A while ago, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a keynote speech at TED Talks titled "The Danger of a Single Story." What's Africa's single story? The tainted lens through which the news media portrays Africa to the world; mostly starving kids too weak to drive away the flies that swarm them, famine, hunger, water projects etc. Then there’s the Hollywood narrative; African men are mercenaries, warlords and blood thirsty. This is mostly what the West is exposed to about Africa and Africans..
Now, many of those portrayals aren’t completely untrue, but they are a single narrative out of many - most of them still untold; just like the guests on Jerry Springer’s show don’t represent the U.S. narrative, these stories don’t represent all of us across Africa either.
There is a saying: “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” And while that doesn’t entirely encompass my point here, I bring it up to place some of the burden on ourselves and ask: We in Africa, what stories are we telling? And since I’m in Nigeria, I’ll narrow it down further and ask, what story is Nollywood, Africa's most prolific film producer, telling?
In the early days of Nollywood, a large majority of the direct-to-video films had prostitution (aka “runs girls”), ritualists (blood money), romance (Romeo & Juliet-esque stories), or religious scandal (pastor dips pen into congregational ink). Twenty plus years later, with the resurgence of cinemas, it’s mostly now "fish out of water" comedies and romantic tales, and rarely anything else outside of those two exists in selected exhibited films.
Isn’t this the danger of another single story? Are we only capable of slapstick comedy and Mills & Boon-esque stories? Don’t other things happen in our lives outside of romance and laughter? The deep, the philosophical, intellectual, meditative, high octane, the existential?
The responses tend to vary; the most popular being: “These are stories that sell, those others types don’t sell;” or “Nigerians want to be entertained;” or “Nigerians just want to laugh and not think too much because just living in the country is already too stressful.”
But aren’t Nigerians also paying exorbitant satellite fees to keep up with “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder” etc? Shows that are not comedic and involve some cerebral exercise that follows. The Marvel cinematic universe of films sell out their theatrical screenings here, and are must-see on opening day in Lagos cinemas, so obviously, comedy is not the only genre of film that Nigerians want to see. ”Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was said to have made over N100M (about $350,000), in a country where some local films are lucky if they make N20M (about $70,000).
Now, someone reading might ask me, "Do you know how much they spend per episode on ‘Game of Thrones’?" Very true. I do realize that our entire production budgets here in Nigeria are probably about the same as what an editor’s assistant in the USA or Europe earn working on shows like that. So I’m not suggesting that we must make content on that scale; I’m just pointing out that there are Nigerian audiences with disposable income (who pay the exorbitant satellite fees to keep up with “Game of Thrones,” or who go to the movies regularly) who want something locally-made, with Nigerian talent, that are outside the typical trivial comedies and its sub-genres.
Where are our cinematic satires, our own allegories, political dramas, thrillers, biopics, mythologies and works of fantasy? Yes. I know. No budget.
But the fact is, some Nigerian film and TV industry people across the various positions, from screenwriters to exhibitors, dismiss even having a conversation about expanding on the variety of local offerings, and instead reach for their swords to strike down with great vengeance and fury, anyone who dares suggest the need for genre diversity.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with comedy or romance Films; I’m just making a case for more variety in terms of genres. From our political landscape alone there is enough material to create intriguing stories.
While there is the factor of budgets, we still have to deal with jaded and skeptical audiences locally and around the world (of the diaspora as well as not) who have a stigmatized perception of Nigerian films, and who truly do want to see more. It seems like we are falling in the similar trap as Hollywood studios seem to currently be in, as they push out mostly tent-pole movies that come with as little risk as possible.
Let me put it this way. Imagine introducing a friend from another country to Nigerian food and the only options that every restaurant gives you are white rice with beef, or eba and egusi soup. That’s all. Every day, every buka, mama put, or Naija restaurant - those are the only two options available. And when you ask for something else, like plantain & jollof/ofada rice, or amala & ewedu, or goat meat instead of beef (insert your preference....), and you are given 1001 reasons why you can’t have it, why they can’t make it, and why they won’t offer it, after you hear that enough times, you may just stop going to Nigerian food joints, and instead visit a Chinese, fast food or other kind restaurant where you’ll be presented with far more options.
In a future piece, I will highlight Nigerian filmmakers living and working in Nigeria who are pushing beyond the typical.
Olu Yomi Ososanya is a writer, director and film nerd living in Lagos, Nigeria. Catch him on Twitter @oludascribe.