In America, Nollywood Studies is serious business


Academic interest in Nollywood continues to grow in the United States with filmmaker Femi Odugbemi the latest Nigerian to share his body of work with students and faculty at two universities.

From humble beginnings decades ago, Nigeria’s movie industry, better known as Nollywood, has become a global phenomenon, attracting attention from academics, viewers and other filmmakers. In fact, courses about Nigeria’s film industry are now being taught in American universities and colleges, while programmers are also including them in international festivals.

And to reiterate that Nigerian filmmakers have also grafted intellectual rigours to their craft, Odugbemi, one of the leading lights in the industry, engaged the academic communities at Northwestern University in Chicago and Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois over a seven -day period.

During the Director in Residence Programme at the Department of African Studies, Northwestern University, Chicago from October 25 to 28, entitled Nigeria in Self Conversation: The Films of Femi Odugbemi, the  producer  gave a talk while three of his documentaries and a feature film were screened.

He spoke about Filmmaking in Nigeria on October 25, while his documentary films,  Makoko: Futures Afloat’; ‘Bariga Boy, winner of the Best Documentary Award at AMAA 2009 and Qui Voodoo, were screened the following the day. That same day, the producer of hit TV series, Battleground, had an interaction with students and faculty moderated by a fellow Nigerian, Professor Paul Ugor.

In a presentation entitled The Unique Cinema of Femi Odugbemi that preceded the session, Ugor, a  Professor of English literature at the Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, began by reflecting on the emergence of Nollywood and its rise before critically appraising the  filmmaker’s roots and radical approach .

He noted how Odugbemi, who studied Broadcast Communication with specialisation in Film, Radio and TV production at the Montana State University, imbibed American production values and showcased them in his works.

The author of  Nollywood: Popular Video Films and Narratives of Marginalised Youth added that Odugbemi also learnt  the politics of cultural production in the US , explaining that: “The foundational philosophical principle that was to shape Odugbemi’s work as a filmmaker, artist, cultural philosopher and public intellectual is very much rooted in his knowledge of the ways in which the culture industry in the United States has functioned so powerfully as a crucial public organ and infrastructure with a powerful ‘index of effectivity, i.e., the power to determine things in the realm of politics, economy, culture, and the general future of the nation and its people.

“So, it is no wonder, then, that Femi Odugbemi’s politics as a filmmaker is quite unique from many of his Nollywood contemporaries. He belongs to a generation of Nollywood directors who see themselves, not only as adapting the new global media resources, especially digital technologies, in creating unique cultural texts that capture the particular national histories, daily individual struggles and collective coping strategies of ordinary people in a postcolonial nation whose leaders have sold their souls to the devil, but also as crucial interventionists whose cultural work represent a certain kind of radical cultural politics and thought for progressive creative work in a time of massive social and cultural transformations.

“So, although Odugbemi sees himself first as a filmmaker, he also frames his films as part of activist work, which explains why a filmmaker, who earns enormous income mainly from making popular Television serials and cutting TV ads and other media promos for huge multinationals such as Guinness, Nestle Foods, Coca-Cola, Shell, MTN, and other such multinational companies, will plough back his profits into the making of documentaries”

On October 27, Odugbemi’s Gidi Blues: A Lagos Love Story featuring Gideon Okeke, Bukky Wright, Tina Mba, Hauwa Allahbura, Nancy Isime and Lepacious Bose, was screened ahead of another question and answer session moderated by  Professor Jonathan Haynes, author of the seminal Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres.

The next stop of the co-founder of the i-Rep Documentary Film Festival was the Illinois State University, where Professor Haynes gave a lecture entitled Trajectories of the Nigerian Film Industry. Odugbemi, who is also a photographer, exhibited some of his images at the institution while three of his works; And the Chain Was Not, a documentary on how the Old Broad Street Prison became today’s celebrated Freedom Park, Gidi Blues’ and ‘Makoko: Futures Afloat were screened

Asked what he took away from the trip, Odugbemi, who has since returned to Nigeria said, “It’s fair to say it was an exciting learning opportunity for me. I had a chance to engage academics and students of film and to articulate my own creative process and philosophy. It’s a very enriching experience to have feedback from fresh eyes on my body of work.”

From what he saw, Western interest in Nollywood is genuine and not just an attempt to understand an ‘abnormality’ that has become successful. “Are westerners interested in Nollywood? I would say a big YES! The Nollywood Study Group in Northwestern University is a serious inter-disciplinary collective. And it is well-funded. The work of early researchers of Nollywood like Professors Jonathan Haynes, Okome Onookome, and contemporary scholars like Professor Paul Ugor, of Illinois State University are bearing good fruit. Books have been published that connect Nollywood to social engineering and has legitimised its intervention as representative of the archiving of Africa’s contemporary or urban cultures. So, Nollywood Studies is serious business globally now.”

Going by his own enriching experience, the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards juror won’t hesitate to recommend future exchanges for other filmmakers. “No matter how experienced you are as a storyteller or filmmaker, there is room to learn new things and find new ways to make your creative process more efficient and impactful. Everything in cinema is dynamic and global. It is these exchanges that open up new channels and new audiences to our stories and hopefully push our films into bigger distribution networks globally.”

The screening of his Gidi Blues, he added, was an eye-opener. “That was the highlight for me; the audience was excited and enjoyed the story of an urban city love story. Several people in the audience loved the images of Lagos city, and were quite amazed at how modern our city looks as against its reputation for disorder and chaos. They enjoyed the music of ADUKE and felt it was a strong immersion in a culture they were far away from that debunked the incomplete imagery, and innuendoes they get from National Geographic stereotypes of Africa. The Q&A after the film screenings were moderated intelligently by Prof. Jonathan Haynes and Prof. Paul Ugor. So, we were able to assert the giant strides that Nollywood has taken in the last decade in terms of the advancements in our quality of storytelling, technicality and creative styling.”

Overall, the filmmaker is happy with how the trip went. “Yes, very much so! I am grateful for the opportunity to learn, to engage, to network and to hopefully grow in my work process,” he said.

Credit: Tribune