Fulbright Scholar and film researcher Bic Leu talks about finding and loving Nollywood.
Stumbling on a Nigerian movie in Ghana set Bic Leu on an exploration to Nollywood. For the young American studying abroad, the films she saw back in 2005 would leave a lasting impression on her even after her graduation from Tufts University, where she studied Art History, Business and African Studies. The economic recession and a stint at the New York-based Museum of Modern Art would seal the inevitable return to Africa; this time to Nigeria to find out more about the booming film industry.
“From what I knew of Nollywood, it was started by Nigerian entrepreneurs without any government support or any kind of international aid, or any type of formal sector intervention. I thought that was fascinating and I was just wondering at that moment – about 2008, 2009 – why it wasn’t getting the international recognition that it deserved. I really (wanted) to explore that more as an alternative mode of development and to move away from that traditional aid model and towards more sustainable market initiative,” Leu said.
Applying for and receiving a Fulbright grant was for her “the perfect way” to realise that dream. Leu hailed her mentors at Tufts as being “very knowledgeable” about Nigerian film and providing her with helpful information prior to her departure. With everything else in place, Leu contacted Duro Oni, Theatre Arts Professor and Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Lagos, who agreed to sponsor her.
In September 2010, Bic Leu arrived in Nigeria and Mission: Nollywood was well on its way. “It was so much more than I expected,” enthused Leu, whose Nollywood adventure is recorded on the weblog ‘FindingNollywood.com’. “When I landed in Lagos, I didn’t know anybody. I was here because of that curiosity, that passion to discover how the film industry works. ‘I don’t actually have any plans in place! What am I going to do?!’” she thought.
It however proved a smooth ride for the inquisitive scholar as she was easily accepted on film sets. “The practitioners are so open to outsiders coming in and learning about it. The level of hospitality that I’ve been shown has been really overwhelming. I can’t go to Hollywood and knock on Stephen Spielberg’s door and say ‘Hi, I’m Bic, I’m a scholar and I would like to follow your set for a couple of weeks. I probably won’t even get that far; I’d probably meet with the assistant to an assistant to an assistant…” joked Leu.
Within two weeks of her arrival, Leu was in touch with Nollywood scholar and professor Onookome Okome, who was doing a sabbatical at the Pan African University in Lagos. Okome linked her up with ace filmmaker Tunde Kelani, who was then shooting Maami. “That was a great start,” said Leu, of her first location visit. “Once you got on TK’s set…everybody’s so connected and open, so willing to introduce you to their colleagues.” From Kelani’s set, she moved to Funke Akindele’s Jenifa set, to Emem Isong’s and Desmond Elliot’s for Kiss and Tell and to Daniel Ademinokan’s for the DaGrin biopic Ghetto Dreamz, getting the chance to observe, interview and record as the months passed by. “That was such a great introduction to the film industry,” Leu reminisced. Her exploits on these sets were not limited to research though. Her presence incurred a few acting roles: a spot in the Jenifa trailer, her hair makes an appearance somewhere in Ghetto Dreamz and, “I believe my wakapass in Maami is on the cutting room floor somewhere,” Leu said.
Work on these sets was also very professional and punctuality was not to be messed with, she said. Leu initially thought it was “complicated” for Elliot and Isong to be shooting two films simultaneously. That impression soon changed. “In reality it was like this machine; some days we pumped out like 40 scenes a day, which is insane. And it worked!” This time it sounded like a confident boast.
For Leu, the productions she tracked were far better than her first Nollywood encounter in Ghana back in 2005. “This is much better. When I came on TK’s set, he was very excited about mounting a RED camera, which allowed him to shoot digital images that were indistinguishable from celluloid pictures and of course at a much cheaper cost and much more accessible in post-production.” It was an epiphany. “That was when I realised that this is really not the Nollywood of the low-budget production: the guerrilla filmmaking that I’d been reading of. This is really the start of this revolution to increase capacity in the industry and look at different re-distribution methods.”
With the conversation tilting towards distribution, the issue of piracy reared its head. “In terms of distribution, I think the way a lot of filmmakers have been able to tackle that is through cinema-only release,” Leu replied, referencing the newfound love for premieres and cinema screenings. “As soon as they release their films straight to DVD then the pirates will illegally duplicate them.”
More cinemas will lead to better quality films; a standard that will help the industry’s international image and also boost employment, Leu argued. In her words, Akindele’s intention to upgrade production quality influenced the hiring of DJ Tee as director on the third Jenifa instalment. “She really wanted to improve her production value, show at cinemas and probably at film festivals. The downside to this is that there really isn’t that many cinemas in Nigeria. I think maybe nine or ten, and for a population of a hundred and fifty million people; that doesn’t cover the demand that’s out there and also the cost of access.”
ALL GOOD IN NOLLYWOOD
Despite the many challenges on film locations, I couldn’t resist asking if Leu and her research questions didn’t end up an unnecessary nuisance for the cast and crew.
“I would just wait in between takes,” she said. “Basically I tried really hard not to be a distraction.” Working out what times would best be suited for questions also helped. “100% of the time they were super happy to enlighten me about what was going on in between takes,” Leu said gleefully.
