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Making a case for Nigerian movies

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Staff member
By Odia Ofeimun (Repost of a 2004 piece)

IN the past one month, this is the second time that I am being asked to stand in for an address that Professor Wole Soyinka was meant to deliver. The last time, at the 22nd Annual Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors at Makurdi, I was picked out of the crowd for an impromptu performance, as his stand in, on Literature and Democracy.

It was a topic on which everyone could agree I was quite within my element. This time, on the theme of Motion Picture as a tool for National Rebirth and Economic Empowerment, I think I am, properly speaking, out of my element. The point is that I have never related to the motion picture business at any level other than as an avid watcher of films. I run away from the television set. But films always bring me back. No matter how bad a film is, I like to see how the story will end. I plod on even when it is the case that I have figured out in advance how the story will end. I don't think that Professor Soyinka knows more than this about my relationship with the motion picture.

In choosing me to stand in for him, he is clearly sending a cat among the pidgins. If he was here himself, he would have been quite a pidgin among the pidgins or a cat among cats. He has had quite a relationship, a very intimate relationship I must say, with the film as a medium. He would have been in the best position to deploy his many decades of acting, musik-making and filmmaking in the context of his eminently overarching pursuit, a lifetime's pursuit, of drama as a medium.

I don't know what he would have made of the theme of this Festival. Being one of our most intrepid pioneers in the trade, he would have had something truly unique to say. Soyinka has given to our National history of the Motion Picture, the greatest promise of enduring creativity by being a consistent upholder of the tradition of situating the film medium within the natural habitat of narrative which, if you ask me, rests with the literary arts.

His two films to date are unique in the sense that they were based on his own plays. Equally unique is that he was involved in them as actor, scriptwriter, music-maker and in the case of one, director. In Kongi's Harvest, produced by Francis Oladele for Calpenny Nigeria Limited in 1970, he acted the role of the dictator, Kongi, a name that, ever since, has stuck to him among his friends and admirers.(He had to be Kongi because the actor chosen for the role was trapped in Biafra).

In Blues for a Prodigal, a send up of the early years of the looter-mania that soon became a way of life of the ruling echelons in our midst, he was the director. The history of the two films in the market place is not well documented. But it is so much a part of the general story of the Nigerian film that, within the need to support the theme of national rebirth and economic empowerment, the temptation to re-tell the story is like the beginning of wisdom.

Frances Oladele who produced the first film, drew attention to one side of the story when he revealed that it was sabotaged by foreign-dominated distribution networks which tried "to discourage our pioneering spirit by deliberately offering far less than the standards in the industry demand". (Francis Oladele does not tell us how the inexperience of all those involved, and the consequent cutting of corners, in some cases, adversely affected the fortunes of filmmaker and the audience of the films).

What this suggests in relation to the theme of this Festival is that we need to consider the many ways in which the motion picture as a medium has been made to look to great heights, but has also been subjected to many execrations, enough to have ensured a still-birth and a disempowerment for many of the projects that we can lift up today as virtual trophies.

It suggests the need to engage the nature of the coming to birth that the motion picture has had in our midst, the empowerment or disempowerment that has been the lot of practitioners of the form, and why we continue to talk about a film industry which is one hundred years old in 2003 as if it has only a future tense.

To talk of re-birth I must say is to suggest that something was wrong with the first birth; and to talk of economic empowerment is to imply that there is some disempowerment. I want to say that we may only correct them if we begin by acknowledging that before the motion picture can be used as tool in either case, it must first be allowed its own rebirth and empowerment.

Every means that enhances the harvest of those who labour in the field will empower and bring the nation to rebirth. Let me quickly add, on this score, that in the spirit of celebration which a Festival implies, what I am standing here to do is to engage the past of the Nigerian Motion Picture Industry from the standpoint of defending where I think it is going as a platform of fictional narratives. Which is to say that although the term motion picture covers documentaries centred on the non-fictional, I am hiving off the fictional narratives for singular attention.

I am doing this particularly in response to two very passionate pleas that I have encountered in recent weeks about the future that the Nigerian Motion Picture should pursue.

