by Odia Ofeimun
On the theme of Motion Picture as a tool for National Rebirth and Economic Empowerment, I think I am, properly speaking, out of my element. I have never related to the motion picture business at any level other than as an avid watcher of films. I run away from the television set. But films always bring me back. No matter how bad a film is, I like to see how the story will end. I plod on even when it is the case that I have figured out in advance how the story will end. I don’t think that Wole Soyinka knows more than this about my relationship with the motion picture. In choosing me to stand in for him, he is clearly sending a cat among the pigeons. If he was here himself, he would have been quite a pigeon among the pigeons or a cat among cats. He has had quite a relationship, a very intimate relationship I must say, with film as a medium. He would have been in the best position to deploy his many decades of acting, music making and filmmaking in the context of his eminently overarching pursuit, a life-time’s pursuit, of drama as a medium. I don’t know what he would have made of the theme of this Festival. Being one of our most intrepid pioneers in the trade, he would have had something truly unique to say. Soyinka has given to our national history of the Motion Picture, the greatest promise of enduring creativity by being a consistent upholder of the tradition of situating the film medium within the natural habitat of narrative which, if you ask me, rests with the literary arts. His two films to date are unique in the sense that they were based on his own plays. Equally unique is that he was involved in them as actor, scriptwriter, music maker and, in the case of one, director. In Kongi’s Harvest, produced by Francis Oladele for Calpenny (Nigeria) Limited in 1970, he acted the role of the dictator, Kongi, a name that, ever since, has stuck to him among his friends and admirers.
In Blues for a Prodigal, a send-up of the early years of the looter-mania that soon became a way of life of the ruling echelons in our midst, he was the director. The history of these two films in the marketplace is not well-documented but it is so much a part of the general story of the Nigerian film that, within the need to support the theme of national rebirth and economic empowerment, the temptation to re-tell the story is like the beginning of wisdom. Frances Oladele, who produced the first film, drew attention to one side of the story when he revealed that it was sabotaged by foreign-dominated distribution networks which tried “to discourage our pioneering spirit by deliberately offering far less than the standards in the industry demand”. What this suggests in relation to the theme of this Festival is that we need to consider the many ways in which the motion picture as a medium has been made to look to great heights, but has also been subjected to many execrations, enough to have ensured a still-birth and a disempowerment for many of the projects that we can lift up today as virtual trophies. It suggests the need to engage the nature of the coming to birth that the motion picture has had in our midst, the empowerment or disempowerment that has been the lot of practitioners of the form, and why we continue to talk about a film industry which is one hundred years old in 2003 as if it has only a future tense. To talk of re-birth is to suggest that something was wrong with the first birth; and to talk of economic empowerment is to imply that there is some disempowerment. I want to say that we may only correct them if we begin by acknowledging that before the motion picture can be used as tool in either case, it must first be allowed its own rebirth and empowerment. Every means that enhances the harvest of those who labour in the field will empower and bring the nation to rebirth.
Let me quickly add, on this score, that in the spirit of celebration which a Festival implies, what I am standing here to do is to engage the past of the Nigerian Motion Picture Industry from the standpoint of defending where I think it is going as a platform of fictional narratives. That is, although the term motion picture covers documentaries centred on the non-fictional, I am hiving off the fictional narratives for singular attention. I am doing this particularly in response to two very passionate pleas that I have encountered in recent weeks about the future that the Nigerian Motion Picture should pursue.
The first comes from the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu, who has rounded up on the subsisting film culture in the country in a manner that deserves to be quoted fairly extensively. In a message to producers who would be attending this film Festival, he said: “I invite you my friends to see your work as an integral part of a Renaissance Project. The Renaissance of a great nation, the renaissance of a great people. Your work is an ambassador from Nigeria to the world. It is an international diplomat requiring no accreditation. The content of your work is the only credential that is presented for Nigeria in the living rooms of millions of people around the world. Your challenge is to ensure that your work does not cause these people to deny your countrymen the respect that they deserve.” He continued: “We are not a nation of violence and blood; neither are we a nation of cults and frauds. We are not a nation of witches and wizards; neither are we a nation of crime and intrigue. We are a nation of sports, of arts and sciences, a rich culture, a vibrant population, a nation of leaders, a pride to Africa. Nigeria has a story to tell, the world is willing to listen. You, dear producers, are our story tellers. Please make us proud.” A similar message was passed three weeks before to the Association of Nigerian Authors when one of its members, Chief Audu Ogbeh, the Chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) urged Nigerian authors to write stories that could be made into films. As he saw it, the power of film as a medium is wasted or misused in the modes in which it has been deployed especially in the home-videos which have become, whatever the purists may be saying, the modal definition of the motion picture in the Nigerian space. In his view, the home-video films—about which I shall have something of my own to say presently—suffer from the banality of hastily conceived narratives which present our society in trivial terms or render them in forms in which we are no longer able to even recognize ourselves.
Obviously, Audu Ogbeh was thinking of a popular medium, with an empowering immediacy, to help our people share their common everyday stories which they hardly engage in written form because of the absence of basic literacy and the general anti-book, anti-intellectual, strain in our culture. Of course, Ogbeh was speaking as a creative writer on the political stage who has always seen a medium of immediacy like film as a most effective means of getting a people to share and contribute to their own conscientization and history-making. I am not sure that his party is structured to make sense of what he was telling the writers. But I am convinced that in the context of the theme of this Festival it should inspire us to invoke the necessity for a special relationship between literature and motion pictures as a means of actualizing national rebirth and economic empowerment. I think there is every reason to advert attention to that relationship because it can lead us away from the pursuit of dead ends and save us from making a fetish of national pride in a way that destroys the basis for enhancing that pride.
But first things first: we do need to accept it as uncontroversial that literature has been the source of the many features on which film as a medium has thrived across the globe. Although the greatest stories ever told on screen were not all novels beforehand, the best of them can be traced to story traditions that have come down from the great literatures of the world including the holy books, the Bible, the Koran and the Vedic verses. It happens to be the case that scribal narration had reached the stage of over-saturation in the Western world before the art of narration through films was developed. Unlike in Africa, where the pioneers in literature like Sembene Ousmane in Senegal and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria are also the path-breakers in the motion picture sphere, the sheer precedence of written literature as a distinct European form was what created the circumstance for the development of the film as a factor of storytelling. Films began in their turn to influence the modes of narration in literature after literature had made its indelible impact on the motion picture.
