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OKOLI, Obi: Navigating Auteurism in Nollywood

Navigating Auteurism in Nollywood: Our Directors’ Albatross

Obi OKOLI

Department of Theatre and Film Studies

University of Nigeria, Nsukka

Enugu State, Nigeria

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GSM: +234-803-704-4685

Abstract    

During the French New Wave of the mid-1950s, when youthful and somewhat critical exuberance effervesced and nearly boiled over, one of the ebullient proponents of auteurism as a theoretical construct, Jean-Luc Goddard, a director, enthused with much pathos: “We were all critics before beginning to make films, and I loved all kinds of cinema – the Russians, the Americans, the neorealists. It was the cinema that made us – or me, at least – want to make films. I knew nothing of life except through the cinema.” Without appearing to romanticize about the movement that gave birth to arguments relating to authorship in films, there are very strong and valid lessons auteurism has for filmmaking in Nigeria. This paper therefore reviews some prevalent directing habits (or maybe practice) in Nollywood against enunciated and current best practice in the directing world, recognizing that Hollywood filmmaking will for a long time be the measuring standard. In Nollywood, we need directors that will stand tall, strong and firm with films that will cut across the gamut of the viewing audience and be proclaimed great, by even the doubting critics, especially from the academia. This papers argues that, we need to see great films emerge from the artistic stables of their directors bearing their recognizable stamp of excellence; that is, the spirit of authorship.

Introduction

In order not to be ensnared by endemic problems associated with definitions of terms, and for the purposes of this paper, we may need to narrow our focus to simply asking, “Who is a (Nollywood) director? We would also locate and situate this artistic wizard, called, the director, within the confines of film practice in Nigeria. All directors in Nollywood are under one umbrella guild, the Directors Guild of Nigeria (DGN). Every member, that is, registered member, is vested with the rights and privileges thereunto, including adding the title, DGN after ones name. The constitution of the Guild defines a director as,

the captain of the ship who steers those elements in a vital way to express the film’s story, theme and mood. The Director carries the burden of the film. He is in charge of everything ranging from Budget, to Schedule, to Script, to Actors, to Costumes, to Lighting, to Cinematography, to Editing, to Music, to the final answer print (1).

This legal document of the Directors’ Guild gives us a great insight into who a director is and what he does. The Nollywood director has been likened, both in status and job description, to “the captain of the ship who steers….” The image of the captain is so strong in that document that it is followed by ‘steering the elements in a VITAL way, carrying the burden and being in charge of everything up till the final print.’

It could be that this larger-than-life, all-knowing and commanding image of the director, in a way, was part of what informed the U.S. film critic, Andrew Sarris, in the 1960s, to assimilate, “French Auteurism into American culture, arguing for the artistic credentials of Hitchcock, Hawks, and Ford,” as Rushton and Bettinson argue (3). The director in Nollywood is the master filmmaker, who is the head of a film production process.

While on a filming set in Asaba, I got talking with a junior professional colleague, Ugezu J. Ugezu, who has risen fast in profile out of sheer doggedness and determination. Ugezu, “Mr. Surplus,” as he is fondly called, is “the Director King of Asaba,” where Nollywood resurrected after its near demise in the two years of 2005 and 2006. I will reproduce what he said about Nollywood directing in some length:

A Nollywood director is just like any other director in the world… a director is a director anywhere in the world, and a director is that man who has the cardinal responsibility of interpreting a movie script, giving it an in-depth analysis…. Something that can pass a fundamental message to the viewers that will eventually watch it and they wouldn’t feel disappointed in their homes…. that’s the main job a director has…. But he should have at the back of his mind that there is a message that must be passed and that message must have the capacity to pass a progressive information to the viewers that are watching. The movie director is that man who is trying to change his environment using the instrument of the screen; he is trying to make his environment better, trying to correct the ills of the society using information he can pass across as film.

Who is a Nollywood Director?

In pursuing this question further, we need to look back to the definitions we already have. The DGN Constitution has given us something to work with. Mr. Surplus has equally elaborated on what he sees himself doing as a film director in Nollywood. The definition we propose will be a synthesis of the elements of the two views.

