Zeb Ejiro, Ajoke Jacobs, Tunde Kelani,
and Aquila Njamah
Andy learned it the hard way—selling your soul to the devil stinks. He didn’t mean for his wife to be killed in a satanic sacrifice. He just wanted to live the high life—get a girlfriend, a nice house, and a car (or two—a Mercedes and a Pathfinder). But the high priest was insistent, and Andy was in over his head, and, well, though her blood tasted terrible, things really did start looking up after Merit died. Fast women, fancy clothes, foreign wines, and all the chicken he could eat: If Merit’s ghost would just stop haunting him, everything would be fine.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Andy Okeke, the sorry hero of Living in Bondage Part 1—a classic of the new Nigerian cinema. (In Part 2, Andy is driven mad by his wife’s apparition; he lives on the streets, eating worms, until he finds his salvation in Jesus.) Like most of the direct-to-video movies that have stoked the Nigerian culture industry, the plots are sentimental, the acting raw, and the cable-access editing not unlike that of an X-rated flick, minus the randy parts (all the actors seem to be waiting around anxiously for something to happen). Production values are deplorable; special effects leave much to the imagination. And it doesn’t really matter, because the films still sell. Nigerians love their home videos, soft electronic jazz soundtracks and all. As nearly everyone involved in the business will tell you, even Hollywood wasn’t built in a day. The Nigerian industry is barely ten years old. One breezy Lagos afternoon, I met up with a cross-section of video industry stalwarts to discuss the promise and peril of Nollywood today.
The actress Ajoke “Joke Silva” Jacobs was there. An elegant woman whose résumé includes more than thirty fi lms, TV shows, and stage performances, the forty-two-year-old Jacobs was a mainstay of the Yoruba traveling theater before taking her star turn in such films as Strange Women, Destiny, and Violated, in which she starred with heartthrob Richard “RMD” Mofe-Damij Writer, producer, and director Zeb Ejiro was in attendance. Like many of his contemporaries, he made the move from television soap opera to video film in the early 1990s. Ejiro’s movies treat “social problems” with melodramatic flair; titles include Goodbye Tomorrow (AIDS), Mortal Inheritance (sickle cell anemia), and Conflicting Shadows (promiscuity). Domitilla Parts 1 and 2 (prostitution) may be the best-selling Nigerian movies of all time; in any case, they have produced a curious addition to the Nigerian lexicon: domitilla is now slang for “whore.” Ejiro holds a number of official positions in the industry; he is currently president of the Association of Movie Producers and board member of the Nigerian Directors Guild. The “Whiz Kid” arrived late. Aquila Njamah is a twenty-eight-year-old director and occasional actor who has made a name for himself with a series of thrillers that tackle the wildly popular—and controversial—topics of supernaturalism and witchcraft. Some of Njamah’s movies include Blood and Secrets, She Devil, Time to Kill, and The Untold. The rising director also runs his own film company, Eagle Eye Productions.
Lending the discussion gravitas was Tunde “TK” Kelani, the reluctant elder statesman of Nigerian cinema. Kelani served as cinematographer on most of the celluloid feature fi lms produced during the oil-boom years of the 1970s and ’80s. He wrote and directed many video films in the 1990s, mostly in the Yoruba language. Thunderbolt, an inter-ethnic romance set amid a crippling plague (“deadlier than AIDS,” as the poster says), is widely considered to be the best-crafted movie of the video era. His most recent film, Agogo Eewo, was the big winner at the Nigerian Film Festival’s award ceremony, despite its controversial depiction of police corruption and traditional Yoruba religion.
The roundtable discussion was fuelled by fizzy water rather than Guinness or Gilder, but the conversation remained lively and sometimes personal, as the Nollywood notables discussed politics and pornography, art and commerce. For better or worse, the future of Nigerian cinema is in their hands. pretty far removed from the festival circuit.
TRENTON DANIEL: It seems fair to say that all of your are pretty far removed from the festival circuit.
AQUILA NJAMAH: We don’t do movies for film festivals.
AJOKE JACOBS: I personally find that a lot of the movies that are made for film festivals are not the kind of movies that people want to watch. Francophone films? Even at film festivals, they really don’t do very well. It’s too . . . it’s movies as an art form. It’s not entertainment for Africans. If you think about the amount of money that has been pumped into the Francophone film industry—they should have been making big African films this whole time! But they’re not interested. So that’s what Nigeria can really beat its chest about: we do films for our people. And we’ve generated interest all over the world. Just look on the Internet. I remember this article that I saw: Bye bye, Hollywood. Bye bye, Bollywood. Now it’s—
ZEB EJIRO: It’s Nollywood.
