Onookome Okome, Professor of Popular Culture and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, has taught film, literature and popular culture in universities across Europe, Africa and Canada. He was in Lagos as visiting scholar at the Pan African University, Nollywood Study Centre, Lagos. In this interview with NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI, the scholar explains why he collaborated with other academics to establish a centre for the Nigerian film industry
The Nigerian movie industry has been the butt of criticisms by many people. Why didn’t you join them?
Let’s begin by defining criticism. I’ve been criticising the industry but not the way other people do. I’ve been studying the industry in order to understand what it is, why it does what it does and to show the world why we appreciate this industry as ours. We need to criticise not because we want it to die, but because we want it to be better understood. A lot of criticism of Nollywood has to do with very flimsy understanding of the industry. This is what I object to. Before you criticise any industry, you have to understand it properly. I’ll give you an example: People criticise Nollywood from the backdrop of world cinema. This is not right because Nollywood does not pretend to be making traditional film. Nollywood is popular culture, so you must understand that, in order to understand how Nollywood produces Nollywood. If you do not understand this, then you miss the point.
Someone once said that people in other climes buy Nollywood films so as to teach their children how not to make films. What has been your observation in universities you have taught across the world?
If anybody says that they buy films from Nigeria in order to tell their children how not to make films, then that is very disingenuous. This is because many of these people who allegedly make these kinds of statements do not know the differences between art and popular cinema. Who are they teaching how not to make films? What kinds of things do they make? There are many questions to ask in this regard. For me, there is a distinction to make between what is art cinema and what is not. There are further distinctions to be made about what is popular cinema in Africa and what is popular cinema elsewhere. And I make this distinction very well because the context of film making is very crucial. I speak of the context not only in terms of the content but the availability of the technology in which the film is made, and Africa seems to be backward in this regards. To criticise Nollywood this ways rings hollow to me. It is morose and very bad. Every society produces its art and if a society lowers the art, it dies. Nollywood hasn’t died, so there is something wrong with those people saying this.
A few years ago, there was this complaint that technology is coming at us, and people in Nollywood weren’t taking the chances to key into it. But recently we have seen a few new improvements here and there. Why the sudden response?
I don’t think it is true that we haven’t taken the opportunities provided by technology. But, mark you; taking up the challenge of the change in technology is dependent upon if you have the resources to do that. It depends on if you have the resources to buy the new technology. Nollywood doesn’t have that kind of resources to do that. It’s not to say that they haven’t been taking up the challenge. I mean they moved from video VHS to cheap VCDs. They have now moved to DVDs. They know the technology but they have to have the resources to acquire it. To say they haven’t taken up this challenge isn’t true. Tunde Kelani for instance, is very technology savvy and has been up-front saying we need to follow technology because it is cheaper to make film with digital film technology than ever before. On the contrary, I think that many people in Nollywood haven’t marched on with the advancement in technology.
Is that why you are collaborating with people who share same view of Nollywood like you to establish a centre to cater for it?
That is just one part of it. The reason I’m collaborating with the Pan African University, Lagos, is to produce knowledge that will explain that this is an industry that is localised, that takes care of its local population’s needs. For you to understand the content, why stories are made the way they are made, you have to understand the society. The other reason actually for the Nollywood Study Centre, which is located in the media and communication department of Pan-African University, is because we want to begin to intensify the production of knowledge from the city where Nollywood actually started, which is Lagos. So that once it is documented, people can come and study. We will not give any kind of attention to ideas about how Nollywood should be seen from the outside. No, it is left to those who live in that context, those who understand it so. This is going to be a nuance kind of knowledge to the outside world, so that if the outside decides to come in, they have somewhere to start from. And if they give their own take on Nollywood, that is fair. It is important that we speak about the industry, our film industry from the inside, so that the outside can understand where we come from. One objective of the project is to produce knowledge for those who were colonised rather than waiting for those who colonised us to come from the outside and deliver the knowledge to us.