While the DGN document uses the imagery of the captain of the ship to qualify the director, Mr Surplus sees him as one who has a cardinal responsibility of interpreting the movie script. An amalgam of the two approaches shows that it is obvious that a ship captain is invested with some onerous responsibility in much the same way that the film director has a sacred duty of interpreting the film script. Our captain, according to DGN, steers those elements together in a visual way….Ten elements are listed subsequently, including script which Mr. Surplus singles out for emphasis.

One important aspect of Mr. Surplus’ elaboration is the issue of filmic message which he emphasizes repeatedly. The fact that the message is important for the director brings in the critical aspect of the film audience. Hill and Gibson assert:

…the encounter between audiences and films share the idea that it is through the existence of an audience that film acquires social and cultural importance. The production of a film provides a raw material which regulates the potential range of experiences and meanings to be associated with it, but it is through audiences that films become ‘inputs’ into larger socio-cultural processes (201).

Message, therefore, is a critical responsibility of the director. The final comment on the DGN document is not complimentary. It is certainly not the case that the director – captain steers the elements together in a visual way. Film is an audio-visual art. True, the director conceives his ideas through pictures; but the attendant aural dimensions must accentuate and elaborate the visual images.

We have taken more than a cursory look at the two expressed definitions of the Nollywood director; it remains for us to agree on a working definition, the problems inherent in definitions of this nature not minding. “Slow and steady,” they say, “wins (or more importantly completes) the race.” We need to proceed slowly. A film director has a definite or perhaps a specified operation or deed to accomplish and no more until another like operation. One important element missing in the definitions above is that the director’s job ends somewhere in the life of the film. Thereafter, the ‘life’ of the film goes on to accord to the director, and other collaborators in the work, appropriate recompense and rating. We need to stipulate that there are four major segments (or stages) in the life of a film. The film director dominates all but one of the four.

In the first stage which signals, for our own purposes, when the director is hired and given the script, it could be said that the production has taken off. This stage is usually regarded as the pre-production stage. The director’s work begins fully at this stage onto the next, which is the production and shooting. The last two of the four stages commences with the end of shooting. This is the post-production and editing stage. The final stage is the commercial, distribution and marketing when egg-heads in the art of marketing ensure that the film reaches its audience in the best manner that will ensure maximum return on investment. We want to observe here that most Nollywood directors are paid off at the end of the second stage of production and editing.

Having annotated the director’s span of vision and operation, let’s now look at a plausible definition of a Nollywood director. The film director is that man who, like the captain of the ship, leads other artistes, and uses all the elements of film production, including technology, in the production of the film that would entertain the audience and affect individuals and society positively. From what we have presented so far, the director most decidedly, is the most important person in filmmaking. He is the first among the long list of artists involved in producing a film. Before the director is an interminable number and range of artistic decisions to take; sometimes the options and choices are many, at other times they are few. In either case, however, a choice is called for, an artistic choice. At an audition, for example, a director has been known to prefer a fair complexioned artist for a particular role. His reason was that the artist would present less lighting challenge than other two competing artistes who were dark complexioned. Before you raise a query about this, please bear in mind that the director is coming from where he wants you the audience to get to by ‘reading,’ or shall we simply say, watching the film.

One very crucial decision the director must make is how the script is to be interpreted. For the sister world of the theatre director, Brocket and Ball write that,

Regardless of working procedures or personnel, the starting point for most productions is the script. Even at this beginning point in the process, many questions face the director: What is the basic story? How might the play’s events and their arrangement affect …the audience? What does the director wish to communicate? … Should portions of the script be cut? ... What is the significance of the play’s time and setting? Should these be altered? To answer these questions effectively, the director first needs to understand the play thoroughly on it own terms (323).

            We need to point out that in both the stage and film, where directors work in and with different tools and media, the script is one critical rallying point. For the stage the script is referred to as a stage play, whereas for the cinema it is called, a screen play. What Brocket and Ball have written about the stage director holds true for the film director whose thorough understanding of the screen play must be accompanied by a careful and systematic form of analysis, the difference in the medium, not minding.

