Nigerian cinema was in focus at the Carthage Film Festival. What are the lessons learned?

The 30th edition of the Carthage Film Festival, also known as the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage was held in Tunis from 26, October to 2, November. This year’s event, billed as the Najib Ayed session in honor of the festival’s former director who passed away suddenly earlier this year continued with the tradition of organizing focus sections on the cinema of selected countries from around the world. Chile, Japan, Lebanon and Nigeria were the countries in focus this year.

The Nigerian contingent was a nine film strong selection consisting of eight feature lengths and one short (C.J. Obasi’s Hello, Rain). The selection, organized in collaboration with the federal ministry of information and culture featured titles from stalwarts Newton Aduaka and Kunle Afolayan as well as from bright voices like Abba T. Makama, C.J. Obasi and Adekunle ‘Nodash’ Adejuyigbe, all on the fast track to cultural relevancy.

Even though the programming was potent, boasting a credible selection of some of the most promising films in contemporary Nigeria, it was far from reflective of the nature of the film industry as the line up was a totally male affair lacking any female representation in terms of the filmmakers selected (the same challenge was present in the Japan focus). Matter of fact it took the presence of the all-conquering media mogul, Mo Abudu whose EbonyLife Films produced the Kenneth Gyang sex trafficking drama Òlòtūré (2019) to add a much-needed shot of estrogen to the very masculine line up.

Anyone who has any clue about Mo Abudu knows that she doesn’t give in to small measures and so it was that she invaded Tunis, and the Le 4ème theatre where most of the Focus Nigeria programming was screened, in company of her female actors, Omoni Oboli, Sharon Ooja and Omowunmi Dada. “I didn’t know Nigerian women were so glamorous.’’ A local woman whispered to me, visibly impressed by the spectacle that Abudu and her team put on.

Also part of the Òlòtūré delegation was a stylist responsible for the glamorous looks on Abudu and the actresses. It took some time convincing another Tunisian lady that Omoni Oboli and not Abudu, was actually the famous actress. During the Q&A that followed, Mo Abudu proved that one of her numerous super powers, asides from churning out profitable films and striking mega deals, is the ability to cry on demand.

The Carthage Film Festival screening also doubled as the world premiere of Òlòtūré, a film that marks a significant change in direction for EbonyLife Films, renowned for their box office records decimating romantic comedies. Even though the studio has been welcomed at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the past, under similar focus circumstances, this is the first time that Abudu would be going for prestige and high stakes advocacy instead of reliable formula and market sweep.

Was the effort worth the while? Depends on how one looks at it.

For the harrowing tale of a young journalist who goes undercover to bust an efficient human trafficking ring with links in the top echelons of society, Abudu hired the services of Kenneth Gyang (Confusion na wa, The Lost Café) who working from a screenplay credited to Yinka Ogun and Craig Freimond, brings some level of artistry to the production. It isn’t a collaboration that one would expect to work, but it does, in that there is a finished product and it meets a certain standard even if it is one that isn’t quite close to any of Gyang’s previous work. Abudu gets her prestige pic, Gyang scores a wider audience. The compromises involved in these kinds of collaborations are obvious enough, but the success might point to a workable model for productions as Nigerian filmmakers continue to struggle to just express themselves. Or maybe not. The auteur theory might be considered an incomplete one these days, but there is something to be said for surrendering to an artist’s vision, free of interference or manipulation. This isn’t quite present in Òlòtūré.

Òlòtūré wasn’t the only film in the program telling the story of society’s underclass. Daniel Oriahi’s never bettered stylish 2015 comic drama Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo is peopled with colorful characters whose motivations are as shady as Lagos city at night. Inspired by the unsettling American neo-noir films of the seventies, Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo places at its center, Adigun (Femi Jacobs), a naïve car mechanic who moves from the village to the big city. His quest to follow in his late father’s steps only thrusts him from one dangerous adventure to the next.

Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo paints a picture of a run down, urban metropolis where criminal elements are as vital as the law abiding citizens they take advantage of and every individual regardless of station contributes their bit to achieve a sensible balance. The underworld may be demonized in films, especially Nollywood films that have an obsession for stories from the point of view of the wealthy class but Oriahi flips the script and keeps his gaze on the Lagos that exists when everyone else has gone to sleep. His rogue-ish cast of characters range from hookers to assassins to ghost hunters.

