What Happened to the Igbo Language Film?

by Onyeka Nwelue

I started teaching Film Adaptation and Scriptwriting for the Film Direction Class of the Centre for Research in the Art of Film & TV (CRAFT), Delhi early this year as Writer-in-Residence.

CRAFT is one of the finest small film schools in India. There are foreign students, a larger percentage from Nigeria. These Nigerian students already have first degrees. And they are here to extensively study all the techniques of filmmaking to help Nollywood, our emerging film industry to grow into a big one like Bollywood, which is more structured. The other thing is that, these Nigerians are largely from the Yoruba states.

Walking into my class and seeing the bearded faces and one single beautiful girl, among the 9 students I teach, I felt something new in my life. I had arrived beery-eyed and went straight to talk about scriptwriting.

It is not difficult to connect with the students. What is difficult is allowing the students flow the way they want; to express themselves the way they want. How do you expect a Hyderabadi write his film script in Hindi? Or Hindi screenwriters do that story in English without losing the flavour of the story? So, this is where the difficulty in my class lies. I ask the students to do an adaptation and I get a long stare, because oh yes, they’ve read the book in question, but they tend not to understand the English it is written in.

This brings me to a recent conversation I had with a filmmaker in Nairobi during the AMAA Nomination Party: the Igbo Language Film has gone. It has completely disappeared. This is weird, considering the fact that Nollywood was discovered by Igbo people. Igbo language remains the language of the majority. However, it is believed that the language will completely wane in years to come. Now that the AMAA Nominations List is out, we have films in every category, except the Animations Category. In the African Language Film Category, we have Yoruba films gushing everywhere. So, the question is: what happened to the Igbo Language Film? What has made the Igbos think that it is better and more commercial to do these films in English? If by making a film in English guarantees awesome box office sales, why do Yoruba movies still do well more than the Nollywood movies?

So far, we have acted like eunuchs in a harem: we know how it’s done, but we can’t do it. We criticize the filmmakers for doing such shady works, but the truth is that filmmaking is not an easy path, although what we have in the industry are people who care so much about the money which has to be recouped from the investment. This is good. However, I feel that with such passion Niji Akanni or Kunle Afolayan pulled into making Aramotu and The Figurine respectively, even after going through the hurdles of fund raising, we can always get the Oscars as we have envisioned. Having seen movies like The Song of Sparrows, shot in beautiful Tehran, I felt that really we don’t need a story to be told in English before we realize it is a good movie. I’m thrilled that Yoruba movies are shaping the way the world sees our cinematic achievement.

Comments (4)

  1. At least the igbo music is ranked. Most viewed 50 igbo in youtube: (link removed) And the same for hausa and yoruba. Be proud of your heritage!

  2. Niji

    Ure on point.

  3. Your astute observation on the ‘death’ of Igbo language films triggered something I've earlier given some thoughts to which I wish to share here, but with the hope that the general tone of my comment doesn't come across as patronizing.

    I don't think the 'death' of igbo language films is due only to a paucity of passion in the working method of my fellow Nigerian filmmakers of Igbo extraction. I have worked with some of the best Igbo practitioners in Nollywood and, having equally worked with a good many filmmakers from around the world, I stand to be corrected if anyone can be more professionally passionate than the likes of Andy Amenechi or Chico Ejiro (in his hey days). On the contrary I'd say the Igbo language film died because my Igbo brothers in the Nigerian film industry have simply forgotten (or neglected) who or what exactly their films speak to.

    As you rightly noted, it's very easy, and handy, to blame the mercantile vision which seems to push the creative efforts of Igbo filmmakers. But beyond the need to make quick returns on investment, the average Igbo filmmaker (from writers to directors and so-called marketers) does not believe that film is first and foremost an artistic medium, capable of addressing, evaluating, questioning and influencing a people’s tangible social-cultural experience. Igbo filmmakers tend to think that their primary audience is the middle-class, city dwelling owners of DVD home-theatres whose existential concerns only revolve around material acquisition. Therefore, most Igbo filmmakers make ‘films’ that speak the English language of the city-dwellers and exploit the superficial fears of the modern urbanite (armed robberies, ritual killers, jealous and diabolical relatives, and home-breaking ‘loose’girls)

    Secondly, I think my Igbo colleagues continue to work under the illusion that they can make films to appeal to ‘everybody’ – from the struggling pure water vendor on Eko Bridge, through the primary school teacher in Offiaoji to a native German professor who knows next to nothing about Nigeria as a whole or Igbo culture in particular. What comes across then are films that address everyone only by entertaining them but not speaking to anyone in particular. Amaka Igwe’s classic ‘Rattlesnake’ spoke directly and eloquently to the Igbo psyche and only by extension to other people, but since the abundantly talented lady stopped making films in Igbo language, has any of her films spoken to anyone in particular?

    Then there is the issue of cultural authenticity. I suspect very strongly that most Igbo filmmakers are either grossly ignorant of their authentic cultural roots or simply too timid to explore those roots, knowing that their responses to such exploration will ultimately lead to questioning/interrogation of certain traditional assumptions. And we do know, don’t we, that the safe, money-making world of commercial art (as the Idumota/Alaba Igbo marketers have defined film) simply cannot permit the questioning, critique or interrogation of traditional cultural positions. My prognosis is that the revival of Igbo-language film, if it ever happens, will only come from Diaspora filmmakers of Igbo origin: those who can listen with fresh (but not emptily nostalgic) ears to the authentic rhythms of the numerous Igbo dialects, who can look with untainted eyes at the various dissonances of their cultural heritage, and above all, can honestly and boldly address such dissonances, not just as an appendage to “all-about-entertainment” cinematic fares.

  4. Let's work towards releasing one "Igbo Movie" in the next 12 months…I'm sure your friend "Nwa Aba" will like to feature!

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