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Tunde Kelani is well underway with his newest movie titled Dazzling Mirage, adapted from the novel of the same title by Yinka Egbokhare. The production has an ambitious schedule with scenes being shot all over the city of Lagos. Location, location, location, as they say. The crew and leading lady, Kemi Lala Akindoju, have all been up to the task though. Patience and professionalism are the order of the day.

TK snaps a portrait of lead actress Kemi Lala Akindoju.

TK snaps a portrait of lead actress Kemi Lala Akindoju. (Kemi Lala Akindoju and Tunde Kelani.) © Connor Ryan

Dramatic lighting takes time.

Dramatic lighting takes time. (Kemi Lala Akindoju, Seun Akindele, and Tunde Kelani.) © Connor Ryan

Reposition camera, double check lighting and action.

Reposition camera, double check lighting and action. (Tunde Kelani, Bisola Ojo, Kemi Lala Akindoju.) © Connor Ryan

Actor Seun Akindele in the kitchen, the weight of the world on his character's shoulders.

Actor Seun Akindele in the kitchen, the weight of the world on his character’s shoulders. © Connor Ryan

Alongside Kemi Lala Akindoju and Seun Akindele, pictured above, the cast of Dazzling Mirage includes Yomi Fash Lanso, Bimbo Manuel, Kunle Afolayan, Taiwo Ajai Lycett, Ayo Badmus, and Tosin Bucknor. I will be following the cast and crew as they continue shooting through September. You can also see updates at the Dazzling Mirage website.

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Plaza Cinema's two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

Plaza Cinema’s two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan

The streetscapes of Lagos are packed tight with a jumble of new and old structures, commercial exchanges of every type in any space that can support them, and what one notorious architectural theorist described as the “friction” created by millions of people passing through the city. Most of Lagos’s historical structures get buried as the city rushes to keep pace with and accommodate the needs of its exploding population. The cinemas halls offer one example.

We hear often that Nigeria’s cinema halls, once a center of modern urban leisure, disappeared into oblivion with the crash of the naira (due to foreign pressure for Nigeria to accept economic “structural adjustment” (SAP)) and the rise of home video. As the story goes, when the cinema exhibitors were pressed out of business, the new wave of evangelical churches moved in comfortably with a few renovations. We often forget that Lagos is a remarkably young city, both in terms of built environment and population. Most Lagosians were not around to experience cinema at its height. With time the cinemas have faded from popular memory, even though their physical structures remain as landmarks. The buildings continue to evolve with the neighborhoods they used to serve, but they also still retain a trace of the past. These cinema halls are examples of what Rajeev Patke calls an “archive of involuntary memory” (p. 7). They are somewhat like the Brazillian architecture that spots Lagos Island, immediately recognizable to the eye and indelibly linked to a period of the city’s history. One is struck by a flash of memory walking past the Plaza Cinema near Tafawa Balewa race course (image above), a visual trace of the Post-Civil War/Pre-SAP years, the height of cinema culture in Lagos.

So what have the cinema halls become today? Of the 13 I managed to track down only two had be demolished outright, whereas the majority now serve several purposes at once: church, market, warehouse, residence, viewing center. The Plaza Cinema, for example, is occupied by Redeemed Christian Church of God, as well as a restaurant, travel agency, and petty traders. Ajegunle neighborhood’s God Dey Cinema, constructed in 1978, once accommodated up to 2000 viewers. Today the stage, screen, and the 400-capacity “reserve seating” balcony remain in good condition. It continued showing films until 2008 when the cost of operating the hall exceeded what the exhibitor could recuperate from tickets sold at N100 a piece. Today, the grounds outside the cinema function as a warehouse for tires, refrigerators, and cars imported and unloaded at nearby Apapa Wharf. Also in Ajegunle, Onishowo Cinema has become a school where the old seating has been arranged into five classes under one roof. The balcony, where big screen TVs have been rolled in, still serves as a viewing center of 30-40 seats. On the other side of Lagos in Agege one will find Pen Cinema, converted now to a fast food restaurant, and Danjuma Cinema, the only facility I visited that still operates as a cinema. Unfortunately, the site has in effect been surrendered to area boys and the risk of theft or assault makes the spot a no-go for all but the young men who enjoy pirated Hollywood and Bollywood films there at N80-100.

The buildings left are material structures, but in their heyday these cinema halls supported an “immaterial urbanism” (Larkin), which is to say an intangible but immanent experience of the city. It is increasingly difficult to find Lagosians who frequented cinemas in the 1970-80s and can recall the experience in detail. Perhaps there are some readers out there who could fill in the history a bit.

