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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Tunde Kelani on Nigerian cinema and beyond

Tunde Kelani on Nigerian cinema and beyond

The acclaimed Nollywood director on the issues and obstacles faced by Nigerian cinema

Tunde Kelani. Photo: Abhijjt Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Tunde Kelani. Photo: Abhijjt Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: Nollywood is said to be the world’s third largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood, but the issues and obstacles facing some of its filmmakers are local, micro and long-standing, says one of its most well-known exponents. Tunde Kelani, a man of many talents, who was in Mumbai to attend the film trade event FICCI-Frames (12-14 March), has been directing and producing movies since the seventies. Tunde Kelani (“Call me TK") is now 66 and counted as a Nollywood veteran, but he is still taking it one film at a time, facing challenges in production and exhibition that refuse to go away despite the popularity of Nigerian cinema in at home and among the diaspora.

Kelani, who participated in a workshop titled “Meaningful Cinema: The Creation of Socially Relevant Content" at FICCI-Frames, makes films and television content in his native Yoruba language through his company Mainframe. “We have to find our own methods of funding because we don’t have the sort of framework where you can easily access funds," he said. “There’s no government funding, so many of us work with low budgets. Digital technology is now available and fairly affordable, but there is a limit to how much you can do."

Despite its vast size and population, Nigeria doesn’t have more than 50 screens on which to show films, Kelani said. Recently built multiplexes are unaffordable to the majority of the population, he added, while piracy rams official DVD sales. “We have to look at other media like the internet," Kelani said. “Television stations don’t pay for licensing rights unless we get corporate sponsorships." How does he release the movies he directs and produces? “After a limited run in cinemas, I show the films through the Mobile Cinema Project that I founded, I take the film to universities and organise private screenings. It’s a lot of work, but I want to continue to make films."

The word Nollywood is sometimes used to mark the shift from 35mm film stock to video in the nineties, said British film scholar and African cinema expert June Givanni. This shift produced its own aesthetic similar to television soaps, added Givanni, who curated a package of Nigerian films across styles and genres at the International Film Festival Kerala (IFFK) last December. “These days, the films are emotionally extended, they have characters going through trauma and tribulations," she said. “There is also a popular base built up from literary sources, real lives and everyday myth. African magic (drawing on traditional practices and folk and rural themes) is also a feature of a lot of these films." Kelani’s Thunderbolt: Magun, for instance, which was screened at the IFFK, explores the seriocomic experiences of a modern woman dealing with a curse placed on her after being suspected of infidelity.

Thunderbolt was a highly popular production for Kelani and one of the few Nigerian films to be successfully distributed abroad, Givanni said. “Nigerian cinema was born of an engagement by Nigerians with their own culture," she added. “Traditional Nigerian cinema as a whole has been characterised by indie and commercial production. There’s no state support and little foreign investment and collaboration. It has mainly been built on audience popularity and that is why it has potential within the country for investment."

The idea of Nollywood has several internal dissenters, such as Niji Akanni, a Nigerian writer and director who graduated in direction from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 1998. Akanni, whose Aramotu and Heroes and Zeroes were among the movies shown at the IFFK, works on a range of subjects—Aramotu is a period drama about a proto-feminist tribal woman whose entrepreneurial skills make her the object of envy and intrigue in her village, while Heroes and Zeroes is a contemporary spoof of the extra-marital perils of a Nollywood filmmaker.

“I was poking fun at the industry, lampooning the media and the sense of nothingness in Nollywood," Akanni said. “What bothers me about Nollywood is that it has nothing to offer apart from entertainment. The younger generation of filmmakers is getting more competent with the language of cinema, but they are not exploring the meaning of the image." Most of the arthouse African films screened at festivals around the globe get foreign funding and support, which emboldens their makers to explore socio-political issues despite the absence of a local market, he added.

Things haven’t changed much since Kelani’s early years, and funding and distribution remain obstacles. “The digital aesthetic severely limits us," Akanni said. “It is difficult to get a filmic look or feel in terms of narration on the digital platform. And getting a project off the ground can take up to five years." Then and now, between Kelani and Akanni, Nollywood has changed dramatically, but old issues and barriers refuse to disappear. “The success of Nigerian cinema is because of the support of the audience, and there is a reason why audiences prefer the worst Nigerian film to the best American film," Kelani said. “But piracy has destroyed the DVD market—I haven’t been selling DVD of my films for the past few years." Not that this has stopped him from rolling out movies—his most recent production, Dazzling Mirage, dramatises sickle-cell anaemia through the story of a survivor who doesn’t let her condition get in the way of romance and marriage.

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Updated: 16 Mar 2014, 09:33 PM IST
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