The AMVCAs, Tyler Perry’s Acrimony and why Nollywood needs new audiences

Over the weekend, on Twitter, the age-old battle of the sexes was revived for the 57,000th merry go round.

This time, the inciting incident was the latest Tyler Perry film, Acrimony, a revenge thriller starring Taraji P. Henson as a wronged wife who tries to set the record straight.

There were the usual arguments, for both sides. Men are scum. Women are bitter. He had it coming. She was a crazy bitch. Submissions like these were flung back and forth as participants sought to make sense of Perry’s mind-bending late act twist to what should have been a routine entry into the hell-hath-no-fury film canon.

It doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, such twisty endings are meant to stir up conversations as different people arrive at their various interpretations.

But Tyler Perry couldn’t have imagined when he set out to make Acrimony, that his film would find resonance on Nigerian Twitter of all places.

But come to think of it, it isn’t entirely surprising that the Nigerian market would eat up Acrimony, or going by recent trends, whatever else Mr Perry chooses to dish out.

A veteran of over twenty feature-length films, Tyler Perry made his name on the Chitlin’ Circuit, also known as the urban theatre circuit making productions with titles such as I Know I’ve Been Changed.

These musicals were usually steeped in melodrama and heavy on Christian themes like forgiveness and self-worth.

The cross-dressing, wisecracking, gun-toting character, Madea was a firm favourite. The plays and musicals weren’t particularly good but they survived the initial rash of negative reviews on the way to building a loyal and considerable following.

This audience, comprising mostly of African-American women, followed Mr Perry to the big screens when Hollywood came calling and his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, released in 2005 was a resounding hit.

Perry replicated the formula for this film’s success – low production costs, focus on the domestic market – across countless other titles and in 2011, was listed as the highest paid man in entertainment by Forbes magazine.

By keeping this base domestic and focusing solely on his primary audience, Tyler Perry was strategic enough to service a need that Hollywood had been ignoring for decades.

Blockbuster tentpoles are swell and Oscar-winning dramedies are sufficiently cute but these predominantly black communities were yearning to see stories of themselves, striving and overcoming and just getting by.

Tyler Perry did that for them, along the line creating opportunities, for now-famous names like Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Idris Elba.

For this audience, it didn’t matter that Perry’s filmmaking was as inelegant as they come, that he had no idea how to avoid clichés and that his characters tended to reinforce ugly stereotypes of black living.

He was someone they could call theirs and it didn’t matter what Spike Lee or any of his uppity Hollywood friends thought.

Nollywood spirit

There is something of the Nollywood spirit in Tyler Perry’s career trajectory. Some not-so-generous critics would dismiss both Mr Perry and Nollywood as it were, as purveyors of mediocrity and while they would be justified to an extent, they would still be failing to see the total picture.

A.O Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times once admitted that ‘’…the idea of critical authority has always struck me as slippery, even chimerical.

Authority over whom?’’ he queried, hinting at the uselessness of film critics in the overall appreciation of Tyler Perry’s filmography. Or Nollywood was one to stretch it.

With about 190 million people strong, it wouldn’t be out of line to conclude that outside the United States and Canada, Nigeria could constitute Tyler Perry’s biggest foreign market.

The local industry isn’t sophisticated enough to contribute significant chunks to Perry’s income streams but outside the box-office, Tyler Perry films are heavily consumed in Nigeria via torrent views and pay TV.

His content, including television, is incredibly popular, and for the same reasons as in the United States. Nigerians can relate to Perry’s melodramatic world.

One in which grandma knows all, the reward for cheating is HIV, and a loyal friend can gift you with a lot of money just in time for your retirement.

Finding Respect

Tyler Perry may be popular, but that doesn’t mean he gets plenty of respect. In this regards, Perry isn’t so different from Nigeria’s popular film industry.

Despite claiming the attention of a sizeable percentage of the population that they serve, both Perry and Nollywood still do not get the adulation they imagine that they deserve.

But while Perry has effectively shut out the critics, and is not likely to submit anything with the words ‘’For Your Consideration’’ during awards season and has built a career that is largely insular to the nitpicking of critics, Nollywood is still heavily dependent on high praise.

A prime example is the recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Lagos to open the African Cultural Season 2020.