JACOBS: Nollywood! You know, the sheer entertainment value of what we’re doing is amazing. Unprecedented. People find it interesting, because it’s about them.
TUNDE KELANI: I think that Nigeria is going to redefine the concept of African cinema. We make films in Nigeria, for Nigerians.
EJIRO: And Nigeria is home to more Africans than any other country in the continent. Look, we’re never going to crack the American market. Five years ago, I was chatting with two American directors at an Internet café in Kaduna. They said, “Only two percent of movies outside of America manage to get into America.” The French government is fighting America to open its market so that more movies can come in. But why bother? We’ve made our country a mecca for home-video movies. Before 1998, if you went to the video club, 80 percent of the movies were foreign movies. Now 80 percent are Nigerian movies. That’s a huge success. Nigerians appreciate their own story lines. They want their movies more than they want foreign ones.
DANIEL: What is a “Nigerian” story line, exactly?
EJIRO: When you see a Nigerian movie, you can see. Everything is Nigerian: the way they dress, the way they talk, the story itself.
KELANI: Also, I would say that most of our films draw on folklore. This is inevitable—especially for me, coming from such a rich cultural background. The Yoruba language and tradition is as advanced and developed as any other. So I do a lot of adaptations from literary sources.
NJAMAH: Some people complain about our movies having a lot of “fetish” things . . .
JACOBS: Aquila, are you saying that if it doesn’t have rituals in it, it isn’t a Nigerian movie?
NJAMAH: I was just speaking hypothetically . . . [They laugh.]
JACOBS: I am so against that, it drives me nuts.
NJAMAH: You know, our grandparents used to tell us stories about spirits and evil forests, about fighting the white man’s religion. The masses grew up with these stories, so naturally the most successful films have reflected that. But we have these crazes in the industry. If Ajoke puts out an action movie and it is successful, all the others will try to do the same thing she does. The craze for rituals started like that: somebody did a movie on it and it was successful and then rituals were everywhere. People were following the same pattern. But I think it’s phasing out.
EJIRO: Well, yeah: Living in Bondage was just about the biggest Nigerian home video ever produced. It was fetish, actually. A lot of story lines took that direction for that reason. But it’s OK. Our industry is still growing. We have to make our mistakes. Hollywood didn’t get there overnight.
KELANI: I must confess I have never seen Living in Bondage. But it was certainly not the first successful Nigerian home video. Ken Nnebue made Aje Ni Iya Mi [My mother is a witch] first. That was the first successful home video, in the Yoruba language. Others followed after this breakthrough.
DANIEL: If your films are so Nigerian, why are they so popular in Accra and Nairobi and Cape Town?
EJIRO: Because Nigeria is the biggest home video producer in Africa, which means our movies have better production, better story lines, better packaging.
NJAMAH: People in Accra or Nairobi watching our movies is like Nigerians dancing to makossa music from Cameroon— makossa tops the charts in Nigeria, even though the people don’t understand the lyrics.
KELANI: In any case, our movies are definitely African. Their popularity shows that Africans have a lot in common socially, culturally, and politically.
DANIEL: In some ways, your films remind me of the old pulp-fiction booklets they used to sell in Onitsha Market in the 1950s and ’60s. Do you think there’s a connection?
JACOBS: For me, personally, not so much. But the approach is similar—this is the populist culture. Of course, there are films that are accessible and also have depth, like Tunde’s Thunderbolt, for one. But they are not the majority. Then again, writers like Chinua Achebe aren’t the majority, either—most writers don’t have that kind of depth and accessibility. You understand what I mean?
KELANI: I think traditional Yoruba theatre is the foundation of the Nigerian film industry. Many of the directors spent time travelling with the drama companies throughout the southwest of Nigeria. Then they drifted into television, and eventually they migrated into filmmaking, mainly 16mm filmmaking—I must have shot twenty of those films myself. Chief Hubert Ogunde, the doyen of Nigerian theater, produced many films in 35mm, and today the Yoruba theater dominates the Nigerian industry and still has a role to play in its development. So what we’re doing does not fit the Onitsha Market paradigm at all.
JACOBS: I disagree. I think a lot of the Yoruba movies are in the Onitsha style. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the movies come from Onitsha. But that’s the approach: the whole gatecrasher, seven day shoots, just slapping something together . . .
