Reflecting on Nollywood’s Lack of International Critical Recognition

nollywood

In the last few years a few Directors of Nigerian heritage have made waves internationally.

Thomas Ikimi with his debut “Limbo” and its follow up “Legacy: Black Ops” (2010) , which scored a hot-off-“The Wire” Idris Elba as his lead and co-producer. It was nominated for a British Independent Film Award, and won Best Director at the London Screen Nation Awards 2011, and was picked up for distribution in both the US and UK with limited theatrical releases in each country.

Fun Fact: Ikimi had been unable to raise funds in the UK or US so he came back to Nigeria and raised the entire production and post-production budget of $500,000.

There’s also Andrew Dosunmu with “Restless City” and follow up “Mother of George,” both films wining Cinematography awards at Sundance.

Akin Omotoso directed the crime drama, “Man on Ground” (2011) premiering at TIFF (he also directed last year’s South African romantic comedy “Tell Me Sweet Something”).

Newton Aduaka directed child soldier tale “Ezra,” was at Sundance.

Destiny Ekaragha’s “Gone Too Far” won Best Newcomer at the London Film Festival. She’s only the third British black woman, following Ngozi Onwurah and Amma Asante, to have directed a feature-length film that was given theatrical distribution in the UK.

Richard Ayoade directed “Submarine” and “The Double,” both films received international critical acclaim and releases.

Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar,” “The Wood”) made a splash at Sundance with the coming-of-age movie “Dope” last year, and is now attached to direct the feature film for DC’s speedster “The Flash.”

And there are others…

While we celebrate these Nigerian kin, the thing is, all these filmmakers were either born or raised or have spent most of their adult lives and careers outside Nigeria. The question then is, despite the position of Nigeria as the second largest producer of films in the world, why aren’t filmmakers living, educated and working in Nigeria frequently making films that take the world by storm?

If “City of God” from Brazil – a country with no discernible film industry – could get the global film industry and audiences talking, and inspire many of today’s Nigerian directors that such a level of filmmaking was possible from the so-called “third world”, why hasn’t any Nigerian film (as in 100% Nigerian cast, crew & financing) been able to have a similar kind of impact?

If “Timbuktu,” from Mauritania, could be selected in Competition for the Palme d’Or at the most prestigious film festival in the world (the Cannes Film Festival), and win the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, as well as the François Chalais Prize, get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, why not films from the film industry that reminds everyone that it’s the 2nd largest in the world?

Why aren’t we (Nollywood cinema) regularly in competition at the top film festivals; Cannes, Sundance, Toronto (TIFF), Berlinale, Venice, etc?

Considering the output of Nollywood, the odds should be astronomically higher than most other similar countries, right?

At the Nigeria Entertainment Conference (NEC) a few years back, a prominent industry figure on a panel was asked about our lack of presence at international film festivals (whether major or not). With condescending irritation, he dismissed the question, stating that we didn’t need the recognition from those festivals, and that the films were made for local audiences who loved what they were getting.

Was it a sincere argument, or simply a cop-out, instead of addressing the fact that Nigeria’s prolific film industry has, so far, proven incapable of making globally accessible films that can cut through the noise and stand out? After all, cinema is a visual language that transcends culture, language and creed, opening the filmmaker to a wider demographic and more opportunities.

Film Festivals are to the filmmaker, what the Olympics, IAAF, Common Wealth Games etc, are to athletes. While you may be a champion sprinter in your community (what we call, a local champion), if you really want to prove that you are as good as, or better than everyone else in the world, you have to compete at the highest levels; you have to go to the Olympics.

So, shouldn’t Nollywood films be regular features, in competition, in film festivals around the world? Shouldn’t Nigerian-born and bred directors have films that have the entire global industry talking? It only leads to wider distribution, which means even more income for the local filmmakers, producers and film companies, so why wouldn’t anyone want that? Also with Hollywood’s love for “discovering” foreign talent, it creates a larger platform for the filmmaker.

There are many filmmakers who truly have no interest in any market beyond the one they are currently serving, and that’s fine, but that certainly can’t be the perspective of the majority, can it? Foreign Directors (non U.S) have caught the eyes of studios when their “low budget” films, made in their home countries, make waves and are transcendent of language and culture. Gavin Hood (South Africa) won the Oscar for “Tsotsi” and was hired to direct “Wolverine: X Men origins”; Fernando Meirielles (Brazil) went on to make “The Constant Gardner”; Florian Henckel Von Donnersmack (Germany) directed “The Tourist” based on the impression he made with “The Lives of Others”; Tomas Alfredson (Sweden) made the cult hit “Let the Right One In” and was given “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”; Jose Padhila (Brazil) directed “Elite Squad” and was hired for the “Robocop” reboot, and now is producing and directing “Narcos” for Netflix; and there are others.