In the Q&A that followed, it is reported that Nollywood madam, Mo Abudu asked Monsieur Macron a deeply embarrassing question.

She wanted to know how a Nollywood film, preferably the kind that she produces, could be parachuted to the Cannes Film Festival to win the Palme d’Or. Just because.

Nollywood has its language. But so does cinema. And both of them aren’t necessarily communicating.  For cinema, the shots are the building blocks – close-ups, mediums, long, medium and wide – and are suffused with colour, sound and emotion.

The Nollywood aesthetic, on the other hand, is pretty much defined. Extremely low budgets, limited technical know-how, claustrophobic sets, dialogue-heavy scenes, and histrionic actors.

Films such as these, made to go straight to video, are embraced by their audience and have their place in the grand scheme of things. Some of them are made with extreme care and attention to detail and deserve to be exported to newer audiences across the world.

But they aren’t the only kind of Nollywood films the industry is capable of making and a course to unpack exactly what it means to be a Nollywood film is ripe for introduction in film schools.

India’s Bollywood is known worldwide for brightly coloured musicals but at this year’s International Film Festival, Rotterdam, the FIPRESCI jury (full disclosure: I sat on this jury), a body of international film critics, awarded its prize to Balekempa, a slow-burning Indian drama about duty and tradition that is as far removed from the gloss of mainstream Bollywood as possible.

For its own self-sustenance, Nollywood needs to open up itself to as many sub-specialities as possible. The same way that the Americans have their blockbuster season and awards season coexisting alongside Tyler Perry, animation and other adult-themed fares in one single industry.

This way, when a special Nollywood sidebar is created on the program of a film festival as influential as Durban, the sentiment shouldn’t entirely be negative (because Nollywood films cannot compete) but positive as well, (because no one else does it quite like Nollywood).

Nollywood has after all birthed films like Confusion Na Wa and B for Boy, films that can hold their own in any corner of the world.

To answer Ms Abudu’s question. Before booking that next flight to Toronto, or Cannes, for another market screening that does little good for anyone involved, perhaps she should clear her schedule in November and attend the country’s biggest film festival, the now Lagos-based Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) to get a feel for the kinds of films likely to make the eventual journey to Cannes.

‘’Mami water film’’

At last year’s AFRIFF, in which none of Mo Abudu’s films have been entered in competition – rumours are she pulled Fifty last minute in 2015 – artistic director, Newton Aduaka made the curious decision of closing with Alain Gomis’ puzzling documentary-style feature, Felicite which featured a barely-there story of a single mother’s struggles to save her son in Kinshasa.

The AFRIFF screening of Felicite which went on to be shortlisted at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film was quite an uncomfortable affair as the audience of film people struggled to make sense of Gomis’ self-indulgent vision. At the end of the screening, an audibly relieved Hilda Dokubo, yelled ‘’This kain mami water film’’.

At a party afterwards, Aduaka, explained his reasons to me. ‘’I sort of feared people would walk out but I am happy to see that they can take it. It is important to me that we should see the kind of films that are competing globally so that we know how to compete.’’

Films by new generation players like Abba T. Makama, Michael Omonua and Emma Edosio that have all shown at AFRIFF have gone on to screen at international festivals in Berlin, Rotterdam and Durban and British curator, Nadia Denton’s Beyond Nollywood program highlights obscure but viable areas of Nigerian filmmaking including indie, animation, experimental, documentary films, music videos, and projects them to the international community.

Rewarding Nollywood

One of the reasons Nollywood still looks to the west for validation is the near absence of institutionalised reward mechanisms.

The Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) is still the reward system to beat, determined as it is by a strong jury of peers but the administration of the awards in the last couple of years hasn’t exactly been top notch and it isn’t a common sight to behold young filmmakers toiling hard to win an AMAA someday. The AMAA matters, just not as much as it ought to.

Young entertainers are more attracted to the glitz and glam of the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCAs) and this is the one that has by a sheer audacity of hype and packaging, seized the imagination of a new generation.

Never mind that outside of Nigeria, pretty much no one else takes it seriously. For there is indeed a problem with an industry that has a viewers’ choice awards as its most aspirational reward system.

The South Africans pretty much ignore the AMVCAs, so does Francophone West Africa and everyone else dismisses it as a large party thrown to massage the egos of the Nigerians.

