Living for the City

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Memories of Kuramo Beach and its deviant denizens came flooding back at the recent screening of Andi Amadi Okoroafor’s ‘RELENTLESS.’ The film was the October selection for the IREP/Goethe Institut monthly screening, which took place on the City Hall rooftop on October 27.

Telling the story of a shell-shocked ex-peacekeeper, who embarks on a vengeance mission after twice suffering tragic love, the 90-minute flick is different from many other Nigerian films. Obi (Gideon Okeke) is an ex-UN soldier, who returns to Lagos from Sierra Leone. He settles into a ‘peaceful’ life and runs a security firm with his friend and fellow ex-soldier Ola (Ropo Ewenla).

With an impending election and a tense atmosphere, a political stalwart Anaki (Jibola Dabo) hires Obi’s firm to ‘protect’ one of the candidates played by Haitian-American actor Jimmy Jean-Louis.

Obi begins to suspect something fishy about the job when he finds a prostitute, Honey (musician Nneka) snooping around one of the party meetings. She tells him that Stella, her friend and co-worker is missing and feared dead. Things went wrong after a party with Anaki and she suspects he might have a hand in her disappearance. Obi vows to find out what happened to Stella while other uncanny incidents make him want to drop the brief from Anaki. Obi’s suspicion grows when he discovers human blood after Anaki and The Candidate visit a shrine to swear an oath.

On another worrisome note, Obi finds himself falling for Honey, much to his displeasure and haunting memories of the love he lost in Sierra Leone. More worrisome is how it seems he and Honey have found themselves in an ill-omened cycle manipulated to fatally close in on both of them.

Their survival – or lack thereof – is the thrust of RELENTLESS, a testament to the spirit of the soldier and prostitute who fight doggedly to resolve personal issues that are largely beyond their control. The story is well grounded in the boisterous city of Lagos, largely on the now-isolated Kuramo Beach. In the ensuing discussion after the screening Okoroafor makes no bones about the unique Lagos sounds that could have been a distraction and the landscape, which someone in the audience felt was for the most part, ugly.

The actors mostly deliver a good account of themselves, with the likes of Okeke, Ewenla, Dabo, Toyin Oshinaike, Victor Olaotan and Zara Udofia confirming their worth as actors. One surprise was Nneka, who despite a successful career in music gives no hint that this is her acting debut.

While the film’s plot is weaved in much the same way a reckless danfo driver might do to avoid Lagos go-slow, Okoroafor’s story is not difficult to understand nor do the side attractions detract from its unravelling. After all, there myriad things an observer might see on a day out in Lagos. The director effectively initiates all these in the story.

However, some knotty issues in the plot could have been better resolved or excluded. For example, why does Ola’s wife (Efe Orhorha) dislike Obi? Why does Stella set Honey up? Possibly questions Okoroafor alone can answer.

RELENTLESS is what you can call a visual storytelling feast, which oddly enough for a Nigerian film, you might want to see more than once. If you don’t see it for the story, see it for the scenery; if you don’t see it for the scenery, see it for the music, but just see it.

Aboard Flight 212

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Nollywood is renowned for throwing up bad pictures. Running marginal to Nollywood’s low-quality production frenzy is an innovative sub-sector that delivers maybe not (yet) the world’s best, but a fresh deviation from the norm.

In recent times, a few Nigerian filmmakers have brought some innovation and technical superiority to the usual dross dished out in the local film sector. Regarding plot and technique, this seems to be Obi Emelonye’s task in producing the air disaster flick Last Flight to Abuja. The film from the Mirror Boy director boasts an ensemble cast with the likes of Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Jide Kosoko, Jim Iyke, Olumide Bakare, Anthony Monjaro and the surprising inclusion of banking executive Celine Loader.

Each with his/her own professional, medical and emotional luggage, a collage of characters boards Flamingo Air’s Flight 212 from Lagos to Abuja: the day’s last flight. As relationships are questioned and new friendships are made, they soon find one another ‘bonding’ over a mid-air tragedy that will most likely consume them all.

Kae-Kazim plays Adesola, the philandering and thieving company exec, who takes a dark secret aboard the flight. He begins a high-falutin tirade about life and its opportunities when he realises that death is around the corner. Jalade-Ekeinde plays Suzie, who bribes her way on to the flight and despite her emotional turmoil strikes a sudden friendship with her seat mate David played by Jim Iyke. A young footballer, on the way to trials in the English Premiership, watches as his dreams appear to go up in smoke. Jide Kosoko is the Chief, who runs the Lagos-based company that organises a retreat to Abuja for his staff. Ironically, Kosoko himself misses the flight that sets his employers on a tango with death.

Last-minute decisions save some from embarking on the unfortunate trip and lead others to the gaping mouth of death. The film’s tagline regarding what anyone would have done differently if they had 24 hours left to live will lead many to question the decisions they make and their life’s journeys in general. One thing is obvious, anyone could have been a passenger on this plane.