*Patke, Rajeev S. “Benjamin’s Archades Project and the Postcolonial City.” Diacritics 30.4 (winter 2000), 3-14.

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I have been defending the value of Yoruba Nollywood on the USA-Nigeria Dialogue Forum, where Kayode Ketefe has opened a debate on the industry’s shortcomings. As it turns out, Ketefe is a journalist for the National Mirror newspaper. Who knew, right? He published a large portion of my statements in this week’s column (without my permission). But I stand by my defense of Yoruba Nollywood as “distraction.” Nollywood’s detractors often reproach video films as “mere distractions” which do little more than offer mindless escapist fare. I want to turn that disparaging notion of “distraction” on its head. The films are distraction in the sense that Siegfried Kracauer meant when he describe early popular German cinema as a “cult of distraction.” As Kracauer observes, “the shows which aim at distraction are composed of the same mixture of externalities as the world of the urban masses,” and that they, “lack any authentic and materially motivated coherence, except possibly the glue of sentimentality which covers up this lack.” For Kracauer, the hope is that such popular films “convey in a precise and undisguised manner to thousands of eyes and ears the disorder of society.”

Ketefe has edited out some of these details from my online statements, but I’ll reproduce his article here for anyone interested.

From National Mirror (January 17, 2013)

Re: Lamenting decline in Yoruba Nollywood

Kayode Ketefe

Since last week when my piece “Lamenting decline of Yoruba Nollywood” was published, a deluge of reactions has poured in. Some were denunciatory, others exhortative, and still there were a few others that agreed with my postulations.

My intent here is to put the record straight through clarification on some areas which had engendered controversies, as well as purveying one of the reactions I found interesting.

What actually led me to write the piece was a discussion with a friend, who claimed to have bought 10 Yoruba Nollywood videos of which nine featured supernatural elements that mocked reality. I watched some of them with him. While I won’t give real examples, let me give fictitious imitations of the kind of storylines we usually encounter.

A banker, who had offended somebody, put money he had taken on loan in the safe in his room, then an incensed spirit materialised in the dead of the night and took the money away! A lady, who was looking for husband for many years, became desperate, and despite warning that she needed more patience, she picked the next wealthy guy that came along only to discover that the man was a corpse, who had died many years before!

Let any intelligent person tell me if that is the way the real world operates. I venture to think every profession has some responsibilities that inherently devolve on it – these filmmakers are supposed to be social educators; but pray, would a child who has been constantly fed on the staple of superstitions, magic and empirically unverifiable assumptions like that turn out to be a highly rational adult with a profound analytical mind? Some people also accused me of “wrongly” ascribing emergence of Nollywood to Yoruba artistes.

This point ought not to generate any controversy as it could easily be resolved by appeal to history.

The pioneers in the indigenous filmmaking in Nigeria (with the celluloid filming technology) were legends like late Hubert Ogunde, Ola Balogun, Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipo et al. Even when the home-video revolution occurred, it was started by late Alade Aromire and his Oriire Productions before the emergence of the more business-minded compatriots who now claim to have started Nollywood.

Be that as it may, now I reproduced below a reaction from one Mr. Connor Ryan, whose submissions I found interesting on the grounds that it expands the scope of discussion instead of degenerating into unnecessary vulgar abuses and ad hominem vituperations, like some reactions. He, via the USA Africa Dialogue series, wrote: “My Ketefe, I agree with a number of the points you made. I also agree the subtitling could be improved, though I don’t think the subtitles hinder a viewer’s comprehension of the film. And the titles do have many misspellings.

But this point on cultural representation sidesteps what I take to be your main critique, which is that Yoruba videos do not take social education as its responsibility. The freedom of creativity afforded to producers of popular culture is a hallmark of Nollywood.

It is an industry that never envisioned itself within the paradigms of filmmaking that predominated in canonical African cinema. We frequently are reminded of Sembene Ousmane’s adage that his films were “the night school” of Africa. In films, audiences could see the source of their alienation and oppression revealed. Nollywood filmmakers have refused these terms of filmmaking and embraced the freedom to shoot whatever stories compel them and their audience.

They don’t seek to plunge down to the root of social immiseration, or bring us to a higher, idealist plane of understanding. They rest at the surface of everyday life and discover the romance, pleasure, misfortune, and humour that exist there.

Yes, Yoruba films are disjointed, selfcontradictory, and messy. Yes, they are produced to give viewers pleasure. Yes, they are fixated on the superficial: money, sexy women, sexy men, flashy cars, fine cloths.

But I am more drawn to what film critic, Siegfried Kracauer, says about the “distractions” of popular culture. The audience encounters itself in these films, insofar as they encounter the fragmented, disintegrated, and contradictory nature of social reality. Moreso than the refined culture of scholars and artists, popular culture is more intimately related with the people who buy and enjoy it.

