Monday, March 26, 2012
African Cinema And the Frontiers Of Documentary
(Being Keynote delivered by PROF JEAN-PAUL COLLYEN, director of the Centre For African Studies, Paris, at the formal opening of the iREP International Documentary Film Festival)
Nollywood videofilms, cinema and the frontiers of documentary”
Talking of Nollywood, I shall only deal here of English speaking (Igbo) Videofilms. I shall not speak about Yoruba or Hausa videofilms, which, of course are also very important. I got interested in these works through an experience I had in Accra. I was staying in Manthia Diawara’s house with another filmmaker coming from Senegal, Ben Dioganbey. Manthia, who is a famous Malian writer and moviemaker, was, at the time, teaching in the New York University center in Accra. I gave, myself, some classes, there.
As, in Accra, at the time, the temperature was very high, we could not really go to bed early and we were watching Africa cable, A South African TV channel that was broadcasting Nigerian films endlessly. Some of those films were of poor quality, but others were really interesting and we ended by knowing the names of the directors and of the actors. We started to develop a real taste for the genre. I shall advocate the idea today that Nollywood films tell a lot about social life in Lagos, about Nigeria, about Africa and about humanity in general. But first, I would like to make a point on the terms “fiction” and “documentary”.
What is fiction? The word has two meanings.
In the first sense, a fiction can be defined as the result of a fabrication. A fiction is a story that has been forged. In this sense, any film is a fiction and documentaries are fiction as well. Why? Because a documentary is necessarily made by an author. “Camera do not take picture”, as somebody said. Even if the author – the director – makes a special effort to be neutral, there is nothing like real objectivity in the course of the exercise. The documentary film will always reflect not the reality itself, but the real as it is seen by the filmmaker. Documentary shooting and editing is a creative process that require hundreds of choices. So a documentary is unavoidably also a fiction in this first sense of the word.
But the word “fiction” has a second meaning that is more frequent. A fiction is a story that is the “pure” product of imagination. The facts never happened historically. But the problem is that there is no “pure” imagination. An author or a fiction film director finds his imagination in the real world. He is always borrowing the facts from the social life, from the outside world. In that sense, fiction films are also documentaries. Nowadays, as very few people are as naïve as to know exactly what is the “real” and as many people know that part of the real is not visible, more and more artists are playing with the two meanings of fiction and exploit the blurring of the boundaries. The strength of Nollywood videofilms rests on the fact that they are very close to what people think, live or dream of, so that they convey a lot of information and have a documentary dimension.
The nineties was the time of Nigerian videographers in a context characterized by the failure of State policy and of development programs orchestrated by international institutions. Private producers emerge, most of the time not coming from film schools. They wanted to sell a product that they could sell and ended by producing cheap VCD that many people could by and see at home. In their desire to offer to the people want they want, they have overtaken the paternalist cinema of the colonial and postcolonial time. Nigerian videos are entirely produced and distributed outside international, the pan-African the state institutions that are shaping most of the African celluloid cinema. Rapidly, the popular VCD found a public and created a still larger audience; an audience that had grown up saturated by American and European culture industry through TV spectatorship. The Western series, already paid and refunded several times on the Western market, used to make a second life through a sort of dumping in the Third World. So, the success of videofilms was not guaranteed: they had serious competitors but they won.
The Nigerian Videofilms are an example of popular culture, in contrast to mass culture produced by large scale industries, mainly in the West. They are not keyed to political or cultural preoccupations of European or American commissioners. They offer an image of Africa from within. Nevertheless, they are not local; they also reflect the effects of globalization, showing many people travelling in the world. They also illustrate eloquently what Karl Marx called the commodification fetishism, exhibiting object of desire such as prestigious cars, luxurious mansion, draped curtains, large screen TV sets, Western outfits, and a lot of prestigious international labels. The consumerist desire of African audience – a majority of poor people - is literally devoured by the products and symbols offered by a borderless capitalism. As you know ultra modernity today in economy is to produce goods in China with very low wages guaranteed by a repressive communist party, to sell first on the rich markets in developed countries, the surplus going to the countries of the so-called Third World; a very lucrative triangular trade system. But Nollywood videos broke the rules: instead of seeing buying Chinese karate films, Indian melodramas or Dallas or Dynasty TV series, they started selling very well in the local markets of Nigerian and Ghanaian cities as in the diaspora.
The reason of this success rests on the fact that this video small scale industry draws inspiration from the social life and feeds the urban imaginaire.The videofilms dive in on the desires and anxieties of ordinary people, so that producers, directors and actors can certainly be seen as mediators of popular views.
