Too much happens at festivals. Most of it, not within the cinema halls—the conversations, the flirting, the drinking, the debates, the communal meals, the lingering animosity of a heated exchange.
With the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), a lot happened onscreen as well. I saw a low-budget sci-fi vampire flick set in 1930s Ethiopia; I saw a tale of corruption set in Kenya; I saw a young man, on account of a woman—what else?—go from ménage a trois to murder in Johannesburg; I saw the faces of several critics whose only proof of life earlier, to me, was text; I sat beside the beautiful star of a movie premiering and listened as she, with happiness and alarm, spoke to her partner about the shock of her father’s presence at the screening of a film with risqué moments.
But mostly I saw Nollywood take a beating.
Take these incidents. One. After the screening of Veve, the film on political corruption in Kenya, I turned to my compatriot Terh Agbedeh. He was looking at me. We shook our heads: “Nollywood never start.” This, even as we agreed Veve wasn’t excellent.
Two. At the end of the much-hyped South African production Cold Harbour I was impressed even as the film’s black lead’s uncertain fate in an ambiguous ending was a letdown. (The white director later explained she couldn’t go through with the scripted tragedy after Marikana—to always consider racial politics is the burden of a public performer in South Africa.)
Separate discussions with two South Africans produced different opinions. Film critic Kavish Chetty touted the film’s quality, hinging his praise on two politically charged scenes.
Jozua Malherbe, a filmmaker taking part, as I was, in the Talents Durban program was unimpressed. He said Cold Harbour gave the impression—from its trailer I assume—that it was a thriller but it failed to be a good example of one. Unburdened by both hype and trailer, I explained that the film was drama with action diversions. I believe(d) so, yet that was talk; I was thinking: here is a man spoilt by a national cinema producing excellent films regularly.
Nigerian cinemagoers don’t have that luxury. A film half as well made as Cold Harbour will meet with deserved acclaim. Expression of chagrin at the little letdowns of a film with such production values as Cold Harbour is a privilege exclusive to customers of better fare.
Gavin Hood’s Best Foreign Film Oscar for Tsotsi is the acclaim-peak of a cinema tradition that has, save for commercial appeal, eclipsed the Nigerian film industry. As a country in love with excess, we citizens, surrealists, are quick to tout volume of production that places the country as third in production, after the other –woods, as proof of success. The volume of releases of the Nigerian film industry is, however, a tribute to the industry of the Nigerian—it is not evidence of artistry.
Because a film festival is mostly about artistry, it was certain Nollywood will be excluded; yet with evidence came a sting.
The 2014 DIFF catalogue listed two and a half films from Nigeria—half because Biyi Bandele’s Half of A Yellow Sun is credited to both the UK and Nigeria. The others, Udoka Oyeka’s short film Living Funeral and Chika Anadu’s B for Boy, are wholly Nigerian. None of these films screened in competition. (A fourth film Gone Too Far, also not in competition, was directed by Destiny Ekaragha, who is of Nigerian parentage.)
Such is the Nollywood stigma that when I asked Chika Anadu at the Q and A session after the screening of the super-serious B for Boy if she considers her film Nollywood, she said no. She went on to clarify. Nollywood had made her career possible; but while its very visible viability gave her aspirations credibility, she feels unconnected to its sensibility.
The filmmaker is of course free to profess a dissociation from her country’s major cinema tradition. But with Nollywood only into its third decade, is total dissociation necessary? Might it not be prudent to profess a change in direction as opposed to freeing oneself from a tradition that has given young filmmakers freedom in the first place?
Again, Anadu’s use of Ngozi Amarikwa, famous for her role in some of the earliest Nollywood films, and Oyeka’s use of Liz Benson, star actress of 90s Nollywood (avant la lettre), means the novel directors are yet to discover novel tools. And here the irony of expressing an exception to Nollywood shows: these young non-Nollywood filmmakers in going forward are using tools of the past. Not to say there is no place for Nollywood vets, but the situation is akin to a farmer using hoes and cutlasses while speaking endlessly about mechanised farming.
On several occasions my presence at the Durban Film Festival as critic was greeted with surprise. A participant asked how it was possible to be critic in so ‘chaotic’ a movie industry.
That was a hard one, but in the grand scheme of hard questions presented to Nollywood-backing Nigerians at the Durban International Film Festival, I got off easy.
A Nigerian journalist was discussing the existence of Rwandan cinema, when, perhaps in jest, he was asked by a filmmaker from that country: “is it not better to produce nothing than to produce crap?”