These videos are far from banal, and that they are suffused with magic and humor is part of their virtue. In any film or play reality is refracted (or “distorted) through the film/play’s project of representation.

In the genres most common in Nollywood, reality is refracted through melodramatic codes, supernatural deus ex machina, and comedic caricature. Whatever lesson or instruction they depart to viewers is offered not from above, but from below; it grows out of the common place stories that the videos depict.”

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The workshop wrapped up on Friday as Governor Fashola’s Deputy Chief of Staff Moji Rhodes, and other Lagos State Government representatives came to review the progress made by all the participants over the last week. The highlight, undoubtedly, was the screening of nine short films created by the participants as a way of experimenting with the lessons learned in the classroom. These films were shot over the course of two days by director/screenwriter/cinematographer crews grouped at random. It was my hope that this would mean a reshuffling of the hierarchies one finds on most Nollywood sets (with directors dictating to DPs, and screenwriters often totally absent, having finished their task) and more creative collaboration between participants. The films were based on three scenarios imagined and composed by the screenwriters seminar. The film concept goes something like this. The film opens on an argument between Bolaji and his wife Sandra that climaxes with Sandra shooting her husband in a fit of rage. We then cut to exactly one year earlier, on the night of Bolaji’s inauguration as Governor. In the later scenarios, Sandra tries to warn Bolaji that her own father, whose powerful patronage secured the governorship for Bolaji, has been maneuvering to exploit his influence over Bolaji. In the final scenario, Bolaji’s young mistress is chased down by a mysterious assailant. Is the attacker sent by Bolaji to silence the young woman or by Bolaji’s father-in-law seeking to use her against Bolaji?

The nine films presented us with nine very different interpretations of the scenarios. Four of the films were more conservative in their style, choosing to start from familiar ground for Nollywood professionals. This means long establishing shots from perhaps too far away, static camera work where a POV or tracking shot could be employed, and medium shots in interior spaces. These films did mix in several new techniques as well. The other films were impressive for their experimentation with expressive camera work. Some tricky depth of field work was executed to the applause of viewers in two of the films. Editing was swift. Shots of objects and detailed motions were included as a means of conveying narrative without dialogue. And finally, one of the films shot between Bolaji and Sandra featured a tastefully passionate and, frankly, quite touching kiss, for which the actors received the cheers and applause of their peers.

Over the last week I did some hand-wringing, as I’m sure so did others who are sensitive to the cultural politics of film style, especially the long tradition in African cinema of creating aesthetic challenges to world-dominant Hollywood dream-machines. If anyone worried that this workshop would steer Nollywood filmmakers into a Hollywood mode of storytelling and image-making, they can relax a bit. The role of the American (and Nigerian) trainers was, from my observations, more to bring ideas and small technical lessons into a forum where Nollywood professionals could pick and choose what they found helpful and ignore what failed to inspire them. The final films demonstrate that Nollywood’s two-decade tradition of making films in its own particular style will not be wiped clear in a week of training. However, film traditions are like living creatures, they must feed to grow. I only hope that these training workshops gave Nollywood professionals some food for thought.

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Collaborative exercise underway between screenwriter, director, and cinematographer participants.

Collaborative exercise underway between screenwriter, director, and cinematographer participants.

In the business of film seminar, participants will be engaging with Kunle Afolayan today, who will be speaking on his recent handling of the DVD release of The Figuring, and the negotiations with OHBox for the online broadcasting of his latest film, Phone Swap. I think this should be an invigorating class today, as we will also be hearing from a representative of Iroko TV, the online platform for Nollywood boardcast.

Today the participants look forward to putting the principles developed over the last three days into practice. The screenwriters will be pitching their works to the business of film seminar participants. In the mean time, the directors have received copies of the scripts and are already underway storyboarding and scheduling the shoots. I still see the cinematography crews shooting on sites around the training center. All the participants are clearly excited to see what they have collaboratively produced over the course of the week. All will be unveiled tomorrow, on the final day of the workshops.

Personally, it has been encouraging to see the intense competitiveness inherent to Nollywood slowly dissolving over the last three days into a generally collaborative learning environment. Without any over-sentimentality here, I want to emphasize the degree that collaboration between the Nollywood professionals in attendance has and can continue to benefit the industry’s stakeholders. The American trainers must be commended for bringing some thought-provoking ideas to the table, especially in the business of film seminar where Nollywood professionals need to start thinking imaginatively about strategies of distribution that have never been tried before in Nigeria. However, the trainers leave in two days, and yet the discussion on Nollywood’s future will continue among the participants and stakeholders.