On the responsibilities of the film director, Rabiger, who sees the director under the producer opines that he is the supreme artist responsible for the details, quality and meaning of the final film, insists that in order to do all that, the director,

requires writing or working with writers; envisioning the film’s scope, purpose, identity, and meaning; finding appropriate locations that advance the dramatic meaning and atmosphere of the film; auditioning and casting actors; assembling a crew (though this may be done by the producer or unit production manager); developing both cast and script through rehearsals; directing the actors and crew during shooting; and then supervising editing and finalization of the project. The director is also involved in promoting the production in festivals and other circuits (4).

            We can actually collapse the two broad views (that of the Directors’ Guild of Nigeria and Ugezu’s) of the film director into the harmonized and detailed view by Rabiger, quoted above. The veteran filmmaker and foremost production and aesthetics educator has in a fell swoop mentioned the essential tasks facing the film director. It is the focus of this paper to look at some of these tasks in the light of prevailing practice here in Nigeria. It is instructive to note that for Rabiger, the director should equally be involved with promoting the film in national and international film festivals.

Education, Training and Creativity

Because the script, and what the director eventually does with it, is the pivot on which the success of any film depends, it follows logically that the director ought to be equipped with enough training and education to enable a thorough analysis and interpretation of the script to be carried out. More than this perhaps is the fact that for one to really step boldly into the realm of professional directing, a thorough knowledge of prevailing film theories, in general, and directing skill are a sine qua non. To direct intelligently, Rabiger (12) spells out the following:

  1. A knowledge and love of film language and film history.
  2. A strong grasp of what drama is and how to use it.
  3. A drive to tell stories that comes from passionately held ideas about the human condition.

On a set where I operated as an assistant director, years back, I had the misfortune of working under a boss director, less educationally endowed. To make matters worse, he came on set and started shooting without understanding the screen play he was directing.

Education generally holds the key to success in most life’s ventures. Education builds, prepares and makes man what he is. Need we add that for a director to author a film that attained an appreciable level of artistic as well as critical attention, a quantum of formal education, experience and or training would be needed? Formal education and training are vital for a director’s effective accomplishment. A director requires much more than that equally important attribute – the innate instinct – to go through script interpretation which is the fundamental co-efficient in determining the creative success of a film. The issue here is an inquiry to determine the average educational attainment of a Nollywood director.

A Nollywood actor, Chika Anyanwu of “Mbogu” fame, who sees education and training as, ‘nurture,’ and talent as, ‘nature,’ deposes that,

Nature and nurture have their different roles to play…. If nature has bestowed on an individual, abundant… skill, then he needs exposure to maximize the talent… this exposure might be formal or informal. Nature and nurture are therefore complimentary… [for] while nature provides the raw resource without which one cannot make any headway, nurture inspires and unleashes what is embedded in the individual and takes him to greater triumphs (7).

What my colleague, Ugezu said about directors in Nollywood is instructive:

Any movie director who wants to stay in business must actually figure out how he will be constantly updating his or her knowledge…. Academics is extremely important. In Nigeria today… it is so funny that people who are not graduates are eventually fizzling out. It is actually those that are educated that are still working.

He, Mr. Surplus, has put it very succinctly. The fact on ground in Nollywood directing today, however, is one of a fresh challenge. During the reformation days of Nollywood, especially when the guilds, including the DGN were formed, we had the damming challenge of admitting into the DGN school dropouts, who could hardly speak and understand English, the same language the scripts we were directing were written in.

We have since gone from the era of directing without analyzing the script, because we lacked the capacity, to yet another challenge, equally daunting. The real challenge today is that we have directors who are largely inexperienced. The Nigerian socio-economic system gives unbridled reign to free enterprise. What this means is that an investor is free to invest his money where he hopes to make maximum return on investment. The investor also has the right to choose a director he wants to work with, including picking a non-registered person, whose experience, pedigree or qualification may be suspect. Well, maybe one could quickly retort that the market and its forces also reserve the right to react unfavourably to low quality productions. For want of time and scope, this paper will not delve into arguments that suggest that the conditions under which people live must first be changed if their sense of beauty and their comprehension of art are to be awakened, according to Arnold Hauser.

