Journalism in the service of society

‘African cinema cannot afford anti-intellectualism’

(Being text of keynote presented by founder/CEO of Zuri24 Media, and Executive Director of IREP International Documentary Film Festival, FEMI ODUGBEMI, at the inaugural graduation ceremony of the KAP Film and Television Academy, on Monday Thursday, May 23 2022)

‘Nollywood and indeed all of African cinema cannot afford anti-intellectualism. We cannot build a truly impactful creative industry with filmmakers alone. We must open the windows so that light can come in. We need more thinkers, more researchers, more explorers, deeper themes and stories that incite debate and engage the minds of our audiences. We need a shift in understanding that celebrates and embraces how far we have come yes, but only in the awareness of how much farther we can go’

LET me begin by expressing my personal admiration for the Founder of the KAP Film/TV Academy, the indomitable storyteller, artiste, filmmaker, and creative entrepreneur Mr. Kunle Afolayan. In many ways, today is a celebration of his passion for cinema and his leadership vision. There’s very little accolade left to bequeath on the depth of his talent and the quality of the craftsmanship in his films. For me films like October 1, a personal favourite, is a classic and timeless work that I will always salute for its creative intent, layers of subliminalities and the power of its cultural authenticity and performances. Thank you for pushing the boundaries of possibilities in our cinema, and for building your work as a Nigerian brand with a global footprint. I see the KAP Film/TV Academy as an extension of that ambition and I am excited for this first set of trainees who I understand have completed a course in Post-Production. Of course with the USC film school and Netflix Grow Creative as partners, the quality and excellence of the course needs no confirmation. To all of you who have completed this inaugural programme, I say well done and congratulations on your success and I hope you will extend to others the protocols and new insights you have received from this programme.

May I also salute the Academy Director and the Faculty especially the Head of School, Prof. Tunji Azeez, my friend and brother. His contributions to many initiatives in the creative industry deserves our respect and much appreciation. I thank you for all the support you have given to us at IREP and I have no doubt that you will drive the vision of this Academy with best global practices.

Odugbemi delivering the keynote at the KAPHub Academy graduation

WHEN I asked Prof. Azeez what he wanted me to speak about here today, he sent me a text asking me to make a case for why we need training in Nollywood. That would have been easy. It is a case I have made for over twenty years starting with my tenure as President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN) in 2002-2006). We focused principally on promoting professional training for the industry and the ITPAN Training School Gbagada was very active and impactful. Many of those who are leading practitioners in Nollywood today attended ITPAN’s training programmes back then. It is also well-known that the IREP Documentary Film Festival which Jahman Anikulapo, Makin Soyinka and I co-founded has had from its inception a strong training and learning element to it. And for over 12 years now we have trained storytellers and filmmakers as part of our intervention to broaden our industry’s understanding of the Documentary genre. I have also been consistent making the case for industry training through many public papers and lectures I have given over my 30 years in this industry. Indeed my recent stint as pioneer Academy Director of the Multichoice Talent Factory West Africa is testament to my continuing commitment to that message, and I am delighted by the progress many of my proteges have made, and are making in the industry.

But as I considered the subject I realized that in fact it would appear that the message of institutional training as an important factor to the sustainability of the industry, or as a response to improving the quality of the films we make, has been well-made already. Just a decade ago there were less than 10 proper film training programmes available in the whole of Nigeria. Today there are dozens of film programmes in Nigerian universities and of course twice that number in ad hoc programmes. There is general agreement that the quality of product needs to improve and that the opportunities of international exposure and distribution will come only with a certain commitment to global best practices in technical quality and artistic exploration. So I thought instead of making a case for more training, perhaps the case to be made surround our individual and personal commitment as professionals to a learning culture. It is one thing to institutionally create knowledge platforms, trainings and schools, it is quite a different proposition for each individual professional to embrace the opportunities to learn. 

LEARNING is a very personal mindset. It is a relentless pursuit of that which is the most excellent output possible in any area of occupation and a willingness to be humble and open to new dynamics in its pursuit. Learning is a lifetime exploration. For institutional training to be effective and progressive, the beneficiaries must esteem the learning experience as critical not just to their economic well-being but to personal growth as artistes and storytellers. It is that esteem for learning, for growth, for intellectual width that I fear is missing today in our industry and one that is desperately needed as a response to expanding training opportunities. Perhaps important industry milestones like today’s event offers us an opportunity to openly address the generally poor attitude to continuous learning within the industry and what I may describe as pervasive anti-intellectualism. Whilst the commercial success of Nollywood may have come through raw talent, street-smarts, self-education and hands-on practice, our ability to sustain and expand its gains lies in the humility needed to understand that the dynamics of change in the creative industries will always outpace its current trends. Whatever ‘expertise’ we claim from yesterday is evolving even as we take grasp of it. If there are any fundamental realities that under-gird any industry’s success globally today, it is that it must represent its unique cultural stories in ideation and expression, it must be driven by technology in its execution and distribution, it must engage strong creative collaborations with others and the quality control mechanism of global best practices in the filmmaking process are non-negotiable. The demand of these is that the sustainability of an industry like Nollywood which has grown organically and mostly through practice, will depend on its openness to continuously learning, unlearning and relearning. 