Africa did not have that slack or luxury. The symbiotic relationship was truncated in our case by the poverty and slow development of both literature and the motion picture as art and as business. The subtext is that the motion picture was brought to Africa, not so much for Africans, but as a means of imperialist encirclement and cultural overcoming of the natives. It was not the tradition of African story-telling or self-apprehension but the contingencies of colonial propaganda that informed the career of the motion picture in our midst. Alongside the denigrating narratives that the West heaped upon Africans to justify slavery, colonization and rampant exploitation, there was a deliberate turning of the camera away from the necessity to tell the story of the native from the standpoint of the native. Those of us who grew up in villages, and who as children trooped after the itinerant penny-a-flick peep-hole hawkers of still pictures, can tell the long shot from the close-up of the story.
With time, the peep-hole hawker was displaced by the mobile free cinemas of the old Regional Information Service which brought our own folk singers and folk dances back to our towns and villages, showed us documentaries on the Queen’s visits to Nigeria, football matches and the wizardry of Stanley Mathews, Charlie Chaplin, European classical dances, and the meetings of our nationalists and the colonial establishments. For reasons of enhancing the productivity of Africans, there were public service documentaries on health and educational matters, and others that boosted the grandeur of imperial power. As the drums of independence moved closer, such documentaries became more developmentoriented as in the Babab Larai documentary in Hausa, about the successful cotton farmer. It had counterparts in the West about the successful cocoa farmer who taught our parents how to save cocoa trees from black pod diseases. Eastwards, it showed the successful oil palm producer and rubber tapper. Due to African outcry against pictures that dubbed the black person as a savage who was fit only for stratagems and spoils, the films that were shown in the cinema houses began to take on less racist hues. But the feature films were paced to foreign cultural orientations marked by Westerns, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese films. Vast segments of our urban milieu were virtually ceded in a cultural sense to cowboy cultures. Vast Hausa and Yoruba settlements became cultural fiefdoms of Bombay where the singing of Indian songs made the day for the average city sleek. In essence, the film in Africa had to struggle to birth through the same process that was inducing the creative writers in the fifties, sixties and seventies, to seek to write our people into history. They had to weigh their untested shoulders against Western art and even the Asian interventions that were rudely defended by the economic might of mafia-like foreign film distributors. As it turned out, African film makers and novelists had no time to acquire sturdy traditions before being literally dragooned into one another’s embrace.
The not-so well-established literary traditions hobnobbed with underdeveloped forays into motion pictures. It was like thinking on your feet. As with every African effort to deploy a form that was already well established in the West, it was a case of not having the material and technological resources to match the demands of the trade while having to deal with high expectations in a market situation already saturated by the dreams and realities of preceding producers. What needed to be fought against was so well entrenched and the means of fighting them off so weak, so puny, that only a special pooling of intellectual and even political energy stood a chance of making a difference. As the majority of the people were illiterate, no other medium could recommend itself better than the cinema which required less of language and even literacy to follow through. There was so much to recommend a medium that could bring culture to the masses without labouring the mind of the viewer in the way that books do. It was therefore always expected that the potential entrant into motion picture business in Nigeria would receive some support from public institutions and corporations in the way that it worked in virtually all the countries from which Nigeria was importing films. But the filmmaker in Nigeria was, and has remained, on his own. Usually a he, although this has changed considerably, he was treated by the culture establishment not as a worker for the nation but an adventurer to hold at arms length or at considerable distance, except on ceremonial occasions like a film festival. The situation was not helped by the education of natives within the colonial context. The dead-end politics that overtook the colonial period hardly prepared them to fuse their capacities. It was to be expected that what they had to fight against did not necessarily go away.
Among the Western productions against which African films had to stand up, even if unconsciously, the one that became most notorious and was damned by leaders of opinion across the board, was the 1935 Korda production of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Sanders of the River. It was partly shot in Nigeria, and must be the first film in history that had a Nigerian as a movie actor. The man, whom we would all remember later as Pa Orlando Martins, acted in the film alongside the American actor, Paul Robeson. Several of the scenes in the film, as in several other films like Trader Horn, Tales of Manhattan, and the Tarzan series, incensed Nigerians and black people across the world so much that the idea of an African fight-back was on the cards. But for the fact that it was prohibitively expensive to set up a film unit, a movement of dissent similar to that of Negritude in literature was quite conceivable in the motion picture industry. More critical perhaps is that colonial laws which began to gain dominion since the showing of the first film at Glover Memorial Hall in August 1903 would have ensured that an African fight-back was still-born.
As an aside, let me note that if we had a properly developed archival infrastructure, we ought to be seeing clips of Sanders of the River at this Festival if only to recall Orlando Martins as the legend that he became as well as to buttress the regressive logic of colonial depiction of Africans as slaves and savages. How enlightening it would have been, for instance, to see clips of films like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Clive of India, The Isle of Forgotten Sins, House of Frankenstein, which were considered by the censors to be unsuitable for African viewing; and such other films as Her Primitive, Primitive Man; Dixie; Buffalo Bill; The Keys of the Kingdom; and Sleepytown Girl, which were considered so suitable. It is of some interest in this regard that what made these films suitable for a Nigerian audience in the view of the censors was an aesthetic already very well developed in literature which the modern Nigerian can now encounter in the film version of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson in which one of our greatest film legends, Hubert Ogunde, featured in his last days. Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1992) is one of those snidely denigrating novels about Nigerians which many Nigerian literary critics, following Chinua Achebe’s inimitable example, have damned for its misrepresentation.
