychology is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: at the basic level is subsistence, survival ; you want to survive, to be able to eat. Nollywood was at the subsistence level. That phase has passed. After you have satisfied yourself, the next level is you want to wear good clothes. The next level is no longer about food and clothes, you want respect. We now want respect. We’ve gone around festivals and we’ve come back empty-handed. We want respect and to get it, we’ve got to improve quality. So people are beginning to rethink. And they are no longer doing just any old thing. The consumer is more discerning now, so we are beginning to take time to look for better funding, to make better movies. That’s the stage Nollywood is at right now.
Talking of markets, if sixty films are released a week, there is fierce competition between them. If you improve quality, the costs of the films rise, making it impossible to recoup costs if there are sixty films released a week.
The better-quality movies are not released on this market first anymore. Cinemas, which were taken over by churches in the past, are now resurrecting. New multiplex cinemas are being built, and they insist on standards that are, if not as good, at least close enough to the American films they show. That’s where everybody wants to be now. You can make your money there rather than on the regular market. There will always be a market for those who want to compete among the sixty films, but there are those who will say no, I will spend good money, but I also want to make good money, which I can make in the cinemas. That’s what’s happening right now.
I visited the Silverbird multiplex. Are these new multiplexes really open to Nigerian films ?
Oh yes.
They show a lot of American films.
They’re open to Nigerian films. Well-made films are being shown there now and they are grossing very impressive figures. There was one film, Ije ; the only film that has beaten it so far in the Silverbird cinemas was Avatar. It made so much money that it is the second highest grossing film in Nigerian cinema. The producer is not interested in doing the festival circuit. If the film had come here to the Fespaco, it would certainly have won. It’s in 35 mm.
Who was the director ?
She’s called Chineze Anyaene.
Do you think that the public is interested now in new ways of making films ?
The public is interested in better quality films. They are now more aware of production values and they are more demanding. You can now hear Nigerians say,  » I don’t like watching Nollywood films because you can always predict the ending « , or,  » If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  » They have become more critical ; they’re not stupid. They know what good movies are and they are beginning to demand such quality. And of course, the producers are listening. They have to if they want to make money.
Focusing more on quality should bring more diversity to filmmaking practices and styles.
True. Right now, the producers are aware that they need good scripts. In the past, they were selling faces. Before, if you put a popular face on a poster or the sleeve of the CD or DVD, people would buy it. That’s no longer the case. Now people want to know if it’s a good story, with great actors, scripts, and techniques.
What kind of films, and from where, do you want to show in your short film festival ? How will you go about selecting them ?
It’s an international festival. We want it to be an international, not just an African short film festival, because we want to compete with the best around the globe. If the best come to Nigeria, then the Nigerians will want to compete on the same level. They will see good films. If you put the mediocre with the mediocre, it’s like we say back home,  » in the land of the blind, a one-eyed person is king « . But who wants to continue being king in the land of the blind ? Cinema is a universal language. We’re not going to lower standards because you are Nigerian. We want you to come and compete on the same global platform, by showing you the best from around the world. I have travelled around several festivals, where I have picked up works from Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Iran, Cameroon…. We’re not going to lower standards, or say it has to be just from Africa.
Are you adopting the same approach to the training that you offer in your school ? Are you trying to reach an international standing, to give your students knowledge of international cinema ?
That’s a good question. We’re a compact, deliberately small institution. We have chosen to build a brand that will speak quality everywhere. We have the option of opening it up, of accepting thousands of people, but we know that if you have thousands of people with very little equipment, it’s like a dose of cocaine : you take it, feel high, and after a while it wears off. And you look for the next place to take a shot. Here, when we train, we give you the totality of it. I always tell my students, this is not a mass-production factory where we talk about batch-processing ; you finish with this lot, then say  » Next ! Next ! Next ! « No. There’s a joke in the school that you never graduate, because we bring students back for free if we have funding, because they are the ones marketing the brand. So that’s the strategy in the school : we make sure we produce the best and we go and compete globally too. One of our students was here at the Fespaco. He was sponsored by the Goethe Institute because he won a prize at the short film festival ; part of the prize was to visit an international film festival. We were at Schesüchte, the biggest student film festival in Europe, which takes place in Potsdam, near Berlin. One of our students presented his class work, Till Peel, which won a prize. That’s what we want, to go and compete internationally and win. We don’t want to be just local champions. We’re not interested in just local competitions. We want to be among the best in the world. We only happen to be located in a Third World country, but we don’t intend to produce Third World students. We are open. It’s international, with finance from all over. Right now we are trying to apply for ACP/European Union funding. I hope we get it, so that we can truly realize our vision, our dream, the way we want to, because we are constrained by funds. We need books from whoever may donate, English books, equipment for our students, people who have time to come and share their knowledge.
