It was inevitable that the success of the Nigerian video film industry would eventually lead to an expansion into cinema films that are designed to appear on the multiplex screens of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt and which will have the potential to sell in the international market. These films have started to appear on DVDs coming into the UK and now a new distributor, Talking Drum Entertainment has joined the UK Film Distributors’ Association and announced its first cinema release. Tango With Me will be released in UK cinemas on August 24. Bookings include screens at Odeon, Vue and Cineworld. The film stars Genevieve Nnaji and Joseph Benjamin as a young couple facing complex issues in their marriage. Mahmood Ali-Balogun directs and produces for his company Brickwall Communications.
Nollywood films have already had isolated London screenings – one or two screenings in around a dozen London cinemas – see the Talking Drum Entertainment Facebook page. The new UK release policy promises to bring the films to the wider African diaspora community in the UK.
Tango With Me is described as a ‘romantic drama’ – I suspect ‘melodrama’ would be a better description. Talking Drum Entertainment has its own YouTube channel and there are trailers for three more of its films there. The three span the romance-melodrama range with social issues such as immigration and African identity plus the ‘return to source’ theme which in Nollywood sometimes involves African religious/supernatural narratives.
We’ll be reviewing one of these films soon. In the meantime we’re looking forward to the opening of Tango With Me. Here’s the trail:
It was heartening to see that a new film from the increasingly beleaguered group of filmmakers working in Sub-Saharan Africa was in competition at Cannes this year. A Screaming Man by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad screened last week and won the Jury Prize. Here’s the synopsis:
Present-day Chad. Adam, sixty something, a former swimming champion, is pool attendant at a smart N’Djamena hotel. When the hotel gets taken over by new Chinese owners, he is forced to give up his job to his son Abdel. Terribly resentful, he feels socially humiliated. The country is in the throes of a civil war. Rebel forces are attacking the government. The authorities demand that the population contribute to the “war effort”, giving money or volunteers old enough to fight off the assailants. The District Chief constantly harasses Adam for his contribution. But Adam is penniless; he only has his son. [Synopsis courtesy of Pyramide International]
Interesting that the Chinese should figure so prominently as they seem to be all over Central and West Africa right now. As far as I know, the only cinema screen in Chad is in the French Cultural Institute (it features in Haroun’s earlier film, Abouna (2002)). Perhaps not surprisingly, Haroun has to get funding from France and Belgium to make his features. No news yet as to whether this film has been bought for UK or US distribution. Here’s a YouTube clip from the Cannes screening:
(There are two further extracts on YouTube.)
The lack of cinemas in Africa was highlighted in a recent Cineuropa Report Focus on Africa by Susan Njanji. She estimates that outside of South Africa and Kenya there are perhaps 50 screens left across Sub-Saharan Africa. Each month another screen closes to become a church or a night club. Even in Francophone countries such as Senegal which spearheaded the development of African Cinema in the 1970s are down to a handful of screens and in many countries cinemas have disappeared altogether.
But there is a plus to this story. What is replacing cinema is ‘video cinema’ in the form of Nollywood and its associated industries. A UNESCO report suggests that Nollywood has now displaced the US as a producer with over 800 films per year – a figure which will threaten the India production figure soon. Of course, these video films are generally shorter than Hollywood/Indian features and are completed in around a month. But crucially they are now selling throughout Africa, often in dubbed form on television, but also in co-productions. Njanji points to the popularity of these films on “South Africa-based pay television MultiChoice. It has four 24-hour channels dedicated to African content, predominantly Nigeria productions. Two of the channels run movies in two of Nigeria’s main languages, Yoruba and Hausa.”
All of this at least means that African audiences are increasingly watching African content instead of Hollywood and that can’t be a bad thing. Nollywood is still struggling to get the media coverage it deserves around the world. In a recent article, the Guardian‘s Africa correspondent, David Smith referred to Nollywood as a ‘nascent industry’. I think that suggests a ‘new’ industry, but in fact it has been established for 18 years according to Njanji. However, Smith’s article is well worth reading as it introduces a new South African venture by a group of filmmakers who have named their movement Sollywood.