The film features more characters with all their stories intertwining quite ingeniously. To reveal these twists and turns though would raise a spoiler alert. Ali Nuhu, the Kannywood heartthrob is excellent in his cameo as Suzie’s fiancée, Dan. Uche Odoputa (in the role of Mr. Efe) alongside his on-screen wife embody their characters well, providing a dash of comic relief that precedes the central catastrophe.

Many of the other characters though could hardly grab the few screen minutes that was their share. Monjaro (who plays Captain George) and Loader’s cockpit chemistry was mostly unnatural. I was also keen to find out how as the flight’s First Officer, Loader managed to communicate with the control tower as her headphones had no microphone. Jennifer Oguzie as Yolanda distracts from her otherwise impressive acting talent by switching between an American and Nigerian accent without cause. Gracefully, an overdose of bad acting was not the film’s prominent tragedy.

On a positive note though, Emelonye’s film is not just a daring challenge on the Nollywood status quo. It is a daring take on the little addressed topic of Nigeria’s aviation safety records. Last Flight’s London premiere a few days after the Dana Air crash was an ominous toll on the changes that are necessary in the local sector. The Lagos screening brings this issue closer home.

One scene reveals the cause of the mid-air explosion and is a pointer to how most air passengers are unaware of what other ‘luggage’ accompanies theirs into the plane’s belly. The movie also highlights distractions in the control tower. One employee, obviously over-worked as his replacement on the night shift has yet to report, snaps easily and begins to panic when he realises he cannot save Flight 212. He shows little technical knowledge of flying a plane and is mostly helpless as an avoidable disaster endangers the passengers.

The director’s depiction of the characters and how they are directly or indirectly affected by Flight 212 is riddled with suspense and tension-filled moments. The build-up to a happy or sad ending is intricately implanted into the film’s action. The plot’s unravelling gives little away towards the impending climax. It is to Emelonye’s credit that he does not bash his audience on the head with details. He leaves many nuances to the observant viewer such that when pieced together they form a better Nigerian movie than most.

The director plays a lot on irony and flashbacks in the 78-minute picture that draws from the air tragedies that were rampant in Nigeria between 2005 and 2006. In the midst of all the irony lies some bitter truth. At the end of it all, the director offers a vision of hope and leaves us with the ringing question, ‘What if?’

With a sprinkling of 3D to re-imagine the plane in aerial transit and re-construct the eventual explosion, Last Flight to Abuja will not be easily forgotten. Following the success of Mirror Boy, Emelonye sets the stakes higher for himself with this one. His next picture should be nothing less.

European Film Festival kicks off…

After a series of editions in Abuja, the European Film Festival will hold in Lagos from October 4 to 8, 2012.

Cinephiles and film professionals have a feast of 17 films from 13 countries over a five-day period at Freedom Park, which is fast becoming a preferred location for public film screenings.

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The screenings start from 4pm daily and at 12noon on Saturday and Sunday. Amongst the films scheduled to show during the festival are Orient Express (Romania), Albert Schweitzer: Anatomy of a Saint (Austria), Inside I’m Dancing (Ireland), Chico & Rita (Spain), Montevideo God Bless You (Serbia), Je Vous Trouve Très Beau (France), Letters To Santa (Poland),  Cento Chiodi (Italy), The Dinner Club (Netherlands) and Let The Right One Come In (Sweden).

So, if you’ve dreamed of visiting Europe but are too broke to make that happen, check out the continent through a cinematic lens. And yes, it’s FREE!

Lagos hosts Shnit International Shortfilm Festival

This year, Lagos joins nine other playgrounds for the 10th edition of the Shnit International Shortfilm Festival. Founded in 2003 in Bern, Switzerland, the festival takes place simultaneously in different venues across the world. The festival commenced on Thursday, October 4 at the Ikeja-based Royal Roots Theatre and ends on Sunday, October 7 at the Freedom Park on Broad Street.

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Over 300 shorts will be screened at the festival, while also availing film experts and enthusiasts a chance at networking and creative collaboration.

 

In a statement by the organisers, “Short films are currently an incredibly fast-growing medium around the world. It’s great to be able to offer local and global audiences, and filmmakers alike a taste of what the industry and film schools here are putting out as well as offer the local industry a taste of what filmmakers from all around the world are creating in all fields of short film.

 

“At its least it is merely inspiring, but our festival is also a practical tool as a platform for local filmmakers to interact with a global network, prompting collaboration and conversation, continuing to raise the standards and profile of Nigerian film.

 

The festival is organised by the Swiss-based shnit Foundation and holds concurrently around the world. This year it will hold in Bern, Vienna, Cologne, Cape Town, San Francisco, Cairo, San Jose (Costa Rica), Auckland (New Zealand), Singapore and Lagos.