This year, following a hiatus in 2017, the AMVCAs returned and going by the nominees’ list recently released, the entire affair is still a hot mess.

Recurring problems haven’t been fixed and these have been further complicated by newer ones. Television and film are still conflated, leading to the conclusion that the AMVCAs are just saying what everyone thinks anyway, that in Nollywood, there is simply no difference between film and television. Apart from length, the mechanics are all the same.

The AMVCA nominees this time around, as always are simply a sad bunch with West Africa’s representation in former marquee categories like Best Overall Film coming in the form of the forgettable romantic comedy, Potato Potahto, as well as the genuinely bad, Alter Ego. Best Movie West Africa adds the structurally handicapped, Tatu and the genuinely uninvolving Lotanna to the duo to compete with worthier fare like Isoken.

In the acting categories, it is even worse. The nominating team managed to leave out Akah Nnani, the single acting performer in Banana Island Ghost that is worthy of awards praise, only to select three other criminally undeserving ones.

In the same vein, Gabriel Afolayan should have been nominated for King Invincible, or Tatu if there really was such a pressing need to add him to the ballot. In other words, any other film apart from Okafor’s Law would have been acceptable.

Omissions like Seun Ajayi (Ojukokoro), or even any of the supporting players in Hakkunde would have been distressing in any other reward system that takes its credibility more seriously. But remember, we are talking the AMVCAs here.

Yes, the Oscars make omissions, just like any other reward system, but most of the time, those who get in are usually redoubtable. No one anywhere is going to take kindly to being snubbed in the supporting acting categories, all in a bid to make room for Falz (New Money) or Kunle Idowu (Idahosa Trails).

Granted, it hasn’t been a banner year for the film industry and a rewarding body can only make the most of what is on offer. But beyond waiting for submissions, award bodies can always go ahead and nominate films in key categories where absences would be bordering on negligence. That way it becomes harder to be ignored and a solid reputation is sustained.

We need new audiences

Getting Nollywood to the place where it can stand as more than just a curious fascination will take a lot of deliberate and conscious effort to turn the wheel.

The films that are being churned out now, from Asaba to Lagos, are simply part of that process. There is value in the gains they have been able to record.

Nollywood pioneers did the hard work of building stars and cultivating an audience from scratch, an audience that has kept the faith for decades.

But it is still this audience that regularly turns out to watch films. And yes, they are pretty set in their ways.

Nollywood needs new audiences.

Audiences that will encourage diverse, even offbeat content. Enlightened audiences eager to put down money to encourage adventurous filmmakers seeking to do more with form and style and content.

These audiences should run the gamut from patrons to film journalists, influencers to laypersons, that can take a film like Ojukokoro and ensure it stays on the front burner until it is able to reach as many eyes as it can.

These audiences can be built from the ground up, from meetings and small film screenings and short film festivals and film clubs and film appreciation meet, both online and off.

Niche film festivals like Lights Camera Africa!!! and the church-themed 5 Movies and the Word which debuts in Calabar this year have a strong role to play in building these film communities.

Efforts should be made to deepen tastes, enshrine variety, and support films at all levels, ensuring that there is a market for all kinds of Nollywood films.

A critical mass is crucial to embolden filmmakers to continue on what ultimately is a long and tortuous path.

Kunle Afolayan was in a prime position to lead this mission but look how badly he bungled it.

It’s gone beyond him anyway, but filmmakers need to collaborate and carry each other along. Working in silos isn’t going to achieve much collective yield.

The entire industry is at a glut, at a stage where it needs to innovate or have important milestones wiped away.

New audiences need to be developed with a wide-ranging diversity of content and filmmakers aren’t the only ones with roles to play.

Funding is key. Artistes need to be able to have the financial independence that will give them room to be artistes and create stuff.

Those who can raise funds abroad will do so, those who can leave the country will do so while those who cannot, will turn to other means to make a living. Simple as that.

South Africa has figured this out as the government makes a heavy investment in arts and culture annually. Over here government aid has not even begun to scratch the surface.

A lot of these daft comedies littering the cinema-scape happen because filmmaking has become a for-profit business entity devoid of joy.

When that burden is removed from filmmakers, they are freed to take imaginative leaps.

The reality is that there isn’t only one way to make a Nollywood film. But we have to be bothered enough to find alternative ways of making the industry work for everyone.

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