by Onyeka Nwelue
[Presented at the Sandbox Global Summit, Lisbon, Portugal from January 20-23]
Africa has the most untold stories on this planet.
Just few days before I was to leave for Lisbon, I was in my village with my family. There was a serious industrial strike in Nigeria and there were no flights out of the country. I was stuck. The protesters were telling us to “Occupy Nigeria”. I had heard of Occupy Wall Street. I felt Occupy was a US franchise, and wondered if they had come to Nigeria. I distanced myself from the protest, not because I was stuck, but because I felt we were pandering to the sensibilities of the West.
One of those lazy afternoons, while everyone had gone out, I slept off in my room and began to dream. In that dream, there was feasting. All kinds of foods were being served. I didn’t join the feasting on time, because I kept arriving late and each moment I was about to enter the room where all these foods were laid, I would hear my name from the real world and my eyes would open and then as soon as I closed my eyes, believe me, I returned to that particular first scene where I was trying to enter the room to eat.
Finally, my mother called me and I knew I wasn’t supposed to join that feast. I left them. I was sad.
This is what happens to a Nigerian every day. It happens to almost every African. We keep coming back to the West for everything. And the West is happy that we do. They come to us and speak to us; they tell us how they need to help us to understand that we are human beings. They sound very nice all the time and this is not worrisome to our governments, because even our governments freak out when the West says NO to their YES.
If Barack Obama and James Cameron say YES to gay marriage in Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, our President will freak out and will not openly voice out his opinion against it. He will turn to the Senate and the Senate starts screaming, ‘The West can hold back their aid.’ Why are they scared of being denied aid from the West? Is it possible that they are weak?
The African governments are not independent, but there is a part of Africa that is very independent, even though most people still think we need validation from the West and which is why CNN still thinks Hollywood is doing better than Nollywood in terms of production. That part of Africa where we celebrate independence was made possible by a group of people in Nigeria who felt they were tired of waiting for funding to come from the French or German governments to make films. Of course, the Malians and Senegalese were already saturating the European market with their very idyllic and amazing art films, funded (and controlled) by the French government, but when Nollywood started in Nigeria, they could not do anything but say, ‘These guys are not doing well. They are supposed to do it like us.’
Right now in Africa, there is no single person who doesn’t know a Nollywood star. Sometimes, you hear them claim they don’t watch the films, but I am amazed they don’t and still know everything about them. They know that moment when they are travelling to Sierra Leone to shoot a film. They know almost everything Jim Iyke, one of the popular faces of Nollywood, does, yet, they deny they don’t watch his films. So, CNN did an honourable thing: they rated Nollywood as second largest film industry in the world or third? And every Nigerian stuck to that. Why? Because the validation is coming from the West. Therefore, I say, Thank you to the West, for ruling the consciousness of a people who feel inferior to other races without realizing that.
I will tell you a story: many years ago, a young lady, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, after also studying the aesthetics of film celebrations and awards, came up with the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). She had so many things in mind. She wanted to unite African filmmakers. She was out to celebrate them and she was also out to embrace the Africans in Diaspora. It was not a bad idea. She struggled to start the first edition and gradually, this particular kind of celebration became very huge that someone called it ‘Africa’s Oscar.’ I’m like, Why Africa’s Oscar? What makes people think the Oscar was bigger than that? And just because this was started by an African, a Nigerian, a lot of people felt and still feel it is not credible enough, but they sit there and do nothing, yet, this award jury consists of people like Dorothee Wenner of Berlin Film Festival.
Before you go and check, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe is my boss. I’m not here to praise her because I want to keep my job or make her promote me when I get back to the office. This is what I want to say: it is time we stop coming to the West for everything and believe in things we have already. As most people know that I’m close to her, most people in the industry keep coming to me and keep saying, AMAA needs to look at the criteria of the Oscars. And I tell them, point blank and arrogantly, NO. AMAA is not the Oscars. It was instituted by a woman who understands what she does, so she can’t just turn around and copy what Oscars thinks is right. So, we already have a lot of people who have tried committing suicide because AMAA doesn’t want to adopt the template of the Oscars. Whether you agree or not, AMAA is as credible as any credible thing. That is for another day.