EJIRO: It’s called guerilla moviemaking.
KELANI: You know, Nigerians are very creative people. In the mid-1980s, the Nigerian economy collapsed completely. Then there was the Structural Adjustment Program. Making films in the traditional way required foreign exchange, and the exchange rate was just prohibitive. So everybody practically stopped making films. Video technology offered a way out, coupled with the fact that there was instability and political unrest and all that. So everybody stayed indoors and wanted to be entertained at home. Video technology came at the right time.
EJIRO: I would love to make all my movies on celluloid, but I can’t. We have to be able to cover our costs, put food on the table, and express ourselves in a creative way. That’s why we shoot movies in seven days: the faster you get it done, the lower your costs.
DANIEL: How do the movies actually get made? I mean, how do you get financing?
EJIRO: From the marketers. For them, it’s just a product. They control the distribution of tapes every week, from here to Onitsha. They are not professionals, but they have the money. They might see a girl and say, “She is a celebrity, she is a face, her face is going to sell my movie.” They don’t know if she can
play the role—it doesn’t matter.
KELANI: I have never taken any money from any marketer. If you take money from a marketer, you have lost creative control—it is as simple as that. There is no way I cede creative control until the product is ready. One needs to define one’s relationship with the marketers. I think…
DANIEL: So how do you finance your movies?
KELANI: With private funds, and by plowing back profits from previous films. It’s no way to work, because it means living from project to project. Sadly, the industry is not supported either by government funding or the banks.
JACOBS: But the movie will still end up in the hands of the marketers, if you want anyone to see it.
KELANI: You have to negotiate with them, but if the producers know how to approach their work professionally, you can negotiate from a position of mutual respect. Marketers come to me—I don’t really go to marketers.
EJIRO: I don’t see the marketers as the problem. I always say that we—the practitioners—are the problem. When the marketer says, “You must use Ajoke Jacobs,” a director must be able to sit down and say, “Why is it that I must use Ajoke Jacobs?”
JACOBS: Why is it that you must keep using me as an example?
KELANI: As long as somebody puts money down on a project, they will tell you who they want.
EJIRO: But even when they are bringing the money, you have room to maneuver.
KELANI: I think it is a question of investment. They want to safeguard their interests—they know that if you have such and such person, you could sell the movie better, faster. That is why the marketers will always try to force us to use the so-called superstars.
EJIRO: The actors contribute to the problem as well. These days, when you give an actor a script, the actor asks immediately, “How much are you paying?” It’s gotten to the point where you see an actor coming to a set holding three scripts. [They laugh.]
NJAMAH: And all the movies will be done in two weeks!
EJIRO: So he will be shooting on location, and the director and the producer from the other set will be waiting. The minute he steps down from that film, they just grab him and rush to the other location. But as I say, all of this is OK. The industry is still young.
DANIEL: We’ve talked about the marketers and the pressure they bring to bear. What about the censors? Roseline Odeh, the head of Nigeria’s National Film and Censors Board, recently asked for more money. “That way,” she said, “our monitoring will be total.” But some people have said that the board “merely barks and does not bite.” Do you think the Censors Board is all bark?
EJIRO: I think it is over-biting.
JACOBS: Yes, they are oversensitive.
EJIRO: I will give you an example. These days, if you shoot a movie about prostitution—ah! It is not good. They don’t even bother to rate it. That is the problem. What is the point of having a board if they don’t bother to rate a movie?
KELANI: The real problem is with movies that are rated 18, which means you have to be eighteen or older to see it. You can get an 18 rating for having rituals, violence, bad language. And 18 movies are automatically labeled NTBB, “not to be broadcast.” They are banned from television.
EJIRO: When I met with Roseline Odey in Abuja, I told her that in Europe you have pornographic shops, and a child who is not eighteen cannot go there. But if I have a movie and a woman walks nude in that movie, maybe they could give it another classification—maybe fifteen. [They laugh.] She said they were going to look into it.
JACOBS: I agree with you that they need to explain their classifications better, so people are better educated. But I also think a lot of things that are coming out are sleaze. And sleaze should stay where it belongs!
DANIEL: What do you mean by sleaze?
JACOBS: Sleaze for me is when—did you all see that movie with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that they did together before they broke up?
JACOBS: Eyes Wide Shut. It was supposed to be a big movie? What sleaze! What rubbish! You see what I mean? It’s not mainstream anywhere, in America or in England. Sleaze is in the background.
