Video Awudjo! Popular Video Film in the NYAFF 2001 Festival

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.

Video 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.

Exhibition

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.

Controversy

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.

Tunde Kelani and His Passion

Because of Tunde Kelani’s first-hand experience of Yoruba traditional culture, his knack for details, the high level of visuality in his perceptive skills and the constant enrichment of his mind with literature from diverse cultures of the world, it is little wonder that he has finds release for his great store of skills and knowledge in filmmaking.

Tunde Kelani is socialized into a rather unusual flavour of Nigerian culture. Though born in Lagos in the 1940s, at the consummation of the colonial era of Yoruba history, he grew up further inland in Abeokuta, experiencing first hand a vital vestige of Yoruba traditional file. These circumstances seem to have coalesced with his urbane disposition brought about by his easy access to Lagos, thereby laying the foundation of his present mission of employing modern information technologies to document traditional Yoruba culture.

On the other hand, TK (as he is fondly called by friends and associates) seems to have a peculiar bias for the visual mode of perception. When he speaks, the level of details that he supplies is not likely to emanate from concepts mediated merely by sound and text. Rather, he seems to draw from visual imagery clearly painted in his mind at the time he encountered whatever experiences he may be reliving. Further more, TK is an avid reader, who as a young boy had read almost all the then known classically written Yoruba literature available in Nigeria of the 1950s and 1960s. This deep foray into Yoruba literature was complemented by his voracious appetite for the literature of other lands. While his peers prided themselves on reading some of the contemporary English novels of those days, TK not only read these same novels, but also went further into more challenging African, English, Greek and other classical literatures. As a high school boy, he usually exhausted the recommended reading list for the literature class within the first couple of weeks of every term. He and another friend were said to have competed to exhaust their school library and both succeeded by their third year in school!

As a nine-year-old, his most prized belonging was his camera, which he quickly outgrew, once he became aware of all the features in more sophisticated models that his camera lacked. So, although a little bit absurd, he considered taking the camera to a blacksmith to help modify it to incorporate these features. This constant quest for better features persists for TK to this day, as he is notorious for spending his last dime to acquire the latest technology in photography and cinematography.

By the time he graduated from Abeokuta Grammar School, the same school that produced such old school boys as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, with flying colours, TK was clear that his vocation lay in photography. In his mind, his career path did not include a Higher School Certificate and subsequently a university degree, as was the case with many of his contemporaries.

In 1969 while working as a raw materials controller at the United African Company A.J. Seward in Lagos, he read an article in the daily news about a successful London exhibition featuring the Nigerian photographer Dotun Okubanjo. The exhibition, which was opened by the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa proved to TK that his dream of becoming a photographer actually had a chance of turning into a reality. After patiently watching out for news of Okubabjo’s return to Nigeria, TK managed to secure an apprenticeship with the inspiring photographer in Lagos in 1969 and 1970.

When TK completed his apprenticeship, the newly established Western Nigerian Television was seeking to employ accomplished photographers as a trainee film cameramen with a minimum qualification of the West African School Certificate. TK fit the bill, emerging as the only successful candidate out of about fifteen that applied for the position, and started a filmmaking career that was destined to later on redefine African cinema.

Work as a trainee film cameraman at the Western Nigerian Television did not only provide him with the opportunity to learn various darkroom skills, but the new television station was also a natural beehive of activities for the best of Nigeria’s various media. TK started hanging out with the great artists of the Osogbo School of Yoruba Art, which was then being mentored by Ulli Beir, the indefatigable aficionado of African art and culture, and TK began a friendship and close working relationship with Hubert Ogunde, who is often called the father of modern Yoruba theatre. Thus was created for TK, a rich technical and artistic environment that served as the seedbed for his successful careers as a director of photography, film director, film producer and the chief executive of Nigeria’s foremost production house.

His insatiable quest for higher degrees in motion picture production took him to the London International Film School, where he obtained a diploma in the Art and Technique of Filmmaking. By the end of his study in London, TK was technically equipped and psychologically prepared to come back to Nigeria and face the onerous task of documenting the colourful community festivals he had experienced as a child in Abeokuta. “It is sheer drama, theatre at its best.” TK says of these festivals that celebrated various Yoruba pantheons. He still recalls and relates with relish some of the astonishing performances of these celebrant worshippers, the techniques of which he sought to explain even as a child.

Today, apart from doing newsreel work for BBC world service and other international news organisations in Nigeria, which he does purely to make ends meet, TK’s passion lies in documenting Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage in documentaries, shorts and features. He has contributed in various ways to most of the feature films that have been made in Nigeria to date. He worked as cinematographer on Anikura, Ogun Ajaye, Iya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Fopomoyo, and Iwa which he also co-produced. This represents a sizable segment of the popular Nigerian films that were made in the celluloid medium before the recklessness and philistinism of military rulership made it virtually impossible for Nigerian filmmakers to function according to the dictates of their art. More recently, with funding from South Africa as part of the M-Net New Directions Initiative, he functioned as cinematographer on Twins of The Rainforest (16MM), A Place Called Home, (16MM), A Barber’s Wisdom (35MM), and White Handkerchief (16MM), which he also produced and directed.

While most of his contemporaries considered it below their dignity to contemplate work in video, TK did not wince to embrace what he as a rule does not refer to as video but digital filmmaking. By so doing, he has managed to make no less than seven full length features which now represent some of the best offerings of the prolific Nigerian video phenomenon. These include titles such as Ti Oluwa Nile, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, Koseegbe, Oleku, Saworoide, Thunderbolt and most recently Agogo Eewo. “I am a firm believer in alternative technology for motion picture in Africa,” TK says with conviction. “My ancestors used wood, terracotta, bronze and whatever else they could lay their hands on to document their reality. If we do not use whatever we can to document our own present realities, our children will suffer identity crises if they have to recourse to archaeology to find out about how we lived in the age of multimedia.”