Whatever we might think of it, part of the great thing about making a film of it is that, remaining true to the symbiosis between literature and the motion picture, it has helped to keep on the agenda of the Nigerian film the necessity to transfer literary texts into motion pictures as has since happened in the case of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and as would have happened long before if Calpenny’s earlier effort to film Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana and Things Fall Apart in Bullfrog in the Sun had been allowed to fly. Surely, still on the agenda is Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana which remains the most filmable novel that anyone could have written about Lagos of the fifties. Thinking aloud, one could add Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Ilia, Ibrahim Tahir’s The Last Imam and Ken Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy, among topical Nigerian novels crying to become films. Even then, I realize that one must still contend with the possibility of public outcry against filming of some of the novels as was the case with Jagua Nana which was skewered to the glory of petty moralism. Not to forget: Jagua Nana was abandoned on the presumptive aesthetics which says that a society is necessarily poorly presented when it is looked at from the standpoint of a whore, a slave, a murderer or dissentient. One wonders whether such moribund logic is still the hegemonic one among film censors today. But I am sure that if our concern is with having well-told stories which can help us to understand our societies better and to ensure a successful fight-back against imported films, we are certainly not in short supply. That is, if we can resist the philistine culture which almost showed its fangs in Kenya recently when a novel by Chinua Achebe that had been a school text across the world since the seventies was suddenly discovered to be too pornographic to pass through the eye of some Bishop’s moral needle.
The good part is that with or without the realization of the symbiotic relationship between literature and film, and without the support of the state apparatus, motion picture entrepreneurs emerged in Nigeria who soldiered on from the seventies onwards to effect a fight-back. One remarkable pioneer was Ola Balogun. His film, Amadi, had the birth-mark of a country that had just seen a civil war. It lugged the romance and idealism of a preceding era when Igbo musicians sang Yoruba highlife and Yoruba highlifers sang Urhobo, Igbo and Hausa songs. Amadi was clearly an experimental film. It is an Igbo film made by a Yoruba. For a long time it was the only Igbo film around. It gave the promise of a national rebirth that has remained as a promise because of factors we must look at from the fate of the other films which valiantly attempted to break the stranglehold of Western picturedom by using the most Western approach: I am talking about such films as Cinaventures’ Bisi – Daughter of the River, which was quite an excitement not really for its obeisance to legend as a means of authenticating its Africanness but the fact that it was a film in which we could see ourselves through something of our own eyes. Ladi Ladebo’s pairing with African American Ossie Davis in this film and in Countdown at Kusini may well be added to his later productions, Taboo and Vendor, and counted as key attempts to do what films were supposed to do about the way we live—that is present, critique and celebrate our lives. The same may be said for a film like Dinner with the Devil by Sanya Dosunmu and Wole Amele and the valiant productions of Eddie Ugbomah including The Great Attempt which was banned by the film censors.
The first thing to say about all these films is that they were made in the tradition of English films. They had chosen a constituency that was already overwrought by the imported models. But they were not masters of the terrain. They had not yet arrived at the sense of constituency that was to make a difference to the success of the video films of today. They sought to reverse Western over dominance of our film-space by trying to do the right thing, that is, catching up with Hollywood, in an environment that was literally rigged against them. While they were interesting markers of the rise of the Nigerian film, they derived their strength from a reactive complex, some sort of Negritude complex, which talks of being proud of what we have only because others denigrate it. Or which denies the truth about ourselves in order not to fall victim of an already-existing stereotype set up by others. They were like some media houses in Nigeria which lose market-share because of undue deference to authority figures or cultural geographies. Not to be outdone in such situations, the critics tended to concentrate on the film-making while making light of the surrounds that determined the reception. But the truth ran deeper. One of the things that were missing had actually been in supply since the seventies. The roaring success among Hausa filmgoers of Shaihu Umar, Alhaji Adamu Halilu’s adaptation of a story of the same title written by Nigeria’s first prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, had pointed to where the genre was headed at least for the next decade. The passionate commitment of Hausa audiences to films in the indigenous language like Alhaji Ramalan Nuhu’s Rwan Bagaja showed that a sense of constituency was what was called for.
This had been so well entrenched in the career of Yoruba films that it was really a surprise that it never registered for a long time among filmmakers. It took Ola Balogun’s Ajani Ogun, a deliberate grounding with the local indigenous language film audience, to effect some sort of return to the source of the folkways, which broke what was appearing like a jinx. The film was a hit. Thereafter, his other films like Muzikman were bound to be seen for the experiment that they really were. By the same token, Eddie Ugbomah’s recourse to Yoruba films, as a way of dealing with the recalcitrance of the English screen, was like coming home without the inhibitions that had stood between him and commercial success in earlier films. What must be acknowledged is that the newly discovered sense of constituency by English film-makers did not just fall from the sky. It came from decades of turf-nurturing buried in the cultural economy of the Yoruba travelling theatres. They were manned by tough-minded denizens of folk drama—Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola, Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala)—and others who had sedulously cultivated a market space that responded to their wares almost compulsively. Even more adaptable than their name implies, the travelling theatres moved from the stage through magazine strips to television with a facility that remains part of the elixirs of our history. They had completely over-run the big screen and were pulling all the stops along the way when the makers of English films woke up to their reality. So, in short, they were not walking onto a tabula rasa. The prior success of the Yoruba films had been built on impeccable cultural motifs which came alive in Hubert Ogunde’s film, Aiye, the modal film of witchcraft that soon provided the model for a long-running series that is yet to suffer exhaustion. Actually, contrary to what might be supposed, the films did not run into trouble because they overdid the witchcraft thing. What killed the films and what I was referring to when I said the makers of English films were not masters of the terrain soon began to register within the re-discovered sense of constituency. It had to do with what I chose to call cultural economics which caught up with even the most well-grounded film maker ensconced within a healthy sense of constituency.
