By devoting a festival to popular African video films, the AFF/NY is moving in a new direction. Larkin samples two of our selections and reviews the surrounding controversy.
Introduction | Video Films | Exhibition | Controversy
For a while now, African filmmakers and scholars have been aware that the concept of “African Cinema” is in need of revision. This is partly to do to the bitter irony that has followed African Cinema. While African Cinema has flourished in New York, London, Paris and elsewhere, it has rarely been screened in Africa itself. Even in Ouagadougou, the runaway success story of African cultural festivals, for two weeks every two years the cinema screens are filled with the best work of African filmmakers.
Outside of the festival, however, the screens revert to the French, American, Hong Kong and Indian films watched by the vast majority of Burkinâbe. With a few exceptions, the concept of African Cinema, then, refers to the films Africans produce, rather than those they watch – on TV, in the cinema or in video parlors. It has come to represent an art cinema, produced by filmmakers and analyzed by critics intent on pushing forward the boundaries of film form and representation. To this point, it has managed to exist outside the demands of the marketplace and a popular audience. That moment may be passing.
By devoting a festival to popular African video films, the NY African Film Festival is moving in a new direction.
African video films, films shot straight on video, are on gaining popularity in Nigeria and Ghana, and are referred to locally as simply “films.” These films are not the art cinema that is usually seen in African film festivals, but are throughly popular, meaning they not only command a huge African audience, but also that their production and financing is entirely dependent on how well these movies perform in the marketplace. In 1999 over 50 of these video films were produced in Ghana and over 500 in Nigeria. This means that, in this one year alone, more video films were produced than in the entire history of feature film production in those countries. From almost nothing 10 years ago, video films have blossomed to become perhaps the most vibrant new form of media production in Africa and AFF showcases these films.
Out of Bounds (1997), directed by Tade Ogidan, opens with a scene of a Pentecostal pastor played by popular actor and director Richard Mofe-Damijo healing one of his congregants through the power of prayer. After his congregant appears on television to tell people about this miracle, the pastor’s future is secured. His congregation rises, important patrons seek his help and offer support and he becomes wealthy and famous. For the next two hours, the film explores the consequences of this success. Sexual corruption mirrors financial corruption and the more important the pastor becomes, the more he is subject to powerful forces of temptation that prove impossible to resist.
In many respects, Out of Bounds follows the form and genre of many English language Nigerian video films. Many of these films are set within the rich, cosmopolitan and corrupt world of the Nigerian urban elite and explore the corruption and moral failings of this demographic in vivid detail. Transgression dominates and the films work by placing characters in situations where everyday moral behavior is outrageously flaunted. At the end of the film, the evil are punished and good wins out, but, in the two hours in between, men betray their wives, women trade sexual favors for money, the young disparage the old and the old become corrupt and evil.
Everyone, it seems, is prepared to make use of witchcraft or pacts with the occult in order to get ahead. In Out of Bounds, for instance, Pastor Voke is called upon by a chief to speak with his daughter, Tutu, played with gusto by the actress Bimbo Akintola. Outside of her father’s view, Tutu flaunts Christian norms by dressing loosely, sleeping around and taking drugs. Voke tries to win her back to Christ but instead is seduced into sleeping with this schoolgirl and gets her pregnant. At the end of the film, Tutu repents as she is dying in hospital and Voke, humiliated and reduced to penury, turns back to Christ and dedicates himself to preaching to the poor.
Out of Bounds is a good example of the melodrama that dominates English language videos – often known as Lagos videos because they are so frequently set among the Lagos elite. In their style and themes these video films often owe more to Western soap operas — especially the excesses of Dallas and Dynasty — than they do to earlier generations of African films. The camera lingers on shots of Mercedes Benz, mobile phones, huge bungalows and expensive dress of a world that only a tiny minority of Nigerians or Ghanians can afford. The narrative is propelled through a series of shocking events and films and characters become known for their ability to outrage the audience.
As in their American counterparts, conflicts in the family, desire for wealth, and betrayal are key themes but with a solidly African twist — the mixing of horror and magic with melodrama. Wealth in video films oftentimes is made through evil, magical practices. Drawing on popular rumors and widespread folk beliefs, video films bring to life common stories about human sacrifice and pacts with witches out of which money comes. In the Ghanaian/Nigerian film Time (2000), directed by Ifeanyi Oyeabor, for instance, a bank manager (Kwame Ansah) fallen on hard times, makes a pact with a witch to become wealthy again. The witch tells him that as he becomes wealthy his wife will sicken. The sicker she becomes the wealthier he will be. When she dies he is instructed to keep her body hidden in a closet and as long as he does so she will spew money from her mouth. A similar sacrifice is demanded in the classic Nigerian video film Living in Bondage (1992) directed by Christian Onu, where in order to join a cult of rich Igbo businessmen the main character Andy (Kenneth Okonkwo) is told he must kill his wife in a ritual sacrifice in order for money to accumulate.
In dramatizing the work of witches and the prevalence of human sacrifice, video films move from the world of melodrama into the suspense and gore associated with horror. Nigerian films, in particular, are known for their special effects, as humans transform into animals, witches fly through the night and money is magically produced. The logic of shock and the desire for notoriety means that many video films are in a constant game of “one-upmanship”, each new film trying to be more excessive, or more inventive in its outrage, than the last. It is the mixing of melodrama with horror and magic and the linkage of financial with sexual and spiritual corruption that makes the melodrama of Nigerian and Ghanaian video film distinctively African.
