We are here because of Nollywood. For some this is a reason for celebration, to others it is rather cause for anxiety. However, that such debate even rages is a sign that Nollywood has become an institution to reckon with. And being an institution brings with it responsibilities. Nollywood can no longer be indulged as the “Johnny-come-lately” bad boy of movie making; recently recognized as the third largest moving making business in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood; this means it grosses more money than industries of older standing such as England and Italy, thus it is an industry that can no longer be treated as a child passing through its terrible twos. At the very least it is an industry that has gained its first degree, and we expect more of college graduates than we do of those still struggling through High School.
In many ways, a part of this success can be attributed to the question of technology. Nollywood is an industry that basically skipped the film stage, and went first to video, then was truly liberated by digital. As with music making, the symbiotic relationship between technology and creativity must be acknowledged. This even affects what I can call the social relations of film –making; as for instance that location work predominates over studio work, and as is common with Black independent film makers in Europe and the United States, producers and directors and actors work constantly with each other in stable communities which resemble early Hollywood contract studio system, but without either the studios or the contracts, which has proved a way of promoting and supporting each other in their growth as artists.
The issues to be addressed by this film forum on “women and the dynamics of representation” have been of concern for those who think about such things as “representation” for centuries. But let me begin first with the word “dynamics”, a term that suggests forces that produce change or motion. Nollywood is indeed a force, the existence of such a mass of films, now available, and watched in every corner of the globe, has indeed produced change, it is the nature of that change with respect to women that we are here to deliberate on – we are concerned here with what the force of the dynamo means for those of us embodied to walk this earth as women, and at this forum we are as concerned about women in film as women on film. That is the dynamics of representation ultimately have as urgent force when thinking of women in the film industry behind the scenes as the more self evident sense of women projected on the screen, which is where I will begin.
How women are presented to audiences in a number of media has been of concern for a number of women and women’s movements around the world. As human beings we all become concerned about how we are seen by others, how we are re-presented to the world, especially by others who do not count themselves as one of our number. And when we do not see ourselves reflected, or reflected as we would like, the need for redress, to challenge the discrepancies between how we see ourselves and how you know ourselves to be seen, becomes a powerful driving force, and not just for women. It is of no small consideration, for it has led around the world to powerful social movements- as we know centuries of being seen as “niggers”, being denigrated, which in its Latin root literally means to blacken or “niggerfy” and being classified as social inferiors with attendant social consequences and legal restrictions led to revolutions from the American South to South Africa.
I remind us therefore that the context for this forum rests firmly in the arena of a very broad historical context where issues concerning “the image of Africa” meet those concerning “the image of women”, black women in particular, though in this regard because of the former- the image of Africa- women of African descent have not always even been seen as a subset of “women” in general but of somehow a species apart from female humanity.
Out there in the world the image of Africa, and the women in it or who have historically come from it is not positive. There is not time to rehearse these images here neither do I at this juncture wish to launch into a history of the genealogy of these images about which I can teach whole graduate courses. So forgive me if I simply resort to the shorthand terms we use to conjure up a wealth of images and the ideas associated with them. After centuries, at least in the western world we are still the dark continent, today refined to become more politically correct by speak more euphemistically of underdevelopment, necessary aid, culture bound etc. our people are still somehow lesser, less intelligent, less capable, less whatever. When it comes to our women the situation gets more aggravating…
Yet why does this anxiety about historical images matter? Surely we tell ourselves the marketing of such images is over, or since we have become independent we have control of our own representation so what does the colonial past matter? It matters for two reasons, the first is that the success of Nollywood means that what we do is avidly received in those very places that has created and marketed these negative images, and they have not gone away. The second is indeed that the major audience is ourselves, whether at home or abroad, so what are we telling ourselves and the rest of the world about ourselves? Are we countering or feeding this legacy of hostile images of ourselves?
The Nollywood film industry, willingly or unwittingly, carries on its shoulders the hopes and expectations of a people. Perhaps the situation can be compared to the burdens placed on the shoulders of African-American writers in the middle of the twentieth century who had to grapple with the interface between artistic freedom and social expectations. Was Richard Wright justified in creating a monster like Bigger Thomas to prove his ideological point that desperate social circumstances beyond one’s control produce desperate people, or did he merely validate the negative stereotype that all young Black men are brutes and rapists? A generation later when Alice Walker gave us Celie in The Color Purple was she showing how no matter what the degradations, women’s sisterhood and solidarity could lead to personal emancipation, or was she, justly accused of merely adding further fuel to the fire engulfing the besieged masculinity of Black men.
