A presentation by Professor Paul Ugor at the Block Museum Theatre, Northwestern University Evanston, Illinois on Thursday 26th October, 2017.
It’s been more than a decade and half since Prof Jonathan Haynes introduced American culture enthusiasts to the Nigerian video film industry, now popularly known as Nollywood. And since then, although Nollywood has not become part of mainstream American popular culture, it is no longer the cultural curiosity it was two decades ago. It is quite common these days to be asked about Nollywood by strangers at a bus stop, a train, a long-haul flight or a coach station. This consciousness in the American cultural imagination of Nollywood is traceable to the huge coverage that the industry has received in the media. Also, quite a lot has been written by American academics on the industry; courses about the Nigeria video film industry are now being taught in North American universities/colleges; and major festivals in the United States, Canada, the UK, France and other first world cultural circuits are beginning to feature Nollywood films. But this growing cultural interest in Nollywood still has something to do with the multiple ways in which the industry is perceived as a unique cultural wonder quite apart and different from what Americans know. It is a film industry that operates without studios; doesn’t boost of the jaw-dropping budgets associated with Hollywood production; operates with very minimal technology compared to the endless technological assets of Hollywood cinema; uses mostly non-professional actors; and yet is able to produce an astounding number of films every year—1500 films. So, the continued cultural interest that Nollywood generates amongst Americans derives from the perception that it not only different but also unconnected with the American culture industry.
But historical evidence will suggest otherwise. Not only is Nollywood a product of the vast network of both formal and informal global cultural resources circulating the world today as Brian Larkin has so astutely shown in his work, Signal and Noise, it is also a direct outcome of the technical training from the West. As Jon Haynes points out in his encyclopedic history of Nollywood (2016), the first generation of mainstream Nollywood practitioners were trained by the BBC. So not only did Nollywood practitioners draw from established transnational genres like the Latin America Telenovelas that were so popular in West Africa in the early 1980s, it drew from the technical skills of metropolitan cultural producers in creating a uniquely local genre that has continued to grip the attention of its indigenous audiences. Femi Odugbemi, the Nollywood director and producer whose films feature in this two-day event on Nollywood, also confronts us with the somewhat indirect influence that the United States has contributed, even if inadvertently, in shaping an industry that it perceives as quite different from its own film industry.
Born in the early 1960s in the highly cosmopolitan city of Lagos, Nigeria, Odugbemi grew up in a young postcolonial nation that was full of excitement about independence and high optimism about its future. It was a new nation anxious about its future, but also highly enthusiastic about reinventing itself as an independent nation state with its own national culture. But the conscious cultural engineering that was ongoing in the new nation did not mean that it closed itself to the outside world. Recognizing itself as part of larger global cultural community, especially with newfound petro-wealth in the 1970s, Nigeria was a fertile ground for transnational cross-cultural influences. There were Hollywood westerns and Bollywood films, from which Odugbemi learnt how imagery, sound, visual composition, plot, and other elements of cinema could be used in telling stories and constructing social meaning. But there was also the United State Information Service, the cultural organ of American embassies whose main role was to promote and circulate American culture abroad. It was in one of his numerous visits to USIS that he saw the admission brochure of Montana State University which had a program in Broadcast Communication with specialization in Film, Radio and Television production. Without the knowledge and approval of his accountant father, but drawn inexorably by the cultural images of plenitude and the enchantments of American modernity, Odugbemi left Nigeria at the impressionable age of 16 to begin his studies in the United States in 1979. At MSU, Odugbemi was mentored by Dr. Rebecca Moore, the department Academic Advisor, who took incredible interest in his studies; Dr Jack Hyppa, Chair of the Department who became his trainer; Dr. Jim Carter, a close friend, and Dr. Craig Stewart, a Professor at MSU who also coached Bozeman United, the City soccer team.
These Americans didn’t just help Odugbemi integrate into the American culture, they provided him with the training that was to shape his career as a filmmaker, media consultant and political activist. Dr. Hyppa, for example, was the founder of KUSM CH9 TV station, where Odugbemi worked as an intern all through his years at MSU. It was at KUSM Channel 9TV that Odugemi honed his skills as a filmmaker. As he himself put in a personal interview with me, “I learned a lot by doing things hands-on at KUSM 9.” So, the foundational skills that Odugbemi has brought to the production of his films are clearly American. But most importantly, it was from the United States that Femi was to learn the politics of cultural production. As a firsthand witness to the cultural power of the entertainment industry in American politics, economy and culture, it was in the United States that Femi’s artistic philosophy was shaped, recognizing himself as part of the that powerful elite group, ‘organizers of culture,’ which Antonia Gramsci insisted was responsible for directing and shaping the values of any modern society. 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. Whether it was the explosive activism led by youth in the 1960s that was to change the cultural and political landscape of the United States, the media vigilance of the 1970s that brought down President Nixon, or the vociferous resistance mounted by cultural producers to Reganism and its pursuit of unbridled neoliberal economics, Odugbemi saw firsthand how the American culture industry changed the course of a nation’s history, ensuring always that social justice and equity were never privileges to be bought and sold by the high and mighty.