The first comes from the current Minister of Information and National Orientation, Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu who has rounded up on the subsisting film culture in the country in a manner that deserves to be quoted fairly extensively. In a message to producers who would be attending this film Festival he said " I invite you my friends to see your work as an integral part of a Renaissance Project.
The Renaissance of a great nation, the renaissance of a great people. Your work is an ambassador from Nigeria to the world. It is an international diplomat requiring no accreditation. The content of your work is the only credential that is presented for Nigeria in the living rooms of millions of people around the world. Your challenge is to ensure that your work does not cause these people to deny your countrymen the respect that they deserve" He continued "We are not a nation of violence and blood neither are we a nation of cults and frauds.

We are not a nation of witches and wizards, neither are we a nation of crime and intrigue. We are a nation of Sports, of arts, and Sciences, a rich culture, a vibrant population, a nation of leaders, a pride to Africa. Nigeria has a story to tell, the world is willing to listen. You, dear producers, are our storytellers. Please make us proud".

A similar message was passed three weeks before to the Association of Nigerian Authors when, one of its members, Chief Audu Ogbe, the Chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) urged Nigerian authors to write stories that could be made into films. As he saw it, the power of film as a medium is wasted or misused in the modes in which it has been deployed especially in the home videos which have become, whatever the purists may be saying, the modal definition of the motion picture in the Nigerian space.

In his view, the home video films - about which I shall have something of my own to say presently - suffers from the banality of hastily conceived narratives which present our society in trivial terms or render them in forms in which we are no longer able to even recognize ourselves. Obviously, Audu Ogbe was thinking of a popular medium, with an empowering immediacy, to help our people share their common everyday stories which they hardly engage in written form because of the absence of basic literacy and the general anti-book , anti-intellectual, strain in our culture.

Of course, Ogbe was speaking as a creative writer on the political stage who has always seen a medium of immediacy like the film as a most effective means of getting a people to share and contribute to their own conscientization and history-making. I am not sure that his party is structured to make sense of what he was telling the writers. But I am convinced that in the context of the theme of this Festival it should inspire us to invoke the necessity for a special relationship between literature and motion pictures as a means of actualizing national rebirth and economic empowerment. I think there is every reason to advert attention to that relationship because it can lead us away from the pursuit of dead ends and save us from making a fetish of national pride in a way that destroys the basis for enhancing that pride.

But first things first: we do need to accept it as uncontroversial that literature has been the source of the many features on which the film as a medium has thrived across the globe. Although the greatest stories ever told on screen were not all novels beforehand, the best of them can be traced to story traditions that have come down from the great literatures of the world including the holy books, the Bible, the Koran and the Vedic verses.

It happens to be the case that scribal narration had reached the stage of over-saturation in the Western world before the art of narration through films was developed. Unlike in Africa, where the pioneers in literature like Sembene Ousmane in Senegal and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria are also the path-breakers in the motion picture sphere, the sheer precedence of written literature as a distinct European form was what created the circumstance for the development of the film as a factor of storytelling.

Films began in their turn to influence the modes of narration in literature after literature had made its indelible impact on the motion picture. But Africa did not have that slack or luxury. The symbiotic relationship was truncated in our case by the poverty and slow development of both literature and the motion picture as art and as business.

The subtext is that the motion picture was brought to Africa, not so much for Africans, but as a means of imperialist encirclement and cultural overcoming of the natives. It was not the tradition of African story telling or self-apprehension but the contingencies of colonial propaganda that informed the career of the motion picture in our midst.

Side by side with the denigrating narratives that the West heaped upon Africans to justify slavery, colonization and rampart exploitation, there was a deliberate turning of the camera away from the necessity to tell the story of the native from the standpoint of the native.

Those of us who grew up in villages, and who as children trooped after the itinerant penny-a-flick peep-hole hawkers of still pictures, can tell the long shot from the close up of the story. With time, the peep-hole hawker was displaced by the mobile free cinemas of the old Regional Information Service which brought our own folk singers and folk dances back to our towns and villages, showed us documentaries on the Queen's visits to Nigeria, football matches and the wizardry of Stanley Mathews, Charlie Chaplain, European classical dances, and the meetings of our nationalists and the colonial establishments. For reasons of enhancing the productivity of Africans, there were public service documentaries on health and educational matters, and others that boosted the grandeur of imperial power.

As the drums of independence moved closer, such documentaries became more development-oriented as in the Babab Larai documentary in Hausa, about the successful cotton farmer. It had counterparts in the West about the successful cocoa farmer who taught our parents how to save cocoa trees from blackpod diseases.

