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Nollywood goes to school

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By Desmond Ovbiagele
 few days ago, I made my way to the salon for my quarterly … ehm … toenail management (three months of hard grinding on the fitness trail had rendered them somewhat unpresentable). I reclined as the thickset attendant went to work. Gazed up idly at the TV as dazzling Afro Pop music video images of the latest sensation I had never heard of flashed by.

Then glanced down with sudden curiosity as my hitherto taciturn, 30-something old attendant began to casually mime the lyrics of the song with unerring accuracy. One of her colleagues wanders in to fetch some object or the other. Does the same thing.

Okaaay. Now my focus returns to the TV with greater interest.

Exactly what is it about our contemporary local artistes that has captured the hearts and minds of the general populace in such unprecedented fashion? After years in the dungeon of subservience to foreign content supplied with ruthless consistency by powerhouses such as MTV and BET, our indigenous music has suddenly found its voice (or swag, as they put it), broken free from the oppressive chains of offshore competition, and is proudly standing shoulder to shoulder with the best the world has to offer.

As a Nigerian … yes, there was a feeling of pride. Finally, somehow, somewhere, we seemed to have gotten something right. It appeared that the inferiority complex that seemed to have crept into our nation’s entertainment psyche sometime in the late 80s/early 90s had quietly eroded. The glory days were back — when indigenous literature like the Pacesetters series were flying off the store shelves just as fast as Enid Blyton and James Hadley Chase; when our local soap operas like Village Headmaster, Mirror in the Sun, Adio Family and New Masquerade, were ruling the airwaves right in the presence of The Professionals, Dynasty, The Jeffersons, and Different Strokes. When we patronized our local entertainment productions out of pleasure, not pity.

But as a stakeholder with more than a passing interest in the filmmaking world called Nollywood? Hmmm. My interest had more than a tinge of envy in it. After all, it is no longer news that the phenomenon of contemporary Nigerian music has ‘travelled’, as they say. From upscale high street shops in London to major international tennis tournaments to the ear plugs of Rio Ferdinand’s I-pod, the cocky but seductive strains of Nigerian Afro Pop are being consumed with innocent fascination.

Well, isn’t it true that Nollywood has also travelled? Aren’t our films to be found in the nooks and crannies of the globe, albeit primarily in territories where people of African descent are in the majority? From London to New York, Jamaica to Antigua, Monrovia to Pretoria, will you not find local merchants doing a brisk (albeit illegal) business with film content of Nigerian origin?

Affirmative. But, unlike in the case of music, consumption for many of the patrons, for the vast majority of our film exports, is a guilty pleasure.

Why guilty?

Well, guilty for the simple reason that the consumers are fully aware that the production quality falls far short of the standard they would ideally like to be publicly associated with watching, but to which, based on sheer entertainment (as opposed to technical) value, they are attracted nonetheless.

Well, that’s something, right?

Yes, it is. But we can do better. Much better. And we know it.

After all, aren’t Nigerians among the most ambitious set of people on the face of the earth? Wherever it’s happening, we want to be there. We believe that we belong there. That it’s our right to be there. And our filmmakers are no different.

So as our counterparts in the music industry schmooze with their international celebrity colleagues on the red carpets of Channel O, MTV, BET or Soul Train Award ceremonies (I suppose the Grammys is the next bus stop), Nollywood looks on with envy and perhaps a hint of frustration.

Why aren’t we doing the same at the Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, etc? As the artistic ‘collabos’ thrive between downtown LA and Aguda, where are the same creative partnerships between Hollywood and Ijora/Alaba? If music forged in the shanties of Agege can penetrate upper echelon lifestyles and events globally, why are Nigerian movies missing in action in mainstream cinema theatres around the world? Our colleagues in music are rubbing shoulder to shoulder with their mates around the world; in the film industry? So far … well, more like shoulder to ankle.

Why now?

It occurred to me, as I fixated on the hyperactive crooners twitching, scowling, fronting and smirking on screen whilst my toes received a jolly hammering from the business end of multiple sharp objects, that Nollywood could indeed, take a leaf (actually, several leaves) out of the book of our compatriots across the creative wall.


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