It can be argued that their Hollywood outings weren’t great (studio interference et al), but their work got them to the place where Studios felt confident enough to call on them, skipping over filmmakers right in their backyard – available U.S born and bred filmmakers – to direct these Studio films.

Unlike the home video era, Nollywood films in the new era have considerably bigger budgets averaging between ₦40 million (US$250,000) and ₦120 million ($750,000). Why can’t this also be the story of a Nigerian director who made a tour de force first film with a budget in that range, that travels internationally, makes a splash, leading to Hollywood studios fighting to hire him/her and give him/her $50m to make a film?

It would be wonderful to one day see a film with 100% Nigerian cast, crew and financing, be the opening/closing movie for any of the top 5 film festivals in the world, and for a Nigerian director’s name to be called as the winner of the Palm d’Or (Cannes), the Golden Bear (Berlin), the Sundance/Venice Grand Jury Prizes, TIFF etc. Winning one of those could not only be a big deal for the individual filmmaker, but could make international investors (not just Hollywood/American), distributors and financiers come looking for co-production opportunities in Nigerian cinema, and possibly setting up studios to create local divisions with local talent. (Fox Searchlight did that with Bollywood in India, for example, which lead to jobs, and industry growth. No thriving film industry in the world relies only on its internal finance and talent. Even the most dominant player in the international film industry, Hollywood, relies heavily on foreign distribution for profits, and we’re seeing more and more American studios and production companies team up with their equivalents in other countries – across Europe and China for example – in co-financing/co-production deals, spreading the financial burden and gains around.

But I’m hopeful, with 8 Nollywood films going to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last September as part of the festival’s much welcomed “Lagos Spotlight” (the year’s pick for TIFF’s annual City to City initiative). Who knows – this is something that could just be the start of the door bursting wide open for other Nigerian filmmakers down the road.

Nigerians especially reading this might be asking, what about the local awards? Why do we need international glory? Why do we need foreign recognition? We have our own industry here. To that, my response is, there is a difference between the Super Eagles (Nigeria’s national football/soccer team) being African champions, and the Super Eagles being World Cup Champions. They aren’t mutually exclusive; why can’t they be both? The positives outweigh any negatives in the long run.


Olu Yomi Ososanya is a writer/director and film nerd living in Lagos, Nigeria. He has written for and worked on shows for Mnet, Ebony Life TV. Films he has written and directed have screened internationally, including the Cannes Short Film Corner. Follow him on Twitter at Oludascribe. He also blogs at oludascribe.com.

6 Comments

  1. The whole system was never done properly from the start! Had Nollywood films been shown in the theater system from the inception like India, I think there would have been a greater emphasis placed on Nollywood filmmakers to push for a wider audience outside of Nigeria or Africa because they would have been competing side by side with Hollywood movies. Nollywood filmmakers would have had to improve their production quality because they would have been no other outlet for them to showcase their projects. However, since Nollywood started out on home video, nothing was regulated. So the filmmakers didn’t need to care about production quality. Since production quality wasn’t a high priority for Nollywood filmmakers, the international community kind of wrote off Nollywood films as a joke.

    Whereas in French Africa, a filmmaker like Ousmane Sembene set high standards when he made Black Girl. This film and filmmaker paved the way for fellow Senegalese filmmakers like Djibril Diop Mambety who made Touki Bouki to receive greater international attention for his film. That is why we are able to see a french African filmmaker like Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu) get the level of international recognition for his film.

  2. Just because Nollywood keeps churning out hundreds of movies each year and is regarded as the second/third largest Film Industry in the world does not mean that the industry is guaranteed international recognition and success. Doing the wrong things over a long period of time cannot right wrongs.

    Film has a language and it is universal. Even though Cultures and Movements (German Impressionism, Italian Neo Realism, French New Wave etc) have influenced the art of filmmaking ever since the first films were made, these movements have contributed, largely, towards innovative storytelling. Unconventional, though they may be.

