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
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.”