For an industry that does not particularly enjoy a great relationship with the academia in Nigeria, how is the centre going to thrive, given that it is located in a university?
I’m really happy that you made this point because it is true that some of the practitioners- one or two of them have come to me to say, ‘You are profiling from our venture because you write about Nollywood. You are profiting from our sweat.’ This is a very serious point. I keep explaining to them that I can go and write about Shakespeare, I can write about Femi Osofisan but I went into popular culture, so I write about this. And once you produce this, it becomes public property, I write about it because this is what I do. So, there is the tension between the two. However, that tension must not stop you from producing knowledge, a very nuanced or intellectual knowledge about this particular industry because it is part and parcel of your culture. It is all we do in to explicate culture, then why do we need to listen to those who have very myopic knowledge of what university people do? If you listen to them, you are shelving your responsibility as a scholar. If for instance Emmanuel Obiechina had listened to people in the 1960s and 70s who wondered why he was working on Onitsha Market literature who asked why he was working on trashy things that illiterate people wrote, today, we would not have had any history of that popular art. Everybody today who writes about Onitsha Market Literature goes back to Obiechina. But when he was writing it, it was difficult for him, including those reading the text and producing the texts. They said: ‘no, no, we are just producing for fun,’ but it was necessary to document it because what they did influenced the society. It is for this that I think what we are doing at the Pan African University is good. The school is very well organised. Once Professor Biakolo Emevo sets it up, other people will then take over. He is the arrowhead of the project who wants us to do this. We have been acquiring all kinds of classical Hollywood films, Italian spaghetti films, Bollywood films, books on Bollywood. The idea is to make the place a one-stop study of Nollywood.
One of the problems that Nollywood has is funding. From your experiences elsewhere, how do you think Nollywood film makers raise funds for their films?
Funding is a very tricky business in any cinema culture. Funding is a tricky business in any creative industry, not just in the third world, but all over the world. Funding can be a handicap to the artist; it can be a boost as well. Funding has to be properly organised in order not to jeopardize the artist’s attitude to his work. So, that question is a very crucial. In societies where the culture industry is well organised, the United States of America for instance, many of the European countries, there are institutions that provide, not just funding but support for artist, film makers and for all kinds of people. But in societies such as ours it’s difficult for artistes to thrive. This is especially so because the political class is not quite clear about what to do with the arts. Funding can cripple the artist. When a government agency gives you money, they put it in line with a government policy or position – this is not good for the artist. And one reason why Nollywood has survived this one is that it has been able to thrive without government funding.
In some books you authored, you speak glowingly of the pioneers and others who have make their mark in the movie industry. Are there still such people at this moment in Nollywood?
Yes, there are. Eddie Ugbomah, Ola Balogun, Ade Love, they worked very hard to produce a certain kind of art. They set the framework for other people to make films. There are the video film pioneers not the Nigerian film pioneers, I must make this distinction. Actually the Nigerian film started long ago in the early part of the 20th century. Between them and now is a group of film makers that are often not talked about. These are the Yoruba travelling theatre groups who in their own right were film makers. They recognised the importance of film at some point and they moved from theatre into film. Examples are Hubert Ogunde, Ade Love, Baba Sala. All of these people did films before the video film came. I have a special respect for the pioneers of the video film, especially Kenneth Nnebue because he made the first major film, not the first video film but at least the first major film that captured very clearly a new Nigeria, an urban Nigeria and the anxiety of urban Nigeria.
How is the centre going to function?
I’m a member of the board of governors. What we set-out to do when it was inaugurated in 2011 at a Nollywood conference was: every year, we shall have a conference. Every year, at least two Nollywood people will come to the centre as guests for two weeks. They will interact with the students, give lectures, seminars, give workshops and then each year scholars from within and outside the country will be on hand at the centre as visiting scholars. This is what I’m doing at this moment at the centre. But I won’t be teaching, I’m still researching, and acquiring things for the centre. What that means is that the centre will not only be enhanced by scholars coming, but by direct connection to the industry.