It is not insignificant that the furor over the Color Purple blazed more furiously, leading to demonstrations against the actors and the picketing of the Oscars, when it was turned into a successful film by Steven Spielberg. It is not necessary to say, especially in a forum such as this, that in terms of contemporary entertainment, film is arguably the most popular art form of narrative communication around the world today. Something that causes a spark when published in print can turn into a forest fire when presented on the screen. Controversial as the novel The Last Temptation of Christ was when published in 1960 by Nikolas Kazantzakis, that uproar paled when compared to the fury unleashed when it was made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese which reached a much wider general audience in 1988. It can also work the other way; I am sure J.K. Rowling the writer of the Harry Potter series of children’s books today goes to the bank quite happy that she need never write another word in life if she doesn’t choose to!
Nollywood faces the same agonies and choices as all the other ‘woods’ have faced. The point I am emphasizing is that the question of the responsibility for images is not peculiar to Nigeria or to film-makers, but is the concern of all artists; however that responsibility becomes magnified when the medium is an influential and popular one, such as film is.
If I can digress for a moment, looking at Nollywood films from the perspective of someone who has spent her life wrestling with the question of the “image of Africa” in the western world, I must say that for me one of the huge benefits of the success of this film industry, regardless of the quality of the stories being told, is finally we have a huge body of works which show what the exteriors and interiors of modern Africa look like. Most of these films are shot on location and convey the grittiness of the streets, and has made them familiar. There is a texture to the look of Lagos or Accra that is refreshing to see, especially after living with the notion that there is no modernity in Accra, that we have no capital cities that can rival those of the west. The first time I showed a slide of Abidjan to a class of students they all but though I was lying.
But to return to the other point that I was trying to make; that of the variability and unpredictability of audience. Kazantzakis was careful not to betray the end results of the biblical account of Jesus of Nazareth- he did not in the end succumb to the temptations of the flesh. Nonetheless, there were Christians who considered the very idea of the temptation of Jesus The Christ tantamount to blasphemy. However even when not dealing with theologically sensitive subjects, the concerns raised by images projected upon us or any individual or group we identify with, we carry with us. Thus a forum such as this must raise acute questions regarding the impact of the production and proliferation of the images that concern us here; the images we produce and promote ourselves and send out into the world. We are concerned here with film and with women in film in every aspect. How do we tell our stories? Who is to tell them? Who has access to the storytelling apparatus that film embodies?
It is always a heated debate whether artists are creators or reflectors of the society that support their work. There can be no doubt that we can learn a lot about a people through what we read and see about a society. Still, sorting through the manifold impressions and emotions that art evokes can be complex in a number of ways. One film about a drug addict could be seen as an exploration of a social problem. A number of films in which drug addicts routinely appear, or are referred to, spoken about, drop in casually or are otherwise a part of the fabric of the life being portrayed, can leave the impression that this is a society where drug addiction is endemic if not epidemic, is an integral part of everyday life not to say a social problem.
Thus we also need to take account of what I can call the multiplier effect. We must respect the integrity of every individual story, but we must also be concerned with the multiplier effect of a number of individual stories conveying similar things which then multiply to become a collective story. When this happens it must give us pause for thought. For example, my mother had four sons. My four brothers have each of them married between 1978 and 1984 that is they have all be married for between twenty five and thirty years giving our mother, cumulatively an excess of one hundred years of being a mother-in-law before she passed away. And in all that century, I do not remember any violent disagreements, of her calling or being called a shrew by my sisters-in-law, any necessary escapes by them to avoid her witchcraft or any attempt by her to undermine their marriages because they were unsuitable harridans who on top of everything could not even cook a decent meal! And wonderful as I know my mother to have been, I do not believe she was the only mother of sons in the whole of West Africa who appreciated the complexities of married life, appreciated that her sons had made the best choices they could and the women they married were doing the best they could to lead their lives with integrity and raise their children in unanimity and was thus prepared to leave all three couples to it! (But perhaps you will all tell that is because they had at least provided her with a dozen grandchildren and therefore could be exempted from the general box of unpleasant spells that mother in laws cast!) I think you get the point. This multiplier effect can be most instructive for good or ill.
With respect to representing contemporary African women to a larger audience, Nollywood has had sometimes deservedly, a lot of hits. But the critiques arise out of respect for its successes, if no one watched the films; it would not matter quite so much. (I have been told that the largest market outside Nigeria is not Ghana, or even London, but Canada). Wherever it is, Nollywood has put African film making on the map in spectacular ways, and has with incredible alacrity its products have become widespread enough to bear a discussion on the implications of its communicative power.
