The opinions expressed here are just that — opinions. None of them are necessarily correct or valuable.
I saw Avatar: The Way of Water with Gbemi Akinlade. It was my second viewing. It is that good. As always, James Cameron is dauntless and intricate. His movie is a colorful, spectacular showing. In Notes on Cinema 02, I told you I was in awe of minds that create entire universes for their stories — endowed with new life forms, ecosystems, language, cultures and conflict. Avatar is magnificent, otherworldly stuff. Yet, it explores family, strife, spirituality and capitalism in a relatably human way. The Way of Water maintains the strong emotional core of Cameron’s pictures. At the end, Gbemi sheds a tear, and I understand why.
Gbemi is a med student in the day and an actress at… well, in the day as well. She somehow balances these two things, well done to her. Gbemi is Gen Z Nollywood. So she knows of streaming platforms, premiers, and costume parties. Gbemi is “Lekkiwood” generation — the characters are wealthy, the cinematography is terrific, the script is porous; RMD is in everything, but so are IG influencers.
After 192 minutes of film and 15 of trying (and failing) to find a chair at Ebonylife cinema, I begin our conversation by asking if Nollywood will ever make its Avatar—its audacious, otherworldly, box office shattering masterpiece. She is not optimistic. She asks how Nollywood can create transcendental stories when it is not done telling Nigerian stories. I agree. There are not enough stories about Nigeria’s history, the candid experience of the contemporary Nigerian, or the possibilities of a futuristic Nigeria. There are not enough true and brave stories.
I ask Gbemi about her acting job. I do not think highly of most Nollywood releases but I try not to say that. Well, so does she. She is only an actress after all, she does not write or direct things. Most actors sign contracts and do as they are told, we often forget that. She loves her job. But although she is passionate, it is not very consequential. She would like to do amazing, respectable work, but she will see what happens after school. She has exams on the way, and at the moment, nothing is more important than that. Her parents still pay her bills, so acting is not a do or die. Not yet.
Gbemi tells me that one day, she will direct her own films. She tells me she will make them complex and inventive, with little regard for their popularity. I tell her that every artist eventually discovers how important PR and money are. Art is often commercial. The most famous paintings from centuries ago were commissioned work.
I tell her that the art we experience is sponsored by people who are confident of its commercial success. In today’s film industry, there are many middlemen between the creator and his audience—mainly, the producers, the distributors and the exhibitors. For anything to be (worth being) made, these middlemen must consider it profitable. Again, she tells me that she does not care about the money.
I tell Gbemi about my stint in Entertainment Law and my understanding of how movie funding works. Movies are expensive and there are few production companies so Nigerian producers often take loan facilities from banks. These loans must be paid with interest so the movies have to sell. When it all comes down to it, some stories sell. In Nigeria, they are hardly ever the profound, inventive or complex ones.
We talk about the money problem. We wonder if bad Nollywood movies are so because they are not well-funded. After some reflection, we wonder if the titles at Filmhouse and those on Netflix have the same funding challenge.
In this article for Culture Intelligence, I wrote that there seems to be two Nollywoods—the old and the new. Old Nollywood still uses low budgets and quick turnaround time, you find the movies on videotapes and African Magic. New Nollywood movies are of higher quality, their budgets are higher, and their production cycle, longer. Yes, you will find these on streaming platforms and in cinema houses. They are accessible to non-African audiences, red carpet events are organized for their unveiling.
New Nollywood seems to have overcome challenges associated with low budgets, such as bad lighting, bad sound, and amateur editing. Even special effects seem to have improved markedly. However, the ultimate challenge remains script development; a believable, refreshing way of telling authentic stories.
Gbemi and I agree that Nollywood needs better writing. We agree that the lines and storylines are often loose, implausible, cringe. I ask why this is consistently the case. There are enough intelligent Nigerians, so much of impressive literary work; so what could the problem be? Is it so challenging, for instance, to convert well-written prose to decent screenplay? Is the looseness deliberate? Are well written scripts watered down so they become more “enjoyable”?
Gbemi tells me that Nollywood could use better acting as well. She goes on to explain something I now refer to as the intricacy of facial expressions. A lot of what we call good acting begins from mastered use of facial expressions — it is in the dilation of the eyes, the raise or drop of a gaze, the arch of the brows, the purse of the lips. As long as the camera is on the actor’s face and you are (used to) paying attention, the message will pass, you will not miss it. When in the final scene of Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) asks, “Which would be worse: To live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”, he lifts his gaze towards Chuck Ale (Mark Ruffalo) in a certain way, that makes us know, for the first time in the film, that Teddy is sane. The indication is not (only) in the line (and it is one line, by the way) however, it is in the eyes. It is good acting.
