by Femi Taiwo
If you have been following the primitive battle happening in and about the Nigeria Oscars Committee (NOSC) led by a woman called Chineze Anyaene, regardless of what you think about the substance of her leadership , let me ask you a question: Would you trust that woman as an unbiased, objective player who has the industry’s interests first, and would rise above pettiness to do what is right, regardless of its effects on her?
You know the answer is no.
Immediately members of that committee began to resign weeks ago – Mildred Okwo, Kenneth Gyang, Shuabi Husseini – people who are unaffiliated to each other and have no reason to agree, everyone began to sense there was a big problem. When gossip and inside sources began to spill about the shenanigans in the meeting that resulted in Nigeria not submitting a movie for the 2022 Oscars, it became apparent that something big was up.
Still, nothing could have prepared me or many others for what we saw in a leaked and now deleted video over the weekend that captured the entire of the proceedings of that committee. It felt like a low budget Asaba movie.
It turns out that the decision to keep Nigeria out of contention from this year’s Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, didn’t result from high level thinking, but from a hastily convened affair led by Chineze to essentially rubberstamp her passive-aggressive opinions on the industry. Is this the kind of mind that seeks to dictate the future of our film industry?
And in fact this is where the problem begins. If Anyaene had simply communicated the decision of the committee, or indeed engaged its decision with intellectual heft, it would have made sense to the shocked. Instead, this education entrepreneur whose only credentials are a film made when she was a university student that emerged to acclaim in a year when serious filmmakers were not abundant in Nollywood, and who not made any serious contribution to the industry in over 10 years, decided to make patronizing and vague comments about how Nollywood needs to do better. It was an insult to anyone familiar with the fact that she only got to chair this committee because she lives in Los Angeles and went to film school in America.
This is the woman in whose hands the future of this industry lies? A woman who failed out of the industry and can’t even muster the cognitive energy to explain her own committee’s decisions? Especially when it turned out that these rules for denying any of the movies a chance were completely made up by her and her cohort?
I haven’t watched Elesin Oba as it is not yet released, but it was featured in the Special Presentation Category of the Toronto International Film Festival and called “rich and engrossing; a distinctive approach to African storytelling) by respected industry magazine Screen Daily. I have actually watched the other two movies (the third Elesin Oba isn’t out) and of course there is legitimate criticism to be made of them, as of any Oscar contender from La La Land to Iron Lady. It could be said that there was an absence of complexity in Kunle Afolayan’s screenplay which was abundant in Thieves, and there was a painful lack of visual elegance in Thieves even though its story was rich. However the same committee that advanced the painfully simplistic Lionheart (a well-made film in spite of that flaw) made by Anyaene’s cast member, Genevieve Nnaji cannot credibly withhold that same priviledge from Anikulapo.
Beyond that, as Moses Babatope of Film One Group underlined perfectly in the leaked video, there is a larger strategic interest in advancing one of these well made films into the Oscars, despite subjective considerations (“Film is politics,” founder of the Africa Movie Academy Awards, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe said on Arise TV yesterday. “These movies had a real chance.”)
We will not all agree on what movie is best, but we must agree on when it is of strategic wisdom to subdue those considerations for the greater good – the greater good being that we had at least one excellently made movie ready for the Oscars this year, and even if we didn’t think it would win as tens of movies from hundreds of countries don’t win or get nominated each year, it was sensible to advance one of the well-made entries that looked like Oscar bait.
If you care about this industry, advancing a movie to the Oscars in a year that we had so many well-made Nigerian-language offerings was a no brainer especially as the country suffers absolutely no consequence if it doesn’t make it through. If anything, it enables the country’s filmmakers see that pushing the boundaries as the three entries have done (Kunle built an entire film village, Mo Abudu pulled all the stops for Wole Soyinka’s classic and the Adebayo family showcased the best of Yoruba folk lore and acting.)
Babatope’s point was proven tragically by the proven lines of the voting. On the one hand, fighting for Nigeria’s right to be represented were all the people on the committee who have a real stake in today’s Nollywood including the producers of some of the best films and series to come out of the industry in the past four years: Mildred Okwo with La Femme Anjola, Ego Boyo with The Ghost and the House of Truth, Kenneth Gyang with Oloture and Blood Sisters et al. On the other hand, unfortunately, were overwhelmingly has-beens and upstarts for whom the stakes couldn’t matter less – they haven’t featured in any major projects recently, haven’t had any cinema blockbusters, haven’t been commissioned by any streamers, haven’t won (save for one) any major film prizes in the past half-decade. Led ably by the lightest weight of all, Anyaene – whose slight achievements in film were matched by the slightness of her character and language in the shocking leaked video.
These are tough things to say. But they are also true, and so they need be said. Because it is difficult to have listened to their arguments and not concluded that something ugly was at play. Something so ugly that Okwo had to remind Anyaene that she had been with her from the start of that committee, and something had clearly changed about her behavior. She was referring of course to the tin-pot way Anyaene managed the meeting – insulting members, accusing them of corruption and penury, shutting them down when they spoke, raising her voice, and then engaging in rants of her own, uninterrupted (“I made you Vice President, she said to Balogun at some point, minutes after accusing him of failure in running an actors guild, his only offence being that, as an industry pioneer, he spent the past few weeks trying to get her to rethink her ham-fisted leadership). It was disgraceful. As disgraceful as the puerile letter she sent to Abudu (who it must be said has done more than anybody to place Nigerian film and TV on a global map) accusing her of bribery and interreference, without proof.
The bottom-line of all these is that the future of this industry is too important to leave in the hands of a mind as small as Anyaene’s. Her lack of restraint and character have left an indelible stain on that committee. The resignation of sensible players from it has underlined that challenge. And the leak of this video has made the matter urgent. No one will respect the decision that the committee makes in the future. Serious players are likely to desist from submitting their movies. The Oscars brand in Nigeria has thus been watered down to insignificance moving forward. One certainly hopes those in Los Angeles who unwittingly gave this much power to one so ill-equipped to handle it are conscious of this damage to their reputation in the most important Black market in the world.
As the film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo has written, Anyaene’s NOSC has “behaved shamefully with its lack of accountability) and as respected culture activist, Molara Wood tweeted days before the video leak, “I call bad faith on the bungling of Nigeria’s 2023 Academy Awards chances”.
There are some spaces in which Nigerians have no influence and are helpless to make necessary change happen – politics being the chief of them. But this one is a low hanging fruit. Letting an amateur despot like Chinaeze go achieves two things – it reminds us that sometimes we have the capacity to do the right thing, but more than that it unshackles the industry from a small mind without the capacity to imagine but whose capacity is great to destroy.
8 years of this small mindedness is enough. From next year, dear Academy Awards, let’s have a Nigerian Oscars committee of people with credibility, heft and just a little common sense.