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Forget the West, Nollywood plays by its own rules

At the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), held this year from the 13th to 23rd of July, Nollywood was conspicuously absent.

It wasn’t an exception though. This is usually the rule.

As plays out every year, when the entire continent assembles in Durban to screen, market films and make deals at Africa’s biggest and most respected film festival, Nollywood, Africa’s largest film-making industry barely registers. Not in the choice of films that make the festival’s main selection. Or the hundreds of potentials that hit the Durban Film Mart in search of funding or distribution deals. Nollywood is mostly an afterthought, whispered about in animated hallway conversations and power breakfast tables.

This July, the entire Nollywood presence at DIFF was vested in the out of competition screening of the Nigerian-Ghanaian collaboration, Potato Potahto a romantic comedy starring OC Ukeje, Joselyn Dumas and Joke Silva amongst others.

While Potato Potahto has its crowd-pleasing elements and most definitely earned one or two supporters at Durban, it is easy to see why the film would never have made the main selection list.

The aesthetics of Potato Potahto are as Nollywood-ish as they come, and there is indeed an argument to be made for the Ghanaian film industry being a spawn of Nigeria’s. With claustrophobic sets, an over-reliance on obvious dialogue and a total lack of exciting cinema angles or camera work, Shirley Frimpong-Manso’s latest seems like direct to DVD fare.

“I love the comedy but I do not think it was made for the big screen,” says Domoina Ratsara, a film journalist from Madagascar who was present at the screening of Potato Potahto.

But these same peculiarities that make Potato Potahto so inadequate, in the eyes of snobbish cinephiles at least, coupled with the industry and doggedness of the players that ensure that these movies are produced come what may, and reach the global audience that consumes them voraciously, are what inspired Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), to pick Lagos, and by extension, Nollywood for last year’s City to City spotlight.

One would assume that South Africa which appears to have a sturdier structure for producing and distributing films, would be the obvious African choice for a high profile festival such as TIFF. Apart from DIFF, South Africa has a rich Oscar tradition, winning at least twice in the last two decades, for Charlize Theron (Monster, 2004,) and Tsotsi following two years later in the foreign picture category. Not to mention nominations for Darrell Roodt’s Yesterday (2004) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013.

South Africa’s close relationship with the West has its uses. The films that come out of these collaborations can be powerful pieces of cinema when done properly. See Inxeba (The Wound), a collaboration with Germany and France, which won Best Actor and Best Director trophies at DIFF. The system has a way of placing quality control measures that ensure that a minimum standard of quality is maintained.

These control systems are marked by so much bureaucracy, from first pitch to principal photography that they take a long time to yield tangible results. Because of this, decent films that shine on the level of Inxeba, or even Tsotsi are few and far between. But these successes are those that determine how the industry is perceived.

To watch how the cookie is baked at DIFF is to sit through meetings upon meetings, pitches that lead to even more pitches, film labs, screen-writing workshops and talent programmes. These processes help train scores of young professionals but the results of all the labour are not likely to be seen for a while.

Nollywood, on the other hand, has no patience for all this rigour. It wants to get to the party and it must get there fast. Inspired by Hollywood style blockbusters and Bollywood spectacles, Nollywood is not film-making by committee but by heart. Producers scrape, beg and borrow funds to finance their films and expect returns just as quickly.

The audience determines which direction producers should go next and if the smart money is currently on comedies, then so be it. The long game was never really the intention.

In the midst of all the madness though, Nollywood is finding its purpose. The quality of films may have dipped to unforgivable lows in the past but things are gradually on the upswing. This year alone has brought Isoken, Ojukokoro and Hakkunde, three diverse but impressive entries made by new school film-makers with an eye on international standards. It may be a long while before Nollywood is ready to clinch the foreign language Oscar, but when this eventually happens, it will be on no one else’s terms.

The Nollywood way.

Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, film/music critic and occasional ruffler of feathers. His writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. He has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments and City Press. Okiche also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He participated in the 2017 Durban International Film Festival as part of the Talents Durban. He tweets from @drwill20.

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