 

The Lagos edition is a collaboration of Nigeria’s Da Rocque Entertainment and the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners (NANTAP) with the involvement of its president and producer Greg Odutayo. Peter Pius Omewiri is the Festival Director and Victor Okhai, of the International Film and Broadcast Academy (IFBA) is on the festival’s international jury.

 

Over $100,000 is available in prize money in five award categories, this include for short films running between 5 and 40 minutes, an international jury award and a region-specific award for the Made in Nigeria short films.

 

In a statement released by the organizers, “Each year the festival serves an outstanding menu of short masterpieces. Only thrilling, entertaining and high-quality short films find their way into the Shnit program. The genre of the selected works is trivial and the only criteria: that a film is contemporary, cutting edge and stands-out in terms of quality.”

 

With shorts selected from over 6000 entries and cutting across genres, the festival boasts of something for everyone. Its packages include the animated shnit, shnit experiments, peeping shnit, and feel good shnit.

 

 

“It’s our aim to actively increase the perception of short film making around the globe. Therefore we passionately promote short film as an independent art form in the field of audiovisual media and cinema; Shnit regards itself as a unique international platform for filmmakers, scriptwriters, producers and cinephiles. We embrace diversity, originality and exchange between creators and a growing audience across the globe and we are dedicated to grow in a sustainable manner: a transnational film festival simultaneously taking place in various cities.

 

“In addition, Shnit would not be shnit without a world beyond the popcorn and the silver screen. The cinematic experience is a doorway into Shnit EXPANDED, a playground in front of, beside and behind the screen, incorporating music, art, collaboration, discussion and expression,” the organisers said.

 

Described as ‘one festival in many cities’, audiences can watch daily Shnit-TV videos showing events from the nine other global playgrounds in what it calls “a global exchange of culture.”

 

Daily Shnit-TV videos shared among the host cities and live-crossings between countries make it a global exchange of culture – not a collection of individual festivals but one festival in many cities. Shnit’s worldwide fan base is growing at an incredible rate. In Berne alone over 20,000 visitors attend each year. Each host city is growing yearly.

 

According to shnit Nigeria, Lagos was chosen as host-city not just for its tourist potential, but also because of its place in Nigeria’s artistic history and the fact that it has played host to many events and awards relevant to Nigeria’s entertainment and cultural scene.  With visitors at the Bern festival growing to over 20,000 in recent times, shnit hopes its viewership in Lagos will also encounter a boom.

 

Shnit Shortfilm Festival brings to two the number of existing short-film festivals holding in Lagos, or Nigeria for that matter. The In Short Film Festival is now in its second year and holds from October 11 to 13, 2012, a few days after Shnit ends.

African Films and the Eastern European Market

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Global access to African films sounds easier by the second. With various online VOD options, the world of cinema is gradually becoming well and truly borderless. No doubt, a big boost for film industries that were previously unknown in certain parts of the world. One of such new markets that are gradually opening up to African film and TV content is Eastern Europe. With specific reference to Ukraine and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Andy Kozlov, founder at Steppes In Sync  speaks on breaking the ice and rolling out the red carpet for African cinema in Eastern Europe.

Kozlov’s Steppes In Sync is a partnerships’ platform connecting creative sectors from around the world.

As head honcho at Steppes, he covers news from Africa and the Ukraine with regular contribution from Cosmos Okigbo Ojukwu, a Nigerian in Ukraine, who writes on the local and international cultural scenes. Kozlov, describes his functions as “rather humble: help those people who seek creative partnership opportunities to find each other.” A similar notion prompts his approach to global cinema.  “One of the attractions in films for me is an opportunity to come closer to ethnic culture and learn languages.”

Afriwood or bust…

Now deeply involved in linking the African film market with the rest of the world, Kozlov recalls that while growing up, he could hardly tell which of the African and African-American films he saw were actually made in Africa or just stories about Africa. “Even later – up till my final years of college – the Brazilian production Cidade de Deus (City of God) was as good and educational to me as Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter; The Mummy (1999 film),  Raiders of the Lost Ark or Leni Riefenstahl: Her Dream of Africa,” he said, not forgetting to recommend TASS Is Authorized to Declare, a Soviet mini-series from the ‘80s, with an African/Eastern-European theme.

“If we talk of Nollywood and other Western African films, my first encounter with those happened during summer 2008, when I shared a house with a guy from the Republic of Guinea,” he added.

It is not a Guinean film that prompted my interview with Kozlov though, but a film with Nigerian ‘roots.’ Feathered Dreams, co-produced by Nigerian and Ukrainian partners is hailed as the first of such between both countries. Set in Ukraine, the film stars Nigerian actress Omoni Oboli and is billed for a Christmas/New Year release. After reading Kozlov’s commentary on the movie and related issues regarding the African and Eastern European content market, an interview was unavoidable.

