iREP 2011 was a whirlwind of insightful films and thought-provoking discussions. See below for a list of highlights from the last several days:
Symposium: African in self-conversation: Documentary and democracy
According to moderator Professor Tunde Adegbola (University of Ibadan), Nigeria’s position as an “oral society” makes the population receptive to interpreting documentary films as “instruments for the promotion of democracy”.
Busola Holloway, President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria, defined documentaries as “cinéma vérité: You’re trying to tell the truth; you’re trying to say what is happening at that time.”
He also warned that conflicts of interests created by sources of funding detract from film makers’ ability to tell the truth: “Who pays the pipers dictates the tunes. Now, documentaries are usually produced for propaganda purposes in democracies by sitting powers. I would rather be an independent film maker to tell the truth.”
Film: The Manuscripts of Timbuktu, Zola Maseko (South Africa, 2009)
Zola Maseko uncovers the history behind Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts–numbering in the hundreds of thousands–through dramatizations of the life of Ahmed Baba, the West African medieval scholar who authored more than 40 books. This film made me want to curl up with a cup of coffee and browse through the 18,000 manuscripts stored in the Ahmed Baba Institute, the only public library in Timbuktu.
Round-table Discussion: Motifs of black consciousness in African documentary films
Professor Onookome Okome (University of Alberta) criticized existing documentaries about Nollywood for their failure to reflect the black consciousness:
All of documentaries about Nollywood–’Nollywood Babylon’, ‘This is Nollywood’, ‘Welcome to Nollywood’–are from the outside and they just tell me one thing: They hammer on the very, very grotesque. They hammer on the idea of fetish practices and if you read those ideas in terms of the rationality of modernity, what it means is that those people who are making these films are still living in the crude era of cinema and in the crude era of cultural articulation.
Okome identified the need to change the frame of reference in looking at Nollywood:
Once we begin to understand that Nollywood is popular art and it is not ideologically located in any premise, then we will begin to understand what Nollywood is all about. Let me troubleshoot a little bit. We must understand that the phrase ‘black consciousness’ is a way of speaking and it’s a way of speaking to something else: another discourse, or another set of discourses, one of which is racism, slavery, blackness versus whiteness…it simply means that black consciousness itself may just lose its temperament because it still speaks to something else without defining itself. You cannot tie your narrative to another narrative and say that your narrative is independent. So if you say ‘black consciousness’, what are you responding to? A white consciousness? A blue one? A green one? Until we make that clear, it becomes something that we need to talk about.
Okome concluded by defining Nollywood as a form of “spontaneous, grassroots” Pan-Africanism:
Nollywood is consciously imitated in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana. Nollywood film producers and directors are doing co-productions everywhere on the continent–and what is more Pan-African than that? It is Pan-Africanism from the people, for the people, by the people.
On another note, Professor Awam Amkpa (NYU) emphasized the potential role of Nigeria as a leader in documentary film making:
We have a highly visually literate population–something that Nollywood has produced–and a very highly literate way of reading images on the screen, so we don’t have to persuade people to watch these things. So the challenge for film makers is how to diversify their story-telling so that they can move from fictional to the documentary process, and by that process they’re retooling and retraining themselves as well as creating new publics for their work.