The issue bears belabouring if only because it touches upon those areas where the presence of government was supposed, from the beginning, to supply grist in favour of homegrown filmmakers as well as other professionals. To put it squarely, all the problems could justifiably be laid at the doorstep of the damaging economic policies of government, particularly the nation-wrecking Structural Adjustment Programme which increased the cost of inputs into filmmaking, dragging in a foreign exchange logic which virtually said that Nigeria should under-price what she produced in order to enhance demand for what it could not yet produce. It was a serious matter. As Afolabi Adesanya has noted, “prior to the establishment of the Nigerian Film Corporation’s lab and sound dubbing studio facilities, production and post-production overheads had to be paid for in either British Pound Sterling or US dollars”. The trouble of sourcing foreign exchange even when there was Naira to defray it was still a tug of war. Clearly, within this scenario, both country and filmmaker were bound to be drained out in the throes of a flailing currency like the Naira. But even the establishment of the facilities by the Film Corporation could not correct the social debilities that were at the heart of the matter. Generally, raising money to make films was difficult; finding a place to show the films was even more difficult. In a country of more than a hundred million in which cinema houses number fewer than 250, and most of them belonged to mafia- like chains, the dream of an indigenous cinema had no chance of realization.
The foreign-dominated distribution networks, as the case of Kongi’s Harvest showed, were hostile to the African films. Even when the Indigenization Decree of 1972 forced the cinema houses to sell to Nigerians, the external control was hardly to be beaten. It sealed the fate of the filmmakers. People talked about audience resistance to Nigerian films. But how could you know whether the large conurbation of Hausa film goers in Kano or the area boys of Mushin would prefer to watch a Nigerian film if there was no chance of a place to screen the films? In essence, getting the audience to shift from the virtual entrapment of Indian films, Japanese kung fu films, and Westerns was something that simply could not be achieved by blaming the filmgoers. Or blaming it on the filmmaker for not getting the right mix for an action-packed movie that could rival the Hollywood pack; or blaming the banks for not continuing to support films that were not making money; or criticizing some of the films for either being too intellectual or too local. A certain tendency for poor scripting, or the unwillingness or inability of the actors and actresses to break from the folk-drama tradition that lacked scripts, was added to the lot. Whatever the score, the picture that emerged by the early nineties, that is, by the staging of the First National Film Festival in 1993, is that there were about 25 English Films, 50 Yoruba, and 5 Hausa and 1 Igbo film. Of the lot, the English films, barring a few exceptions, were deemed to be generally box office disasters.
Even the most successful of them, Ladi Ladebo’s Vendor, squeaked through by an outright sale to MAMSER, General Ibrahim Babangida’s quango for mass mobilization. Ladebo’s Countdown at Kusini and Bisi – Daughter of the River were nondescript box-office performers. Among the Yoruba films, although recording a much more positive story, the filmmakers who had, among other problems, to double as distributors, were hostage to pirates and swindlers at box offices. The experience of Baba Sala with his supposedly fat-grossing film, Orun Mooru, has become the metaphor for the losses that the motion picture industry had to contend with. It may well be added that, due to economic downturns and the collapse of moral restraints across the country, film-going at night has become, across Nigerian cities, an obstacle race against highway robbers and police checkpoints. The motion picture, valiant as it was, simply had no chance.
In the face of these strictures, it became a ritual to thresh all manner of reasons why the Nigerian film was failing and how it could be revamped. Although I have not done the research and cannot therefore be authoritative on this count, I think the real problem was a cross between all the problems. Taken together, however, they still do not provide explanations that can topple the central economic reasons for the collapse of the old motion picture. The view of one diligent auditor is instructive enough about the pattern of decline. To wit: from an average of four feature films per year in the eighties, “production plummeted to one feature film in 1990, raced up to four in 1991 and dropped a notch to three in 1992 when Brendan Shehu’s Kulba Na Barna, the first feature film by the Nigerian Film Corporation, was released. The record for the year 1993 was nil. In 1994, Ladi Ladebo shot and released the only celluloid feature film of the year, Pariah, sponsored by the UNFPA. Not until two years later did another feature film, Oselu, by Bankole Bello, hit the screen”. Evidently, the high cost in monetary and other terms of producing the feature films incurred a high mortality rate for film projects. Jonathan Haynes and Onokome Okome who have pioneered studies of the rise and rise of video films have noted how filmmakers “turned from 35mm film to 16mm films then to reversal film stock or shooting on video and blowing it up to 16 mm”. It did not work out. This was how the sheer regression to video, which later became the king of the road in motion picture business in Nigeria, was gradually imposed by necessity. When all other avenues for reducing costs proved implacable, filmmaking enthusiasts began to make do with what they could find. Not that it was easy-going. It is reported that “an audience in Osogbo, one of the first to be exposed to the appalling quality of video projection image, wrecked the theatre”. But the film-makers plodded on. It was at this point that Kenneth Nnebue, an electronics dealer and film promoter, is said to have done the industry what must now be termed a monumental favour which opened sesame to the home video boom.
Seeing the possibility of opening up a large market by the retail sale of video cassettes, Nnebue produced the Yoruba film, Aje Ni Iya Mi, for the late Isola Ogunsola. It was an instant hit for the entrepreneur. It drew in others who realized what “shooting with an ordinary VHS camera using a couple of VCRs to edit” can achieve. The hare-brained ones, as one analyst called them, had arrived. They moved in with their wonders and plunders to perform. Hare-brained or not, they found a key that was missing all along and held on to it with a passion. Jide Kosoko, Gbenga Adewusi, Muyi Aromire, Adebayo Salami – they staked a stand for the turf. Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage opened the flood gates to the Igbo version of the feat that he had performed in the Yoruba mainstream. He broke into English with Glamour Girls. From the stable of English language television serials, Amaka Igwe shuttled between Igbo and English with Checkmate, Rattlesnake, Adamma, Violated I and II. Among the most durable has been Tunde Kelani whose Mainframe Productions has drawn on the script-writing talents of Professor Akinwumi Isola and Wale Ogunyemi to seize a high ground, bouncing off against myth and history, in the new market. I dare say that the rest of the story can be told by the compulsive watchers of video films that so many Nigerians have become. As I have written in another context: you simply have to give it to the new denizens on the block – directors, producers, actors and actresses – Amaka Igwe, Olu Jacobs and Joke Silva, Zachee Orji, Tunde Kelani, U.S.A.Galadima, Liz Benson, Kenneth Nnebue, Peter Edochie, Sam Loco Efe, Zeb and Chico Ejiro, Mofe Damijo, Yinka Quadri, Genevieve Nnaji, Jide Kosoko, Omotola Ekehinde, Zack and Fred Amata, all creating a foundational gloss that may yet save the film medium which, for a while, stood adamantly in the way of the home-video industry.