And the learning to which I am speaking starts from understanding the fundamentals of the craft, the fundamentals of the technology driving it, the fundamentals of storytelling as both an art and a science and the fundamentals of the matrix and strategies that inform distribution on the different emerging channels and platforms worldwide. Beyond the fundamentals, learning is also how we esteem new ideas and fresh thinking. The underground joke in many international film festivals is that Nigerians come to film festivals for shopping and long bouts of drinking at bars and hardly watch any films. We spend time constantly talking about looking for funding but we don’t network or meet other filmmakers from other film cultures to learn. Even the film festivals that hold in Nigeria and the learning opportunities that they offer are rarely attended by the majority of those who need it the most. It is often the same usual suspects that gather at these festivals, because most of our filmmakers imagine themselves as self-made experts and superstars who already know all there is to know about filmmaking. We hear them say things like ‘filmmaking is not about speaking big big grammar,’ or ‘I just want to shoot my film,’ as if the creative craft is some exercise in sewing or bricklaying. We really like award shows on the other hand because it offers the public adulation that soothes our competitive instincts. We are all for the show but we ignore the ‘business’ in show-business.  

The problem with that is that filmmaking and storytelling is actually a serious business of imagination and intellect because it is about ideas, interpretation and representation. Maybe that also explains why we shy away from the treasure trove of Nigerian literature books waiting to be made into films. We are too anti-intellectual to engage the themes and stories of our own literary heritage. So we keep making stories limited to our personal contemporary experiences and trapped by the limitations of our exposure. We need to up our game. We need the humility to learn so we can grow. A Learning culture welcomes intellectualism, a seeking to interrogate assumptions in the hope of entrenching the good and moving on from what does not serve the best Interests of our development. It is about openness to alternative viewpoints and contrary perceptions. It is about avoiding negativity whenever accountability is demanded of our creative products. 

A learning culture also means we understand that there are conventions to the craft of filmmaking that have proved useful to different storytelling genres. We have to learn them properly because those conventions are an unspoken contract with the viewing audience. You do not present a comedy film in dark high-contrast tones or score happy music to a horror thriller. Those conventions are established because they are tested by experience to line up with the best viewing experience for the viewer. To reinvent the wheel we must first understand its engineering and the thinking that established it. 

Learning means we must be quick to unlearn what is not working and to accept with openness valid criticisms that question the basis of our creative choices or explorations. I am always shocked and amused at the reactions film criticism gets in Nollywood. Unless you fawn and describe a film as the greatest ever made, the feedback is considered a personal affront, an attack to destroy or outright witchcraft. Somehow we seem to think that the success of a film is simply that it was made, regardless of its quality or the idiocy of its premise. ‘It is what the audience wants’ is the popular knee-jerk reasoning for many of the really odd streams of storytelling that seem to recently populate our industry. We insist that the the same Nigerian audience who seem to binge-watch very complex and subliminal films and TV series on international platforms only want our films to be built on an implausible premise, lacking in any creative intent and framed around slapstick characterizations. I find it somewhat disingenuous. What is our role as artists and public intellectuals and philosophers? Films as cultural artifacts are timeless. It is unlikely that generations to come will easily accept or understand argument that the work to which we have put our name can only be referenced or understood in the context of audience demand in a period in time. Perhaps we may not yet have a proper and well-educated film criticism culture yet, but we must understand that we need one, and a vibrant and fearless one at that, if we are to grow Nollywood in the path of its best potentials. It is my hope that film criticism will be one of the courses offered at the KAP Film/TV Academy in the near future.

Finally learning means we are keen to expand the boundaries of our storytelling beyond entertainment to also edutainment and elevating the consciousness of our audiences through our stories and the characters we create. Storytelling is too powerful not to be more impactful than only to make our viewers laugh. We can open up their world and challenge their thinking. Our films should be the soft power deployed in our country against tribalism, discrimination, inequality, religious intolerance and poor governance. Nollywood, beyond its commercial success, must be socially and culturally significant to our progress and prosperity as a nation and as a continent. 

Nollywood and indeed all of African cinema cannot afford anti-intellectualism. We cannot build a truly impactful creative industry with filmmakers alone. We must open the windows so that light can come in. We need more thinkers, more researchers, more explorers, deeper themes and stories that incite debate and engage the minds of our audiences. We need a shift in understanding that celebrates and embraces how far we have come yes, but only in the awareness of how much farther we can go. And that the road map winds through our individual and personal commitment to a lifetime of learning, unlearning and relearning. 

Thank you and God bless.

Femi ODUGBEMI, fta. rpa.
Founder/CEO Zuri24media Lagos.
Co-Founder/Executive Director, 
IREPRESENT International Documentary Film Festival Lagos.

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