In contemporary post-colonial West Africa, where the everyday suffering of the vast majority stands in stark contrast to the fantastic accumulation of the small elite, the tropes of sorcery, witchcraft and supernatural evil have provided a powerful way to express the inequalities of wealth. Representations of magic and the supernatural are not escapist fantasies but are believed by audiences to be part of the everyday world in which they live and rumors are rampant that behind material wealth lies magical production. The central concept of time, for instance, that some men sacrifice their wives and that the hidden corpse will produce money from her mouth, is widely believed among the popular classes in West Africa. Time drew on this existing belief and gave it dramatic, narrative form pulling together ideas of cosmopolitanism, Westernization, wealth and magic that has made it and the Ghanaian and Nigerian films like it, strikingly successful.
The sorts of video films described above represent one genre, albeit perhaps the major one in Nigerian and Ghanaian video films. Other genres such as epics, comedies and love stories survive, specially in indigenous language films. There are as many video films made in Yoruba as there are in English, for instance, and Hausa language video films outnumber films produced in Ghana. English language films, though, receive the most investment and are able to travel outside of particular ethnic groups and their diasporas. By now they have established themselves as popular in all ethnic groups in Nigeria as well as other Anglophone countries from Kenya to South Africa. Nigerian Hausa films, by contrast, are also popular outside of Nigeria, but only among the Hausa speaking diaspora in Ghana and elsewhere. Consequently, the dominance of English language films has begun to influence video film style in other languages. Yoruba films have shifted from the comedies and “traditional” subjects of earlier films to a greater emphasis on the urban settings and elites. These themes are present in Hausa films too but there is also a strong emphasis on love stories and stories set in rural settings. For Northern Nigerian Hausa, the dominance of English language films from the South has led to a conscious emphasis by some filmmakers to make films that oppose what they see as an immoral, Westernized cultural form.
In the first years of their growth Nigerian and Ghanaian video films circulated primarily on home video recorders. Ostracized from the circuits of film distribution and exhibition, they were sold through markets and video stores for watching at home. Very quickly video parlors sprang up, where entrepreneurs would use a room in a house and charge a small fee to show a video film. Now, with the rise of video projection, small viewing centers are becoming more numerous and many movie theaters have switched from film to video. In major urban centers such as Accra, most films receive an initial theatrical release and are almost simultaneously available on video cassette.
The rise of public viewing facilities is crucial in making video films available to a mass audience who are too poor to afford a television and video recorder and as this audience has become financially significant, their tastes and desires drive the style and themes of the films themselves. One of the most striking features of Nigerian video films, then, is not just the rise of a new form of popular media production from almost nothing, but the developing of new networks of distribution, sales and exhibition that never existed before. As the video films move beyond Nigeria to Ghana, Kenya, England, the U.S. and elsewhere what we are seeing is the emergence of a new order of African film that exists almost wholly outside of the structures associated with the paradigm of African Cinema. This very success has proved highly controversial.
Along with the rise of video film, many Nigerians and Ghanians raise the question: What is the consequence of this success? Until now, what is usually referred to as “African Cinema” represents an avant-garde art cinema that has been both politically and aesthetically radical. African Cinema emerged from the crucible of colonialism and the struggle of early independence. The effort to “decolonize the mind” as Ngugi memorably put it, to create an African film practice and form based on African realities and traditions, has been strikingly successful. The result is the creation of a solid body of artistic achievement. Moreover, the rise of film festivals and academic conferences in which these films circulate has provided key sites for the ongoing debate among African intellectuals and artists about the nature of African modernity. The bitter irony remains, though, that films produced under the rubric of “African Cinema” are rarely screened in Africa itself and are thus kept from reaching the masses that are also often their subjects.
While Nigerian and Ghanaian video films do reach those masses and are certainly an expression of African modernity, “an African response to today’s information jungle” as the Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun has it, they have neither the political nor the aesthetic ambition of the senior generation of African films. They are emphatically not art films and their market driven ethos has meant they have been heavily criticized in Nigeria and Ghana. The fascination with elite lifestyles and wealth, the constant use of magic, the representations of the most sensationalized sides of African life are all forcibly attacked for corrupting Nigerian and Ghanaian society. Intellectuals, in particular, lament what they see as Westernization, no matter how it is refracted through a popular African imagination, and they point out the lack of a political and cultural sensibility that has fed the work of filmmakers from Sembene to Mambety.
Screening Nigerian and Ghanaian video films demands new attitudes and ideas from the NY African Film Festival, and will ask the same from audiences used to a different type of African Cinema. Instead of the beautifully crafted, well acted cinema of the great African filmmakers, these videos, comparatively, are of poor quality. Acting is firmly rooted in the traditions of melodrama. Storylines are long, and the style and form of the horror can oscillate from simple effects to shocking violence. Ola Balogun has pointed out that the success of established African films has depended on the reception they receive in the festivals and art house circuits in Europe whereas the success of Nigerian and Ghanaian video films depends upon their popularity with a mass African audience. In this festival these two worlds — the world of art cinema and the world of popular video films are brought together for the first time in New York.