    The problem I see with Nollywood is basic. Telling a story using Film language. Most Nollywood movies do not follow these accepted film conventions and so it is difficult for their movies to transcend borders and cultures outside Nigeria and Africa. Only a handful make it internationally. Unfortunately, these films are made by Western educated Nigerian filmmakers.

    For Nollywood to go universal, I think it is time they find a way to tell their stories in a language that is accepted universally.

    • Actually, many Nigerian films are recognized outside of Nigeria and Africa. If I had a dollar for every West Indian person who’s asked me if I have any new Nollywood films to give them, I’d be rich. Nigerian films have a very wide reach across the African Diaspora.

  3. The bottom line is creating an audience simultaneously with creating a film. Africa has a healthy population of at least 800 million film and TV lovers, four times as much as Europe and America combined, how do we reach them? Hollywood movies no matter how you want to look at it are the most popular across the black diaper worldwide. How do we monetize? There’s no formal distribution system, every tom dick makes copies distributes with no impunity. The African Union and trade consulars in African embassies have the resources to tabulate every distributor on the planet. its common these days to walk into a Nollywood movie store or see a Nollywood rental rack in African mom and pop food stores all over the world to as far as China, how do we harness this lawlessness? Africa needs 4000 low budget movie theaters across the continent. Are we willing to build them or have foreign theater chains with dubious accounting build them? Companies like IrokoTV, Buni, Zuku, Afrinolly, DSTV, StarTimes, and other TV stations across the continent and globe pay a pittance, I mean almost nothing to show African Films.The big lie excuses are they only well pay for good quality. The truth is the want quantity over quality. How do we address this? How do we audit local distributors who are themselves the actual bootleggers of our films? The math is clear, if over 20,000 movies are made yearly across Africa at an average of $20,000 per movie and revenues are about $60,000 – 10,000 per movie, there is clearly a profit slope there.
    I agree with the comments by D Troublemaker, you have to first create a national film commission, that in turn commission studies and consultancies into the creation of a film infrastructure, a local industry, a marketing plan, a tax exemption plan for local investors, and a non traditional export promotion initiative for film and TV products. Even though directors are the captains of a production, every single cast and crew member is important. Having a talented director and an average producer and crew will only take you so far. In response to the writer of the article if its just the pride of opening a movie at Tiff, Sundance, Berlinale etc is what is so important we have problems. You can pay to have you movie open there. Hollywood can afford it. Indie movies are continuously struggling, even the movies mentioned in the article all struggled. Why are you so bent on having loosing investors pay for the careers of a handful of people. However if a well detailed marketing and recoupment strategy which includes screening at festivals, sales agents and hometown exhibition then please go ahead. sales strategies look good on paper in the film proposal or package, but African producers rarely sign proper sales contracts. Lets learn, from Mexico, India, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia and most recently China, how to build our film industries and infrastructure. African film is the future, even majority of the stories from the shoddily made Nigerian films are fresh and very original many times defying all conventional storytelling structures (pun intended). thanks

    • Sir/Madam Decolonize, You are correct in most regards as what you are talking is the business of film.

      Without a national film strategy and business plan alongside commercially minded infrastructure development that suits the conditions on the ground then it wont matter how many good or great filmmakers and films are created over time. Without doubt there certainly needs to be an overall improvement in storytelling standards as that can only inspire other local filmmakers to do even better.

      This is clearly happening already and I feel that if there was more synergy between African international talent and their continental based counterparts things might move along a little quicker. I look forward to the day where that synergy is an everyday situation.

  4. The bottomline with these developing countries like Nigeria is if financially successful filmmakers & the film community in Nigeria do not get together and try to make a good movie with excellent production value that can travel overseas and do well at the box office, there will be no infrastructure for filmmaking in Nigeria. It’s that simple. When I speak about doing well overseas, I’m not talking about being successful in US or Europe. It could be successful in Asia, Latin America, Middle East or even successful in the whole of Africa. An internationally successful film made in Nigeria by a locally based Nigerian will bring alot of attention/publicity to the country which may put pressure on the government to put in place incentives for filmmaking or at least regulate the ton of foreign money coming into the country for filmmaking.

    A film commission takes alot of money to keep up and some of these governments don’t have that type of money if local filmmakers aren’t making films with good production value. Take for example Brazil. Brazil has a film commission and a ton of film incentives in place but there aren’t alot of local filmmakers making films for the big screen. However, there are tons of local TV soap operas being made and distribute for the Brazilian market and Latin American market thru out the world.

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