Thus, as a director of photography, TK stretches the optical capacity of digital video close to its elastic limit. “Light is my main tool. What I actually do is use light to create what I see in my mind’s eye. I then use the camera to record as much of it as technology makes available to me before NEPA (Nigeria’s Public Power Utility Company) switches off my lights without asking me.”

As a director, TK digs into the deepest recesses of his mind drawing gems from his past and thereby playing the role of a bridge of sorts between the present and the recent past. With the deeply theatrical culture of his Yoruba pedigree, he seems to have perfected the art of conveying Yoruba traditional theatre on the cinema screen without necessarily importing the ‘blockiness’ of the stage to the screen. He cleverly manages screen dialogue in a way that retains the wit, humour and dramatic vitality of Yoruba life without losing the visual essence of his medium. His subjects vary as widely as the diversity of the Nigerian reality. Culture, politics and inter-ethnic relationships are some of the issues he has addressed in some of his works. Whatever subject he examines however, there is a consistency of a deep philosophical underlying to the plot, juxtaposing the vitally of the scared with the reality of the mundane and the power of tradition with the inevitability of change.

As a producer, he maintains a clear understanding of what the viewing audience expect of him and he even manages to castigate then while they are enjoying it. He has a strong relationship with the traditional Yoruba theatre movement, which constitutes a major group from which he draws actors and actresses. They also, in their own part, hold him in high regard, acknowledging him as a vital link between their history on stage and presence on the cinema screen. Unfortunately however, with all his other enviable skills, one crucial skill for a producer that continues to elude TK is how to get money out of a Nigerian bank.

Video Awudjo! Featured Artist, Tunde Kelani, Has New Developments After AFF

Saturday, April 21, 2001,  was the first time that an organized film institution recognized the mass-produced, consumer-driven aspect of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies. The NY African Film Festival (AFF) took on the groundbreaking task of presenting movies from these countries as part of its festival schedule. In these countries, artists have adopted video to circumvent the high cost of film production and to reach the public on a variety of important issues: the AIDS crisis, the difficulties of modern city life, environmental concerns, and rampant official corruption. “Video films” are wildly popular in their home markets and are done in a campy, postmodern style that reflects contemporary African sensibilities shaped by globalization. These films are a compelling and often comic mix of consumerism, sex, morality, melodrama, horror, and witchcraft, creating a unique genre.

The program commenced with screenings of two Nigerian movies, Out of Bounds by Richard Mofe-Damijo and Thunderbolt by Tunde Kelani, and two Ghanaian titles, Time by Ifeanyi Oyeabor and Namisha by Ashiagbor Akwetey-Kanyi. The video-film phenomenon was further examined on Sunday, April 22, 2001 with a heated panel discussion at the Schomburg Center entitled “Battling the Distribution Dilemma.”

Video Awudjo! came on the heels of the 2001 Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television (FESPACO) where a Nigerian film took second prize in the feature film category. A week after FESPACO 2001, the New York Times described the Nigerian and Ghanaian movie industries as “thriving… generally turn a profit even though they’re pirated within days.”

During FESPACO, AFF representatives met with a Nigerian journalist, who had previously expressed his misgivings about film festivals in an article published in Nigeria, writing that filmmakers were mere pawns in the grand scheme of film festival organizers to gain wealth and recognition. He also worried about the intents of AFF and the benefits of the Nigerian filmmaker and producer who agreed to participate in AFF’s Video Awudjo! program. Luckily for AFF and the New York audience, the filmmakers who participated in Video Awudjo! didn’t share the same views (at least, not enough to exclude themselves from this groundbreaking event).

Since the AFFNY’s 2001 Festival, Mainframe Productions, headed by Tunde Kelani and Tunde Adegbola, has received success and recognition as a result of the appearance of Thunderbolt at Video Awudjo!. A representative, Natalia Tapies, of Filmaid International requested to show Thunderbolt to refugees in Kenya and Tanzania after viewing the movie at Video Awudjo!. In addition, California Newsreel has also offered educational distribution of Thunderbolt.

Recently, Mainframe Productions reached a formal agreement with Media for Development International to exhibit and distribute four films: Yellow Card, Neria, Everyone’s Child, and More Time in Nigeria and, in return, Media for Development will do the same in Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa with Saworoide and Thunderbolt. Tunde Kelani expressed his delight in an email to AFF saying, “For us, this is the beginning of the true African cinema – where African filmmakers can interact by making their films available to audiences other than those in their own country. I must thank you for providing the necessary support and encouragement.”

Mainframe Productions is currently in the throes of other exciting projects including a Mobile Cinema Project, a free three-day cinema carnival co-sponsored by Mainframe Productions and the premiere of their latest movie on October 1, 2001.

In June 2001, two seminars were held in Lagos, Nigeria, to discuss the future of the Nigerian film and movie industry. There was the Second Motion Picture Summit sponsored by MultiChoice (M-Net’s satellite service company) that focused on film content and its distribution in Africa. There was also the First Forum on Motion Picture, Cinema and Video in Africa sponsored by the French Cultural Center in Nigeria.

It is not a stretch to say that Video Awudjo!, with the contacts and exposure that AFF provided, boosted the confidence of the filmmakers and producers who represented the Nigerian and Ghanaian experience at the program. They left the festival with renewed hope, feeling encouraged to continue making strides and overcome resource limitations to produce films that can be shared beyond the local market.

It is our hope at AFF that there will be more collaboration between African film producers, as with Mainframe and Media for Development, to open more markets for African Film and create more opportunities for project financing and development.