Contrarily, to advance a narrative, many Nollywood movies often require their characters to do the most. With emotion, there is an insufferable commitment to the apparent. Emotion is demonstrated, it is often loud and replete with gestures. A loud monologue is typical, to explain to an assumedly clueless audience, that a character feels a certain way. Often, there is needless yelling, pointing, theatrics. It is so much drama.
I ask Gbemi if the Nigerian life is as dramatic as our movies portray it to be. She does not know. It is a difficult time to answer the question, Nigeria has been unreal, confounding recently.
We agree that many Nollywood movies are flat, bland. They are rarely complex or intricate. There is hardly ever a catch; the clues are glaring, the plot is predictable, the audience has nothing to unravel on their own (well, except things that absolutely should be put in the movie for it to be barely coherent). I ask Gbemi why.
We wonder if the shallowness of Nollywood compensates for the difficulty of the Nigerian life. Perhaps our music must be danceable and our movies must be basic because our real lives are hard. Perhaps sophistication is a privilege reserved for those with brunch and social security. I once wrote that poverty forces you to desire basic things, live limitedly. Your concern is food, housing, clothing, education, power. You cannot travel, see the world, so your perspectives are limited. You cannot think deeply about art because you are so stressed, you can only tolerate instant entertainment—danceable songs, dramatic movies.
I also wonder if the Nigerian socialization process denies us of creativity and critical thought. Perhaps we are stifled from birth — raised to blindly agree with elders who do not know better; fight for religious tenets we can neither explain, defend nor question. Perhaps the natural instinct to explore, question and experiment is cained away. Perhaps our view of the world and our appreciation of art is limited. Perhaps our idea of appropriateness and morality restrains us. Perhaps it is our devout opposition to things we mindlessly tag “ungodly”.
Even today, Hollywood releases are censored before they are made available to discerning Nigerian adults. The NBC cuts nude scenes out of cinema showings. The values this perverse, broken country chooses to enforce are questionable, but that is a conversation for another day. Perhaps we are all limited afterall. So our understanding of cinema is restricted to dramatic familial conflict, financial breakthrough, one-dimensional villains, performative romance, and a destination wedding at the end. Glory Be To God.
Gbemi hates the heavy use of social media influencers in Nollywood. I agree that it makes her profession seem less prestigious. If just anyone can do it, is it still respectable? I suggest, however, that the inclusion of famous faces may be necessary for commercial success. My theory is that Nigerian movies are rarely seen for their intrinsic value; instead, they are seen because of stars who lend credibility to whatever they appear in.
We walk down the room to stare at movie posters. We observe that while the foreign titles seem content with one or two faces, the Nollywood posters have six to eight of them. It seems like the producer was saying look at our line-up of star power, so so is in this movie, so so so as well. Please come and watch!
When will Nollywood make its Avatar? Who would direct it? Gbemi thinks Nollywood directors are far off. She goes on about her love for foreign directors — how she would be completely geeked out to meet James Cameron. She tells me about her fascination with the distinct signatures of Hollywood directors. I am interested as well. A-list Western (and Eastern, to be fair) directors imprint their unique style on film-making. It is legacy. James Cameron is never intimidated by the epic scale of his projects. Denis Villeneuve employs distinct imagery, surreal cinematography in futuristic settings. Tarantino is famous for his use of tension and gory final scenes. Christopher Nolan plays with time, identity and consciousness. Wes Anderson, my favorite, is obsessed with symmetry and colours. Filmography must be photography to him; you pause the movie and all is perfectly aligned.
The list goes on — Spike Lee and the Dolly shot, Stanley Kubrick and the Kubrick stare, Damien Chazelle and close-up shots, Guy Ritchie and… well, well-dressed men and witty dialogue? Gbemi and I wonder what any Nollywood director is distinctly known for.
In the end, Gbemi and I agree that Nollywood is young and growing. As I wrote in my Culture Intelligence piece, it was only 21 years ago (in 2002) when Nigeria’s film-making activity was called “Nollywood” by a certain New York Times journalist. It was only 31 years ago when electronic salesman, Kenneth Nnebue, shot the first notable straight-to-video movie, titled Living in Bondage. Meanwhile, of the IMDb top ten rated movies, only two were released after 2002.
We say a little about the admirable work a few Nollywood pioneers are doing. You must know the list; I ask Gbemi about everyone and she nods. Afrobeats has had its eureka moment, Nollywood must be coming. It cannot be far away now, and look, we are the outliers.
Over and over, Gbemi recommends Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. I try to see Call Me By Your Name later that night. I watch Timothee Chamalet ogle Armie Hammer. I close my laptop, and my Nigerian eyes, to sleep.