“This is the time to make socially conscious films. Enough of the comedy bullshit. We have to fight the system with art or whatever we know how to do best”, Damilola Orimogunje tweeted on Thursday, October 22. It was two days after the infamous attack on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos.
Many Nigerians have since the incident appealed to filmmakers to attempt retelling the events of that night and the struggle preceding it on celluloid in order to preserve it for generations to come. While at it, the appeal also kicked off conversations as to the unabashed indulgence and the affinity of Nigerian filmmakers more for the comedy genre.
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So, when Orimogunje sent out that tweet, it resonated with quite a lot of people. A filmmaker himself, he has channeled his filmmaking acumen towards films addressing socially-conscious topics that affect the everyday Nigerian person. His last directorial, ‘For Maria: Ebun Pataki’ highlighted, that too, brilliantly, post-partum depression. In a filmmaking climate where the struggles of the average Nigerian get little on-screen representation, particularly in recent times, ‘For Maria: Ebun Pataki’ is a champion. So, he’s qualified to tweet as such.
Orimogunje’s tweet as well as that of those who shared similar thoughts on the topic highlighted one of the endemic problems in the Nollywood. For a while now, – notably since 2016 – Nollywood has become obsessed with the comedy genre. In fact, it was in that same year that prolific director, Steve Gukas said, “we run the risk of becoming an only comic nation and that’s bad. Nigeria needs to show love to diverse genres of film.” He made this statement at the Nolly Thursdays screening of his movie, ‘93 Days’ which was based on the outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria. Six years after, not a lot has changed.
It all started with the advent of New Nollywood; an emerging phase in Nigerian cinema noted for the major shift not just in the method of its film production and exhibition but also in its casting and choice of stories. It will be significant to note that the front-lining movies of this phase are not even crass, slapstick comedies. New Nollywood started with non-comedy blockbusters. 2009 saw Kunle Afolayan’s ‘Figurine’ followed by the Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde starrer, ‘Ije’ in 2010 and then ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ in 2013 of course after ‘Last Flight to Abuja’ in 2012. They were not all comedy and they all had a great run at the box office.However, 2014 would redefine storytelling choices in the Nigerian film industry for many years to come. Ayo ‘AY’ Makun made his debut in Nollywood with ‘30 Days in Atlanta’, a slapstick comedy with two popular figures, AY and Ramsey Nouah, in lead roles. The film, crass as it is, made a terrific run at the box office and emerged as the highest-grossing film in the history of Nigerian cinema at the time. AY would return in 2016 with a sequel, ‘A Trip to Jamaica’, which made close to N30 million better than its prequel despite negative reviews from critics. The success of these films opened the floodgate of movies practically helmed on the templates of these AY’s productions. The blueprint was simple. A loose script, an ensemble star cast, as much infusion of comedy as possible, pomp premiers; and the box office will be filled. It was tested and it worked.
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According to notable Filmmaker, Charles Novia, “almost every producer tilted towards the comedy genre and we saw a rash of films with tepid humour, with many mostly with an ensemble of comic cast, who had no bearing to the plots or direction of such movies. It was as if every producer wanted to get a forced laugh from the audience and in the process, the most asinine devices of buffoonery were employed in the movies. Any Instagram ‘celebrity,’ who has a million or two hundred thousand followers was inveigled on films with resultant effects on plot progressions and overall denouement.”
Most of the films that came out of the immediate drive of that insincere filmmaking endeavor were a disaster. And it wasn’t surprising. The movies weren’t made with conviction. They were borne out of the desire to make films with a formulaic perception of what presumably works with the audience. It didn’t help that exhibitors bought into the trend. Movies that do not reflect this formulaic filmmaking weren’t allotted to prime showtimes and some were not even accepted for exhibition.
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According to Kenneth Gyang, the Director of ‘Oloture’, Nigeria’s second Netflix Original, in a chat, “people in the industry, majorly distributors have actually ingrained it in the mind of filmmakers that for people to go out there and watch their films, it has to be comical”. For some reason, even the audience mopped up these films and their asinine loads of comedy. In his review of Bolanle Austen Peters’ ‘The Bling Lagosians’, critic Wilfred Okiche rightly noted, “For one reason or the other, Nigerian movie-going audience tend to get excited about stories of the fabulously wealthy.”
When TFC spoke to a movie critic, Richard Dede, he offered some explanation. “What you need to understand is that Nigerians love inspirational stories. We rank high on the poverty index in the world and while an average Nigerian can afford movie tickets, seeing this fabulous display of wealth in films gives them new heights to scale. Even if the dose of comedy in the films is outrageous, we are a stressed nation and people just want to go to the cinema and laugh away their stress.”
Dede might be correct. As of November 2020, nine out of the ten highest-grossing Nigerian films of all time are comedies. Meanwhile, when asked about their filmmaking choices, film producers justify the prominence of the comedy genre with their box office earnings. To them, it’s business first. However, this filmmaking formula which has notably turned the film industry into a cash cow could be detrimental to its quest to attain more impactful heights and influence popular culture as well as the artistic, social, and political ecosystem it operates in.
Whenever arts and commerce collide, commerce always has a way of winning over the arts. However, a number of outliers have shown that it is possible for both to co-exist; to make impactful films away from the terrains of slapstick comedy yet do well at the box office without forfeiting the delight of ambitious filmmaking.
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Editi Effiong’s ‘Up North’ followed the same route and made N94 million after a tough tussle with other Nollywood formulaic projects. Then last year, ‘Living in Bondage: Breaking Free’, a horror flick, made N163 million. Perhaps not brawny enough to dispel the unnecessary prevalence of the formulaic comedy films, but the fact that these three films did great numbers at the Box Office is a pointer that Nigerians want and will as well appreciate ingenious, ambitious, and explorative storytelling away from the grip of slapsticks.
“The fact that dramas can make over ₦200 million means more big dramas will be made,” screenwriter and film executive Naz Onuzo says.
It has to be made in any case because a lot of people are tired of the formulaic comedy tropes including those with a track record of making them. In an interview with UK’s The Times, EbonyLife’s Mo Abudu said, “Six years in, I think it is time we started telling real stories.” You could say that’s why she made ‘Oloture’.
“Hello, beautiful people. Thank you all so much for making our comedies No. 1 in the box office,” she captioned an Instagram photo. “However, our storytelling is expanding to include compelling and dramatic tales that reflect some of the harsh realities of Nigerian and African life.”
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It is a no-brainer that Mo Abudu is rethinking the filmmaking choices she backs up and represents. Nollywood has in recent times caught the attention of global audiences. Netflix actively stepped in earlier in the year. Pidgin is now recognized as a foreign language at the Oscars. She’s significantly leading this voyage for Nigerian filmmaking. So, in a bid to further re-affirm her international acclaim, Nollywood’s superficial storytelling with crass comedy and over-the-top affluence won’t work on the global stage.
In the words of Chioma Ude, the founder of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), “slapstick is good for Nigeria, but our kind of slapstick is not what they want internationally. They want our stories and they want us to keep them authentic.”
2020 might just be the experimental year. Toyin Abraham’s ‘Fate of Alakada’ is in the cinemas already. Kemi Adetiba has also hinted at the end of principal photography for the sequel to ‘King of Boys’. Charles Okpaleke of Play Network is also set to release the remake of Amaka Igwe’s ‘Rattlesnake’. If one of these non-comedies emerges the champion of the year at the Box Office, it would be the second non-comedy film to do so in seven years and a win for those advocating a fresh breath of filmmaking in Nollywood.