May I be forgiven if I take a few lines from an earlier piece? The piece concerned Enugu’s Governor Sullivan’s misguided full-page advertorial in praise of Chiwetel Ejiofor. A broader point was made in the concluding paragraphs of the piece:
“Until a Nollywood filmmaker wins an award from elsewhere it [Nollywood] would reap only scorn. Our own award shows, rightly ignored, are bedevilled with ineptitude and many times the list of winners appears to be in thrall of federal character.”
Histrionic perhaps, but true.
The misguided advert referred to was taken by the Enugu state government in February after Ejiofor took the Best Actor BAFTA. Ejiofor lost the Best Actor Oscar, sparing the citizens of Enugu some money to the chagrin of Sullivan’s PR.
Months later, an opportunity for a Nollywood filmmaker to win an award ‘from elsewhere’ arrived. In May it was announced that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) had approved a committee to select a Nigerian film for consideration at the Oscars. The committee got a shiny name—Nigerian Oscars Selection Committee (NOSC)—and 12 members drawn from acting, directing, production and other industry groups.
Nigerian media, hitherto bored or awash with Nollywood natter, produced agog headlines. Major Milestone for Nollywood! Oscars Approves Nigerian Committee! Hallelujah!
After the euphoria ebbed in some quarters, questions, both valid and gratuitous, arose: How exactly were the members of the committee chosen? In all of the time the approval process must have taken, why wasn’t anyone aware? As NOSC’s selection was eligible only for the Foreign Language Oscar, how come only figures concerned with English-speaking Nollywood were on the committee?
The credentials of the members were questioned: this director made an awful film and he’s on the committee? What are the heads of certain organisations doing on the committee? How did Chineze Anyaene, who has directed just the one film (Ije), and while a student, become chairperson of a committee as important as the NOSC? Has anyone on the committee ever written a worthy film review? And on and on.
In the end, a controversy was avoided less because everyone was satisfied, but rather due to a collective Hollywood euphoria.
Optimism was the rage, especially among the NOSC members themselves. Speaking to Weekly Trust, Anyaene asserted that the recognition was ‘long overdue’.
“The Nigerian movie industry has come of age,” she said. “And there has been tremendous improvement over the years. Nigerian movie[s] getting a shot at the Oscars is the best thing that could have happened to the industry. And as a director and producer, this is the best gift…This is a great opportunity for Nigeria to have a voice in the international film arena. With this opportunity we are sure to go higher on the international scene of movies.”
Shaibu Husseini, the committee’s sole journalist, added, “The Nollywood film industry needs to play globally so people begin to look towards us.”
By June the NOSC was on its way to playing globally, announcing a call for submissions.
But then it took the committee months to reach a verdict that was anyone’s guess. No films were deemed to have met the right standards, and therefore Nigeria was not in a position to be one of the list of 83 countries in the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film category.
The problem according to Anyaene was that no film “met the basic criteria for selection.” She says next year will see better entries and blames the no-show on improper subtitling and a rather fuzzy entity called deficient ‘technical details.’
Nigeria may not deserve Oscar consideration but it deserves clearer information than the NOSC has supplied. So far the Nigerian race for Oscar consideration reads like a Nollywood script, what with the mystery origins of the committee, its clandestine process and a denouement that requires clarification. Which raises the question: Is the Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee a cult or a committee?
Refusing to award an honour is not a novel occurrence in Nigeria. In 2009 the National Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) withheld its Prize for Literature leading to a serious debate on the credibility of the corporation, its judges and the prize. Today the NLNG Prize’s integrity is unrestored chiefly because of a prevailing notion—that Nigeria has prize-worthy poets. The lack of support by Nollywood filmmakers plays into the hands of the NOSC. Comments on several websites when the announcement was made shows that many expected failure, if intuitively. And by citing subtitles as an issue, Anyaene has connected with literate Nollywood viewers.
Nollywood subtitling has long passed from a source of consternation to a rich repository of jokes. In the age of the internet and the rise of the meme, mockery of the absurdities of Nollywood onscreen translations recur on social media. Websites have screenshots of subtitles that must be seen and studied to be believed, let alone comprehended. Nollywood’s indigenous language filmmakers apply linguistic approximation, their unshakeable logic resting on the misjudged proximity of meaning to melodrama.
If a character threatens to hit another, vigorously shaking his fist, is it necessary to tell viewers he is insulting the other’s mother? The invective can equally be directed at the other’s motor or mistress—mother, motor and mistress, after all, begin with the same letter of the alphabet. Never mind the absence of motors or mistresses in the film.
The contention may be who cares? Why should the NOSC be considered important enough to be held accountable? Who wants to head to Hollywood, anyway? The answer is actors, actresses, producers, scriptwriters, directors, grip boys, singers, novelists, cameramen, cinematographers. Everyone. And until Nollywood develops its own worthwhile ceremony, Hollywood dreams, to borrow the words of the Oscar-triumphant Kenyan, ‘are valid.’
Yet in the unlikely occurrence of a credible ceremony, foreign praise shall its allure retain: witness French fanfare at Jean Dujardin’s win or its dashed hopes for Emmanuelle Riva; consider Viennese/German actor Christoph Waltz’s ‘overnight success’ since his Supporting Actor Oscar; or English euphoria at Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In 2001 Spanish director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lost and threw a losers’ party. France, Germany, England and Spain have longstanding cinema traditions but the national heart beats for, and at, an Oscar nomination.
In 2015, Nollywood deserves none of those emotions, fraught as they may be, at cinema’s biggest event. So when the ceremony comes on television, interested Nollywood viewers will watch figures from foreign film cultures in tailored tuxedoes and glorious gowns take occasional trips up that famous podium, all the while contemplating what may have been.
This time no governor will dig into state coffers for full-page ads. Perhaps this can be considered consolation? Perhaps this is progress?