Sunday, February 18, 2007

African Cinema

There's an article on African cinema in this month's Sight and Sound (the British Film Institute's film magazine), based around the mini-season they are organising this month in London in partnership with Curzon cinemas and the Ritzy. The highlight of the season will be the launch of Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's film Bamako, where the World Bank and the IMF are put on trial by villagers. I watched his earlier film Life on Earth last night, and watched again Joseph Gai Ramaka's Karmen Gei the night before (a polysexual Senegalese re-telling of Carmen). The Francophone West African film tradition is much derided by the Africa Magic/Nollywood posse as "African film for Westerners", which they reject on the basis of the overwhelming popularity of the Nigerian video market across the continent. I have two responses to this argument: the first is that the idea that African cinema that is as nuanced and subtle as the Francophone tradition is only the preserve of a Western audience is enormously patronising to the many Africans/Nigerians who find Nollywood an utter embarrassment. Two: the idea that popularity is an index of quality is just a little stupid, to say the least.

One sometimes despairs that while the rest of Africa is producing fresh and innovative painting, photography and film in the face of enormous existential challenges, Nigeria languishes in the laziest and most unsubtle forms of creative expression.


CryNigeria 1:41 pm  

You are man after my very own heart. At last someone who appreciate good wine. I keep on saying that the Nigerian so-c alled Nollywood film industry is too painful to even call a laugh. But again when you say this to a Nigerian with no sense of appreciating the basic cultures of the Western world, now what do you expect?

The scale of production is not even comparative to mass production but delivery of packaged gabbage.

If Nigerian film industry hard a trading standards committe/forum etc, the system is so shamefully corrupt, that it wouldn't even work. Whomever the group of officials were would prefere being bribed with thousands of valueless Naria, to be lavish on prostitues and cheap local beer. Need i say more. I am a well vexed Nigerian.

Atala Wala Wala 1:36 am  

"I have two responses to this argument: the first is that the idea that African cinema that is as nuanced and subtle as the Francophone tradition is only the preserve of a Western audience is enormously patronising to the many Africans/Nigerians who find Nollywood an utter embarrassment."

Yes Jeremy, but I'll bet such Africans/Nigerians are outnumbered by those who can't get enough of Nollywood.

I'm curious to know whether these Francophone movies are as popular with the man in the street in Francophone Africa as Nollywood movies are with the man in the street in Nigeria. I don't particularly care about Nollywood movies myself - but I am fascinated about how they've been able to become so popular.

"Two: the idea that popularity is an index of quality is just a little stupid, to say the least."

And now we're entering dangerous waters. I think that when it comes to technical issues like sound and lighting, it's easy to say that one movie industry produces higher/lower quality movies than another.

But when it comes to storylines... that's another matter altogether. I may find a story where someone is magicked into oblivion unrealistic - but it would be elitist of me to claim that because of that, it's of lower quality compared to a story with complex sub-plots and more realistic storylines.

Talatu-Carmen 6:25 am  

hmmm... Jeremy, i love francophone african cinema, and south african cinema too. but i wouldn't be so quick to dismiss nollywood. of course a lot of it is trashy; hollywood is too. but that doesn't mean that there aren't also quite a few thoughtful, enjoyable films with innovative style.

while most african films shot on celluloid are funded and often edited in europe, nigerian films are a grassroots-level phenonmenon, with roots in older forms of indigenous theatre, usually funded by internal audiences, and quickly spreading via informal networks throughout the rest of the world. there's certainly nothing wrong with a collaborative european/african project, and i greatly admire the many celluloid african films i've seen--and, no, i dont' think they cater to ONLY a Western audience--thought it does seem easier to find them/see them in the West than in Africa (unless one is lucky enough to attend FESPACO). But to condemn wholesale Nigerian films as "the laziest and most unsubtle forms of creative expression" is not quite fair. who exactly determines what is "fresh and innovative?"

Jeremy 8:06 am  

there are "also quite a few thoughtful, enjoyable films with innovative style." Nollywood: thoughtful? Innovative? I'd love to know some examples of the films you are talking about TC. All the ones I have ever seen are the precise opposite!

LM,  4:48 pm  

"One sometimes despairs that while the rest of Africa is producing fresh and innovative painting, photography and film in the face of enormous existential challenges, Nigeria languishes in the laziest and most unsubtle forms of creative expression."

Whilst you are entilted to your own opinion, I hardly think comparing one sub-genre of "creative expression" to other is apt. You can not compare apples to oranges and state that one is superior; they both give useful nutrients, although one may be richer in a certain vitamin than than the otther. In the same way, you can not dismiss Nigerian cinema in favour of painting. Choice here is relative.

And yes, I beleive that some of the Nigerian films are a laugh but I have watched SEVERAL good ones, even though their tiltes are not creative. "Games women Play"; "Missing angel" (good acting here), "The ring" (with RMD me thinks), then the hilarious (absolutely brillant), "Osofia in London", and a whole lot of those whose titles I can not remember but which are good. Perharps you've been unfortnate to have watched the silly ones. As a general rule, Nigerian movies starring actors/actresses like, RMD, Genevieve Nnaji, Stella Damascus, Jim Iyke, Ramsey Nouah (you'd like him, he's great actor, speaks well etc.) are usually well acted. Some scripts are brillant too (although they need to be imporved upo a lot)¨

Being an avid film lover, I have also watch some low-budget Hollywood films etc. So yes, Nigerian films need to be imporved upon but we do not lack really talented actors/actresses in this country....

Talatu-Carmen 7:09 pm  


Which ones have you seen?

1) Confession. I have actually not seen enough English Nigerian films to be able to make a sophisticated and example-filled defense of them. But my knowledge of literary history makes me suspicious of blanket condemnations such as the one you made in your last post. I am suspicious of critiques that privilige "high" art as intrinsically more valuable than "low" art. Who makes these decisions? And aren't there many historical instances of one generation of high critics misjudging the value of their own generations's cutting edge experimentation? Here is one relevant example: The knee-jerk negative reaction of the Western-educated elite to Nigerian films reminds me of earlier reactions to Amos Tutuola's _The Palm Wine Drinkard_. He appropriated older oral structures to write what appeared to be an embarrassing "misuse" of form to those critics trained to recognize Hardy and Hemingway as great literature. Tutuola was not necessarily following any specific genre; he, in fact, was creating his own form. So, first of all, in relation to Nollywood films, in a desire to see Nigerians make films "on par" with more Western-influenced form, do we risk throwing out great storytellers like Tutuola? Secondly, Do we risk imposing Western literary/artistic aesthetics for judgment on an art forms that owe as much to indigenous art forms as they does to Hollywood/Bollywood/Hong Kong film? Thirdly, Is the technologizing and mass exportation of orality not innovative?

2) Although I have not seen enough Nigerian English movies to give you a lot of examples, I do admire how the trickster motif has been transferred from oral literature to Nkem Owoh's films such as Osuafia in London, Bus Driver, Ukwa, etc. These may not be as subtle or "sophisticated" as Francophone African films, but they do provide entertaining continuations of orality--both of oral tales and indigenous forms of theatre.

3) I am much more knowledgeable about Hausa films, which I haven't yet decided whether to class a part of Nollywood or not. So, here is a more extended defense of "Kanywood." A) I find the appropriation of Bollywood style song and dancing rather wonderful on an aesthetic level as well as a symbolic addition to the meaning of the text. Just as Nkem Owoh's films continue an older trickster tradition, the Hausa filmmakers are innovatively continuing older oral structures in which the use of song marked important junctures of the story. Of course, as with any film tradition, some are done much better than others.
B) Since most of the camera work, directing (etc) is self taught, it may not fall within conventions of visual storytelling developed in other traditions. It may not appear as "sophisticated" or as "artistic" to a Western trained eye. What I'd like to argue is that the self-taught filmmakers are developing their own conventions of visuality, according to their own self-selected education of watching Indian, American, and Chinese films, as well as according to massive amounts of audience feedback.

C) Off the top of my head, here are a few Hausa films I find thoughtful, thought provoking, and innovative: Zazzabi directed by S.I. Belaz; 2) Albashi directed by Abbas Sadiq; 3) Sanafahna directed by Nura Sheriff; 4) Bakar Ashana, directed by Aminu Bala. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Like I said I'm writing off the top of my head, and I know I have left a few off whose names I cannot remember.

Anyway, I'm sorry for taking up space on your blog, but I get a little defensive when I hear people pooh-poohing emerging art forms because they don't fit with their expectations of what make "great art." This is in no way a denigration of the fantastic celluloid African cinema, but an urge to consider the Igbo proverb, "Where one thing stands, another thing will stand beside it." To enjoy one does not mean you have to throw out another.

Bitchy 8:47 pm  

Amazing Grace! The new "blockbuster" that kept rearing its ugly head everywhere I went in Lagos in December. In the end I gave in and bought it... and was sooo impressed. I've always found the bulk of Nollywood films mind-numbing (with the exception of old films like "My Inlaws" and "Ukwa" by that guy who does Osuofia in London). I've seen some real stinkers, but Amazing Grace gets an A* for effort. Granted, some bits were incredibly cheesy, and the plot doesn't go anywhere really, but there were actual Hollywood-like special effects, and real props e.g. a ship (in Nollywood!!) were used. Some of the acting was atrocious, but some of it was very good too.

I agree that the popularity of Nollywood films says absolutely nothing about their viewing quality, but I have to add that its because of that insane level of popularity on a global scale that Nollywood is going to end up being a force to reckon with. Amazing Grace is a product of Nollywood's global (rather than local) popularity and others are on the way.

For now, its quantity over quality.. but be patient J.

Bitchy 8:49 pm  

Just to add that Amazing Grace is not in the least "innovative" (before you crucify me Jeremy) but it certainly is "thoughtful"

Aimie,  9:32 pm  

@ Jeremy, are you sure you are not being a little ethnocentric?
Anyway, as for Nigerian movies
check out anything by Ego Boyo, Tunde Kelani and Tade Ogidan
Other movies to see are
Diamond Ring and Living in Bondage which is arguably the movie that started the Home Video phenomenon.

On a side note. I often wonder what good is so called great art if nobody gets to see it or experience it? Yes these francophone movies are so great but if very few Africans get to watch them then that defeats the purpose of them being made.

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