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Kate Henshaw, Emeka Ossai and Eke Ume on the set of Crossed Roads.

In a recent conversation, Bond Emeruwa suggested that, in these tough times in Nollywood, some filmmakers might be returning to television production as an alternative. I jumped at Eke Ume‘s invitation to observe the set of Crossed Roads. Ume, production manager and associate producer of the program, has a long career straddling both TV and film production. When I visited the set, Ume and the crew were shooting for the upcoming fourth season of Crossed Roads. At the center of the scenes for the day was celebrity actress Kate Henshaw. who has accrued her fame from her work in Nollywood films. In fact, after asking around a bit, it became evident that nearly all the crew, from DP to boom operator, have worked in both video film and television.

The schedule was tight, and the crew worked professionally and efficiently to shoot twenty six episodes (half a season) in a matter of fifteen working days. Ume tells me that, when he shoots for TV, he is most concerned with conveying a compelling story, rich characters, and enthralling dialogue. When he works on film, he has more freedom to capture the camera movements and physical action that entice viewers. Financing of TV production is also virtually all from private investment, whereas films have more avenues for formal loans and alternative financing. This means financing for TV is harder, and since media outlets rarely fund production, the executive producer is left to absorb the financial risks. In the case of Crossed Roads, all the funding comes from Golden Pyramid, a private studio headed by Emeka Ossai (CEO). Besides acting as executive producer and producer for the program, Ossai also plays the lead role, a character named Vaugh. Crossed Roads will be aired on TVC, DSTV, and Africa Magic.

It is acknowledged often and widely that Nollywood videos bare a close relation to serialized television programming. Films are almost always split into part one and two, and the door is never closed on the possibility of producing a sequel if a film proves successful. The aesthetics of melodrama and the heavy reliance on dialogue as a vehicle of narrative development implies a consonance between video film and soap opera formats. And finally, the two mediums use the camera in a similar fashion. Shots are often stationary, and the use of close ups is intended to enhance the emotive impact of the dialogue. Alessandro Jedlowski might remind us, furthermore, that TV and Nollywood are both highly accessible, widely distributed (portable), and “communal in [their] modes of exhibition” (“Small Screen Cinema” 439), and that “Nollywood produces something that is located in between cinema and television” (ibid. 432). Jedlowski goes on to suggest that Nollywood’s recombination of cinema and television has engendered a “remediated” form he describes as “small screen cinema” (ibid. 439).

Beyond these aesthetic traits, we might also look to the specific history of television and film in Nigeria. In his essay “From Folk Opera to Soap Opera,” Wole Ogundele describes the evolution, or we might say the “remediation,” of Yoruba traveling theater into film, television, and later video film. He describes television as “a strong alternative and parallel medium that dramatists like Ogunde and Duro Ladipo used alternatively or in combination [with stage performance and film] (in Haynes 2000, p. 95). Indeed, we know that, in the earliest years of video film, those filmmakers who had formal training, like Tunde Kelani, were those who had worked for Nigerian Television Authority.

From Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Basi and Company to other popular television serials like New Masquerade, and The Village Headmaster, the medium of television has always existed as an important parallel medium alongside video film (see Haynes’s “What Is to Be Done?” [2010] and Adesokan’s“The Idea of Nigerian Cinema” [2012]). And the line between video and television has only grown more porous since the advent of M-Net’s Africa Magic satellite TV channels. (However, one must keep in mind that DSTV has only some 5 million subscribers in Nigeria, a nation of over 150 million.) I wonder if we should still think of television and video film as parallel media, or as two industries constantly at a crossroads with on another.

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I am thrilled to revive FindingNollywood.com by introducing the blog’s new contributor: Connor Ryan. Connor will continue the blog’s fine tradition of Fulbright scholarship by exploring the burgeoning Yoruba film industry through documenting the impact of Tunde Kelani‘s Mainframe Productions studio has made upon Nollywood, giving special attention to its mobile cinema project. From October 2012 to August 2013, Connor will conduct research at The University of Ibadan’s National Archives and the Nollywood Studies Center (NSC) at the Pan-African University in Lagos.

Connor’s work in African literature and film originated at Michigan State University where he was awarded a FLAS fellowship in 2009 to study Yoruba. In 2010, he spent two months studying Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University – Ile-Ife with the Fulbright-Hays Yoruba Group Project Abroad. He had the good fortune to return to Nigeria in the summer of 2011 to build the NSC’s start-up website. It was during this period that he met Kelani, me, and developed the basis for this research project.

I cannot think of anyone more uniquely qualified to link people and resources in this continuing online inititative to broaden Nollywood research and scholarship.

Much love from Burma/Myanmar,
Bic

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