It may sound threadbare but the expression about the room for improvement being the largest in the world still resonates resoundingly to anyone domiciled in the Giant of Africa.
With that latter phrase, Nigeria may not immediately come to mind but once you categorize it under the purviews of football, population or diversity, the green-white-green drapes of our national flag starts flapping in the winds. And yes, there’s movie-making.
For years now, Nollywood, the sum-total of Nigeria’s collective cinematic foray, has been at the peak in Africa. Again, you may need to categorize that but once the parameter is concocting copious amounts of movies within the last 20 years, the green-white-green again flaps. It’s a massive industry yet not one which I would readily associate myself with at a dinner party with friends spanning different time-zones.
As with many other things in Nigeria, the big concern is quality over quantity. While we have mastered the knack for churning out the most movies only very few of them live up to the billings as block-busters in the non-mundane sense. The plots are stereotypical: the rich are vastly wealthy; the poor abjectly so; and there’s hardly any room for manoeuvre.
This is not to say they are bereft of imagination. The question is what kind of imagination do they display. More often than not it is the otherworldly, metaphysical sort: Humans turning into goats, bullets ricocheting off the chests of members of vigilante groups etc etc. This is not wrong in itself but again I would only allude to the allegorical room for improvement.
My concerns are not new. Time and again, armchair critics (pun absolutely intended) have voiced their objections to the disagreeable elements in the movie industry. Most recently, Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, speaking at FESPACO, ridiculed the “lack of originality that translates as plain, unmediated imitation… delivered on the very edge of the pit of banality.” Erudite in drama, one must take his views seriously.
However, my intention is not to pile up the criticism. What I bring to the table is by no means ground-breaking. It is not a manual of 10 easy steps to movie-making, nor a preview of the latest state-of-the-art film-making technology. As an aspiring (this shamefacedness should not be taken for granted) political satirist I only wish to point out the usefulness Nollywood can serve beyond the hackneyed episodes of moralism that it has unwittingly become. Anything “beyond” is often received with caution – understandably so – but I reckon our movie industry, however its shortcomings, should have matured beyond the “one-two-action!” genre.
Nollywood could, nay, should serve the role of political catalyst. I take that again: Nollywood should serve the role of political catalyst. One cannot simply be resident in a country replete with live renditions of satire and not be jolted to get the camera a-rolling.
This is Nigeria, the sovereign equivalent of Comedy Central, the land where thespians serve as politicians. One expects producers and directors to draw from the pool of tragicomedy conspicuously on display and shoot melodramas depicting the scarcely believable: A criminal politician escaping a foreign prison dressed as a woman then receiving political pardon from the incumbent president; a pension funds officer parading himself as the biggest shot to trot this land; sickly sitting governors flying abroad under ludicrous makeshift guises; foreign commando troops botching rescue efforts for kidnapped expatriates etc etc. How have we not made sitcoms out of these?
Perhaps the closest is a movie adaptation of the now infamous gaffe by a staff of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps who would rather defer to his superior’s view than answer a simple question on live television. It was fittingly dubbed Oga On Top; however, the word ‘adaptation’ which I have used belies the non-existent movie which turned out to be and remains just a doctored poster pandering to public gusto over that catchphrase. But I choose to celebrate little victories.
I am pretty sure American film-makers would give their eye teeth to have these narratives playing out within their shores. Hollywood would bite at it with the same rabid hunger it has devoured most of the American gates (from Watergate to Cablegate), the maladies of a banking system, the combat of its wars and so on. Anyone who has seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty can relate to the multiplex of information-gathering staff of CIA were embroiled in before the mission to hunt down Osama Bin Laden was hatched.
In the same vein, I’m eagerly anticipating an adaptation of David Patraeus’ illicit affair. Just to be clear, the goal of movie adaptations transcends vain mimicry or mockery. There are more highbrow political sub-texts such as historical inferences and revolutionary messages. Not my favourite example, but given how that provocative video clip Innocence of Islam sparked so much furore in certain Moslem communities it cannot be put beyond the ability of cinema to incite emotions spurring mass action.
I will not make so bold a claim that the next Occupy Nigeria protests will be fanned by a movie trailer but I can certainly assert that enclosing the stupidity of political pardon granted to a billionaire-thief within the frame of a title, subtitle and To-God-Be-The-Glory ending will most certainly highlight the follies and foibles of the current Nigerian polity.
For long we’ve wondered how to reach the grassroots with our political message of transformation. Nollywood is the answer! It’s been there all along literally staring at us in the face while we vent so much energy on social media. Of course, social media has a role to play but the market woman and farmer would sooner settle down to watch a Wale Adenuga production than open a Twitter account.
For now the Nigerian masses may seem content with home videos of Aki and Pawpaw contriving a 419 scheme to cheat their matron of hard-earned cash or Stephanie Okereke crying her eyes out as her true love Desmond Elliott abandons her for a low-life prostitute; but at the rate with which the political elite sink this nation further and further into an invisible sinkhole, they will soon get wearied of typical Nollywood which Soyinka calls an “unprepossessing monstrosity”.
The Nigerian music industry has long crossed the Rubicon of political activism. In a rousing speech delivered at the 5th Annual Bola Tinubu colloquium, Olubankole Wellington, the successful Rhythms and Blues artiste who goes by the stage name Banky W, was unequivocal about teaming up with concerned Nigerian youths to call for change. There are similar narratives of this call by other musicians both in verse and in politic-speak. The baton should be passed to the movie industry.
Right now Nollywood by all accounts is a commercial success but it cannot isolate itself from the failure of the bigger enterprise called Nationhood. Stakeholders in the movie industry – actors, actresses, producers, marketers – have a decision to make and this time it’s not necessarily a ‘to be or not to be’ one. I stare them all in the face and ask: movies that move more or movies that matter most?
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