At the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), Nigeria’s biggest and most important film festival, held in Lagos from 12-17th November 2018, the closing film was not a hit.
Directed by Faraday Okoro, 31, a young Nigerian American based in the United States of America, Nigerian Prince is the end product of a pitch presented at the Tribeca film festival to the AT&T funded Untold Stories program. The initiative is set up to promote diversity and encourage underrepresented voices in film. Okoro won the program’s $1 million grant and was supported to see his film, a drama about the complex relationship between two young Nigerian cousins, one visiting from the USA, the other, a local advance free fraud scammer, to completion.
The AFRIFF audience, comprising mostly of filmmakers and industry types who were seeing Nigerian Prince for the first time welcomed the film’s strong production values- cinematography, acting- but decried the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Nigeria as a dog eat dog world where nothing works and everyone is on the take.
The Q&A which followed the screening of Nigerian Prince, usually an opportunity for congratulatory messaging, was quite hostile. ‘’Spike Lee has his name on this?” a frustrated viewer cried in disbelief. Calls by Bose Oshin, one of the film’s producers that the film had no intention of marketing itself as the definitive Nigerian story appeared to fall on deaf ears.
Veteran filmmaker Charles Novia who expressed his disappointment with the film’s stereotypical portrayal of Lagos went on Facebook to detail a scathing take down.
Novia’s comments were reinforced by Uzodinma Okpechi, a filmmaker and director of the forthcoming Kamsi who said to YNaija, ‘’I don’t have a problem with trying to depict what happens in Nigeria but it behooves you as a filmmaker to balance the narrative. Also we have a Nigerian film made by a Nigerian living abroad and you cannot even get the Nigerian accent right. Who are we kidding?”
Not everyone was put out by the messaging of Nigerian Prince. For Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, a film critic, balance is a matter better suited to news reports than filmmaking and if Nigerian Prince was a tad underwhelming, it is mostly to do with the film’s overall structure. “Our local filmmakers can do a lot with 1 million dollars.’’ He commented dryly.
Charles Etubiebi, a fast-rising Nollywood actor and star of the critically lauded independent film Ojukokoro (Greed) released in 2017, at the Nigerian Prince screening, gave an impassioned public speech for audiences to be more accommodating of all kinds of stories. ‘’We need to learn to put ourselves out there, good, bad, ugly and everything in between. Maybe when we start seeing ourselves out there, warts and all we can begin to work towards changing things,” he told YNaija.
He would know. Etubiebi was also the star of The Delivery Boy, another film which screened at the AFRIFF and would go on the win the festival’s Oronto Douglas prize for the best Nigerian film. The Delivery Boy, a bloody but satisfying mix of revenge tale and in-depth character study, delves in heavy themes such as religious extremism, child abuse and same sex relationships and while director Adekunle ‘Nodash’ Adejuyigbe handles his themes with a lot more tact than is displayed in Nigerian Prince, there were still reservations from the audience especially where the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board is concerned.
In 2014 the censors board infamously delayed the national release of Half of a Yellow Sun, the Hollywood big screen adaptation of the seminal tome by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for months. The film’s depiction of the ethnic and religious inspired violence that led to the civil war was cited as a security concern, especially at a time the country was dealing with a crippling Boko Haram insurrection.
Adejuyigbe who wrote, shot and directed The Delivery Boy was not entirely unmindful of these potential tensions but he remains confident in the fidelity of his story. He said to YNaija via phone call, ‘’I made sure that to the best of my ability, what I was saying was balanced and I was respectful to my audience at all times because people can sense the truth.”
Balancing the narrative for Adejuyigbe involved receiving input from an Islamic cleric while on set of The Delivery Boy, a move echoed by Stanlee Ohikhuare who made the striking short film, Coat of Harm which won the AFRIFF jury prize for Best Short. Coat of Harm employs a brilliant concept, two dead neighbors, one Igbo, one Hausa, both victims of ethnic violence, engaging in a final conversation in which all of their prejudices are laid bare.
Ohikhuare, a proponent of message driven “conscience” shorts which at times feature difficult themes says he had several stripped-to-the-bone conversations with his actors and encouraged them to open up to each other in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise bother with. The result is a genuinely involving piece of work that nearly becomes undone in the final minutes by a patriotic sense of upliftment. Ohikhuare explains his choices, “The key is to be objective even if filmmaking is a subjective form of storytelling. When you do that, there is no subject matter one cannot address.’’
Nollywood is the world’s second biggest industry in terms of volume of output. The films are mostly straight to video, shot at ridiculously low budgets and edited at a frenetic pacing. There is little concern for the language or nuances of cinema but the stories resonate among millions of consumers scattered across the world. In 2014, government figures put revenues from Nollywood at about $3.3 billion.
For ease of production, a great number of these films are set in imposing mansions and are fixated with the lives of the fabulously wealthy, ironic for a country that is now the world’s capital of extreme poverty. The Nollywood distribution structure is steeped in Hollywood type commercialism so taking these films beyond the film festival circuit where many more viewers can be engaged remains an acute concern.
Another festival favorite, Kasala directed by Ema Edosio appears to have found a way around this. Despite having a light-hearted plot revolving around four friends and a car, Edosio initially struggled to secure national distribution for Kasala, a project she describes as the first she’s made in her own voice as a filmmaker.
Edosio’s low budget film, set in a gritty urban neighborhood, has no big-name stars to grab attention at the box office and arrives with very little marketing spend. Without this obvious route to profitability, Edosio and her team had to be more inventive. Kasala has screened in about 24 international film festivals, receiving acclaim from all parts of the world. After some rescheduling, a release date in December, 2018 was secured. Kasala was soon lost in the glut of Nollywood films that hit the screens in December, all vying for the holiday audience.
However well Kasala fared commercially, this local screening remains important for Edosio. She explained shortly after collecting the AFRIFF Globe award for Audience Choice, ‘’Foreign validation is great and I welcome it but when you make a film for Nigerians, the genuine reactions and feedback, as a filmmaker, that is what you live for.’’
The Nigerian box office is dominated by big broad comedies made by committee and starring popular faces, peppered by new wave Instagram stars. But there is also a hunger for more serious fare as the recent box office and critical success of the Kemi Adetiba directed gangster drama, King of Boys– over 200 million Naira in box office takings- has shown.
Marketing and publicity is just as important as telling a story and Adejuyigbe is mindful of this. He is still in early talks with distributors about screening The Delivery Boy and while nothing is finalized yet, he remains positively optimistic.
For all of its heavy themes, The Delivery Boy has a crowd-pleasing element to it and Adejuyigbe would like to focus on that. He said, ‘’There is this general misconception that Nigerians only watch comedy and we don’t like to think deeply or be challenged by film. I don’t agree. I don’t know why it came about. I interact daily with people and I know for a fact that we are smart.”
In some ways, films like The Delivery Boy, Kasala and even Nigerian Prince are not rewriting the rules as much as they are imitating life and merely evolving with the times. Nollywood may be used to a certain type of film but the audiences are not static and are ready to move. Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut, Lionheart was set away from Lagos, in Enugu and Kano. The Tope Oshin directed Up North placed its hero in a rural village in Bauchi state. Aigbokhaebolo observed, “In a sense, The Delivery Boy and Kasala films are both truer to what it is to be Nigerian today than a lot of what we now accept as reality from Nollywood.’’