The first Sollywood Movement film production is Ingxoxo – The Negotiation, a ‘romantic drama’. There is an interesting website for the movement and its first venture – promoting Ingxoxo. Here’s the trailer on YouTube:
There are only a handful of Tanzanian films produced each year and few of these are screened outside the festival circuit. As a consequence, I’ve never seen one. When the British had colonies in Africa their policy was to offer training in making documentaries and instructional films. One consequence of this in East Africa is a general lack of commercial, entertainment-based filmmaking. Something similar was also the case in West Africa, but in Nigeria and Ghana an alternative, highly populist, video cinema movement began in the 1980s. ‘Nollywood’ now claims to be the world’s third biggest film industry after India and the US, with hundreds of cheap video films produced each year.
Nollywood has now spread to East Africa and I was fortunate to be given a VCD of a joint Tanzanian/Nigerian production entitled She Is My Sister (2007). This follows a previous joint venture Dar 2 Lagos (2007). I was given She Is My Sister because it is performed mostly in English. Most Tanzanian cultural products use Swahili but in this case three of the leads are Nigerian (as is the director) so English may simply have been more convenient. However, I’m not sure how that would affect the potential market for the film.
VCD is the preferred format for cheap film distribution in South and South East Asia and I’ve also noticed them in the Middle East, so it’s no surprise to find films on VCD in Africa as well. The image quality on my computer is not great, but it is watchable. There are two discs in the box and the total film length is around 74 minutes with 6 minutes of trailers on Disc 1.
She Is My Sister is recognisable as a melodrama in terms of its plot and exaggerated acting style. To deal with the stylistic features first, there is little to say. The film is presented in a standard TV ratio of 4:3. There are a couple of establishing shots of streets in Dar es Salaam, but otherwise the film is composed in medium shot, like a television soap opera, with occasional close-ups and occasional tableaux to show characters in their surroundings as in the shot of the couple with their new furniture above. The overall style is quite constrained compared to the trailers for other productions. (The trailers are highly wrought with flash edits and zooms, but this may simply be a trailer style.) Overall, the camerawork and editing is competent, although some shots are held for far too long. (At the beginning of the film we have to watch nearly every passenger get off a long distance coach before we meet the first significant character.)
Far more interesting is the overall narrative. This is in part a universal morality tale. Melodrama has often been an important mode for exploring social relationships at times of major societal change — such as in Europe in the 19th century. She Is My Sister focuses on a young woman, Rose, from a rural village who gets to university and then is able to get a job/open a business selling imported electronics goods. This all happens before the narrative begins and we see her return to her village where she finds her childhood sweetheart who she takes back to the city and introduces to her girlfriends. The ‘country bumpkin’, Danny, turns out to be very good at running the shop and before long the couple are married with a small child. Danny, played by Steven Kanumba who also wrote the script and seems to be one of Tanzania’s successful young stars, also becomes very attractive to Rose’s friend Flora. Flora is a repugnant character, an uber bitch played with relish by Nigerian actress Nkiru Silvanus. When she steals Danny, Rose’s whole life falls apart.
The plot is very thin and there are few surprises. The only narrative device of note is the use of flashback so that at the beginning Rose’s sister arrives in the city for a visit and discovers Rose no longer lives in a ‘gated mansion’, but is now in a squalid back street apartment. Rose then tells her the story . . . It is the elements of the narrative that are interesting. The rural/city contrast is often represented by an opposition of cunning v. authenticity and here the couple from the country are corrupted by the city lifestyle. The woman has an education, but she has been seduced by material gain and may lose everything when her man succumbs to the sophisticated woman. As in many of the Nollywood films, there is a second part to the story according to the title at the end of the film which warns us to “Watch out for She Is My Sister 2″. Perhaps Rose fights back?
Tanzania is a poor country, but most of the action in this film takes place in a world of flatscreen TVs, gated houses, servants and expensively decorated rooms. There is clearly an aspirational lifestyle being offered. The film has an 18 certificate, but there is no overt sexuality or graphic violence. Perhaps the immorality alone is enough to get this rating? Tanzania has strong Christian and Muslim communities. I don’t know if this has had an impact on certification. There is a hint of possible domestic violence, but nothing like what is evident in the Swahili language films trailed on the VCD in which violence, mainly but not always by men towards women, seems to be a common feature.