Preparing to Shoot in Nollywood

I cast my mind back and I remember clearly the day the cameras rolled at my command of ‘ACTION!’ It was the culmination of my dream to become a screen director, which was fulfilled with a somewhat master stroke: I played the lead in a production, which I produced and also directed! The year was 1981; the place was NTA Channel 6, Aba; and the programme was a TV adaptation of Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. Not even the distressing news two weeks after the programme was aired, could douse my feeling of fulfilment. The headline news of the major tabloid of the time emblazoned: “Prof. Ola Rotimi Spits Fire: threatens to Fry NTA Aba for illegal broadcast of his Work.” I had directed a TV drama; little m! As a consequence, a professor is reacting!

Permit me to defer this story to another space and time. One thing which is clear from the story is that the director is an important person in the production chain; his work affects people of all ages, policies of all shades, organizations and even governments. So, the first thing a responsible director should do as part of his preparation to shoot is to be aware of the seriousness of his work and therefore bring himself to like, if not love, the script he is to work on. He must be passionate about it. A director that likes a script he is to work on, to the extent of loving it, will give it his all. In fact, for one to love a script is an indication that the script has been read over and over again.

My first major Nollywood film, Idejimba in 1994, was an amplified version of a TV drama I shot in 1987, as an NTA drama producer, titled, Call Me Raw Deal. I loved that script and it took time to come off my writing desk – almost one full year. Maybe because I wrote the screenplay, I was particularly drawn to the theme of ndi nze na ozo, among the Igbos (also called, ndi-ama ala), as the highest social, religious and political caucus in Igbo cosmology. The uniqueness of this group is that only men of noble bearing and men of impeccable character are qualified to belong and be admitted; and therein lies the thematic aesthetics of the filmic conflict. I went as far as inviting a group of seven men to a session, where I tested the story concept. True, we may not prescribe this as a rule, but it goes to show that there is no limit to what a director should do, among the fundamentals, in arriving at interpretations to suit his directorial concept.

In reading a script, a director is not bound to accept the screenplay he has been given to shoot, hook line and sinker. It is within directorial license for a director to call for rewrites and further writing and editing, all with a view to pushing his directorial vision. The Child of Promise, from the stable of Andy Best Productions, is a case in point. The script was already acquired by the executive producer and from the doyen of the industry’s screenwriter himself. I travelled to Lagos to sign the dotted lines of producing and directing (even though I would not get the producer credit). I almost liked the screen play there. However, that spirit of ‘oneness’ with the script was not there and I left for Enugu with a view to scheduling the shoot in a fortnight. Three days of sleeping and waking with the script saw the jig-saw falling in place. After disembowelling the story and analyzing the ‘through-line’ of the story, I knew that we needed an overhaul of the story structure. The person I engaged to do the rewrite and further writing turned in a work, which was in most respects different from the original screen play written by Emeka Obiakonwa.

Script analysis and interpretation remain the most important directorial thrust: miss it and the soul and quintessence of the aesthetic signification is lost. A detailed analysis of the screen play would lead the director bit by bit back to the initial “mind” of the script writer. Knowledge of the fundamentals of writing a play, detailing and describing the essential architectonics of play craft is beneficial at this critical point. The director must break down the script into its various crafting stages of beginning, middle and ending. That is the real beginning of the director’s work. This is the crucial stage. Understanding the script you are to direct follows from a thorough grasp of what theme or themes your script has. Bordwell and Thompson put it in the following words, “what do you find intriguing or disturbing about the {script}? What makes the {script} noteworthy, in your own opinion?” (443). Judith Weston puts it this way:

The words on the page, the dialogue, and (to some extent) the directions are clues to a vast subworld of behavior and feeling which is the duty and privilege of the director and actors to supply. This is the ninety percent of the iceberg that is below water. In order to understand the script you need to be able to operate in the subworld of these characters, to believe in it, create it, and trust it (163).

             In this important and critical phase of script analysis,the director must purpose to find out who the characters are and what happens to them, to become the teller of their story. Specifically, the director needs to find out what the central theme is, where and how the theme is made manifest; a screenplay arrives at its theme(s) and subject matter through dialogue, reinforced by other elements, a director would do same principally using pictures and sound – mise en scene reinforced by other powerful filmic elements, including editing. You are therefore duty bound to form a thesis which you must put across to your audience. That is your statement. Your statement runs systematically across your film.

It may be necessary for you to break your screenplay into sequences or segments. Your segmentation will not only afford you a clearer view of how the various parts are connected, it will guide the systematic directorial application of your thesis.