DANIEL: Actually, Eyes Wide Shut was made by a very well respected director, though it’s true that children weren’t allowed to see it. But overall, so-called sleaze is pretty mainstream in America—every year, the pornography industry makes more money than Hollywood does.
KELANI: Well, pornography may be popular in America, but in our culture, it is the height of moral decadence. The Yoruba culture and tradition does not lend itself to exploiting sex and nudity for money. It would be unthinkable, as a Nigerian filmmaker, to consider this sort of permissiveness, especially in a culture that is strong on moral values.
EJIRO: Well, American society is quite different from our society. Our society is more traditional. So you can’t have pornography here on the same scale as in America—the Censors Board won’t even allow you to show the top of the woman naked…But I know that if people did it here, they would make a lot of money. We have this holier-than-thou attitude—nobody wants to be called a pornographic maker or a pornographic star. These are the problems. But if I had the opportunity I would do it. I love it! [He laughs.]
NJAMAH: Tradition and culture will not let pornography come here—not that it is not. . . appreciated. But hypocrisy is the word. For pornography to become a populist medium, that will take time—a whole lot of time.
EJIRO: I still think Nigeria needs a censorship board. But it has to be modified. First of all, they need to make a proper board: one that has a clergyman, an imam, a lawyer, a teacher, a civil servant, a market woman, a corporate person, a doctor— everybody from different backgrounds. You see, Nigeria is a volatile society; that’s why we need a censorship board. Everybody’s watching each other. The Yoruba is watching the Hausa, and the Igbo is watching the Hausa. People are very careful. Everything you do, people are looking for their political angle.
NJAMAH: Exactly. That is why we need political censorship. Until things stabilize, “a hungry man is an angry man.”
KELANI: We can’t have movies that say all Muslims are bad. It would tear Nigeria apart. You can’t say all Christians are lazy.
EJIRO: If you make a movie that abuses the Yoruba ways, it cannot go. And if you say all Nigerian policemen are corrupt, it cannot go. But you can say this policeman is corrupt. You cannot say the government is corrupt, but you can say a minister in the government is corrupt. It’s when you generalize—
NJAMAH: It also depends on who is saying that the government is corrupt. If I pick a madman on the street and he says all Nigerian policemen are corrupt . . .
JACOBS: And so it is a madman, no one will take him seriously.
EJIRO: If it is the madman saying it, why not? Let him! In one of my new movies, Intimate Strangers, one drunk character says that all women are prostitutes. But because he is drunk and because of the situation at that point in the movie, the board is likely to let that go.
KELANI: As a filmmaker, I sit through the whole process with the Censors Board, and sometimes I think it’s almost an attack on freedom of expression. You can see the arrogance of the government: they sit there, and somebody has the remote control. If they were serious, they wouldn’t sit there and rewind it. I want the film to be watched uninterrupted, from beginning to end. If you stop the video, they take things out of context. Next time, I am going to tell them, “Get your papers and pens ready, because I am going to advise you this film is to be seen in an entire take. After you see the tape, you can do whatever you like.” I think the board members see themselves as drug enforcement agents trying to protect the people by making sure that friendly, environmentally correct films are the only ones that are made or seen. I am a beneficiary of forty years of television and broadcasting in Africa, and I have worked with the best African broadcast managers. It is so important to me that my films must be seen on television. But the censorship board rated Agogo Eewo NTBB. And I suspect that the movie is a victim of religious bias. Perhaps the regulators are bornagain Christians, or Muslims, and perhaps they’re afraid to admit that some Nigerians practice traditional African religions. Agogo Eewo was rated 18 for containing divination scenes, ritual, power play, etc. We do need a regulatory body—that’s all right. But when it comes to the question of total censorship? There are some producers and directors who are already complying by making very safe films. I don’t want that to happen. I think that is trampling on people’s freedom of expression.
EJIRO: I don’t think that happens. You can’t tell me what to do. What I want to know is, who are the regulators protecting? Some of the big movies today like Living in Bondage and even Glamour Girls, where a woman came into the living room to wash her private parts—
EJIRO: She went to the living room to wash her private parts to prepare for her husband. That movie is one of the highest selling movies in the country. How did that make it through? At the end of the day, who is the Censors Board protecting? There are a lot of foreign movies that are shown on our television stations. In the afternoon, in prime time. And nobody says anything. But when it is being locally made, there’s a double standard. If you make a movie in Nigeria and it is approved, you must carry the classification. Your posters, your jacket covers, the promo you show on television—all of them carry the classification.
