Long Read: It’s high time we talked about this year’s AMAA nominees

AMaa

On the evening of August 3, the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), the premier rewarding system for film talent in Nigeria and perhaps all of Africa announced the nominations for the 2018 awards. This year, the AMAA train which started in Bayelsa about thirteen years ago, berths in Kigali, Rwanda on 22, September.

Like every other awards process relevant to the audience it caters for, there is plenty to like about the present crop of nominees. There is also lot to be worried about.

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The Academy as the awarding body likes to be recognized as is an impressive, tightly controlled system of industry practitioners that calls for submissions for the period under review. The films are pre-screened by a team of professionals who do the hard work of sifting through the pile and separating wheat from the chaff. These selectors often make notes and recommendations about elements they expect the jury to take not of. Sort of like a ‘’For your consideration’’ flag.

Because this process is handled anonymously, at the end of the pre-screening, a clearer picture begins to emerge as to what films are the strongest of the bunch. It is this pile that then moves forward to the next round for further deliberation.

The main event

No matter the rewarding system- from the Oscars to the MTV Video Music Awards, few pleasures are as satisfying to observe as deserving works of art getting their due. The film industry has especially suffered a crisis of confidence the past few years brought on by two major factors.

The AMAAs pay a lot of attention to the back end, taking particular pains to deliver a credible system that can stand its own anywhere in the world. But in doing so, the AMAAs have also, often failed to recognize that award campaigns, especially those rewarding film, are ultimately a publicity tool set up to promote the industry in the most glamorous, yet competitive environment.

Awards should be credible yes, but the organization must show excellence too. This combination is best achieved by paying attention to the tiniest detail and delivering a show worth the buzz. People want to see spectacle. There is no substitute for efficiency and the main event must encompass all of the razzmatazz that the entertainment industry is known for. Everything must be packaged to maximum gloss, such that the culture of aspiration is created. Winning or earning a nomination in the least should mean something.

While the AMAA’s abdicated that aspect of the program and let the organization for one reason or the other descend into chaos, the Africa Movie Viewers Choice Awards snuck in, addressing exactly those challenges. But the trouble with the AMVCA’s is they do not know how to recognize quality even if it bit them in the face. For the past two years, the nominations have been a cringe worthy affair, with the winners in major categories often a celebration of mediocrity. Hiding under the cover of ‘’viewers choice’’ the AMVCA’s has become at best, a local version of Hollywood’s MTV Movie Awards where popcorn’s handed out as trophies and nobody cares for actual talent.

READ MORE: 76, 93 Days, Ojukokoro, the films that should have swept the AMVCA’s.

Straight to business

The AMAAs have a record of doing nominees well. This year is no different.

Acclaimed films like The Blessed (Les Bienheureux), a contemplation of war and history from Algeria which was a hit at the Venice Film Festival, the stylish yet derivative South African Western, Five Fingers for Marseilles are well represented. Back home in Nigeria, 2017 wasn’t exactly a banner year for cinema but the best films of the year managed to be represented at different points.

Isoken, Jadesola Osiberu’s delightful mapping of the Lagos millennial culture is the most accessible and commercially successful of the Nigerian films. Isoken tells a familiar story, that of a thirty-four year old high flying career woman suffering from the great Nigerian misfortune of being single. A genuine crowd pleaser, Isoken has all the elements to do well at the AMAAs. Stuff like a warm and refreshing central performance from Dakore Akande also nominated for Best Actress, a nod to feminists, a vibrant screenplay plus capable direction from Osiberu. Isoken is unlikely to go all the way to Best Film glory but there are a couple of opportunities like the Nigerian film and first film categories to reward Osiberu’s richly entertaining yarn.

In 2013 in Bayelsa, the little seen film Confusion Na Wa was a surprise winner for Best Film, thrusting its director, Kenneth Gyang into the limelight quite suddenly. Five years later and Gyang is nominated for his follow-up, The Lost Café, a charming little film that takes a film geek’s love for cinema and infuses it into a sweet and sour tale of a young immigrant’s coping mechanism. A co-production between Norway and Nigeria, The Lost Café which won the audience choice at last year’s Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF)- as well as this year’s 5 Movies and the Word- handles some serious topics but Gyang’s mastery of the material makes it go by in a breeze, giving off the impression that it is light weight. It isn’t.

Audiences may not have known what to make of A Hotel Called Memory, the experimental tone poem produced by Ego Boyo and directed by Akin Omotoso which debuted at the Lights Camera Africa!!! film festival in Lagos almost a year ago, but the AMAAs certainly warmed up to it.