I wanted, precisely, to ask you about the funding of the training and the school. Is it possible to have a school in Nigeria without any overseas funding, paid for just by the students’ fees ?
To be honest, if you want to give quality, you need extra funding. The students can’t afford high enough fees. It wouldn’t be honest to say you are just going to rely on just fees. I have been subsidizing this school for years. It’s my passion. For me it’s like a curse, it’s like a virus in my system; I can’t help it. I make money elsewhere and I just keep on throwing it into the school. That’s why I’m not a rich man! But I can’t give up the dream. It’s something which is, I don’t know how to put it; it’s definitely not a business, otherwise I would have given up a long time ago, or I would have done it in such a way to get thousands of students to come and just give them rubbish… No. That’s not the idea. We want to produce the best, that’s my dream, my vision. Our students can go out there and compete on the global stage. It’s been difficult, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. It’s affected me personally. I have to look for funding. I need all the help I can get.
It’s easy to feel shy about asking for help. If I had enough money I’d set up a foundation and put all the money in it. But I can’t do enough business to generate the money to set up a foundation because all the money I make already goes in the school ! So I am at the point where I have said, yes, I need help, in any form, because this dream must not die. It’s not just about getting students together and giving them a diploma whether they are good or not. I promise you that every single person from our school that shows a certificate can compete anywhere. And the good thing is that that brand is well-respected in Nigeria. The Nigerian Film Corporation sends their staff to us, even though Nigeria has a National Film Institute. Recently, the head of the BBC in Nigeria participated in one of our courses with the approval of her bosses in London and Johannesburg. It was a short, two-week shooting and editing course. She was a journalist originally working in just radio and on the web. But now she can shoot and edit her story on her own and her bosses are very impressed. So that just tells you about the quality of the brand that we represent. Now this brand must be sustained. To sustain it, we have to be able to expand in terms of facilities, in terms of infrastructures.
How many students are there in the school ?
We run three types of programmes, taking a maximum of twelve students at a time. One runs for six months; it’s intensive and covers the core areas of filmmaking, editing, producing, directing, script-writing, acting and cinematography. We also regularly run one- to two-week short workshops for those practitioners who really want to learn the art of the form. Finally, we offer implant courses for television stations. We get invited and we go there and train their staff.
Do you think all the students will go into Nollywood, or will they also make other types of cinema ?
Let me say this to you. I’m not one of those who shy away from the name Nollywood. Nollywood has become a brand, the generic name for cinema from Nigeria. No matter how well your movie is made, if it is from Nigeria, it will still be called Nollywood. And Nollywood itself, the brand name, is an advantage because there is no name for the English movie industry, even though they have the Pinewood Studios. They didn’t build a brand so, people just say  » an English film won « , which is not as evocative as the brands Nollywood, or Bollywood, or Hollywood, the three strongest brands in terms of film globally. We will make good films that will compete globally and people will begin to respect the brand. We plan to operate from within, to reinvent the brand and take it to the next level of respectability. Which is what happened in Bollywood. Bollywood today is no longer just about mass-production, it’s gaining respect. Great films are coming from there. No matter how great a film is, if it comes from India, it’s Bollywood. They can win Oscars, in English or foreign language, they still remain Bollywood. We are proud of the brand Nollywood, I’ve been in it since the beginning, I’m still in it, and I’m going to continue. What we seek to do is to take that brand to the next level.
One last question just to understand the current situation: less films are being produced in Nigeria today…
The numbers of films being made have fallen. This is for two reasons. People don’t want to enter a market they are not sure of, because of piracy. If you invest money, you want to recoup your investment…
…But piracy’s not new.
Yes, but it’s worse now in Nigeria. So people want to study this situation before they take the plunge. And many of them are now going to the cinemas. That’s what’s happening. But a lot of production is still taking place. In Northern Nigeria, the numbers are increasing by the day. Among the Yorubas in the South-West, they’re still churning out loads of films. It’s in the mainstream, in English, that production has fallen. That’s the one that is mostly seen abroad. But it doesn’t mean that people are not working. They are, very much.

///Article N° : 10299


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