To illustrate: it is reviewing a number of films in preparation for this forum that made me sub-title these remarks “Of Cooking, Cars, and Gendered Culture”, though in truth that is a paper that yet remains to be written. Let me explain: although in everyday parlance when we speak of “culture” people’s minds go to Zulu spears, Ndebele beads, Igbo masquerades or Asante kente cloth depending on which part of the continent we are focused on, we should recognize that the real essence of culture is not so much the things we see, but the things we take for granted; not the song and dance routines we third world peoples put on for tourists to admire as proof positive we do even have culture, but the things we believe and hold fast to because they structure the sense of meaning in our lives. The things mentioned above are important to their peoples, but not primarily for the chic market value they have now come to have. And there are other, non-marketable things that are so ingrained in us we scarcely notice; like the different ways in which we greet each other – bowing to our elders, shaking hands from the left and so on, these are the deep strata cultural things seldom articulated that reflect our sense of our selves as people.
Watching these films I became aware of two striking motifs, both of them reflections of our society, one ancient, and the other more contemporary. It was very noticeable the extent to which food remains an index of gender relations and in particular a woman’s moral standing. And I do not mean only the idea of the rural woman’s sweat in her determination to grow crops to feed her children. The films also reflect what appears to be our abiding social truth that in heterosexual relationships whether or not you have a good thing going in a woman is how well she feeds you. Urban or rural, professional, unemployed, or a homemaker, no matter what, feeding is an index of a woman’s moral worth. I have seen only one instance of which feeding a woman with the labour of his own hands (as opposed to in a chic restaurant) was indicative of a man’s seriousness in a relationship. We can, and perhaps should have a conversation about what the automatic and assumed acceptance of this means for us in the early twentieth century, but the point I want to make here, is anyone watching these films, en masse, will learn quite correctly that, rightly or wrongly, in West African cultures at least into the first decade of the twentieth-first century, the cooking, and sharing of food remained a major index of cultural significance. As students and critics of popular culture this can be important to note.
What of the cars? These were as noticeable as the plates of badly or well cooked food but they seemed to have a different resonance. Where the matter of food seems an almost unquestioned sign of womanhood, to be taken for granted as it were, the cars were not an unconscious signifier. Rather they were, in film after film singled out by the camera, frequently lovingly caressed by it, not as a taken for granted aspect of character, but as a potent symbol of a man’s (frequently rising) power. A woman is expected to be able to cook, what is noteworthy, to her detriment, is when she can not. The ability is the status quo. In contrast men are not assumed to have cars, so every car rebounds to their worth and value on an ever increasing scale according to the value of the car. So fixed a sign of potent masculinity has the car become that in one film it was also used as the index of the extent to which the men who drove them were held in regard or pampered by the sugar mamas who kept them happy. Interestingly in that film, though they acted as a sign of her buying power, they reflected socially to his glory. In this particular film, the women’s access to cars was indicative of their corruption. Furthermore, by providing the men with them, they provided them with the instruments with which those gigolos could then play the fool by using them to impress women other than the ones who had purchased them. I will return to this issue shortly, the point I am making here, is that for good or ill these films give us clues to world view and culture of the societies which support them, whether by indicating fixed assumptions – as in the case of women and cooking- or signifying a symbol of flux and change- as in men and cars.
This is why the plethora of “saints, whores, nags and witches” raises such concern. The sessions of this forum tell the story of the complexity of the issues we face. In the films made by us, we must acknowledge we have made great strides in the images we present of ourselves in our stories, but we still have a great way to go. After the struggle waged by e.g. African American women in Hollywood to even be allowed to represent beauty and glamour, not to speak of sexuality, we are ahead of the game, but still need to ask, to what end? On that side of the Atlantic they had to struggle to be regarded as a social acceptable body beautiful. Over here, we have no problem with the concept of an African woman’s body as beautiful, our actresses are manifestly attractive and flaunt it on screen, though we do have to ask sometimes to what end this glorification of the body, especially in a context where the validation of woman’s sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage is still seen as a potential source of problems.
We do have plenty of storylines which reflect our lives as they are lived. Sort of. That is we do have films depicting young people in love, and young people having sex, and the women are not necessarily required to be virgins. Yet if we study carefully the development of the storylines, a number of issues arise. So often, even when supposedly college girls with no time for studying, they have time to pursue men and seduce them with their wealth, cars and bodies; yes, when unmarried women own cars it is seldom to any good end, it is a sign of women who do not know boundaries, of women who transgress.