“To me, Feathered Dreams is a promising project in terms of setting a precedent. I am also consulting [for] a Zimbabwean/South African film company on how to enter Eastern European markets. So, we will be able to learn a lot from the developments spurred by the Feathered Dreams project,” Kozlov said, in reference here to his involvement with Afriwood, a Zimbabwean distribution outfit founded by Stephen Chigorimbo, an industry veteran fully armed with forty years experience.

Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) in this screenshot from Raiders of The Lost Ark.

According to Kozlov, Afriwood aims at establishing partnerships with production studios in Russia and Ukraine towards “co-producing films and TV programmes both in CIS countries and on the African continent. Afriwood also seeks to promote and distribute African movies in such a way that the producers make enough money to enable them to work on another production.” An enticing option for most local producers and directors, who are already signing up to the company for access to the Eastern European space.

Afriwood is recording some success with breaking into the CIS content market and will be in Kiev this September for the 2012 edition of the Ukrainian Content Market. “[It] is, so far, the only representative of the southern hemisphere,” Kozlov added.

 Breaking the Ice

This leads to the question about whether or not there is a Ukrainian fan-base for African film.  Like many around the world, the local audience appears contented with the regular ‘screen diet’ as Kozlov revealed. “According to the local media practitioners and analysts, all the CIS viewers want to watch is Hollywood blockbusters and (rather pathetic) local sitcoms. Western-ideated formats like Big Brother are on the rise.”

He is however of the conviction that if certain African-oriented productions could be local hits, nothing stops African films from succeeding as well. “If Bones, Hotel Rwanda, The Lion King, District 9 can be found in DVD stores of Ukraine and The Gods Must Be Crazy occasionally graces the TV screen here, then why can’t The Algiers Murders, Foreign Demons or A Small Town Called Descent? Shaka Zulu was an absolute hit with my family in Ukraine.”

Regarding this issue of audience reaction, I remind him of his interview with Nikolai Bazanov of Highlight Pictures, the company producing Feathered Dreams. According to Bazanov, getting Ukrainian viewers excited about African films would not be easy.

“My observation is that Bazanov’s company does not operate enough data yet to be convinced that African films will sell in Post-Soviet countries.” Kozlov began, adding that the blame goes partly to “the quality of the African product.”

Optimism

In rating the sector though, he is more optimistic. “I think I am still learning the market here,” he says of the Southern African production market, “but it is encouraging to see that there are local people who are doing something despite various challenges.” And marketing available content to less-likely audiences should not be a problem.

“In my opinion, the biggest challenge, however, lies in the PR. Basically, anything can be marketed into a megastar. But the question is who in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan etc will be pouring large amounts of money into changing people’s perceptions, or rather the perceptions of the media industry [and] decision-makers?”

But there is one reason why transatlantic co-productions might be favourable to funders from the Eurasian region. “The Feathered Dreams Ukrainian team sees the future in producing African stories at the world-class level of movie-making in Ukraine and selling them back to Africa. And I think this is already a good start.” The trend of shooting so-called African films abroad for onward distribution on the continent already occurs in the UK, US and European countries like Germany and Holland where there is an impressive Nigerian/African presence.

Kozlov believes that if the collaborative streak continues, the benefits will not be one-sided for long. Of course, it is too early to predict. But there is hope that if the trend continues we will see more Ukrainians actively seeking to visit African countries as tourists. Or they will start considering investing into African markets on a larger scale. CIS-stemming companies like Renaissance Capital, the leading emerging markets investment bank, are setting an example. It would be good for someone like RenCap to set up a creative industries research department to help us identify the right way to follow.”

The discussion returns to Afriwood and its planned distribution models. So far, its movie database boasts more than a dozen films from four different countries. These include the likes of Stephanie Okereke’s Through the Glass (Nigeria), A Small Town called Descent (South Africa), The Algiers Murders (South Africa), Lobola (Zimbabwe) and Foreign Demons, which starred South African music diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

Nigerian movie ‘Through The Glass’ is one of the films in Afriwood’s distribution network.

Beyond displaying content at the upcoming Ukrainian Content Market, the films under Afriwood will also be available globally via diverse distribution media. “Piracy is quite rampant in Ukraine, they say. Close to the world record. Still, big cities continue to embrace DVDs. Internationally, VOD is probably the way to go,” commented Kozlov.

Targeting interested Nigerian producers and TV channels as well, he promises them a deal their “viewers won’t regret,” regarding the content that Afriwood has to offer. With concrete steps towards distribution, the Afriwood team anticipates the involvement of MNet and AfricaFilms.TV, which already showed interest in Feathered Dreams.

For Kozlov, broadening the intercontinental content map is just one of the things he and Chigorimbo have in common.  “I can learn a lot from being around him, observing his modus operandi.  Like Stephen, I am a strong believer in the power of media to promote human development. What can be more exciting than seeing other people grow to later empower others?”