A Hotel Called Memory isn’t the most accessible of films. Beautifully shot and gorgeously rendered, it concerns itself with elements of mood and scene and downplays aspects relating to plot or story, allowing audiences a blank slate to project their own ideas and experiences. The AMAAs would be a perfect place to reward Omotoso’s vision and unwillingness to play by the book.

The yet to be released Crossroads, helmed by Seyi Siwoku is what would be labelled as a prestige picture these days. Featuring the writing talents of Tunde Babalola and sporting a murders row of acting royalty, (Damilola Adegbite, Kunle Idowu, Dejumo Lewis) Crossroads is a genre crime drama that plays like a cross between Kunle Afolayan’s double bill of October 1 and The CEO.

Richard Mofe-Damijo scores a deserving best actor nod for his turn as an old-fashioned cop who clashes with his younger colleague (Kehinde Bankole) while investigating a high-profile case. It isn’t career best work from RMD but sometimes it is the role and the sheer magnetism of the performer that decides these nominations. Crossroads proves quite topical, touching ever so briefly on a wide range of national concerns but manages to blunt its edges, opting instead to distill these themes into a bland palate of patriotism.

Dare Olaitan’s electric Ojukokoro (Greed) has its flaws, par for the course for a debut feature. Nominations in the screenplay and Nigerian film categories are confirmation that the film isn’t merely a critics darling but one of the most arresting and interesting takes to come out of the new wave of Nollywood creatives. With its voice over narration, noir-ish mood, ensemble cast and time bending snap structure, Olaitan, obviously a student of the iconic films of auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie pays homage to them in ways that may seem obvious but he also makes it clear that his vision is no lazy copy.

READ MORE: The CEO and a trip to Jamaica were shut out of the AMVCA’s and we couldn’t be more pleased

Seun Ajayi, the MVP in a crowded room of strong performers including Sean Faqua and Tope Tedela got Ojukokoro’s sole acting nod in the supporting actor category. An eventual win wouldn’t be surprising as his was one of the finest performances put to film during the year under review. For competition, Ajayi has to contend with Crossroad’s Gideon Okeke who delivers a laughably obvious performance- complete with bad accent- as a restive youth from the Niger Delta region who gets into some trouble while hustling in Lagos. Then there is Akah Nnani, easily the best thing in the picture perfect but emotionally deficient, Banana Island Ghost. Between Ajayi and Nnani, in a just world, the supporting actor trophy should be staying in Nigeria this time around, but Lionel Newton’s work from the anti-Tuberculosis campaign film, Lucky Specials is the kind that attracts voters not only because of the emotional pitch, but because of the film’s strong public health message.

Rahama Sadau, remember her? The crossover Kannywood actress who was banned in 2016 for displaying affection in a music video, does career best work as the female lead in Asurf Oluseyi’s Hakkunde. Joining her in the supporting actress category are, Sika Osei from Tope Oshin’s dramatic thriller, In Line and Joke Silva playing yet another mother in the Ghanaian-Nigerian romantic comedy, Potato Potahto. Both Silva and Osei do not necessarily stretch themselves in their roles and essentially benefit from a weak field. Toyin Abraham’s work in Esohe is pandering and Lucky Specials’ Sivenathi Mabuya may end up benefiting. It should be Rahama Sadau’s race to lose though.

The best actor in a leading role is a tough one to call as a couple of strong performances are represented across dramatic and comic genres. Vuyo Dabula (Five Fingers for Marseille), Richard Mofe-Damijo (Crossroads), Sani Bouajla (The Blessed) and Sam Dede (In my Country) all have credible claims as they are all central to projects that are nominated for best film. Chris Attoh (Esohe), Kunle Idowu (Hakkunde), OC Ukeje (Potato Potahto) and Oros Mampofu (Lucky Specials) may not be in the prestige films but they are likely to mount a strong challenge, especially if there isn’t an obvious frontrunner from the get go.

Members only

The AMAAs have a habit of grouping performers who share near equal screen time in a single ticket. This year, Nana Ama McBrown, Lydia Forson and Sika Osei are joint nominees for best actress in a leading role for their work in Peter Sedufia’s uneven Sidechic Gang. The logic behind this reasoning has been debated in the past, especially when the Ghanaian trio of Jackie Appiah, Lydia Forson and Naa Ashoku Mensah-Doku took home a shared prize for best actress in 2010.