Eastwards, it showed the successful oil palm producer and rubber tapper. Due to African outcry against pictures that dubbed the black person as a savage who was fit only for stratagems and spoils, the films that were shown in the cinema houses began to take on less racist hues. But the feature films were paced to foreign cultural orientations marked by Westerns, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese films. Vast segments of our urban milieu were virtually ceded in a cultural sense to Cowboy cultures.

Vast Hausa and Yoruba settlements became cultural fiefdoms of Bombay where the singing of Indian songs made the day for the average city sleek. In essence, the film in Africa had to struggle to birth through the same process that was inducing the creative writers in the fifties, sixties and seventies, to seek to write our people into history. They had to weigh their untested shoulders against Western art and even the Asian interventions that were rudely defended by the economic might of mafia-like foreign film distributors. As it turned out, African filmmakers and novelists had no time to acquire sturdy traditions before being literally dragooned into one another's embrace. The not-so well-established literary traditions hobnobbed with underdeveloped forays into motion pictures. It was like thinking on your feet.

As with every African effort to deploy a form that was already well established in the West, it was a case of not having the material and technological resources to match the demands of the trade while having to deal with high expectations in a market situation already saturated by the dreams and realities of preceding producers.

What needed to be fought against was so well entrenched and the means of fighting them off so weak, so puny, that only a special pooling of intellectual and even political energy stood a chance of making a difference. As the majority of the people were illiterate, no other medium could recommend itself better than the cinema which required less of language and even literacy to follow through.

There was so much to recommend a medium that could bring culture to the masses without labouring the mind of the viewer in the way that books do. It was therefore always expected that the potential entrant into motion picture business in Nigeria would receive some support from public institutions and corporations in the way that it worked in virtually all the countries from which Nigeria was importing films.

But the filmmaker in Nigeria was, and as it has remained, on his own. Usually a he, although this has changed considerably, he was treated by the culture establishment not as a worker for the nation but an adventurer to hold at arms length or at considerable distance, except on ceremonial occasions like a film Festival.

The situation was not helped by the education of natives within the colonial context. The dead-end politics that overtook the colonial period hardly prepared them to fuse their capacities. Expectedly, therefore, what they had to fight against did not necessarily go away.

Among the Western productions against which African films had to stand up, even if unconsciously, the one that became most notorious and was damned by leaders of opinion across the board, was the 1935 Korda production of Edgar Rice Buroughs Sanders of the River.

It was partly shot in Nigeria, and must be the first film in history that had a Nigerian as a movie actor. The man, whom we would all remember later as Pa Orlando Martins, acted in the film alongside the American actor Paul Robeson. Several of the scenes in the film, as in several other films like Trader horn, Tales of Manhattan, and the Tarzan series, incensed Nigerians and black people across the world so much that the idea of an African fight-back was on the cards.

But for the fact that it was prohibitively expensive to set up a film unit, a movement of dissent similar to that of Negritude in Literature was quite conceivable in the motion picture industry. More critical perhaps is that colonial laws, which began to gain dominion since the showing of the first film at Glover Memorial Hall in August 1903, would have ensured that an African fight-back was stillborn.

As an aside, let me note that if we had a properly developed Archival Infrastructure, we ought to be seeing clips of Sanders of the River, at this Festival if only to recall Orlando Martins as the legend that he became as well as to buttress the regressive logic of colonial depiction of Africans as slaves and savages. How enlightening it would have been, for instance, to see clips of films like Dr Jenkins and Mr Hyde, Clive of India, The Isle of Forgotten Sins, House of Frankenstein, which were considered by the Censors to be unsuitable for African viewing; and such other films as Her primitive, Primitive man; Dixie; Buffalo Bill; The Keys of the Kingdom; and Sleepytown Girl which were considered so suitable.

It is of some interest in this regard that what made these films suitable for a Nigerian audience in the view of the censors was an aesthetic already very well developed in literature which the modern Nigerian can now encounter in the film version of Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson in which one of our greatest film legends, Hubert Ogunde featured in his last days. Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (1992) is one of those snidely denigrating novels about Nigerians which many Nigerian literary critics, following Chinua Achebe's inimitable example, have damned for its misrepresentation. To be continued.

Being a Keynote Address delivered by Odia Ofeimun at the 2nd National Film Festival 27th November, 2003
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