BY ORIS AIGBOKHAEVBOLO
Just before Confusion Na Wa was released a few years ago, I was asked by Metropole magazine to interview the film’s young director. Kenneth Gyang and I met at director Ishaya Bako’s apartment in Abuja. We saw the film and spoke for some time. I was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge of world cinema, his glee at discussing Sembene.
While he appeared nice enough, it was his film that left a firmer mark. It stayed in my mind long enough for me to write a lengthy piece about its importance. Gyang’s film was so different from regular Nollywood fare that I figured it was destined to change the game by encouraging our filmmakers to be more ambitious. I was wrong. And not for the last time.
The idea of one person lifting the rest of her peers to her level occurred to me again when I saw Izu Ojukwu’s ’76. The leads, Rita Dominic and Ramsey Nouah, were in fine form. Both were restrained, acting within the restrictions of their characters, with not a single twitch or gesture surplus to onscreen requirement. Perhaps, I thought, Nollywood actors will come to see what is possible without melodrama. No such thing happened. Instead, Dominic sank with the rest of the cast and crew in The Guest, the next picture of hers to reach the big screen.
A similar thing happened with Ojukokoro. A long time before its cinema release, Dare Olaitan’s film had been buzzed about within the Lagos film circle. I saw it and was again impressed—this time by its smart dialogue, its occasional shifts in perspectives, and the acting from its young ensemble cast. By then, I had learned to recalibrate my Nollywood expectations. If Ojukokoro won’t do much for Nollywood, I thought, it just might be enough of a platform for Olaitan to forge an enviable career of his own.
What happened next was Lagos Big Boy, a web series unbelievably poor in every area—dialogue, acting, pacing, common sense—I thought Ojukokoro had excelled in. The chemistry between the many actors in Ojukokoro vanished between the three rather bad actors in the web series. Though it was not on the big screen, the spectacular failure of LBB spurred two questions. Was Olaitan’s talent, so obvious in Ojukokoro, a mirage? Had Nollywood complacency gotten to the man? Both questions will be answered by his next project.
All three films—Confusion Na Wa, ’76, and Ojukokoro—are relatively recent and showcase Nollywood brilliance in different ways, but so far their artistic merits have proven insufficiently influential for the rest of our filmmakers. By some unscientific measures, you could say The Wedding Party is the most influential of newer films from Nollywood. Always a wedding-crazed society, the country has lapped up matrimony at the movies. Our filmmakers have rushed to produce and reproduce Mo Abudu’s picture. The formula is a simple one: add celebrity to a few laughs and watch the nairas roll in.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with making money at the movies. It is a business. But if most cinema cultures have an easy money-spinning branch, the trouble with Nollywood is it has nothing else. The situation is so deplorable that big screen audiences have been denied access to two of the most unusual films from Nigerian directors in recent times: CJ Obasi’s O-Town and Abba Makama’s Green White Green.
Part of the problem is that the reward system outside of box office returns is faulty. Examples:
I was surprised to find the terrible-from-start-to-finish Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde vehicle Alter Ego on the list of winners at the 2017 AFRIFF awards.
Kunle Afolayan’s The CEO, far from the man’s best work, got a Best Supporting Actress award for Angelique Kidjo’s stiff-as-sticks portrayal at the AMAAs. The AMAA jury was clearly watching the film with its ears.
The AMVCAs are a commercial entity always thinking branding.
On the laughable side of things, Charles Novia recently included Jalade-Ekeinde in his list of best actresses in 2017—a sure sign that his lists can’t be taken seriously. The implication is that the Nollywood system of judgment is broken both AMAA-high and Novia-low. And to my mind, the only reviewer worth paying attention to is Wilfred Okiche. (Sometimes I think he is the only reason to read the platform he writes for.) Commenting on mediocre Nollywood regularly might have taken some force out of his writing style, but from sense to sentence to sensibility, he is the Nollywood critic to read.
But Okiche is one man. The industry needs a credible award system dedicated to Nollywood. The AMVCAs cannot be helped from its commercial ambitions and something is not quite right about the AMAAs judging the whole of African cinema as it purports to do. There is a need to show aspiring filmmakers that quality cinema will be rewarded—if not with Wedding Party sums of mega-money, then with acclaim, awards, and a keen appreciation from a loyal fan base. The industry may not realise it, but it needs a better awards body.
As it stands, Kenneth Gyang has shot a film to be released next year; Izu Ojukwu is working on a Queen Amina epic; and it is hoped Dare Olaitan returns to the heights he reached with Ojukokoro. Perhaps if these three men—and a few other directors—find their way, Nollywood can take a few more steps towards quality cinema.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a culture critic based in Lagos