This may have been the only joint win but Nse Ikpe Etim and Stephanie Okereke were both nominated in a single slot for playing different characters in Reloaded in 2009. Five years later, the trio of Uche Jombo Rodriguez, Monalisa Chinda and Daniella Okeke shared a sole nomination for their unimpressive work in Lagos Cougars. In 2016, the four stars of Fifty; Omoni Oboli, Ireti Doyle, Dakore Akande and Nse Ike-Etim again, shared a nomination for their collective work. For the men, Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze shared a best actor nomination in 2006 for appearing in Secret Adventure.

The problem with lumping all these performance in the same single position has always been that of quality assurance. Fifty for instance has four different actresses playing different roles, requiring varying levels of effort. To give all four a blanket consideration is to ignore the nuance involved in playing each role. It would make much better sense for instance to pick out the performer who makes the most compelling case via their work. And if such a decision is so impossible to arrive at- it usually isn’t- then all the performers deserve to compete equally on their own merits, as stand-alone nominees without any undue biases where one strong or weak performance seals the deal for the more/less than deserving others.

For the credibility of the AMAAs also, it may be wiser to cultivate a culture of exclusivity where only the best of the best can lay claim to being winners or nominees. The Oscars are aspirational because there is a myth that only the best of the best get to be called nominees. It isn’t open to everyone and even Meryl Streep knows that she needs to put in the work every single time.

To emerge victorious though, the ladies of Sidechic Gang have to fend off considerable challenge coming from Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and South Africa. Jocelyn Dumas (Potato Potahto) and Dakore Akande (Isoken) charm their way through their respective films. Tunde Aladese (The Lost Café) carries the film convincingly and efficiently even though she does not have any breakout scene that is sometimes key to winning this category.

Okawa Shaznay isn’t quite convincing as a troubled young mother in In my Country. Her film’s lack of depth does not help her case either. Kate Henshaw, a previous winner for Stronger than Pain in 2008 does some heavy hitting as a grieving mother in Roti but director Kunle Afolayan isn’t of much help to her and she easily tips into over acting mode. Reine Swart is a haunting, near magnetic presence throughout Siembamba while The Road to Sunrise’s Mirriam Phiri will be looking to score an upset win.

In the shorts category, named in honor of Efere Ozako, competition is stiff as ten films battle for the top prize. Most would be deserving but two in particular stand out. Still Water Runs Deep directed by Abbesi Akhamie is a potent examination of grief and toxic masculinity in Nigerian households while Visions, an experimental collaborative anthology from the trio of Abba T. Makama, C.J Obasi and Michael Omonua prioritizes the kind of auteur driven filmmaking usually absent in Nollywood.

For best film, In my Country has good intentions and Frank Rajah-Arase has a knack for impactful storytelling but his characteristic raciness is ill suited to the material which is in turns campy, clumsy and unconvincing especially as it tries to drive home its message. In my Country should have been left out of the best film club, alongside the improbable Sidechic Gang. Ojukokoro and even Hakkunde would have made better substitutes.

Jade Osiberu

All of the directors who made the best films are nominated with Osiberu the sole woman in an all-boys club. Siembamba, a bleak take on the pregnancy and motherhood is essentially low budget genre horror, not the kind of film that figures prominently in awards consideration. But this is the post Get Out era. Siembamba’s decent showing is surely based on the intimidating profile of director Darrell Roodt, the veteran filmmaker whose 2004 film, Yesterday was nominated at the Oscars in the best foreign film category. Roodt had a decade earlier taken his Apartheid classic, Sarafina to Cannes where it screened out of competition. Akin Omotoso is fresh off a directing win for last year’s Vaya and is unlikely to perform a two peat.

Seyi Siwoku’s work in Crossroads is uncluttered and easy on the eye but he doesn’t quite sketch out a cinematic identity that is distinct from that of Tunde Babalola who wrote the screenplay, and whose prints are all over the film. Don’t count out Shemu Joyah, one of his country’s most important directors and an AMAA regular, or Kenneth Gyang who is yet to win the directing award and deserves recognition for his smooth, unshowy process in The Lost Café. Ditto Safia Djama who is able to capture poignant observations of what it is to be Algerian. More excitable voters may look to Michael Mathews and his shoot em up, Five Fingers for Marseilles

For the thirteenth consecutive year, The Africa Movie Academy Awards have managed to put through an exciting nominations process. They just need to follow through and get the main event right.

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