Needless to say, the home-video has become the hegemonic means of defining the Nigerian film sensibility. Whatever is said about any other way of making stories on screen, it is the video film that will necessarily for the foreseeable future dominate the Nigerian film festival. For every day of the year, three new video films are unloaded upon the Nigerian market. Every year in the past half decade, about 200,000 to 300,000 new hands have been lifted from the throes of unemployment and underemployment by the gloss and glitter of the small screen. Conjointly, they generate about five billion naira annually. Stranded artists, area boys and area fathers, authors, dramatists, actors and closet fabulists have found their niche in the pack. Actors who had run away from the penury that haunted the stage have been brought back to life! Though they were dead now they are a vibrant part of a community that literally bubbles. Devotees of the stage who had been reduced to breaching their talents, and living near derelict lives, wondering what kind of society leaves her artists to suffer in so many distracting sectors, have acquired the gravitas of an established community. No longer are they among the artists who are sneered at by other moneyed professionals who are no better than what used to be called agbero bourgeoisie because they merely load other people’s wagons. Now the home-video artist is not lumped with other artists who are ritually blamed for not being business-oriented. Within the norm of the home-video, it is enough to be a scriptwriter, actor, dramatist, cameraman, director or singer although professionalism is still far away.
If you look at our hunger-besotted slums and our beleaguered villages, you find that many, so many, are finding their feet because of a trade that removes the duller moments from the depression of our neglected, unmanaged and generally manager-less towns and cities. Authors displaced by the collapse of the publishing industry have made a detour from the usual haunts in favour of the home-video turf. One look at any home-video film, and the gushy life that it carries, brings a sense of how much of our society was dead and dying without finding a time to bloom. As such, gratitude must well up in the hearts of those enamoured of artistes who had given so much to the arts and are only just being saved for a season of eternity in the company of a vibrant younger generation by the home-video films. This is to say that what appeared in the beginning as merely making do has opened floodgates to the peculiar Nigerian genius for creativity and enterprise. The burst of social energy that it has unleashed has very few parallels in any other areas of our national life except perhaps in the parallel growth of Pentecostal churches which it has serviced in many cities and which in an uncanny way services it.
One factor which must be placed within this picture is the widening of openings in the borders between Nigeria and other countries as a result of the video mania generated since the last film festival ten years ago. Before then, West coast interactions were mere matters of the smuggling of goods, so called essential commodities. Those were years of hunger in which the monetarist medicines supplied by the world of international creditors reduced our countries to the status of those who lapped up what others produced while abandoning their own. Cross-border trade centred upon the sheer claims of the stomach or the pursuit of mere adornments that demeaned and knocked artistic productions sideways. Those were years in which few Nigerians could tell which highlife musicians, poets, novelists, or fine artists were doing what in neighbouring Ghana. Ghanaians could hardly tell what was happening on the Nigerian scene. The arrival of the home-video, in this regard, re-energized a forgotten vein of interaction in cross-border influences. Although economic and other inhibitions have not allowed the best of the music and other arts to make solid presence in the video films, one can at least look forward to a widening from small beginnings. Rather than wait on the imports from Hollywood which speak to our common humanity by denying or simply being indifferent to whatever we could call our own, the home-video woke up something that was once there but had been stamped underfoot by managers of the national and sub-regional cultural economy.
Not to forget, this was happening while swindlers in the political marketplace were emplacing home-grown democracy with one hand and displacing it with the other. The video arrived in the most home-grown attire that it could weave for itself in a country where the search for foreign exchange had become the defining factor in national dream-making. It turned its back on the dollar trail and reached out for the Naira without hesitation. Rather than the dollarmania that had overtaken all comers, it sought an import-substitution aesthetic which insisted on building a comparative advantage not as a subaltern of the imported Hollywood stuff but its avid displacer. Whereas in every other area of economic activity imports have killed the local industry, the home-video industry is one area in which the avalanche of CDs and DVDs that have come as bounties from off-shore bootlegging confederations have merely widened the room for the video marketers to dance.
If you were looking for a reason why, I would say it is to be found in sheer vanity as a means of communal or national self-defence. The vanity of wanting to see your face in a mirror is a powerful weapon that no known people in the world, from the most barbaric to the most civilized, have managed to outgrow. The vanity of society, a society that wants to see itself regaled back to itself, is precisely what explains the partiality that Nigerians have had for the culture of the home-video. It adds up to the sheer sense of primordiality that figures when you hear the music and encounter the dance steps of your own people. Many of us seeing our ancient village rituals being threshed and re-threshed either in a Pentecostal crusade or in the most post-modern settings of a Lagos nightclub are enthused to be participants in the dance. Even if it is only as spectators. Seeing something of your own, close to the skin, is an assurance of life which cannot be made up for by mere metaphor. It has nothing to do with science or philosophy. Call it nostalgia or vanity. But that is part of what identity is all about. The truth is that no matter how much we enjoy the most liberal Hollywood stuff, we know it is about other people’s dreams and realities; it does not necessarily reflect what we are, what we want to be, and how we want to be seen. No doubt, if we could see ourselves in the imported films that pool all the aesthetic razzmatazz of international celluloid, there would be less need to luxuriate in the revolution that the home video has become. Until the day when it is possible to be given civilized representation in the Hollywood pictures, why be shy about grabbing with all zeal, whatever is able to give our face a camera finish on a screen that is a representation of ourselves by ourselves! What it tells us is to celebrate the home-video artiste and the Nigerian audiences cornered by common circumstance into open conspiracy of traded vanity. It is also about being hostage to the reality of selfhood: to the effect that it is better to re-tell your own story even if it has been so well told by others. Besides, it is sometimes better to tell your story even incompetently and badly than for it to be mis-told by others. It just so happens that our stories have either not been told at all, or have always been badly told on celluloid. No special pleading is required: the point is that those whose stories are not told become invisible, even to themselves; they are easily forgotten; the forgotten become or remain a dis-empowered people; the dis-empowered are generally a lost people. But those whose stories are badly told suffer a worse fate; they are obliged to carry an identity, not theirs, but by which they are forever judged. This makes it the case that if there was no home-video industry to do it for us, we would have needed to invent something that did it while waiting to get to the Hollywood catchment of the well-made film. It makes our relationship to the motion picture one of wanting to hear our own voices as the inflections that we bring to it matter a great deal to the import and impact of the story that is eventually told.