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 plow back his profits into the making of documentaries. As an artist, Odugbemi is very much aware of the power of his medium. In an interview with Chuks Nwanne of the Guardian Newspaper published on May 29, 2016, he noted, “…everybody listens to a rich man, everybody listens to political leaders, but a filmmaker invades the thought of the viewer by the power of his art. Just like a writer would, just like an architect might, but the power of the filmmaker is that today, more people watch films than read books. So, the filmmaker has even become more powerful; it becomes such an incredible drill in the hands of someone who is an artiste.” This not the rhetoric of a conventional Nollywood director driven by commercial instincts. In fact, this is the stuff one heard from traditional African cinema director such as Ousmane Sembene, Haile Gerima, Med Hondo and other pioneers driven by pan-Africanist ideological pursuits. It is also reminiscent of the creative philosophy expounded by the early modern African literary giants such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and other leading writers and ‘organic intellectuals’ from the continent who saw themselves as educators and the voice of vision for the African continent. It is no wonder that Odugbemi shot that documentary on Ibadan, chronicling the unique legacy of the old city of Ibadan as the hub of intellectual work that was to shape the continent. But not only does Odugbemi know the power of cinema as a cultural medium of mass communication, he is aware of his role as a voice of change, especially in a nation experiencing stagnation and a chronic decline. Although very much a product of American education and culture, Odugbemi insists that Nollywood must chart its own path: “If your art is not saying anything; if all you keep doing is referencing things that were done in America; if it’s not addressing the imbalances, if it’s not talking about the imperatives of leadership; if it’s not issue driven; if you are not using that time with the audience in such a way as to impact them, to cause them to think, to cause them to have the vision of possibilities that can affect your community for the better, then you’ve got a noisy drill.” This is clearly an artist who is acutely aware of himself both as a visual historian or archivist and an activist.
One of the ways in which he has pursued his activism through film production has been the extensive attention he pays to the urban space. It is almost as though the organization of the urban space functions as a mirror for the larger culture and society. Repeatedly, his films turn to urban injustice, especially through the unequal ways in which access to urban space is restricted to some and opened to others. In his film, Maroko, we see a visual account of the devastating effects of the forcible evacuation of 300,000 inhabitants of Maroko, a slum neighborhood in Lagos that was gentrified in the 1990s. What Maroko reveals is a powerful visual portrait of the militarization of the urban space in the Nigeria and elsewhere in the African postcolony where, as Merrifield and Swyngedouw argue, “the rich and powerful can decant and steer the poor into clearly demarcated zones in the city, where implicit and explicit forms of social control keep them in place” (11)]. In Makoko, Odugemi turns his lens again to the politics of urban spatiality, showing us how 180, 000 Nigerian citizens are trapped in a cycle of poverty and uncertainty. Located only a few miles from Victorian Island, perhaps the wealthiest suburb of Lagos, and tucked under the sprawling Lagos mainland bridge, what Makoko discloses is a sickening account of how the poor and marginalized not only live in the valley of the shadow of death, but also how they are left to float aimlessly without support and direction. It is a harrowing account of how a sick nation led by leaders without conscience can become a threat to its own citizens. But if Odugemi focuses a lot on urban injustice in Maroko and Makoko, he is not unaware of the incredible accomplishments of young people who work daily to squeeze out beauty from the guts of privation. It is that alternative narrative of the resilience of those abandoned by their nation that he offers us in Bariga Boy. The story of Segun Adefila, a young Nigerian choreographer and theatre practitioner whose creative exceptionalism has captured the attention of both local and international audiences, is a testimony to the creativity and ingenuity of a young generation that has found alternative routes out of poverty and unconventional strategies to survive and make meaning of their lives when the traditional approaches to securing a stable future have failed.
My whole point, then, is that we are gathered here not only to showcase the work of a man who has made a name for himself as a visual historian of contemporary life in Nigeria, but also to remind ourselves of the subtle ways in which America has been an active participant in shaping one of the most vibrant popular art forms to come from Africa.
Dr. Paul Ugor is Professor of English literature at the Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, United States. He is the author of the best-selling book “Nollywood: Popular Video Films and Narratives of Marginalized Youth.”