The choice of the tongue in cheek title of the session for writers is unfortunately not so tongue in cheek. Much of the ire against the Nollywood industry has come precisely because these are the dominant images that we grapple with. I often wish, when I visit yet another office showing “African Magic” movies of wicked wives and greedy mistresses 24/7 one more time, I could issue a blanket decree banning it from the airwaves. I do not want to see anymore women actually turning into snakes before our eyes, or metamorphosing into blood suckers for the sake of gold truly believing that that is the sole objective of life.
Yet as an artist, I also recognize that this gut reaction borders on policing. Where do we draw the line between demanding socially responsible art and policing the artist, and besides, can we police morality or demand, as opposed to desire, socially responsible art forms; and again, as I asked before, must our art be required to be what we consider positive, for then when does it become propaganda, why not be content with reflecting what is, however discomforting that may be?
In short, what is the purpose of our storytelling, for make no mistake; filmmaking is simply the latest, or one of the latest forms of collective storytelling. But modern storytelling faces a complex set of situations. If you will forgive the resort to the cliché of grandmothers by the compound fireside or under the village tree, what happens when the audience is no longer a cohesive clan with shared history and antecedents and a relatively shared common set of goals, but has translated into the “global village” of both kinsmen and spies.
Human stories, whether mythic tales or proverbs and riddles have always served, in every society, the purpose of enabling, and even empowering societies to make sense of the world around them. When they encompass the grand issues of human existence, what is the source of life, or the nature of the divine, they exist in the realm of sacred myth, but as we know, even good local stand up comedians can help us comprehend the messiness, and seemingly intractable problems of human living. A cartoon about a destooled chief can be more powerful than volumes of ink spend on condemning his behaviour.
And on the subject of chiefs and village grandmothers, what indeed do we do with our past and its legacies and continuities? What do we do with those stories, those forms of living, those ways of being? And certainly one of the issues indeed facing us as modern people is making clear to ourselves and others, that there is no rupture between “then” and “now”. Some years ago I used an illustration for this point which I would like to repeat here: A few years ago I was invited to Rochester institute of Technology to conduct a faculty development workshop. So whilst there, I took the opportunity of visiting the Eastman Kodak museum. I was fortunate that it was the year of the centenary of the Brownie, and amongst the many events celebrating that little camera, which was the first camera of almost everyone I know, was a glorious display of every brownie ever made, displayed in chronological order. We could all mark our age group by the camera we first knew. What was very striking was that if you looked at only the first and the last in the series, the two cameras had nothing in common. Yet seen on display with the dozens of intervening cameras also displayed, the differences between each were only small and incremental, at times barely perceptible, and the links between the cameras at their different stages, irrefutable. It might be fruitful to think of that vexed word tradition in that manner. With each manifestation of a “traditional” ceremony, what is produced is its own variant, dependent on its own time, space and ritual acts and immediate needs. Nothing remains static … this is the health of ritual. [Each re-enactment] in form and performance carries the echo of that remembered form which each performance both recalls and gives the lie to. So, for example, to commemorate deaths in exiles, instead of sitting in open spaces outside the family home, we hire church halls, and do the things that need to be done, improvising from necessity to create something new we dress in the language of tradition, sometimes amazing and bemusing our neighbors because of the sudden influx of people, particular colour, public ceremony and noise that Ghanaian funerals generate, which seem incomprehensible unless you understand the culture of mourning. The danger is the extent to which we are all capable of genesis amnesia, forgetting the cameras in between. So how do we deal with tradition and change, how do we film those translations of traditional mores into contemporary life and modes of existence, how do we make the invisible, visible? This is not a simple task.
Derek Walcott once admonished “if the old gods were dying in the mouths of the old they died of their own volition”. What do we do about “old gods” who are not necessarily old; their mores, strictures and worship are still an integral part of our daily lives. In particular how do we deal with them in the face of the fundamentalisms of every kind that have swept through our world in the latter part of the twentieth century? I am a Christian myself. Yet at the same time I can not, in all honesty, help but baulk at the ways in which fundamentalist faith is presented and/or deployed, sometimes almost as a deus-ex-machina, suddenly appearing at the end of a complex and intricate set of plot lines to make all things right by the easy solution of sprinkling a little scripture on top, when nothing at all in parts one two and three on the film has in any way given grounds for such a possibility as acceptable. So many of our films lack a satisfying sense of an ending.
We are dealing here, amongst other things, also with the quality of writing, not to say, of re-writing! If I may be forgiven, I would like here to quote Steven Spielberg. A year after the Academy of Motion pictures effectively turned its back on him, by nominating the Color Purple for 13 Oscars, and awarding it not a single one, he was given the Irving Thalberg award for his consistently high quality of motion picture production. He started his acceptance speech by talking about how he was a movie junkie, and then continued: That the whole idea of movie magic is that interweave of powerful image and dialogue and performance and music that can never be separated, and when it’s working right, can never be duplicated or ever forgotten. I’ve grown up—most of my life has been spent in the dark watching movies. Movies have been the literature of my life. The literature of Irving Thalberg’s generation was books and plays. They read the great words of great minds. And I think in our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we’ve partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it’s time to renew our romance with the word. I’m as culpable as anyone in having exalted the image at the expense of the word. But only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.