Nollywood is the only hope we have in Nigeria. Maybe, music too? But I’m very sure about Nollywood. Our filmmakers vary. There are those who are better than Tyler Perry, but because Tyler Perry is American, the African will prefer to watch The Diary of a Mad Black Woman than watching Ties that Bind by Leila Djansi. As a film critic, Ties that Bind is a better work of art and has all the necessary requisites integral to a great film and celebrates feminism like nothing else. We are still waiting for the West to tell us how great that film is before we can see through that and really appreciate the genius exhibited by this young Ghanaian lady. There is something surreal about the way we see things we produce in Africa – we call them mediocre. No, it is not the fault of the West that we take them seriously. It is our mental imbalance that causes that. Is there anything really powerful about District 9? I sincerely don’t see it. It is, however, a patchy work, but because the West can’t see their work undermined, every African had to be forced to appreciate it. We make better films in Kinshasa; ask Djo Munga. He directed Viva Riva! And before the world started screaming about that well-made film, the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) already celebrated and crowned the film. We didn’t have to wait for the West to tell us that what we had in hand was gold.
Something happened few years ago in Nigeria. The same woman who started the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) was besieged with messages from helpless (and sometimes, hopeless) filmmakers who needed money to make their films. She was bombarded with all kinds of scripts. It was choking her. She felt for all these people sending in stuff; she couldn’t just go round pleasing everyone. She began to think. And then came up with Africa Film Fund. On the night the Fund was launched, she spoke about a young filmmaker who wanted to make a film about a river goddess on the coast of the Niger River. That the filmmaker didn’t have any money to actualize that dream and that the Fund was there to assist people like that. That filmmaker she spoke about was me!
Few months after the launch of the Fund, I found myself heading to set to shoot my film. I had my DOP flying in from The Netherlands with his assistant. We had an agreement. They were coming to work with me free. I wasn’t going to pay them. My DOP was originally from Somalia, but a refugee in The Netherlands now. They were young men, who could still make it into Sandbox. The same lady who had spoken about my project was very kind enough to provide me with flight tickets to fly them from Amsterdam to Lagos. And the journey began. Before that, I had called on the world to help me raise funds for this project. I had written to almost every organization I knew in the West to, please, help me. No one did. I backed off. I heard it would be difficult to convince them because I’m Nigerian. They said only fools believe Nigerians and their cock and bull stories. Only that woman realized how passionate I was about my project. She was there for me. The help from Africa, it didn’t come from the West. For the most part, I backed off from the West and said to myself, ‘If all of Africa can stand for itself like this woman has made me know, then, we shall come out like the great continent we are.’
I look at the bravery of China and marvel. China is not a hypocrite. India can sometimes bend for the West, but they still stand up to the orders of the West, although I’ve come to believe that India does what it does to remain strong. However, I feel very ashamed sometimes to see that we Africans still depend on the West for everything. For everything. And today, I’m calling on the West to refuse us anything we ask of them. If they do, we will be able to stand up and believe in our own selves.
Too many of you sitting here, this may of course sound rebellious or as the angry sentiments of an African filmmaker, but I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that it is NOT. My addressing you today, is based on my love for African work. Albeit, there are many problematic factors that we faces as Africans because of our lack of consciousness towards our art as art. The world is running out of stories and it is a shame that books have to be bastardised in order to achieve and maintain the existence of film or as the west will call them, ‘movies’. Africa still has a wealth of stories.
We have untold stories of Egypt, Nubia and The Semurian civilisation; but these will never and can never be exposed nor ever be brought into submission by the English language. And why is that? I will tell you one secret about African languages and this is the only thing I will share about our secrets: all our wisdom is embedded in our tongue.
That is all and that is enough. There is no passion like that of an african; for when an african believes in a particular thing, the African honours it and makes it its own. Perhaps that is why I ask foreign funders to refuse us their money because…the day the passion for our work takes flight, we will have found our strength.
When ‘Invictus’ was shot in South Africa, many wondered why were the leads American? Could they not cast South African actors? Were South Africans inadequate in their craft? Was it because somebody had funded money and BECAUSE it was THEIR money, they had to use THEIR actors since they were world famous to SELL the movie? If so, then what is the lesson? I will tell you: it is not about the passion; it is about the money. That is art today.
But, however, I am glad. I am glad all this has happened because it has presented itself as a relative, contextual field, so that it is truly beginning to define who we really are as Africans and as opposed to who we are not. I am also glad that this is a perfect opportunity for African filmmakers to finally see that our stories are of a profound depth, of passion and of endurance in a hostile human condition.
Africa has the most untold stories on this planet. I mean, look how big it is! But we are now approaching an era of film making where our stories are becoming stubbornly private. Where they cannot be told by others except those who own them. Stories are not told by one person in Africa, where the writer sometimes flies up into the moon for some inspiration, but it is told by so many people at once that it makes sense in one moment! How then can anybody fail to see the beauty and magnificence and the naked innocence of our tales? You can’t if you look hard enough at this obvious treasure.
I have learnt so much from films that are foreign to me. I am grateful for that, God knows! But I am not those films nor am I a result of the misinterpreted version of a screenwriter in mental chaos. We know our Africa and we know who we are. It is all now a matter of experiencing this yet again.