IS KENNETH GYANG’S CONFUSION NA WA NOLLYWOOD’S TURNING POINT?
Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa is the result of a progression, an evolution of film making in Nollywood. It is the most important film in Nollywood as the industry enters a new phase in its (generally acknowledged) third decade.
The film, a blend of western humour and a Nigerian sensibility, is from a director who came of age as the Nigerian film industry was making first steps— both Kenneth Gyang, 27, and Nollywood took first steps to an external consciousness together. This means Nollywood’s ethos, starting to gain a visibility by 1993, was part of the man’s childhood cinema experience.
However, to fully appreciate the influences so evident in Confusion Na Wa, another milestone in cinema history, happening just a year later, has to be noted. At the Cannes Film Festival, in 1994, a former video clerk’s film earned high praise, culminating in its win of the scriptwriting award at the Academy Awards. So, within a year, there was Nollywood and there was Pulp Fiction made by former video clerk Quentin Tarantino.
Twenty years later, both events would reshape and relaunch Nollywood.
The parallels between Confusion Na Wa and Pulp Fiction are apparent: both films were shot with manageable budgets, both have overlapping, if circular storylines or what David Denby of The New Yorker called a ‘collateral narration’ where every action causes a reaction in another character’s life. Both have major stars who took a pay cut to star in them. And perhaps most importantly, both have reprobates at the centre of their narratives. Gene Siskel, a popular American film critic in the 90’s, placing Pulp Fiction alongside great violent films like Psycho and A Clockwork Orange, said, “Each film shook up a tired, bloated film industry and used a world of lively lowlifes to reflect how dull other movies had become.”
Confusion Na Wa follows 24 hours, in some fictional city, of some six lives; the stories overlap in the style of Pulp Fiction, which influenced later films like, Innaritu’s Amores Perros, and Meirelles’ Babel. Mr Gyang’s film springs from a collision of chaos and order. The stories collide externally and within these stories, characters collide.
An old world newspaper publisher with the rather phallic newspaper name, The Righteous Trumpet, has strong machismo ideals at odds with his son’s flexible notions of morality; an adulterer’s view of theft collides with two layabouts’ who believe things change owners because of the ‘cycle of life’. Humour collides with tragedy; Tarantino collides with Disney. All of these are bound effectively by both Hollywood and Nollywood tropes and influences.
The film starts with Emeka (Ramsey Nouah) losing his phone to Charles and Chichi (OC Ukeje and Gold Ikponmwosa,) the pair of layabouts at the centre of the narrative. The pair decides to blackmail him when they discover he is having an affair with the often poetic Isabella (Tunde Aladese) whose feckless husband Bello (Ali Nuhu) has a bad day plummeting to its nadir when he is jailed after smashing the rear windshield of the aforementioned publisher. There is also a story involving this publisher’s son and his sister’s friend who is raped on a night out; the consequence of that act brings the story full circle.
At first the viewer is perplexed as to the power handed to him by the director’s skilful use of dramatic irony. The suspense is at a higher level from the storied predictability of old Nollywood— it used to be that the alert, or sometimes the somnolent, viewer could foretell plot resolutions, but in Confusion Na Wa the audience is in collusion with the director. This oblique complicity, adds to a visceral thrill, an intellectual gratification.
The film’s dialogue is quickened by chicanery and misdirection. Like in Tarantino, you get the feeling people don’t talk like this for long stretches— it is dialogue if everyone were endowed with wit and (mental) fortitude.
There is a confidence and intellectual swagger implicit in the script that is commendable if shocking, for its self-assuredness, and for the confidence it reposes in the audience’s ability to get a joke without condescension, and without drawing attention through the use of a telling soundtrack. For example, in a scene where Charles, tells a girl whose drink he has spiked, to call him Sadiq; drunk and disoriented, she asks if she is a British knight, seeming to imply she has heard his name as Sir Dick. Brushing it away, Charles kisses and then rapes her, thus literalizing the confusion she has had of his name.
It is arguable which is more impressive: the creation of a two-step pun that employs both wordplay and a visual element, or that a failure to understand this exchange takes away nothing from the enjoyment of the film.
This enjoyable responsibility given to the audience occurs throughout the film as the audience is always several steps of the characters, knowing that an action here, a line there, offers more than the mostly hapless characters realise. The director and the audience become one, a little prescient, a little wiser than the owner of the lives themselves.