I confess, when I heard those words, literature teacher that I am, I stood alone in my living room and cheered. That short statement reminds us of a number of things that are crucially important here; that film is a collective art form dependent on co-operation; that it is an art form dependent on technologies of great possibility; and that in the end, it all begins with the writing.
Yet one other question we face is this very question of language: in which language do we make our films? Again this discussion goes far beyond the concerns of the film industry. In this respect, the film makes have a real edge over the writers, as proportionally there are far more films made in Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Akan or Ga etc than there are either books written, or films made in English.
This is important because I believe it helps account for the massive popularity of film as a medium, regardless of the challenges of the democracy of its art form. Yet in this regard there are also challenges regarding the quality and integrity of translations and sub-titles.
Yet no matter the language in which we write, we must deal with the stories we tell. Of these issues I would like to refer now not so much to the question of writing, but to the question first, of the language in which we write. Again this discussion goes far beyond the concerns of the film industry. This forum has been occasioned by a general concern about the way in which women are presented and the stories told about them. And there seems to be a kind of social malaise that has difficulty juggling the ideal and the real; at times we seem to have difficulty actually dealing with who we are, though perhaps the films do reflect a general social inability to deal with the world in which we live when it comes to the changing roles of women in society.
To illustrate with an anecdote from a class assignment: last year, in an undergraduate class on rights ethics and the rule of law, I gave an assignment to describe and discuss the power and authority structures in any small unit to which each student belonged, most of them chose the family unit. When they handed them in, in a class of 50 students, all but one of them who described the family launched into descriptions of the ideal patriarchal nuclear family where the father was the breadwinner and the mother stayed at home taking care of the children. But when I asked in the class, only ONE of them actually has a mother who stayed home full time as a housewife, all the others their mothers were in full or part-time employment. They were surrounded, at home and at school, by women in full-time employment, but seemed to have difficulty even articulating this, when it came up against some imagined sense of what a modern middle class family should look like, and this was a class in Accra, not in New Jersey. What place do women occupy in the cultural imagination? This may seem a trivial example, but for me, it makes me wonder about the continuum of social attitudes that ends up with women’s work being disregarded from the authority of the household to being factored into the statistics of national economies.
Yet we must acknowledge that there are changes being made. The question of a new future is the subject of our last panel, and there are some things we ask for which should not be too hard to accommodate; that the stories reflect our lives as lived a little more – for instance that female college students be seen a little more in classes and discussion courses and a little less in the beds of their lovers; that professional women be seen acting professionally in professional settings; that complex situations, including those involving conflict situations be presented without necessary demonization, and that the concerns with which we live be struggled with integrity.
Our lives, contemporary and historic, are food for story enough; we live through coups, countercoups and corruption. Beyond the drama of such incidents themselves, they take a toll on everyday life. Even in democratic peacetimes we pass through road blocks on our city streets on peaceful Sunday afternoons; we have to balance between snacks for our children or having their bus fare, we get sick, get well, loose our mothers, and we do all this without always being charged by circumstances to refer to demonic interferences. The place of women at the interface of tradition and modernity remains a vexed one. And we still have not fully grappled with what we call traditional cultures
The career of a film maker such as Tunde Kelani is evidence that it is not only women who can tackle these questions with courage. In his films women are bright, articulate, and face the dilemmas of our day, whether the legacies of ancient customs, or the consequences of contemporary social forces. Yet we must also support the growth of women in an industry which has traditionally limited their roles in front of the camera and severely restricted their roles behind it. Tough as the industry is for everyone involved in it, it is exponentially so for women who have a tougher time having access to all aspects of film making from the equipment to the financing. They are also, as some here will attest to, amongst those who are the most enterprising and risk taking in getting their work out.
I have concentrated here on fictional storytelling, but I would like here to acknowledge the work of women documentary film makers. African women living on the continent and in the Diaspora are amongst the most consistent and persistent in using that medium to challenge the ways in which are lives are framed on film. As with documentary films they are making popular films with messages targeted to general audiences for the transformation of society. The central issue remains: how hard is it to create an industry which projects the complexity of the way in which we our lives from a humane, ethical standpoint. These are the issues which confront us as women and men who support us, over the next two days.