This industry is now part of the public sphere which emerged in the 1990 years, after the liberalization and the commercialization of the medias, in a context of State institutions failure. Nollywood videos are often accused to alienate a passive mass audience in the frame of what has been called escapism. I shall try to show here that is not so simple and that those videos make people think and brings information about the real world. On this new artistic stage, new figures emerged. First the prosperous business men, successful in liberal economy and global trade, often act at the edge of illegality. But this new figure is as criticized as it is praised. Vidofilms are not only a sort of glass case for icons of pride like fenced mansion in residential areas, elegant African and Western outfits, and Mercedes Benz or Four-Wheel-Drive cars. Power and success are often presented as being achieved by violence, meanness and engagement with occult powers. Many films depict how people get power and money through a pact with occult powers and ritual murders. They are sometimes looked down by the elite as “juju films”, but they indeed tell something about popular psychology. Most of the films convey a complex or even ambiguous message. Of course, they show a way of life made of success and luxury, but most of the time the good Christian businessman ends being corrupted by his own power and his own money. There is always a hard struggle between ethical qualities and the temptations of a corrupted world. Films about occult forces problematize the immoral acquisition of money and power. The spectra of ultimate selfishness which belongs to a particular occult economy in which human life is perversely used for making money equates symbolically a political critique of the hegemonic power of finance in a time where liberal economy has kicked out of the horizon, the single idea of humanity and solidarity. Another genre is the family drama. Family dramas focus on the seductions following high social status. Here again power and money seem to be hailed, but most of the time the scenario is based on a rise and fall pattern. An important point is raised: how to attain this high status by correct means and not to lose it through lack of self-control. Here another figure comes in: the Pentecostal pastor. He also is driving a Mercedes, but he gives an example of the Prosperity Gospel preached by the increasingly popular Pentecostal-charismatic churches. God will bless with prosperity for those who believe in him and keep on praying. Pentecostalism demonizes ethnic traditions and preaches for a complete break with the past. It is at least what they pretend because by affirming that God is stronger than Satan, they perpetuate the beliefs in Satan. To exist, they need the beliefs in the Power of Darkness. Many videofilm producers have adopted Pentecostal forms of representation, which are indeed very popular. Taking up the views and concerns of Pentecostal-charismatic churches, the videofilm industry contributes to the emergence of a new public culture.
Another topic exploited by the videofilms is the gender question, as the majority of the audience is composed by women. Here again, many critiques have presented the videofilms as being male chauvinist. Some are, but the generalization is unfair. Some women a portrayed as very powerful and not so much submitted to the arbitrary and brutal power of their husbands. Female strong characters are praised, but excesses are also denounced, like, for instance, loose girls searching for quick money. Those girls or women make use of witchcraft or “love magic” obtained through an alliance with “traditional priest from the bush”. The gender relations are also marked by problems of filiation, pregnancy and abortion.
A recurrent theme is the problem of reproduction – a problem the mother-in-law boldly attributes to the wife without any medical evidence. Many times, the husband ends up sleeping with the wrong woman (a witch). The wife, by contrast, attends a Pentecostal church and gets spiritual support from her pastor and prayer group. Sometimes, the redemption takes the form of a baby.
The figure of the mother who controls her married son and renders the young wife impossible is more than often satirized.
Let us take another example where the way a problem is presented help people to think about it: the emergence of squads which have been called the Bakassi boys, self defense squads against armed robbers. Those boys are not simply represented – at least in some videos - as super heroes. Of course the films sympathize with the despair of many citizens to be attacked by armed robbers and to be deprived of any police protection. But several films show also how volunteers of those squads take advantage of their new position and become corrupt and abusive themselves.
Another critique against Nollywood films addresses the cinematic language. Of course many videos are of pour quality, but this quality is improving as people are using a try and fail process. Directors, editors and actors learn their job on the spot although they try to keep the production cost low in order to sell at an acceptable price for a mass audience. Of course the cinematic language is not the one that is taught in sophisticated film schools: the narration (the story) is blended with a fragmentation of images propounded by clips, advertising and TV. One day, I asked to a producer why in his film the sound quality was so bad that I thought people would not understand part of the speeches. He abruptly answered that as far as he knew people understood enough. I do not know who was right.
I hope that through the few examples that I have presented, you understand the relations between Nollywood videos and documentary. Being in the center of many discussions in town, these videofilms could be regarded as ways to talk about things, and to generate more talk. They offer a particular discourse to address matters of concern in everyday life.
You could argue that they are not realist, not even plausible. Let us consider the visualization of the supposed invisible powers, Mami Wata or evil spirits. Nigerian films transgress the codes of realism, making concrete suggestion about the nexus of occultism and crime. Some anthropologists have studied this symbolic pattern at the level of the state power. I think about Comaroff in South Africa, Joseph Tonda in Congo, Peter Geshiere and Jean-Pierre Warnier in Cameroon. The fact is that evil powers are in the very center of modernity, not in the margins as traces of a timeless African heritage. The popular beliefs as they are represented in videofilms get close to the left critique of the perverse effect of globalization. Globalization not so much entails sharing in humanism: it is woven into world system of oppression and social destruction. It would be exaggerated to credit videofilms of a political agenda, but they certainly play an important role in the ongoing public debates about the (im) morality and legitimacy of power, good governance and citizenship. Important because they use an expression very different from the obsolete Marxist ideology or from the disenchanted language of social sciences.
That brings me to my second argument that will also be my conclusion. I think that in this country there is a huge potential for a new style of documentary. I think that using the tools and of Nollywood, very interesting documentaries (there probably exist some that I do not know) could be made by young filmmaker committed to the idea of democracy and interested in social issue. This potential as a dramatic dimension as many people in Lagos live in their live the most dramatic scenario. If cheap video documentaries were good enough to touch a large audience, a brilliant future would be open for a new generation of documentarists. Even if you want ultimately to make fiction film, you can be acknowledged through an interesting documentary. Many famous filmmaker were known because they sent their first film to a festival or a public screening somewhere and were noticed by other professional. It needs some efforts, but a documentary is not so expensive to produce as fiction part and if it does not make money, the loss is not so big. In order to achieve this project, young directors need to use the same intelligence as Nollywood directors: to use their friends, their relatives, their social connections and think first of all to be as closed as possible to the people they want to reach. Another opportunity is to mix the two different genres: building scenario from the real lives, then shoot the film as a Nollywood film.
www.irepfilmfestival.com 3 Oguntona Crescent, Gbagada Phase 1, Lagos Nigeria. P.O. Box 36 Surulere. T: +234 803 425 1963, +234 802 201 6495, +234 803 403 0646 E: firstname.lastname@example.org