Several themes are embedded under this great cover of collisions; sexuality, retribution, rape, the culpability of complicity simmers beneath, unresolved as the script offers no homilies or any answers; it gives questions, difficult questions couched in humour. Characters change, characters become none the wiser. Although wittier, the characters are like real people: foolish and grope blindly in daylight.
Like the early films of that former video clerk, it leaves compassion to the audience. Empathise with any character, it implores; but whomever the viewer bestows judgement, whomever the viewer grants forgiveness says something of the viewer’s own understanding of life. By foregoing Nollywood’s need to preach, it embraces cinema’s ideal.
Yet Nollywood looms. Some scenes derive humour from slapstick comedic situations: Ramsey Nouah’s character is slapped four times in an unrealistic scene, saved by humour. Also, Mr Nouah’s philandering husband is a variation of his Nollywood stereotype, that of the seducer; although as opposed to his erstwhile roles, his character doesn’t revel as much as broods over his self-inflicted predicament.
(A meta-significance of Mr Nouah’s presence is the near-aloofness of his character in relation to OC Ukeje’s own immersion in the film. If the film has a lead character it is Charles, whose story binds all of the others together. This suggests a transfer from the old to the new. It is uncanny how much of the circle of life alluded to in the film is taking place outside of the film, as Mr Ukeje is now what Mr Nouah represented for more than a decade in Nollywood. The leading man baton has changed hands just as the phone in the film changed owners.)
With this combination, Confusion Na Wa ushers in a new Nollywood, complete with new leading man and director.
Although the film does mark a watershed in Nollywood, before Mr Gyang, there was Kunle Afolayan whose Figurine and Phone Swap were delightful. Others include, Mahmoud Balogun, Chineze Anyaene, and Obi Emelonye. Desmond Elliot may be added to the list.
This raises the question: why can’t anyone of these directors be said to be the harbingers of a new phase in our national cinema— weren’t their own films events?
Perhaps they were; but only as far as transition can be considered an event of itself.
Also, films from those directors were either standard Nollywood produce with some level of technical mastery, or they were vastly westernised with only a hint of Nigeria.
Mahmoud Balogun’s Tango With Me dazzled with rabid marketing, but the film itself was a series of close-ups and faux-contentious issues capped with a uniquely Nollywood denouement. Anyaene’s Ije was shot mainly overseas—a Nollywood film without much of Nigeria.
Emelonye’s films consistently have the appearance of being made for profit without much thought given to continuity and artistic integrity. Desmond Eliott is the emperor in new clothes—old Nollywood with a new camera, he takes the spirit of Mr Balogun’s airbrushed close-ups of stars to the extreme and clothes his stars with snazzy, garish outfits. Eliott’s films are extended music videos with flimsy clothing and flimsier storylines.
And pertinently, these films come with the announcement of huge budgets.
This is Afolayan’s albatross. He is a technical master, armed with good screenplays, and great cinematography— he uses same director of photography as Mr Gyang, Yinka Edwards, who is one-third of Cinema Kpatakpata, the production outfit completed by Gyang himself and a Brit, Tom Rowlands-Rees.
Mr. Afolayan’s difference to Mr Gyang— beside being such a Goliath that when he announces a film big companies line up— is his prohibitive budget. Nollywood got to audiences mainly through small budgets, from Kenneth Nnebue through Opa Williams to the Ejiro brothers. Mr Afolayan nonetheless deserves praise, as the tremendous budget of Emelonye is yet to produce anything as competent as The Figurine. But Afolayan isn’t playing on the same field as most up-and-coming filmmakers.
Mr. Gyang has announced a smaller budget, somewhere around the region of four million naira, paltry compared to the loud and shiny proclamations of Nollywood. Nowadays, a small budget is the anomaly, the novelty. With Gyang’s conservative budget, it would be a shame if companies interested in cinema paying attention.
At the just concluded Light, Camera, Africa!!! Film Festival, where Confusion Na Wa played publicly for the first time, Mr Gyang spoke of Nollywood and was particularly interested in distribution. This awareness of the problems and history of the industry comes up in Confusion Na Wa when Charles asks of his friend Chichi, “Nollywood? Them dey make film for there?”
(To draw another parallel to Quentin Tarantino, in the aforementioned review of Pulp Fiction, Gene Siskel noted that, “like all great films, it criticises other movies.”)