Establishing new markets for African audiovisual content and breeding intercontinental collaborations definitely looks like an “exciting” way to go.

*Published in The Daily Sun on Friday, September 21, 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

Shine Your Eye: Lights, Camera, AFRICA! 2012

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The second edition of The Life House’s ‘Lights Camera Africa’ Film Festival kicks off on Friday, September 28. Themed ‘Shine Your Eye,’ the collaboration with the New York-based African Film Festivals runs till Monday, October 1st 2012. An interesting line-up of screenings, talks and workshops relating to African cinema will  take place over the four-day schedule of events shared across three venues on Lagos Island.

These are the British Council, Freedom Park and the Southern Sun Hotel. Most of the events are open to the public.

So, if you require a celluloid high (or you are a mobile couch potato), you don’t want to miss this. More info here for details on the participants and films, or here for the festival schedule.

Nollywood 2.0: Taking on the World

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For the last two decades, almost everything about Nollywood has evolved from interest and passion. It has gained a considerable following locally and globally. As everyone watches the industry formidably take on the world, passion, and interest – for good or bad – are no longer enough: skill acquisition, international collaboration and sufficient funding are essential assets for this new mission.

A lot of research has been done about how the home video business became a multi-billion naira venture in the absence of any seeming support from government or any structure regulating production and practice in the Nigerian film industry. With its huge fan base across Africa and its Diaspora, Nollywood as Nigeria’s film industry is commonly known, has found itself exposed to critical and comparative analysis from every possible angle.

In the face of new approaches to the overall aspects of Nigerian film production, the era of slapdash, substandard filmmaking is gradually fading away. A new crop of filmmakers – telling new stories in innovative ways and making the most of the technological advancements and collaborations available in the film world – is set to take over; either by breathing new life into the populist, pedestrian Nollywood or embracing a different label altogether.

Content

There was a time when the ‘perfect’ Nollywood flick was a melodramatic farce with some slapstick comic relief. All that has changed though as better-imagined stories emerge daily. Much of this change has evolved from the indigenous language sectors, which largely refuse to align themselves with the English-speaking film industry, which wholly embodies the name ‘Nollywood.’

A scene from Kunle Afolaya’s The Figurine (Araromire)

Filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, and Kunle Afolayan and their Kannywood counterparts have upped the plot ante, breaking away from the syrupy, unsubstantial fare that was the order of the day in Anglophone Nollywood. Over the years, Kelani’s collaboration with Nigeria’s finest authors like Akinwumi Isola, Afolabi Olabimtan and Femi Osofisan has placed his stories among the industry’s best.

Afolayan’s work with professional screenwriter Kemi Adesoye on his Figurine and the recent blockbuster Phone Swap continue to show that there is little space for watery plots in what some have referred to as the new Nollywood. Mak Kusare’s Champions of Our Time, though bearing some similarities to Hollywood’s Akeelah and the Bee also shows a new approach to Nollywood storytelling.

Films like Chineze Anyaene’s Ije and Obi Emelonye’s Mirror Boy also prove that the filmmakers from the Diaspora or with influence from abroad now have an active role to play in how Nollywood and her stories will unfurl.

In the heydays of poor Nollywood scripting, many analysts felt there was no better time for filmmakers to turn to the richness of Nigerian literature for shooting films with solid storylines. Taking into cognisance however that at this time Nollywood films were made in less than four days, a screen adaptation of a Nigerian literary classic seemed highly implausible. For instance, the film adaptation of Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine remains unseen by the larger public.

As mentioned earlier, Kelani has adapted many literary works for his films like Oleku, Saworoide and Maami, to name a few. Carmen McCain, who has researched Kannywood, the Hausa language industry, revealed that many Hausa productions – past and present – were adaptations of Hausa literary classics.

“The Yoruba and Hausa film industries have had quite a few novel adaptations–something the English film industry has done much less of. One of my recent favourites was Zarar Bunu, directed by Falalu Dorayi, based on a novel Linzamin Shaidan by Nazir Adam Salih, who also wrote the screen play,” she said. “It’s a beautiful film and because it was based on a novel, it feels like it has a lot of substance to it.” Many Hausa novelists doubled as screenwriters in Kannywood, a concept entirely rare to the English-speaking sector, added McCain.

As the industry marches on, the idea of screen adaptations seems to be gaining ground even in the English language sector. Wale Adenuga Productions’ The Perfect Church is adapted from Ebi Akpeti’s novel of the same name. The film’s theme and plot are not the regular Nollywood type, but deal with homosexuality. It is slightly more detailed in its approach to the intricacies that show this perfect church was not perfect after all.

One adaptation that has been in the news for a while now is Biyi Bandele’s take on Chimamanda Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning novel Half Of A Yellow Sun. The film, which is currently in production stars Hollywood top brass like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji. Bandele is a writer himself and his World War II-themed novel Burma Boy has been described as cinema-friendly.