The things that happen at night may be relegated to the backdrop by the folks responsible for organizing societies but they inevitably have larger implications that creep into the interior of daily living. Sharing Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo’s insistence on observing the night life is The Delivery Boy (2018,) a violent thriller directed by Adekunle ‘Nodash’ Adejuyigbe set in an unnamed city that welcomes both child molesters and religious leaders alike, sometimes in the same body.

In Adejuyigbe’s debut, Amir, a young man who has been indoctrinated into a life of violence by circumstances not of his control, and who has had all agency snatched from him, decides to retake control. He goes about this the only way he has been trained to. Along the way, his paths cross with a prostitute who has been dealt a cruel hand and the two of them are forced on a long night’s journey into day. The Delivery Boy is the kind of issues-based film that translates to foreign audiences despite- or because of- its sobering themes.

If it seemed like the Nigeria Focus was a definite success, it didn’t always feel so as the opening night wasn’t quite the celebration that was expected. Despite the support from the ministry of information and culture- at least on paper- top government officials were a no show and the event went on with zero fanfare. Contrast it with the high-powered Japanese soiree, complete with extravagant costumes, local music and cuisine happening few just a few blocks away.

To make matters more awkward, the puzzling choice of Kunle Afolayan’s latest, Mokalik (2019) to open the Focus was a programming error. For obvious reasons, the film simply isn’t captivating enough to demand attention of an audience largely unaware of films from this corner of the world. Thankfully Afolayan’s October 1 (2014), an ambitious period piece set in a Nigeria at the brink of independent rule, was also screening elsewhere and more patient audiences were rewarded with another side to the man’s talent.

Perhaps a more effective opener would have been Abba Makama’s semi-experimental Green White Green (2016) a loosely plotted social satire chronicling the antics of three teenagers as they navigate nationhood and citizenship. Green White Green, meta and clumsy as it is, not only plays as an intro to Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, it also provides running commentary on globalization and the current state of Nigerian popular culture.

C.J. Obasi was another filmmaker who scored a double bill with his Hello, Rain, an adaptation of a Nnedi Okorafor short story playing alongside his debut feature length, Ojuju (2014). The afrofuturist theme of Hello, Rain plays strongly and remains extremely relevant, sitting as an excellent backdrop not just to entertain, but to question society’s inexplicable fear of strong women.

Long before Jordan Peele began to use the horror genre to tackle some of America’s most existential and socio-political concerns, Obasi attempted the same, albeit on a much more modest scale with the zombie thriller. Having said that, watching Ojuju in 2019 isn’t quite the same experience and a lot of the flaws (clunky pacing, sloppy editing) aren’t quite as charming. But beneath the body count, Obasi tries to say something about gentrification and how it is counterproductive to ignore the problems of a particular section of society simply because they have no political agency. Such follies always come back to bite.

Easily the strongest film on the lineup, Ezra (2007) directed by Newton Aduaka, also has the additional privilege of being the most successful film to come out of Nigeria (with financing from France and Belgium), at least from a critical perspective. Winner of Africa’s biggest film prize, the Golden Stallion at FESPACO as well as the top prize at the Durban International Film Festival, Ezra, a harrowing tale of a war and its lingering effects observes the weeklong questioning of a former child soldier in a Sierra Leonean truth and reconciliation committee.

Aduaka who is also one of the most accomplished filmmakers to come out of Nigeria, makes a choice to eschew on screen violence and focus more on the mental toll that war takes on its victims. Twelve years later, inspite of the scrambled narrative, Ezra still holds up, eliciting genuine emotions and sparking robust conversations as observed at the Q&A that followed, with Aduaka present.

From the psychological scars of war to the physical toll of human trafficking, considerations on identity to the debilitating effects of non-inclusive societies, the films on display had a lot to say on contemporary Nigerian living and on the state of filmmaking in the country. The themes and angles and voices suggest a diverse, eclectic state of filmmaking and while technical hiccups, from sound to picture quality and editing issues were a running concern, there was also a promising buzz that so much more can be possible if energies are harnessed positively and filmmakers take the pains to find and grow their cinematic voice. There is a growth sprout definitely, it just needs to be nurtured to fruition.

Newcomers to Nigerian cinema generally would conclude from the focus that Nigerian cinema is mostly driven by social trends. It was quite interesting for instance, letting people know that however exciting the Focus Nigeria program turned out, these films for the most part exist at the periphery of Nollywood and a good number of them only found an audience in the festival circuit and on online distribution platforms.

But the truth is when the world gathers to speak about Nollywood films or Nigerian cinema, the films at the focus represent a snapshot of the kind of films that will be represented. It is a daunting journey, building a cinematic identity but it is safe to say the work has already started.

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