NJAMAH: But for a foreign movie, even a South African movie, there is nothing like that.
EJIRO: I think it’s our fault, again. We are the practitioners. I think that we should be able to come together and tell the Censors Board that if it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t have a job. We should tell them we need to educate our people. We should go to Abuja and remind them that they are working for us. DANIEL: What about Sunday Mac Don? Didn’t he try to get around the Censors Board?
EJIRO: Well, he got into trouble. He put his movie out on the chimurenga market without classification and there were some fetish things that were prohibited in his movie. So he was arrested. He was also fined about five thousand naira.
EJIRO: You see, that is why I think we need to fight this woman—this board, rather.
JACOBS: Don’t get personal! [They laugh.]
DANIEL: What made all of you decide to work in the movies, in the first place?
KELANI: Movies are really glamorous! We were brought up on American movies and Indian movies. I saw almost all of the American movies that came to the cinema house. Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten Commandments, The Last Days of Pompeii. The Shaft series…
NJAMAH: Gone With the Wind. We saw a lot of television series, too: Hawaii Five-0.
EJIRO: Starsky and Hutch.
NJAMAH: Starsky and Hutch. The Commander. The Ninja.
EJIRO: Mission Impossible. I started to picture America as a democratic society. I must tell you that I like America and the American life—the American dream. That’s what inspired me. If you look at the American soldiers in Iraq, they are happy to go fight for their country. With Nigeria, that’s not the case. So all my movies are asking this question: what’s the Nigerian dream?
DANIEL: Did you go to the movies a lot?
EJIRO: My brother Chico and I used to go to the cinema house every Sunday. I remember seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with him.
JACOBS: I saw The Exorcist at the Plaza, on the big screen. But now? If I never took my children abroad, they wouldn’t even know what a big screen was!
DANIEL: There aren’t any many big-screen theaters these days, are there?
JACOBS: No, not at the moment.
EJIRO: Or very few.
JACOBS: There are none. What are you thinking of, Zeb?
EJIRO: The National Theater.
JACOBS: That doesn’t count. Come on—there are no big screens there! The experience of watching the big screen—that is such an old thing!
EJIRO: We have cinema halls. These are halls that show movies on video. Not on film. Up in the north, they show movies on film, but not Nigerian films—it’s Indian films up there.
KELANI: I think there has to be a plan to revive cinema. It is not going to happen by itself. I remember when I was young—I will never forget the experience of seeing the cinema for the first time. That’s why it should be free of charge.
EJIRO: But bringing back cinema culture is not something the moviemakers can do by themselves.
KELANI: I think everything has to improve, first: employment, security, everything. Once there is employment, once people have disposable income, I think people will spend some of it on entertainment. Right now everybody is just trying to survive.
EJIRO: Most of the cinema houses are not well maintained. You cannot take a girl you just met, a girl you want to impress, to that kind of place.
JACOBS: They are all churches now. The ones that remain have been turned into churches.
NJAMAH: What about—I forget the name—where you drive your car, park it, and watch a big screen?
JACOBS: Drive-in movies. They have a lot of that in Ghana.
NJAMAH: Drive-in movies! We don’t have any of those. What if we did?
KELANI: Where? No, there’s no petrol. [They laugh]
JACOBS: Yeah, and in Ghana nobody will point a gun at you and say, “Get out of your car.” You can’t have a drive-in here.
DANIEL: So maybe not drive-ins, but still—do you think there will be some kind of evolution?
KELANI: For me, I am very optimistic, because I believe that we can build a proper industry. I think that the new technologies are going to empower us. The task is to train the professionals and train the newcomers. I am going to predict that within the next two or three years Nigeria is going to make great movies. We are going to eat our cake and still have it.
EJIRO: I think the moviemakers here, the majority of them are businesspeople first and foremost. From the moment that someone decides to make a movie, he is looking at whether it is going to make money at the end of the day. And he is looking at who is going to invest in it. Wherever you come from, nearly everybody makes movies that way. It’s not art. You know, once upon a time the French government supported arty films in Francophone countries. But now the French Cultural Centre here in Nigeria wants to bring French moviemakers here to study our methods. They cannot understand how we can make a movie in seven days—and still enjoy lunchtime.
This story previously appeared in print in Chimurenga 6: The Orphans Of Fanon (October ’04).