As Nollywood scriptwriters and her filmmakers become much more adventurous in terms of casting and budget, it will be to the industry’s own benefit to approach more experimental forms of storytelling. Nigerian writers have shown by their imagination that nothing is impossible, but is the Nigerian film industry ready to catch up?

Animation and computer-generated images (CGI) will no doubt bring stories like D.O Fagunwa’s five-book fantasy series to life in a way that books like Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings and Chronicles of Narnia have grossly benefited from.

But will Nigerian filmmakers embrace more experimental modes of film? Kenya and South Africa already boast 3D films and experimental productions. One Nigerian producer’s attempt at this has failed, but many hail Emelonye’s use of special effects in his latest work Last Flight to Abuja. Although one critic, said the effects were not particularly “special.”

Michaela Moye, a writer and film enthusiast “felt rather dismayed that the creative juices seemed confined to music videos; almost like there is an inability to extend three minutes of near-perfection to say, the ninety minutes a ‘Part I’ would last.”

Speaking further on the disconnect between story and sound in Nollywood, the need to incorporate original soundtracks in the entire film package becomes of utmost importance. Worthy of note in this regard, are films like Ali-Balogun’s Tango With Me and Afolayan’s Phone Swap, which are both accompanied by a CD of their original soundtracks (OSTs). With the talent that abounds in the Nigerian music scene, the mostly incongruous use or abuse of music (and the complete absence of specially-composed film scores) becomes highly obvious.

What then appears to be an important part of improving the overall content of Nigerian film is a synthesis of the creative industries i.e writers, filmmakers and musicians coming together to create an excellent visual product.

Production and Distribution

In Nollywood’s earlier days, it was easy for anyone with stable financial backing but little understanding of the creative process to order a director on set, cast his roles, offer him a script and request that a feature film be ready in a week and have it on the streets in a day.

These days, cinema chains, corporate funding, cable channels, critical and international exposure have ensured most of the illiterate marketers/financiers are gradually sidelined.

Day by day, more distribution companies emerge and multiple channels of accessing content are widely available. The presence of a number of cinema chains has also made the allure of a red carpet premiere irresistible for the filmmakers. Speaking at a film-related forum, prolific female director Emem Isong revealed that she had also caught on to the glitz of the red carpet and was no longer just interested in making films straight to DVD and making her returns from DVD sales.

There is no end to the number of Nigerian films, made both at home and in Diaspora premiering or screening every film week at cinemas across the country and even abroad. Presently, at least one Nigerian production is showing at the cinemas, a great leap from the early days of the re-emergence of the cinema culture when Hollywood and Bollywood productions held sway.

The fact that many Nigerian films like Phone Swap, Ije, Maami, and Funke Akindele’s The Return of Jenifa – the latter two shot wholly in Yoruba – beat Hollywood films at the cinemas is a pointer to the industry’s bright future.

Details of sales and box office returns are now better kept. Previously, many producers were left to the mercy of industry sharks and pirates who profited from their creativity. Emelonye, in a previous interview with this writer, said, “You don’t throw a film into all that madness. It’s difficult when you make that kind of effort to just make it disappear into one mob of useless films.”

This new trend has also made it easy for the audience to discern what films to hit or miss. Increase in bandwidth, and mobile access to films via subscriptions to mobile and online content providers is fast catching on. With low access rates, global audiences of Nollywood fans can access related content on platforms like AfricaFilms.TV, irokoTV and Afrinolly.

Overall, embracing the many ways of distributing their content has been largely profitable for Nigerian producers and filmmakers, but as Alessandro Jedlowski, a Nollywood researcher points out, all these will directly affect the physical sales of individual DVDs and may alienate Nollywood from its original home-based audience.

“Producers and directors have to remember the importance that straight-to-video circulation has had for the emergence and for the consolidation of the video phenomenon,” he said. “The industry needs the support of its local audience in order to mature and flourish. Too much focus on the formalisation of the industry’s economy risks taking the industry’s practitioners away from their audiences’ main concern, that is, videos’ accessibility. No “Global Nollywood” can be built if Nollywood does not manage to keep its primarily “Nigerian” identity, that is, the identity of a film industry that does well in its own market and that is able to demonstrate its success through a truly wide popular support. ”

Audience and Reception

As the Nigerian film industry evolves so has its audience. Because many appreciate the fact that this phenomenon was borne out of nothing, it was natural to sympathise with whatever the industry offered. As Nollywood’s influence grew across Nigerian shores and critical attention fell on its overly commercial, nonchalant attitude to skilled creativity, a more informed audience decided it was time for change. Among this aggrieved sector were filmmakers, who appreciated the need for training locally and internationally towards improving their art.

The critical analysis continues as bloggers, journalists and academics regularly review almost every new Nigerian release. The Lagos-based Pan African University’s School of Media and Communications has also established a Nollywood Studies Centre. While much of film reporting is still biased towards the celebrity glitz and industry showbiz, a number of informed critics regularly share their opinion online and in print. But has talk ever been enough to improve anything?