At the risk of boring with emphasis, let me note that the home-grown-ness of the home-video film is its greatest lure and allure. This fact cannot be easily back-handed out of the way.
In an era of internationally-inspired deregulation of ethics, when businessmen, bureaucrats and wheeler dealers in the corridors of power sell their country short, and out, in the name of an off-shore ethic before ministering to the native instinct, the truly home-grown video-mania has amounted to a reversal of form. It has set out by being vain about what is native, as a prelude to the inevitable ambition to lift things higher, to add some mite to the re-definition of international standards. Naturally, it had to begin by being a spacefiller, a market sharer, in order to become major domo in how we narrate our circumstances as a people. Powered by its home-grown sense which has been the source of its viability, it was primed to travel and to breach porous borders. Nigerians travel a lot and their video films have been travelling with them. Due to the surprise of self-recognition in our stories or the manner in which Nigerians tell them, other people have connected with the video films. So it was not enough to overcome the Nigerian marketplace. Through saturation marketing, Nigerian home-video mania crossed the borders even beyond the necessities of trade. Once the barn-storm rating of the video camera overtook the cinema house, and by-passed its campfollowing of foreign dominated distribution networks, it began to turn into a super-asset in a makeshift revolution that only those who are thoroughly impervious to social promptings have been able to ignore. The rest of the world may not have wanted to pay attention. But so insistent have been the swash and buckle of the Nigerian home-video industry that what we are—a nation of repressed artists forced to chew humble pie by the virtual decapitation of creative infrastructure in our society—has been raised into a major issue. From the West Coast to the Indian Ocean, unusual compliment has come to the form from other African cities: with public demonstrations and riots against their scandalizing, outrageous, but seductive power. The demonstrations in Ghana and Tanzania were reportedly against the heavy materialism, sassiness, sex and voodoo-mongering of the films. The genre, however, has proved to be non-transient. True, it is often discussed in terms of the most negative features. But it is incapable of being pressed under the camp bed of some anthropologist still looking into the field to corroborate some findings. Wilfully, the home-video industry has become its own medium of corroboration, a means of self-affirmation and self-recreation, speaking up for a society in which its only competitors and its finest supplier of grist, are in the zone of the religions. Properly speaking, the same kind of visceral commitment that has turned religion, whether of the traditional variety or of the scribal assertiveness of the Bible and the Koran, into a ghost in the machine of our social undertakings, has powered the elemental rhetoric of the home-video mania.
Once stand-offish Nigerians are beginning to go beyond gut-reactions to it. Somehow, the storm and crush of anti home-video sentiments have become awards of due recognition. The films have proved to be a major reflection upon and shaper of popular perceptions in the society. Quite significant in this regard is that a cohering outlook is emerging according to which the homevideo, as an art form, is a veritable achievement of a Lagos ethic. The subtext is that, even when they are not about the city, the homevideos manage to anticipate Lagos as a prime market that speaks for the country of which it is a jazzed up microcosm. The preponderant atmosphere in the films, often over-dramatized, with repellent mediocrity straining against the privilege of assured commercial success, is of a city overcome by congestion, chaos and violence. Faithful to but not rigorously sympathetic to the underclass, the films negotiate the flash of wealth and the brash impunity of power which interface with, revise and are revised by local customs and traditions. Without doubt, there is an immoderate low-brow voodoo culture at the core of the offerings. It is ranged against a triumphalist Christianity of Pentecostal vintage (and I have seen Islamic variants) whose unspoken undertow is a social life that bounces along in secondhand clothes and second-hand cars and second-hand sitcoms from the arsenals of Europe’s warfare trade. In defiance, the home-videos celebrate a home-grown-ness that exhilarates. … They are, in this sense, forts of raw nationalism, the fulfilment of a brash autochthony that thrives on the sheer power of anticipated but unseen crowds. They are driven by a class of privateers who have no need for government, nor do they need to privatize public goods as most enterprisers do in the city. The name of their game is ‘market forces’ in a sense that is more meaningful than what the IMF-inspired sharers of government property talk about in the name of privatization and market forces. It is something on which a word more should be said. We need in this regard, to talk about the rhetoric of the video film, not in the derogatory sense in which rhetoric is usually employed but simply in the manner of John Harrington’s Rhetoric of film as simply a way of communicating. It is when we consider the question of what the video films are communicating that the matter of its rhetoric assumes the formalities of a major confrontation.
In spite of the many academics and intellectuals, especially Onokome Okome, Jonathan Haynes, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Wole Ogundele, Obodinma Oha, Brian Larkin and Dul Johnson, who have made it their business to monitor and audit and interrogate the video film as art, business and social ideology, the question continues to be fresh: what are the video films communicating? Perhaps, it makes sense to answer the question by indirection. The video film happens to be based on the close-up and the medium shot not the long shot. It tells our story in a way that no other medium has ever managed to. Only the avant garde form of the Onitsha Market Literature and what is being called Kano Market Literature can be compared to it in their informal exuberances. Even this is like comparing an orange to an ice-cream factory. Love it or hate it, there is a super-logical rendering of the way we are, the way we live, the messiness and high tension of our dream-seduced realities in the rhetoric of the home video. The usual uppity dismissal of the form is therefore just that: uppity. In this connection, I have often heard it said that the witchcraft films have given a bad name to Yoruba films. Just as it is being said these days that the Igbo films of cults and frauds are giving a bad name to the home-video. But I think that we do need to ask whether it is the filmmakers who are imposing their fantasies on an unwilling audience or audiences already habituated to a deep-seated animistic view that are getting and inducing what they get. This is an important tack to consider in the face of evidence which shows that the video film does represent a deep psychological implant pressed into place by so many untold and even unspeakable events in our history. It looks like an underdeveloped prong of the collective mind of a whole nation. But it is actually the result of a deliberate scrambling of categories and genre for the sake of effect in a society where the truth of history is still being told unnecessarily in whispers. Arguably, in western scholarship, such a fare of screen narratives would be appreciated as a special category. In literature, critics of African literature have moved from talking about magical realism, as Latin Americans pursue it, to what our South African-based critic, Harry Garuba, has called animist realism. In a similar manner, I would argue the need to see the video film as a distinctive way of rendering a collective mind that has refused to be cowed by the many indignities and distractions that it encounters.
