image from naij

The films made in Nollywood and now shown in the cinema are visually united by the airbrushed faces of famous faces, of pretty faces and the newest fascinating camera shot: the close-up and ideologically tied together by a lack of a philosophy. Maybe these disparate tropes can be considered a leap, an aesthetic leap: not too long ago what obtained were script writing movements.

The inaugural episode of these movements ( as seen in Living In Bondage and later, Rituals) featured ritualism and witchcraft- distinctly not the Harry Potter brand- finally defeated by the assured potency of Christianity; followed by melodramatic dramas presenting chasms between in-laws; by the 2000s, bolstered by the influx of young men and women attracted by the glamour of the small screen, Nollywood turned to the love story. The love story turned out to be the last major phase of the movement era before the entry of the big screen. Hybrids of all these have since been prevalent with a possible plot involving say two young lovers having to battle the ritualistic tendencies of a mother-in-law with the force of their piety and the unbreakable bond of an asexual love. Love wins; Religion wins; what is art?

(A few films had managed to have some merit: in the 1990’s, the films of Amaka Igwe, especially the deservedly praised domestic drama Violated, were highlights; before he veered into organizing comedy shows, Opa Williams, though often dipping into bathos, made few films capturing the plight of Nigeria’s lower class accurately; the early films of Emem Isong which combined the personal and the political were successful; even films preoccupied with anachronistically dressed villagers had minor champions- the Norbert Young vehicle, Igodo remains the peak of that sub-genre’s achievements.)

The entry of the cinema has seen the setting of films move to urban locations ostensibly to cater to the needs of the emerging middle class. This readjustment to the whims of this class with supposedly elite taste propels the faux-sophistication threatening to sweep the industry into artistic irrelevance using false elements of our culture.

Put simply; the middle class, for whom the average film making its way to the cinema is targeted, appears to be different only with regards to bank balance; its aesthetic taste struggles between the abyss of vulgarity and the uncertainty of the middlebrow and is satisfied with the former clothed in the garish apparel of the latter.

The rich, a more accurate label for this class, unwilling and perhaps unable to discern the shape of things from their nature, lap up these story lines persuaded by bright lights and the prohibitive price of movie tickets- this last, in supreme obeisance to the laws of capitalism, keeps the poor effectively out of sight.

Nevertheless, the elite/middle class/rich are not the only forces keeping the film industry in stagnant perpetuity; the (print) media has a share in the blame.

Nigerians are happy when the industry gets western coverage- recently The New York Times and The Guardian have devoted inches to Nollywood. Members of the industry are quick to point this out as a mark of success intentionally ignoring or perhaps oblivious of the condescending tone adopted in such reports: there is always a ‘biased balancing’ of the reportage, for instance in a piece hailing Kunle Afolayan as the African Martin Scorsese (a dubious praise as even Marty was not the Martin Scorsese after his first two films,) the New York Times presented the ambition of the man alongside the perils of film making in Nigeria and the antics of Osita Iheme (Pawpaw).

The fact is it is volume, not artistic vision or merit, that has garnered Nollywood these mentions in western media. These pieces subtly express surprise and mockery; never envy, never unreserved praise- two forms of acclaim regularly bestowed on Korean cinema in recent times.

This clamor for western validation is a product of the failure of our media to go beyond celebrity news and scandal; a refusal to delve into critical commentary of the film industry. It is the reason, the observation made by English literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, expressing the lack of a social function for criticism in the 80’s, adding that literary criticism at the time was stuck between ‘inchoate amateurism’ and ‘socially marginal professionalism’ is particularly true of the Nigerian film making industry today.

Actually, it is worse: it can be said that there is no professionalism in the media coverage of film in Nigeria as reports are confined within centerfold gossip and the spectacle of red carpeted premieres. The big papers in the country do not run reviews beyond plot summaries in what amounts to paid adverts by the cinemas or film sponsors. Or in extreme cases, a peer-cum-friend review is adopted. It is shameful the majority of the country’s newspaper and magazines do not devote pages to critical dissections of the arts even in the prestigious publications.

If the status quo must be altered (and it should): Big Media would have to do what it should: run reviews/criticisms that are, to paraphrase Odia Ofeimun, themselves works of art even if it means commissioning competent critics/writers; actors will have to do more than gesturing and grimacing, then hoping longevity in the industry will confer the neo-meaningless term ‘veteran’; directors, especially, will have to establish a guiding ideology and actually learn the craft; viewers, will have to be more critical and discerning.

For only then can the shape of things to come be anything near beautiful.