Interventions

“The biggest challenge facing Nollywood today is wrapped in one word: change! Nollywood as an interesting curiosity in the wider world of cinema is no longer enough,” observed documentary filmmaker Femi Odugbemi in an article he is inspired to write after I ask him what prospects he envisions for the industry.

His recommendations for change are four-fold: improving the film language vis-à-vis plot and craftsmanship; professional skill acquisition; embracing emerging technologies to creativity, and emphasising Nollywood’s role as documentary.

Skill acquisition appears most important but there is a dearth of wholly-dedicated film studies programmes in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Students in the few available programmes complain of inadequate equipment and resource materials. As Nollywood prepares for its next 20 years, this is one important area it must look into for the massive production of locally-grown talent.

“The political power of images as a cultural postmark in a globalised world is an awareness that I believe makes documentary a sub-conscious canvass for Nollywood’s dramatic explications.” Odugbemi enthused.

In a similar vein, Jedlowski believes that indigenous language films hold the key to best capturing the local narratives that are mostly true and easily accepted by the film industry’s Nigerian viewership. Both he and McCain believe that as time passes, indigenous productions (which according to statistics from the Censors Board are on an upward incline) will maintain their “grassroots support” while the English-speaking section cultivates an international audience.

This influx of local language films (from the Bini, Tiv, Ibibio, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo) apart from being in parallel competition with the English movies have also stemmed the frenetic release of films in the latter sector.

Another apparent counter-movement to what is widely defined as Nollywood is the emergence of Wale Ojo’s New Nigerian Cinema. The movement was established for displaying the best of Nigerian film of any genre, largely due to piercing criticism from an international audience. The actor and director, who has found renewed fame in Nigeria based on his role in Afolayan’s Phone Swap, is at the vanguard of complete change in the Nollywood status quo.

Since 2010, Ojo has organised a New Nigeria Cinema Day in collaboration with the British Film Institute for the screening of high quality Nigerian movies. Over the years, he has screened Jide Olanrewaju’s NAIJ: A documentary on the history of Nigeria and Afolayan’s Figurine. “It’s been 20 years (of Nollywood), but it’s time to move on now. New Nigerian Cinema is […] about to take (Nigerian film) internationally and around the world,” Ojo said.

While Nollywood continues to survive essentially on private funding, many believe that government support for the industry will greatly improve its outlook, especially regarding opening up the country as a choice location for international filming crews. A case in point is the choice of Nigeria as a location for many Hollywood films; this has yet to happen as even local directors hardly get such support.

All that appears on the verge of changing though, as Calabar has opened its doors to the Half Of A Yellow Sun crew. Known and unknown Hollywood personalities continue to be associated with Nollywood and with more collaborative productions on course, the trend shows no sign of abating. As more cinema houses are built, more awards and festivals organised and with a pool of young creative talent more than ready to upstage the existing practitioners, Nollywood watchers can prepare for the next two decades to be relatively high-octane.

Twenty more years seem too far away for a re-appraisal, as the next decade will most likely prove important for Nollywood and Nigerian film’s indigenous ‘woods.’

Published  as ‘Future Nollywood’ in The African Courier, August/September 2012 edition (pp 42 – 45.)

Feathered Dreams: From Ukraine With Love

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As curiosity about the Nigerian film industry and its popular offshoot, Nollywood spreads across the world, news of international co-productions continues to pop up. And from the least-expected places. Apart from playing host to a number of Nigerian footballers in the Ukrainian football league and being the city where Spain beat Italy in the EURO 2012 football final, the Ukrainian capital of Kiev is set to become more famous in Nigeria for a different reason.

Featuring in more recent news about Nollywood in ‘outer’ space is Feathered Dreams, a Nigerian/Ukrainian movie touted as the first film collaboration between both countries and in the whole of Eastern Europe. The movie is produced by Ukrainian company Highlight Pictures and stars Nollywood actress Omoni Oboli as its female lead. Andrew Rozhen plays the male lead and directs the film, which is based on the true-life story of a young Nigerian girl, who is forced to abandon her dreams of a musical career to study Medicine in Ukraine after her father’s death.

Andrew Rozhen and Omoni Oboli in a scene from Feathered Dreams. Image courtesy: Highlight Pictures

Kiev to Lagos

Phillip Rozhen, the film’s co-producer and brother to Andrew, talked about Highlight Pictures and its involvement in the Nigerian film market.

“Highlight Pictures was founded in 2010,” he begins. “By now, it has already invested in the production of three full-length films for theatrical distribution. Even large players on the Ukrainian film production market can be envious of the development level like that!” he says proudly. There is valid reason for his boasts as his company also produced Synevir, Ukraine’s first 3D horror feature film, which is also the country’s second-ever 3D film.

