A Camera with a Conscience:
Tunde Kelani and the Future of Yoruba Video Film
In 1992, Kenneth Nnebue released his now-legendary feature, Living in Bondage, which flooded Nigerian marketplaces and inaugurated the video film industry dubbed Nollywood. Despite these humble origins, the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) now estimates Nollywood’s production at approximately 30 feature-length films per week, and UNESCO (2007) ranks Nollywood as the second largest film industry in the world. Rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that in the past three years, Yoruba-language releases have eclipsed films released in all other Nigerian languages combined, including English. The NFVCB reports that of the 1,114 films approved last year, 528 (54%) were produced in Yoruba. As a Fulbright scholar I will explore the burgeoning Yoruba film industry by following Tunde Kelani, the most respected and accomplished Yoruba filmmaker in Nigeria. I intend to document the impact his Mainframe Productions studio has made upon Nollywood, giving special attention to its mobile cinema project.
Tunde Kelani was raised in the town of Abeokuta where he had his first encounter with cinema. As a young boy, he was enthralled by the silvery images emanating from the screen of a British colonial mobile cinema unit. The technology of mobile cinema from Kelani’s childhood was used as an instrument of colonial administration over Yorubaland. Today, Kelani has another vision for it. He has reappropriated it for direct distribution of Yoruba popular art, creating an unprecedented opportunity to bring his vastly popular films to the people. While Nollywood’s film distribution suffers from piracy, infrastructural degradation, and ineffectual marketers, Kelani’s studio, Mainframe Productions, brings its films directly to audiences at public displays across Nigeria. His films crystalize Yoruba culture and make it visible to Yorubas and Nigerians alike. They reclaim Yoruba popular art in an era of digital media and seek out cultural solutions to problems of movie piracy, land grabbing, and AIDS/HIV. This has earned him the nickname “the camera with a conscience.” From 2003-2004, UNESCO funded Kelani’s mobile cinema as he followed the footsteps of the Yoruba traveling (alarinjo) theater and screened feature films and documentaries to a region of Nigeria hungry for popular community entertainment. It has suggested the viability of this “Yoruba-centric” solution to the video distribution crisis in Nigeria.
I will analyze Tunde Kelani’s mobile cinema as popular art, using methods developed by Karin Barber, Jonathan Haynes, and Onookome Okome. These scholars argue that popular art must be understood in the social milieu of their production and consumption, and that Africa’s social milieux can, in turn, be apprehended through critical analysis of popular art. Popular art communicates daily experiences, common struggles, and shared histories to a diffuse majority that otherwise lacks a voice in Africa’s mediascape. My study will document the circumstances and constraints facing Kelani in each phase of film production. My specific research questions are as follows:
- How does the audience interpret cultural conventions deployed in Kelani’s films?
- How does a viewer’s experience of a film exhibited in open air among an audience of 500-1000 differ from how a viewer experiences videos viewed at home in small groups?
- How do Kelani’s public screenings represent “Yoruba-ness” to a Yoruba community and how does the community achieve a sense of itself by viewing these films together?
I will answer the above questions in three phases of research. In October 2012, I will conduct archival research at The University of Ibadan’s National Archives to better understand the important historical antecedents of Kelani’s mobile cinema and Nigeria’s film industry. Over the entire grant period I will work closely with Tunde Kelani at his Oshodi office. I will digitally scan materials and documents from Mainframe’s archive and conduct a series of video interviews with Kelani, aiming to piece together the impact of Kelani’s career on Nollywood.
Finally, I will seek to test Karin Barber’s proposition that the meaning of popular art arises in the interaction between artist and audience or, in other words, between production and consumption. To fully understand a film requires one to examine the context of consumption alongside that of production. In 2013, Kelani anticipates producing Dazzling Mirage, a film based on a popular Nigerian novel. I will shadow Kelani through the lifespan of this production while tracing the cultural brokerage that molds the film from screenplay to first screening. This entails documenting the conditions, constraints, social networks and cultural influences that shape every step of production. I will also follow Kelani’s mobile cinema as it tours southwestern Nigeria screening his latest feature film, Ma’ami. To get a sketch of an average audience, I will issue a voluntary questionnaire in English and Yoruba asking the age, gender, occupation, and ethnic background of audience members. Viewers will also be asked to report their reception of specific cultural motifs in the film. I will supplement this data with interviews of audience members after each screening. Surveying viewers at intermissions has proved successful for Kelani in the past. I will replicate his strategies and seek his consultation as I develop my questionnaire. However, my project is not simply a study of viewer reception, and questionnaires come with inherent limitations. As Barber argues, consumption of popular art is more like a forum in which viewers try out several interpretations. As I observe each screening I will be attuned to sub-textual interpretations that surveys cannot reflect. Combining questionnaires, interviews, and my observations, I will develop a qualitative assessment of the mobile cinema’s context of consumption. My advisor, Kenneth Harrow, will submit my project to the Institutional Review Board and we expect its review will be expedited.
This project unfolded over several conversations I held with Tunde Kelani in the summer of 2011. He has pledged his participation and offered me access to his personal archive of early videos, poster art, and draft scripts located at the Mainframe Productions office in Oshodi. He has also welcomed me to assist where I can with his next feature production. I have also discussed the above questions with Professor Emevwo Biakolo, the Dean of the School of Media and Communications and the Nollywood Studies Center (NSC) at the Pan-African University in Lagos. He has promised the support of the NSC, which hosts an online resource center that is positioned to become a major portal of Nollywood research. Collaboration with the NSC will guarantee I have ample access to digitized films, primary documents, and frequent contact with industry practitioners and scholars who attend forums held at the NSC. I intend to organize a series of NSC-hosted seminars that will bring film practitioners and scholars together to discuss the past, present and future of Nigerian video film. This will also give occasion to collect and disseminate research, and build contacts.
The NSC website offers a high-profile and interactive platform where I will disseminate my research, archival documents, and video interviews with Kelani for the benefit of researchers and the Nigerian public. Blogging my activities on the NSC website will provide a chronicle for future publication. I intend to gather my findings into an article manuscript for submission to The Journal of African Cinemas. Data from my research will be integral to my Ph.D. dissertation on the rise of African video film, which I will write the year following my project with guidance from African film scholar Kenneth Harrow. It is no exaggeration that Tunde Kelani is the most important Nigerian filmmaker today. Understanding how his works shape a popular Yoruba vision of Yoruba culture, will, I argue, explain the recent rise in indigenous-language video films.
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