In a report in the Guardian of December 14, 2005 on the recent Lagos Business School conference on development filmmaking in Africa, the documentary filmmaker Sandra Mbanefo Obiago was quoted as follows – “the development agencies should invest in Nollywood in a significant way, not just small brand of individual producers for small programme”. She was reported to have said further – “What the industry needs is the EU money so as to address major issues of capacity-building of technology”
With all due respect to Ms. Obiago and others who in recent times have made it a habit of soliciting foreign donor intervention in Nollywood, this is a dangerous suggestion. Dangerous in that it could lead Nollywood to the sad impasse in which francophone African film finds itself. Francophone African filmmakers are in a terrible quandary deriving from their utter dependence on foreign donors notably the French government’s Agency for Cultural Cooperation. They also receive some funding from the European Union as well as the Belgian and Canadian governments but the French foreign aid budget has been and remains the principal source of funding for francophone African filmmakers since the 1950s from Sembene Ousmane to Gaston Kabore.
The old adage ‘he who pays the piper dictates the tune’ applies here. Francophone African films tend to be of the art-house variety i.e. highly intellectual and great attention is paid to aesthetic details. These films also tend to fit into the dominant paradigm of the avant-garde of European film at any given time. Unsurprisingly, francophone African films are mostly appreciated and enjoyed by the literary, artistic, aesthetic and academic circles in francophone Africa, Europe and North America. It may surprise many who read the arts and showbiz pages of Nigerian newspapers to learn that the local audiences in francophone Africa generally prefer Chinese kung fu and Indian films and nowadays [surprise, surprise] Nollywood movies – subtitled or even un-subtitled. One need only take a visit to any francophone West African country to establish the veracity of the foregoing. Their films are not commercial successes in that they do not recover their costs. These film depict an Africa that is of interest primarily to the Western academe and literary circles and thus the foreign cultural agencies continue to provide funds to the filmmakers who produce them despite there being virtually no local market for such films. This is a classical case of donor dependency.
We need look no further than civil society and the visual arts scene in Nigeria to realize the consequences of donor dependency. The numerous ‘me-and-my-wife’ briefcase NGOs in Nigeria, as many critics have noted, are primarily geared towards developing and implementing projects that appeal to the prevailing interests of foreign donor agencies rather than the interests of the Nigerian people whom they loudly proclaim their commitment. Similarly, it is a notorious and shameful fact that our visual arts scene is dominated by foreign patrons. All the major art galleries are on Victoria Island and Ikoyi, pandering principally to the expatriate community. Our artists have no time or interest in producing work for impoverished Nigerians who cannot afford to buy their overpriced uber-abstractionist works. The Nollywood filmmaker in contrast makes films for the masses. The masses are his bread and butter. Without the danfo driver in Ajegunle or the market woman in Mushin, his films would not sell and he would go out of business. The Nigerian visual artist on the other hand does not need his fellow Nigerians to survive as long as s/he has enough Western expatriates patronizing him.
Foreign donors will not permit Nollywood to tell our stories in our own way just as francophone African film has to fit within the paradigms and parameters of European film to attract French funding. Imagine the French cultural attaché recently criticizing Nollywood for being rude to the Nigerian government and constantly depicting public agencies and institutions in a bad light. One can only imagine what would happen if Nollywood was dependent on French aid. As France is eagerly competing with Britain, Germany and South Africa for the Nigerian market, would the French government allow Nigerian filmmakers who receive its funding to depict corrupt public officials in their films? Is this not a form of censorship?
There is much to criticize about Nollywood but at least it is ours. Nollywood is owned, financed and controlled by Nigerians unlike francophone African film industry. We may scoff at the gory depictions of witchcraft and sorcery, at the hackneyed tales of adultery and village rivalries, the re-cycled mother and daughter-in-law feuds but we must concede that these films like Hollywood films are made for the lowest common denominator. Just as Hollywood produces different kinds of films for the summer teenage crowd and the autumn Oscar nominations, we must appreciate that Nollywood films are not necessarily meant for the doctorate degree holder in theatre arts or film. They are made for the artisan, the trader, the bus driver etc who will buy a VCD or two on his way home to his dingy home to relax. It’s a lot cheaper to buy or rent a Nollywood VCD which the whole family can watch at home and be amused than to take a family of 4 to Mr. Biggs.
For all its warts and imperfections, Nollywood, with all its imperfections, does tell our story, an African story. This is why from Ethiopia to Senegal, from Ghana to Zambia, Africans from all across our mother continent are devoted fans of Nollywood. The Nigerian aje-bota in Lekki or Ikoyi would not be caught dead watching Nollywood but prefers hanging out at the Silverbird Galleria. But a woman in Lusaka, Zambia can easily empathize with a Nollywood movie featuring a domineering mother-in-law because such is part of her own cultural reality. A Kenyan kid in Kabera slum can empathize with a film about Ajegunle in Lagos because he sees an Ajegunle around him every day.
Many of Nollywood’s fiercest critics constantly invoke the non-participation of Nollywood films in Western film festivals as some sort of litmus test of Nollywood’s global success. This only reveals the level of Eurocentric infantilism among such critics who depend on approval and favourable reviews by Western critics as the seal of quality or ultimate validation of African films. This is the same problem we see in Nigerian literature and art; the only writers and artists to enjoy any sort of recognition by their fellow Nigerians are those who have received Western literary and artistic prizes or accolades. This is inferiority complex of the worst possible order.
Nollywood is our very own child of circumstances. It evolved in the milieu of the collapse of the cinema infrastructure/network in the 1980s plus the state of insecurity in major urban centres which drove would be cinema-goers from the cinema halls, abandoning them to be taken over by Pentecostal churches. The traditional Hollywood movie production and distribution marketing model of cinema release followed by video cassette/DVD release was turned on its head by Nollywood with direct release to video cassette and nowadays VCD or DVD. This was not deliberate; it was a response to the prevailing circumstances. Over time, this has become a new and revolutionary mode of film production freeing the African filmmaker from the historical constraints of seeking funds from governments – local or foreign – to make films. It was reported recently that Southern and East African filmmakers gathered at a conclave in Zanzibar are contemplating the Nollywood model in order to escape from this problem of dependence on foreign donors.
One can appreciate that some Nigerian filmmakers, habituated to making films and television documentaries with foreign donor funds may be uncomfortable with the Nollywood model derived from the raw capitalism of Alaba, Idumota, Upper Iweka and Pound Road. In a capitalist market, the consu
mer is sovereign. Let the Nigerian consumer decide whether Nollywood will thrive or die. Donor funds to produce non-commercial works such as documentaries and arthouse films are most welcome but we should not allow foreign donor money to distort Nollywood because it is a known fact that the foreign donors will fund primarily those who share their values and speak their language –especially those who attend their cocktail parties and diplomatic receptions.