Nollywood comes of age

Christopher Silvester explains how censorship has suppressed Nigerian films that have won international acclaim

On Cinema

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

As many as 93 countries have submitted films for the 2021 Academy Awards, the largest eld ever. Genevieve Nnagi’s Lionheart (2018), a family business comedy, was Nigeria’s first-ever entry for Best International Feature Film at last year’s awards, but it was disqualified because most of its dialogue was in English, Nigeria’s official language, and only 10 minutes was in Igbo.

This year the Nigerian Oscars selection committee won’t be making the same mistake again. They have chosen as the nation’s entry Desmond Ovbiagele’s The Milkmaid, which is set in the rural north-east, where the languages spoken are Hausa, Arabic and Fulfulde.

Inspired by the image of two Fulani milkmaids which adorns the Nigerian ten-naira note, it tells the story of two peasant sisters, Aisha and Zainab, who are abducted from their village and forced to wed the same Boko Haram militant, although the group is never named.

Nigeria’s film censorship board forced Ovbiagele, who has again combined writing, producing and directing, to trim 24 minutes from his original 136-minute cut of The Milkmaid

It has won five Africa Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film, and joins an already established genre of Boko Haram movies which includes the documentary short Daughters of Chibok (2019) and the thriller The Delivery Boy (2018). A fine performance as the militant husband by Gambo Usman Kona and the lush widescreen cinematography of Yinka Edwards, who was previously responsible for Lionheart, are notable strengths of The Milkmaid. Its mere submission to the Oscars is hugely significant for Nigerian cinema.

This is only Ovbiagele’s second film. He spent ten years as an investment banker with Citigroup and Standard Chartered Bank before he wrote, produced and directed the crime drama Render to Caesar (2014), about a crazed mobster kingpin, which won Best Screenplay at both the Nollywood Movies Awards and Best of Nollywood Awards.

Nigeria’s film censorship board forced Ovbiagele, who has again combined writing, producing and directing, to trim 24 minutes from his original 136-minute cut of The Milkmaid, which is the version that Academy members will see and which has already been shown in other African countries such as Zimbabwe and Cameroon. “Some of it didn’t make sense,” Ovbiagele, said in a recent interview. “We had to remove everything — costume, language, dialogue that was an authentic depiction of a particular religion [Islam], even though there is nothing in the film that states that the religion was directly responsible for violence.” (Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed around 37,000 and displaced 2.4 million people.) This is not the first time censorship has held back or suppressed Nigerian films that have won international acclaim. Last year the makers of Ìfé, a lm about lesbian lovers, had to premiere their film online since homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment in Nigeria.

According to one academic who is an advocate of greater censorship of the digital space, “Onlinewood” — a Nigerian term for the posting of clips on social media and YouTube — is “a pseudo means of gatekeeping scenes that are obnoxious to Nigerian national security”. Ovbiagele hopes that a streaming service will snap up his director’s cut of The Milkmaid. Netflix, which boasts a large number of Nollywood titles and acquired Lionheart as the first Netflix original in Nigeria, would be the obvious choice.

Netflix launched in Nigeria last year as NetflixNaija, with a bold agenda of “Africa taking charge of African stories”. Nollywood, born out of the 1990s home video boom, serves up mainstream fare such as crime comedies and romcoms, and has become a significant cultural lifeline for the 30-million-strong Nigerian diaspora.

But Netflix is now also offering more highbrow content, such as the adaptations of Death and the King’s Horseman by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and Lola Shonenyin’s bestselling novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.

One of my favourite films from last October’s virtual London Film festival was another Nigerian feature, Eyimofe, or is Is My Desire. Directed by brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, from a screenplay by Chuko Esiri, it tells the stories of two would-be emigrants to Europe: Mofe, an electrical engineer in a factory, who has his heart set on living in Spain, and Rosa, a hairdresser and part-time bartender with a pregnant teenage sister, who wants to get to Italy.

Before they can even leave Nigeria, they are beset with snares. Just as arduous as the journey to Europe is the struggle to evade familial and cultural ties at home. Mofe’s sister is asphyxiated in their apartment and he impoverishes himself through his efforts to give her a decent burial and by hiring an unscrupulous lawyer to recover her estate, which is then claimed by their grasping father. Meanwhile, Rosa loathes having to give sexual favours instead of rent to her middle-aged landlord and pursues a twin strategy to attain her goal.

It remains to be seen whether Netflix will prove as progressive a force in Nigeria as it has been in South Africa

She is picked up in the bar where she works by an American expat, who dates her for a while but is only able to see himself as the victim of her desire for money, and she also treats with a baby broker (played by leading Nigerian comedienne Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah). There is a single, brief, throwaway moment when Mofe’s and Rosa’s stories intersect in a doctor’s reception area. Almost every character the protagonists encounter is depicted as
scheming and acquisitive, though in an entirely believable and unmelodramatic way, as if everyone is trapped on their own treadmill. This is neo-realism Nigerian-style, with just a hint of the Japanese master Ozu in the exquisite framing, subtle editing and abundant long takes.

In the end Mofe settles down to life as a self-employed fixer of household appliances, while Rosa agrees to marry her landlord on condition that he supports her younger sister and the baby as well. Both Mofe and Rosa retain their dignity. The moral of the film is that life often requires us to compromise our desires and settle for more modest comforts. Shot on 16mm in 48 different locations by Belarussian cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, Eyimofe captures the vibrant colours and chaos of Lagosian life. I urge you to seek it out.

It remains to be seen whether Netflix will prove as progressive a force in Nigeria as it has been in South Africa. The Nigerian New Wave is marked by more complex storytelling, greater emphasis on cinematographic quality, and more considered styles of direction, but Nigeria still needs to encourage better screenplays and wider teaching of filmmaking skills — there are only two official film schools — if its sons and daughters are to live up to the example of “the father of African film”, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène.

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