For those who are worried about the non-secular, unscientific and pre-scientific modes of thought evinced by many of the video films, it is fair to recall the story of a former and future head of state who demanded, as a joke, or audience relief, the use of witchcraft to fight a modern war of liberation for which he had helped to raise enormous funds that obviously went into very sophisticated weaponry. Let’s face it: he belonged to a country in which wiping out illiteracy had been so much flunked as a national project, from pre-independence to his own times, that the majority of his countrymen could actually empathize with his regress to premodern gnosis. It is not so much a matter of pre-modernity anyway in a country where clerics of Islam and Christianity make a living out of frightening their congregations with hair-raising descriptions of demonic attacks on unsuspecting people. This is a country where some of the best-trained scientists, even those who were moving close to Nobel prizes before their capacity for research was destroyed by the destruction of our universities, are today among the leaders of churches where pastors have actually been heard preaching that science cannot save you. Yet they rely on science for the loudspeakers they put on top of minarets and church towers, and the coast to coast televangelism that is today the mark of Born Again Islam and Pentecostalist Christianity. When we hear them talk as if Albert Einstein had to abandon quantum physics in order to write some of the finest philosophical tracts on Christianity, we ought to understand what it says about our culture. We live in a country where Universities have science laboratories that are poor cousins to what some secondary schools used to have in days gone by; where cults in Universities have been humoured by military and civilian politicians to drive out student unionism which, in the past, provided the incubation for leadership training. What is more, we know that although English is Nigeria’s official language even graduates, these days, are incoherent in the language. This says something for why well-made linguistic performances may not even be that popular on the Nigerian screen. Barring such little mercies like saving our “vernaculars” through indigenous language films, what can replace history that is no longer taught in our schools? Forget logic. The secular respect for painstaking gathering of information for the purpose of arriving at generalizations is a thing of the past in government departments, or even in investigation departments where the reliance on forensic aptitudes of mind used to determine the success of a case? Let’s admit it: we live in a country where the approved route to any answer is never the shortest but one that passes through the voodoo of power and influence. This is a society in which leaders swore in the First Republic and are still able to act it out in the Fourth Republic that whether you vote for us or you do not vote for us, we shall win. What greater violence can be inflicted on a people beyond such complete annulment of their citizenship rights? Whether effected by the proverbial man on horseback or civilian side-kicks, the violence of our times runs like a sore from family hoods to neighbourhoods that were once places of refuge from the world without. I dare say the video films are actually giving back to us a mirror image of the way we are, the ways in which we behave and mis-behave: uncouth, slapdash, raucous, and hostage to badly-managed and rather manager- less towns and cities.
The avalanche of issues that films have covered bear testimony to unparalleled creativity which should make and have been making Hollywood buffs take notice. The sheer volume is unprecedented even if repetitious and not always obedient to the laws of professional decorum or excellence. For this reason, I would concede that the video films run the danger of merely supplying Hollywood with the raw materials to re-claim our shores in the not too distant future. But for now, in spite of a ritualistic slapdashness, there is so much energy and creativity that older motion picture industries have something to learn from. From boardroom struggles to political power play, military adventurism and godfatherism in politics, ritual murder, drug abuse and the rehabilitation of drug abusers, witchcraft and churchcraft, high living and low life, prostitution and AIDS, the home-videos are brashly, even if self-consciously, seductive. They are turning out the Nigerian story in a no-holds-barred fashion which leaves no room for anybody to hide. In this, they recall the sass of junk journalism and, in a sense, what was called guerrilla journalism under the military. Undeniably, they reveal an enormous lot about us and our society that is not beautiful. Not infrequently, they themselves are not beautiful or passable. But why judge an artistic culture by its commercial pulp rather than its outstanding performances. It is like the misbegotten booboo in literary criticism which takes the motley of self-published, poorly edited works, as basis for judging the vibrancy of Nigerian literature. In such situations, it is the judges who, inadvertently, are judging themselves.
To draw on another analogy from literature: what is on offer is a situation similar to one that once existed in African literature. The first generation of writers had to dredge the past to show, as Achebe put it, where the rain started to beat us. In no time, it began to appear as if they had become fixated within their need for a backward gaze, to the detriment of more contemporary issues. But while the critics were hacking away at how the writers were over-romanticizing the past, or lost in the maws of anthropological narrations, the writers had entered an era which many critics soon began to view within the genre of muck-raking. It did not require too much pleading to see that African literature needed to deal with the pre-colonial past in order to see the way clear to dealing with the more scatological issues of modern times. In the same way, it should be conceded that the video films have had to putter around the mush of deep-seated animism that underlies and scarifies both the Islamic and Christian confessions in our midst. But, there is certainly a point of saturation beyond which it becomes commercially unviable to continue regurgitating the same Aiye-seduced productions. And, there is a limit to the consistent resort to deploying the messianic archetype of the New Testament as a deus ex machina that resolves all social, health and even political problems in the video narratives. Assuredly, at some point, it will sink home that the stories, even the best realized of them, cannot be re-cycled interminably. The filmmakers would realize that they may not get bored with producing, but the audience could be put off.