The collaboration between the Nigerian and Ukrainian film industries in producing Feathered Dreams is another feather (no pun intended) in the cap that Highlight Pictures wears with pride. “In fact, there is no precedent for the Ukrainian and Nigerian co-production, therefore the film Feathered Dreams should be regarded as the pioneer.” Speaking further, Rozhen reveals that the film’s investment cuts across not just two but three countries: Ukraine, Nigeria and the USA.

For the international film producers, Feathered Dreams is their first encounter with African/Nigerian film. It is interesting to find out how the relationship emerged. As Rozhen tells it, the idea for the film was borne out of his brother’s encounter with Phillipa Peter, the young Nigerian whose true story is central to the film’s plot and whose character is played by Omoni Oboli.

“The African culture aroused [Andrew’s] deep interest. We started hanging out with the Kiev-based Nigerians and got inspired by their ideology. The stories from their life sparked our interest.” Rozhen also credits Peter’s great help in contacting other Nigerians in Kiev toward the story’s overall essence. Peter herself is part of the film’s cast.

While the story is largely from a Nigerian in Ukraine’s perspective, the film’s funding came from a Ukrainian with businesses in Nigeria. “In December 2010, me and my brother Andrew met Igor Maron [a Ukrainian impresario]. In conversation over a cup of coffee, Igor mentioned his business interests in Nigeria and told [us] about the activity of the Ukrainian public organisation, Africa House Ukraine.”

It turned out to be an auspicious moment for Andrew to pitch his long-held idea for the film to Maron. Once the deal was finalised, a trip to Lagos swiftly materialised for Maron and the Rozhen brothers. Aside from negotiations with colleagues in Nollywood and the industry’s other practitioners, part of their mission to Lagos was to find a fitting talent for the role of the lead female.

Already on ground were representatives of the project’s Nigerian arm: film producer Austeen Eboka and Alexis Opara, vice-chairman of African House Ukraine. Based on their advice to do an audition, many had the chance to fight for the role that could only go to one person.

“Omoni Oboli was the best for us,” says Rozhen. “Not only because of her beautiful and emotional acting, but also [her] life experience. She has visited many foreign countries and lived there as a representative of Nigerian Diaspora – just as our film character went to Ukraine to make her dream come true.”

Beyond borders

Although African films are relatively new in the Ukrainian market, the producers do not anticipate a cold reception. Rather they hope that the story’s universality will resonate with their audience around the world as it did with them. “We consider Feathered Dreams as a universal story that is clear to a wide range of audience regardless their nationality or race. We endeavoured to make our film interesting and high-quality and we hope the Ukrainian audience will appreciate our efforts, despite the exotic film subject,” Rozhen says.

The same is expected of their Nigerian audience. “We hope the Nigerian audience will appreciate the quality of our film and its extraordinary idea as its true value, after all, as far as we know, nothing of the kind was done before us.”

Since venturing into the Nigerian film sector, Highlight Pictures has seen a windfall of scripts for Nigerian films. “The screenwriters from Nigeria refer to us and offer their scripts all the time. We are sure there are a lot of interesting African stories in Ukraine, which are possible to release at the big screen. However, we got upon the idea of Feathered Dreams long before it turned into the serious commercial film project, and opened prospects for the international co-production.”

Feathered Dreams is set to premiere in Lagos early next year. Movie Poster courtesy Highlight Pictures.

While Rozhen speaks with confidence on how far Feathered Dreams will go globally, similar co-productions will be consequent on the film’s commercial success.

“We can say without false modesty, that Feathered Dreams is the first Ukrainian full-length film in English. Therefore, we expect not only the wide distribution of the film all over the world but also the interest of the international film festivals. [Future co-productions] depend on the commercial success of Feathered Dreams very much. It goes without saying that not only our creative efforts were put into this film, but also the considerable sum of money, which we have to give back to the investor.”

According to Rozhen, available data shows that filmmaking is cheaper in Nigeria compared to Ukraine and Highlight Pictures might just shoot its next film in Nigeria. “It is rather early to tell about any specific project. I suppose our following film won’t be less original than Feathered Dreams. It is quite possible that we will create something in a mocumentary genre or the first Nollywood film in 3D,” he enthuses.

Feathered Dreams is scheduled for premieres across the US, UK and Nigeria between the end of this year and early 2013. While Nollywood enthusiasts can look forward to what the film will offer, there is already a highpoint for Highlight Pictures regarding the joint project.

“The modern tendencies in cinema, as well as in other art forms, are the evidence of the removal of geographical boundaries and the association of international cultural currents. The film Feathered Dreams is one of [the] first signs.” Rozhen concludes by describing the co-production as a “positive trend” that has no doubt opened doors for continued collaborations between both countries and beyond, like good cinema should.

 

 

*Published in the Daily Sun on Friday, September 7 2012.