A number of things stand out for Leu, especially the on-set professionalism and quality of output in Nollywood in spite of the same challenges referred to earlier. “What stood out to me was that in spite of the challenges of filming in Nigeria, the cast and crew just really bound together to make it work. My few challenges were pretty standard throughout all of the productions,” she said, listing disruptions from area boys, extra-long scenes, generators and corrupt district officials as challenges unique to Nigeria’s film sector. “For them to exist here and for us to be one of the most productive film industries in the world, that’s absolutely fascinating to me. (The practitioners) not only surpass them but also produce such work that captures the imagination in Nigeria and anywhere else.”
For a much-disparaged industry, Leu’s praise for Nollywood is hugely encouraging. She defends the industry even in relation to other African films, especially at festivals like FESPACO.
“The more I saw of FESPACO obviously the African films that were shown were very different from the Nollywood films that were shown. In terms of production quality, their history is very different than in the Nollywood films. They showed like maybe three Nigerian films (at FESPACO); Kunle Afolayan’s film (The Figurine) was the only one I watched and didn’t fall asleep,” Leu said with a short laugh.
“I feel like (the films’ improved quality) really speaks to the level of audience engagement that Nollywood has been able to cultivate. Everybody has this mindset that they’ve really come up with a few movies that people actually want to watch.” According to Leu, the storylines were also “solid,” making special mention of Kelani’s collaboration with Nigerian playwrights Akinwumi Isola and Femi Osofisan.
And the relevance of these stories to the audience?
“I would say that the Nollywood films that I’ve seen have really portrayed society’s reaction to certain socio-political conditions that have happened. It certainly shows that our filmmakers and our creative professionals are definitely aware of the nuances and what’s going on in politics and the socio-political environment and are able to translate that very articulately on film.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
Are these nuances apparent in the productions, I ask, especially with the overuse of words rather than non-verbal hints in the plot. “I believe its something that they’re working on. The film industry has its roots in the Yoruba tradition, which is a lot of talk, so I don’t think it’s bad as long as it’s portrayed in a way that’s also visually engaging, that moves the story along. I believe that the roots of why the Nollywood films are talky have a very valid and cultural reason.” she argued.
During her stay in Lagos, Leu co-ordinated Nollywood-themed seminars both within and outside the academia. She commented on the probable disconnect between Nollywood as theory and Nollywood as practice. “I don’t see the link as particularly strong just because we don’t have any formal film studies programme at the universities here. A lot of these professors who are speaking about Nollywood are coming from either the English departments or the Theatre Arts department, so I feel like maybe the film practitioners feel it’s not speaking directly to them. Not to take anything away from the point that we’re making, the industry hasn’t been established long enough for there to be a very established culture of film criticism. As you know, many newspaper articles about Nollywood, it’s not really like an in-depth article, it’s mostly gossip.”
We both agree here and I ask if the academy is not trying too hard to intellectualise the popular. For Leu, such international exposure can only be helpful to sustaining Nollywood’s growth. “There’s a whole field of scholarship talking about popular arts. So, for me to take modern Nigerian cinema and to have it taken seriously on the international stage, you do need people to intellectualise it. You need to do more academic papers published in reputable international journals to speak intelligently about what’s going on in these industries. You need these papers to be cited in doctoral theses that are written all over the world. And you need this scholarship to come from Nigeria.”
Such scholarship need not be overly critical, though. “Constructive criticism is really important to any industry. It’s just that that discourse needs to be encouraged. The more that literary discourse is encouraged and is publicised, the more the industry will be respected internationally.”
Leu’s research year ended in July 2011 and she was swiftly snapped up as Head of International Relations and Project Management at Del-York International, a media and communications company with a focus on capacity building for economic development and international branding of Nollywood. She described this experience as “really exceptional” for Nollywood scholars, who usually have no chance to test their research findings. The Del-York experience was specifically helpful to Leu, whose interest was in how Nollywood directly or indirectly provides employment across different professions. “I was going to take that to Del-York and truly implement this job creation model.” As part of the outfit’s training curriculum for aspiring media practitioners, Leu also introduced a weekly roundtable called ‘Filmmaking in Nigeria’, inviting Nigerian practitioners to discuss the history of Nollywood, distribution and piracy, entrepreneurship, on-set challenges and the like.
By the end of her research period, Bic Leu had come full circle from the stuttering newcomer to a fulfilled researcher with positive impact on the lives of aspiring filmmakers. “It’s great to be a part of that and not to just look on as a scholar,” she said with pride.
In November of 2011, Leu co-curated the first Nollywood film Festival in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Aimed at bringing Nollywood deeper into an international audience’s consciousness and titled ‘Bemvindo a Nollywood’, the festival featured discussion panels around the Nigerian Video Film sector. Nine Tunde Kelani films were screened during the event. “For me, it’s interesting seeing how Nollywood films are seen abroad and to form this partnership this really shared cultural exchange, it’s awesome!” she gushed.
Bic Leu is currently in South-East Asia preparing for a new job back in the United States. There is little doubt, though that her love for Nollywood will someday bring her back to Nigeria.