To say this is perhaps cold consolation for those who feel short-changed and even sometimes diminished by the brazen incompetence or brash lowness of some of the pictures being produced. I can appreciate the angst of those who worry about what the rest of the world may be thinking; wondering where abuse of verisimilitude ends and the overcoming of good sense by fantasy takes over. Those who feel this way have my sympathy but only from the standpoint of their being dreamers for something better. But being rather unrealistic, they do not see that the resort to market forces has already inserted its own logic. In a society where buyer-taste has been pulverized by the self-advertisement of the video films, and demand is high, much will tend to be produced which is sheer mush. All cultures in the world suffer from the preponderance of mush over quality. This is why there is everywhere a distinction between high and low culture. Low culture is sometimes equated with bad but that’s just prejudice. The truth of the matter however is that cultures tend to judge themselves by their own high points rather than the low points. If the standards we use in judging the home-videos have not yet advanced to the point of making sharp distinctions between the good and the bad, that is not to say that it cannot be done. Over the past half decade, although slowly, a critical establishment has been emerging which manages to distinguish the good from the bad. Apart from the more heavy-going academic stuff, newspapers and television houses have been developing a still-groping but quite promising critical positioning that could, with time, make a difference. One necessary point that has to be made is that the resentment of the narratives of the home-videos tends to be a figment of selfdeceit. Rather than seek to change the society so that the untoward elements that figure in home-videos may be removed, there seems to be too much of an attempt to create a consensus around the need to make things look better in the films than they are in real life.
At a certain remove from everyday reality, it is quite a legitimate thing to do. But life is not all about self-deceit. We do need to face it that even when the home-videos exaggerate as is their wont, hitching implausible situations to the most banal sequences, the films manage to confront us with what is true of the way we are, and the way we live, while reflecting the difficulties we have in admitting it. We live in societies groping rather haphazardly towards modernity; societies in which women and children are ritually maltreated even in the most enlightened and liberal communities; societies in which those who should bring a sense of orderliness to situations are generally backhanded out of the way by those who have the power to make changes. Some of them, when confronted by the universalist assumptions which they profess in their big speeches, would rather overplay the nativistic card to excuse incompetence and ignorance. Thus, before the video films force us to see the sheer mess in which we are steeped, we already have so much to be ashamed of. The more enlightened among us cannot but be embarrassed by our bumbling and the way we stumble unnecessarily towards or away from answers that science had long uncovered. This is talking about a society in which education, the instrument for nationalizing culture, is still treated as an Oyibo-thing and some people think it is a bad thing if everybody gets educated and graduates have to sweep the streets because there are no non-graduates around to do menial jobs.
By way of conclusion, I must say that I have taken pains to defend the films we have made, as the title of this address suggests, because I have a sneaky feeling that we may be moving wittingly or unwittingly towards an overkill in the censorship of the home-videos. I think it can play into the hands of political dirty-jobbers. A Minister of Information or Culture who genuinely wants to see the motion picture business streamlined and elevated to a level that lifts Nigeria in the eyes of the world may find that a normal suggestion to enhance professionalism can be turned into a means for destroying professionalism. Once the informal censors in the corridors of power get into the picture, the first thing that will die is the very art that everybody seems to be concerned about. No question: if they begin to interfere with the stories that are being told, they would be doing a disservice for which posterity will not thank them. If people in power or outside wish to make a difference to the poor aesthetic performances, let them dare to sponsor a good home-video that meets all the rules they value. Then, leave the market to judge. The Nigerian market is a hard taskmaster: demand is so high that junk may survive, but once something good appears, the speed with which it is copied famishes the good producer’s capacity to deliver. Generally, in the face of innovations, Nigerians have proved to be great copycats. The sheer proliferation of the travelling theatres, the massive wave of movements into television drama and the move into video movies are proof enough. Talk of market-sense for a people who would establish so many more newspapers or junk magazines if one was seen to be doing well, or go into pure water business because a new company on the block is thriving! It is a Nigerian thing.
It should make critics of the home-video relax, take the more rational step of producing or supporting the production of the best that is possible at the level of our technology or even with a higher technology that would then provide some kind of benchmark as to how to go about it. It can be imagined how quickly a truly well-made video will be copied after it enters the stream. Otherwise, if governments wish to intervene, they should enter the market by sponsoring home-video films whose outstandingness of quality will conscientize other producers. Applied to the current disposition of the films, that is, the general pandering to folk philosophies, raucously pre-scientific thinking, poor training of actors and actresses, poor work ethic by producers and technical crew who think that schools of drama and film were established to humour the oyibo-man, the judgment of the market is bound to be harsh. It is already showing in some cases. The penalty comes from what I have called a sense of constituency. When those for whom films are made begin to have somewhere else to turn, old constituencies dissolve and would have to reconstitute. A real market, a free market is the result. Before a truly free market arrives, filmmakers who want to leave their constituency behind must learn to face the costs. Not that filmmakers should never quarrel or deviate from the needs, demands and orientations of their constituency. Actually, if the film as a medium is to be effectively used as changer or affirmer of social habits and directions, filmmakers must be able to dare something zany that runs counter to expectations. The rude fact is that: you need slack funds and a slower-time scheme to make earth-shaking films. Quick-chop films will have to follow quick-chop methods. A government or artistic commune that does not want people to lap up and regurgitate and luxuriate in the banalities of poorly made films must put a purse, a proper war chest, on offer. The filmmaker who wants to run from the voodoo craze that puts bread on the table must have a godmother or godfather or a missionary bank that won’t mind. If they must be breakers of charmed circles, they should consider providing balm and cushion to severed connections with trends in the market. When the Nigerian Film Corporation is no longer reduced to just paying salaries with nothing left for film production, and the Film/Video Production and Support Services have funds to meet the demands of daring practitioners in the field, we may begin to talk about not just being trapped by the market. We would be talking about manipulating it. This is simply a way of conceding that the video filmmakers of today may be more trapped by the market and the weakness of technological base than their apparent success suggests. And this is why the motion picture industry in Nigeria needs every support that it can get. Like them or hate them, they have proved capable of launching themselves and us on a route that can lead to rebirth and economic empowerment.
Odia Ofeimun is a Lagos-based poet and journalist. He is the author of The Poet Lied. This piece is drawn from his keynote address at the 2nd National Film Festival, Lagos, 27th November, 2003.
This tale is also available in print in Chimurenga Vol. 8: We’re All Nigerian! (Dec. ’05).
Other Nollywood titles in this month’s Chronic online edition include: