By Mitterand Okorie
Thursday, September 19, 2013.
Maverick Nollywood actor, Mike Ezuronye was driving alone one day, when suddenly a car double-crossed him. On pulling over he was met with a hot slap by an aged woman who kept shouting ‘How can you treat Chioma Chukwuka like that? Who taught you that as element of marriage?’ Within moments, the spectacle had drawn nearby motorists, who busted into delirious laughter when they discovered that the only reason this woman was furious had to do with the actor’s role in a movie – ‘Moment of Truth’. This incidence exemplifies the extent to which Nollywood films permeates the life and psyche of Nigerians and Africans in general. Suffice it also to say: if Nollywood actress Patience Ozokowor (a.k.a Mama Gee) earns 1 dollar each time viewers call her “evil woman”, or “witch”, she’ll be Africa’s richest person. These denigrating pseudonyms however are not always passive adjectives to denote her movie role, but actually, an expression of real feelings of disgust from the viewer towards the person of Patience Ozokwor.
Nollywood needs very little introduction. It is the second largest film industry in the world, worth an estimated sum of 500 million USD with an annual output of over 1,200 films. In terms of quality, the industry is a paradox, in the sense that, on the one hand, it produces internationally acclaimed movies like Ije, The Mirrow Boy, etc. that are aired in cinemas worldwide, and on the other hand, it is also an industry where films are shot in a space of 4 – 5 days, and often of an agonizing quality. Nollywood films are sold locally between 75 cents – 1 USD. For all its flaws, however, Nollywood remains hugely popular in Nigeria, across Africa, the diasporan population in Europe and America, as well as in the Caribbean.
This essay, first, aims to contextualize the role of Nollywood as a televisual disseminator and exporter of Nigerian realities, be they historical, social or political. It holds that while Nollywood cannot be blamed for using film as a medium of broadcasting the nuances and contradictions of the Nigerian society to its local and international audience, the industry underplays its responsibility to create movies or invent realities that are rooted in positivism. That is, Nollywood largely ignores its role in using film as a tool for constructing positive ideologies (patriotism, nationalism, ethno-religious tolerance, moral virtues, honesty, etc.) that would somehow restore pride locally, and admiration – internationally.
Frankly, while one cannot hold the movie industry accountable for scripting the social ills within its society, one should also not forget that Nollywood creates imaginary realities, often, dark and negative ones, and in this vein becomes a mass medium of exporting a toxic televisual image of Nigeria.
The role of films as a mechanism where people form notions of other cultures and people has already being scientifically proven. John Friske, in his theories of televisual realism noted that television does not represent reality. Instead, television reproduces a dominant sense of reality. For this reason, we can therefore call television an essential realistic medium because of its ability to carry a social convincing sense of the real. Research in audience studies, psychology, neuroscience and cognitive theory, has shown how films are used to prop up, project or entrench ideologies and ideals that have cultural, social and political consequences. For example, it was reported by the US Navy that after the release of the film ‘Top Gun’ in 1986 (a movie that systematically painted the glory of the U.S Military, against the backdrop of the Vietnam debacle), the number of young men who enlisted - wanting to be Navy aviators, went up by 500 percent.
Nollywood suffers a myriad of problems, the most profound of it being that it is an industry where everything seems to be driven by profit, so much so that it hampers any chance of critical thinking, any chance of imagining or gravitating towards the production of films that are infused with positive ideological undertones or emancipatory ideals. What we’ve seen rather, are a barrage of film-makers driven not by the passion for art but by the greed of its proceed, churning out half-baked movies that sometimes come out tasteless, incomprehensible, and having all the making of a painful watching experience. Often, the plots are weak and hardly sustained, the sound of generators echo in the background, and picture quality are at best, average. The cinematic presentations are mostly below par – almost to a point of amusement, and the narratives concentrates primarily on all the negativities of our society. For the sake of this essay, I focus only on the latest part, the narratives.
For example, the average Nigerian politician according to Nollywood belongs to an occultic brotherhood where he has sworn an oath of perpetual allegiance to the devil in exchange for power. The average Nigerian girl, according to Nollywood sleeps with men for money, to satisfy her cravings for ostentatious fashion and flamboyance. The average Nigerian village boy in Nollywood only dreams of going to Lagos and return to his village a rich man – ready for a chieftaincy title. The average Nigerian Mother-in-Law, according to Nollywood is a home wrecker as she never gets along with her son’s wife. The average Nigerian rich man, according to Nollywood is a domestic emperor, who orders his stewards like a slave-master would order a slave. The average Nigerian professor, in Nollywood, has an overgrown grey hair, and is only able to see by the help of his medicated glasses. A televisual personification which makes you wonder if to be a professor in Nigeria, one ought to have been old enough to lose their sight. These negative binaries, overtime, have somehow formed a commonsensical understanding of how we view ourselves locally, and how we are viewed regionally and globally.
Worse still, the Nollywood narrative of a witch doctor evoking and sending a thunder that is only visible to the person about to be killed has become a common fixation, creating a false reality where foreign viewers conceive of this idea as highly palpable, when it is in fact, an anomaly. I wonder how many Nigerians had ever seen where reddish thunder strikes people dead in the market-place at noon, deep in dry season. These are Nollywood inventions that only leave outside viewers at best – shocked, and at worse - frightened. This may well have an entertainment value, but not without its doses of frivolity. What is more, foreigners who are yet to visit the country begin to form an understanding of Nigeria in line with these contemptible narratives. During my time in Europe, when I conversed with other Africans from Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, etc, it was obvious to see their deep seated admiration for Nigeria, but which is often smeared by what they think is on the other hand, an insecure country where voodoo-induced deaths runs amok; a situation that scare them in no small measure.
There is also the Nollywood narrative of Europe and America as a land that offers riches in superfluous measure. This narrative turns out to impact on the one hand, expectations of those going abroad, and on the other hand - their families, friends, and community that awaits their return. What Nollywood continues to underplay however, is that for most, these dreams are never realized, because, the traveler soon comes to tell the difference between the harsh realities of Europe and a scripted movie. Nollywood seem to gloss over the fact that there are thousands (if not millions) of Nigerians whom both the American and European dreams have failed, and the only thing standing between them and a return back home is shame. The shame of having a whole community feeling you’ve let them down, that you have failed to come back with the customary Nollywood exotic cars, without the customary 8 to 10 bags loaded with goodies from abroad, and even for some, the disappointment that you did not, just like in Nollywood, come back with an ‘oyibo’ woman. Bringing the problem home, the Nollywood narrative of Lagos as a beacon of hope for all aspiring Nigerians who intend to earn a decent living outside their own states, also ignores the realities of those whom the Lagos dream had failed, together with the level of destitution associated with this alternate reality.
Art, it is said, mirrors society. While it is plausible to argue that Nollywood is primarily an entertainment industry, it would be wrong to ignore the extent to which it not only draws from the Nigerian realities to do this but creates other realities that are either excessively exaggerated or categorically alien to our society. To make the argument that the industry indulges in innocent representation of characters and narratives that are restricted to the realm of entertainment, would be at best simplistic, and at worse, fallacious. There is a need to appreciate more, the fact that, the hostility, fears, and doubts that other African citizens express towards Nigerians are partly rooted in their televisual conception of us, a televisual conception which our film industry offers them.
Nollywood needs to go beyond its disparaging presentation of the Nigerian society. It needs to recognize it has a responsibility to conceive a positive imagination for the country, as well as balance the denigrating narratives which has for most part become its obsession. It is true that social problems like internet fraud (yahoo-yahoo), secret societies, money rituals, political assassinations, hedonism, etc. are realities of the Nigerian society, but these are certainly not the only realities identifiable and there is a need for Nollywood to take upon itself the task of filming the positive sides to us. It has to start drawing from the positive realities of the country, its military heroism, the individual strength of its citizens to persevere in trying times, our historical diplomacy, and the defining moments in our history where people had stood up for justice, and at one time or place - transformed state-society relations. Other African countries, or in fact, the world at large should be given an opportunity to imagine Nigeria beyond the spectrum of its depravity; beyond its bloodshed, beyond its criminality, beyond its insecurities, and beyond black magic and voodoo practices.
In 2009, Prof. Dora Akunyili – as the minister of information, embarked on a rebranding project, where millions of our petro-dollars were laid to waste. An advertisement was paid for in CNN, with the aim of announcing to the world that Nigeria is a ‘Great nation’ of ‘Good People’. Unsurprisingly, this project became one of those characteristic white elephant projects that are often dead on arrival due to lack of a viable mechanism of appropriate implementation. A quarter of that money would have been enough, considering the wide reach of Nollywood, to support the industry – specifically for the aim of producing ground breaking films that would cast the country in good light; positively impacting on the minds of its local population and its international viewers respectively.
To be clear about the sort of televisual trajectory I argue that Nollywood should take, let us consider, for example, the person of Nnamdi Azikiwe. This renowned Nigerian returned from his studies in the U.S in 1934, settled in the gold coast (modern day Ghana), and became the African Morning Post Newspaper where he vigorously promoted a pan-African nationalist and decolonization agenda. A man whose political activism and pan-African ideas went on to mentally mobilize the entire continent towards independence, raising disciples like Kwame Nkrumah who turned out to be one of the greatest Africans as well. Would it be too much to expect that Nollywood made a film chronicling the political heroism of this great African of Nigerian stock?
In 1997, Nigerian soldiers operating under the auspices of ECOMOG forces were sent to Sierra Leone on a peace enforcing mission, they restored the country's ousted president Tejan Kabbah to power, and ended at the time, a vicious wave of violence in that country. Would it be too much to expect that Nollywood chronicle the military heroism of the Nigerian soldiers, and the commitment of Nigeria in ending armed conflicts in the continent?
Let us also consider, for example, the internationally acclaimed artist - Innocent ‘2face’ Idbia; the Nigerian darling of the continent and the world, a person whose talent and humility has added a positive beam on the country’s map. It is true that his personal life (having 5 children by 3 different mothers) had come under criticism, but besides this, he remains an embodiment of that Nigerian spirit; of hard work, grit, perseverance, humility and happiness. It certainly wouldn’t be too much to expect that Nollywood made a film detailing the life of this remarkable Nigerian – from his humble beginning to his elevated status. This would promote once again, among young Nigerians and Africans, the rewards and importance of never giving up on ones dreams.
The often cited impediment to projects of this magnitude has been that Nollywood lacks the budget and the federal government has been unable to offer financial backing. Of course, this is a fair point and a justifiable limitation to the industry’s capabilities. The American film industry – Hollywood, irrespective of its size are in some cases supported by the pentagon, in terms of finance, military hardware, and uniforms, to produce films that cast the country in good light. And there is a need for our government to do the same at home. In this way, a symbiotic relationship between Nollywood and Nigerian government can be established, of which the country’s image would be the greatest benefactor. Though recently, reports have surfaced that the Nigerian government gave Nollywood 3 billion Naira. Sadly, further reports suggest that this grant appears to have only succeeded in creating a controversy over who the appropriate custodians within the Nollywood leadership should be. It seems also, that the utilization of this grant would again be fraught with the Nigerian factor; possibly ending up in private pockets and render to waste the entire aim of the grant.
The point bears repeating however, that Nollywood can play a pivotal role in engineering through film, socio-political ideologies which include but not restricted to, patriotism, of hard work, of personal advancement by legitimate means. If we cannot do this, we may as well be satisfied with whatever the world makes of us. It is our duty to allow our films to reflect us beyond known negative labels. It is our responsibility to beam – beyond our borders, the positive side of us as a people and a country. And to do this – there’s no better starting point than Nollywood.
Art has a duty to transform society positively, not just by highlighting the wrongs and imperfections of that society but also by acknowledging the positive vestiges within its borders. Else, it becomes an exclusive force for entertainment, wealth acquisition, fear-mongering and other degenerative forms of banal fantasies.
Mitterand Okorie is a poet and academic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
http://www.bellanaija.com/2008/07/05/saturday-interviews-mike-ezuruonye/, Retrieved on 29 July 2013
John Friske, ‘Television Culture’ (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 24
Robb David, (2004) ‘Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies’, (New York: Prometheus Books), p. 182