This sneering tone also functions as self-criticism, because Mr. Gyang has welcomed, and insisted on the Nollywood label for his work. The title, Confusion Na Wa, is an attempt to not run away from its Nigeria-ness; it is a self-imposed homing device. No matter where it is played, the title, derived from Fela’s Confusion, and with titular evocations of ’90s comedy, Lagos Na Wa, the film is instantly identifiable as Nollywood.
It is a one-man rebranding act, one that hopefully would halt the snobbery young cinema goers regard Nollywood, even where the alternative are not exactly great films but middling chick flicks and abject action flicks. Confusion Na Wa is a Nigerian story—or several Nigerian stories—told superbly.
The novelist, Chimamanda Adichie has spoken about not believing people with lives like hers and colour like hers could exist in books because for a long time she read only books by Caucasians. The cinema going public—and, especially, kids—like Adichie once was, are in a similar peril at the moment; a peril that sees Nigerians believing that they live unremarkable lives, and that the country’s local cinema equals mediocrity, while a film of any quality by an English, an Italian, an Indian, a South African director is superior.
The only way this may be halted is for the country to make it easier for those inclined, to grow into filmmaking so they can erase the budding inferiority complex in our national cinema. Filmmakers of Gyang’s generation would need encouragement of the financial kind to succeed and overcome the status quo that has made films like Confusion Na Wa a novelty and curiosity. For while curiosity may be good for the bottom line now, acceptance is better on the whole: the industry needs to get to a level where films like Confusion Na Wa can be routinely made, and made available to the public without foreign funding as is the case with Confusion Na Wa.
It cannot be said enough. The grant-for-film-production model is not viable in the long run; and Nollywood films of high quality have to be self sustaining.
The obstacle to this viability may be the leap required of the cinema audience who have grown accustomed to films depending on emotional blackmail, and often dipping into bathos. A film that caters to the head over the heart is several steps forward.
This is not to say Confusion Na Wa is a robot’s enterprise. The filmmaker Branwen Okpako called it clever after its inaugural public screening, but she was correct only by half. The film’s emotional core, the character Bello, appears slight at first, but his stature is magnified after repeated viewing. On subsequent showing, the viewer’s piecing together of the story done, Bello’s quandary, and perhaps the illicit desperation of his wife, Isabella come through.
It is a worthy challenge, one needed at this stage of our cinema culture. Cinema would, of course, remain popular entertainment; but, like in France of the late 1950’s, like in the Czech republic of the 1960’s, like in the US of the 70’s, it is time for something more.
In 2013, twenty years after the disputed Nollywood spearhead, Living in Bondage, Confusion Na Wa may prove to be important, radical as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was to American cinema in the eyes of Pauline Kael who remarked of the 1972 film, “the movie breakthrough has finally come”. Or, to each viewer, what Van Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks meant to rock critic Lester Bangs: “it was proof that there was something left to express artistically.” Or it would expand the cramped frontiers of the film making industry, akin to what Plantashun Boiz’ 2000 album, Body and Soul, did for pop music.
However, the eventual legacies of these touchstones in popular culture must be taken into account. Last Tango in Paris never quite brought the breakthrough in American cinema Ms Kael foresaw, as Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, recently, pointed out. Astral Weeks took more than three decades to go gold. And Body and Soul can be said to have propelled enthusiastic youngsters with minor music making talent toward making inferior music—the group itself could never quite replicate the early acclaim on subsequent efforts.
Film critic for Time, Richard Corliss said of Pulp Fiction in 1994: “If good directors accept Tarantino’s implicit challenge, the movie theatre could again be a great place to live in.”
In 2013, in Nollywood, same is true of Confusion Na Wa because while Mr. Gyang has created art, he has not invented an art form. The legacy of Confusion Na Wa is dependent on Nollywood scriptwriters, producers, directors; its legacy is reliant on their acceptance of the challenge the film represents merely by existing. The audience has to see Confusion Na Wa as well: as has been written about the brilliant, but not quite famous novelist James Salter, “there is no greatness without recognition…one must be read widely to qualify.”
The lesson is inherent in the praise: Confusion Na Wa is indeed a turning point, a blessing to the industry even. But in the end, there is only so much one man can do. The film has created a great image for Nollywood; it is the industry’s turn to reflect.