Directing Plan Overview

1. Decide:

Who or what is in the conflict

Deciding who is in struggle is easy, but deciding what really is at stake – for your actors, or for society at large – takes a lot of hard, careful thought. It’s not enough to list issues – you must decide which is paramount. This is the key to giving your film the definition and clarity it needs to be effective.

Film Dialectics

Who and what are pitted against each other? In what hierarchy might these oppositions play out? Their prominence and strength depend very much on how you capture them and how you orchestrate them during editing. This gives muscle and sinew to your drama. Right now you need to be fully aware of what’s available to work with.

Point of view and storyteller’s angle

Who, among those in the film must we especially understand or sympathize with? How will you take us inside these emotional viewpoints? What changes in thinking and feeling do you want us to experience as we follow the story? What should we feel and think by the end? Most importantly, what are your attitudes as the Storyteller toward the story you are telling? Is it a tragedy, farce, tall story or cautionary tale? How you shoot and edit your story should give it a clear, exciting identity as a type of story. Whichever it is, tell it with style, panache and gusto. To do this you must adopt a storytelling role rather than work from your modest retiring self.

Parallel Narrative Traditions

Your film parallels works in other art forms such as music, opera, theatre, folktale or mythology that pursue a similar theme, tell a similar tale, or use a similar form, the parallels you find can help intensify your work and move it toward the universal.

Casting– Which people will you use, and who is your central character?

2. LIST:

  • Expository informationthat the audience needs in order to understand each sequence.
  • What’s typical and atypicalin each sequence, to guide your filming.
  • Imagery, such as, cityscapes, landscapes and workplaces that is emblematic of your characters’ type, place, or condition.

3. DEFINE:

  • Main point of view, whose it is, why it matters, and how you’ll make us empathize.
  • Secondary point of view, as you might tell the story through secondary characters.
  • Define your own angle

Addressing Aesthetic Concerns

Style – Define

What best serves each sequence

How point of viewmight affect style (in each sequence and in the whole film)

The stylistic characteristics of the film as a whole

Avoid anything that needs to be avoided

The genre you are making– what is it closest to?

Parallel narrative traditionsWhat can your film borrow from other forms?

The next stages that follow interpretation are: preliminary casting and discussion with departmental heads; set design and location; costumes; make up; props and special props, if needed. It is necessary for the director to have individual meetings with every one of these artistes and designers after they have all read the screen play. Others to discuss with include, the sound recordist, special effects man, if needed and, of course, the director of photography.

Nollywood directors do not write shooting scripts most times because we lack the capacity. To make matters worse, the practice of ensuring that the director undertakes a location survey of at least all major locations and sets has disappeared almost completely in the industry. This, needless to say, is not a healthy development. In 1985, when we shot Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the Location Base Department, made up of Late Ndubuisi Okoh and my humble self, were in Enugu with our boss, Pal Akalonu, three weeks before the other crew members arrived. We had time to scour many villages and towns near Enugu before settling for Amechi Idodo. We also went as far as Nsukka area where we chose Ukehe and Onyohor; we undertook long and tiring visits to many towns, where scenes of Okonkwo’s sojourn in his maternal home were shot. Before commencing your shoot, go over all the details of your considerations. Make the final draft of your intentions prior to shooting. Originality, creativity par excellence can only come from sustained, determined thought about the tasks and choices that lie ahead.

Good film schools would usually give out charts to guide practitioners in the various aspects of filmmaking, including, particularly, directing, which most of our filmmakers take for granted. Film directing appears to be the most commonly abused aspect of filmmaking. Virtually every and indeed anybody not only aspires to become a director; indeed most practitioners ultimately end up becoming film directors, trained or not; educated or not, we all eye that “apex” profession. As a consequence, the Directors Guild of Nigeria (DGN) conducts zonal interviews aimed at admitting new members almost four times a year. Some big time Executive producers/marketers have at various times been emboldened enough to direct some of their films. OJ, Amaco, Andy Best (he directed a few scenes, as further production), and a few others, have tried their hands at various times at directing a few of their films.

Directorial Chart: Scene Direction

Frederic Lahey gives an exhaustive chart to guide film directors, who want to make their works stand out:

Scene/Character Analysis

  1. Whose Scene Is It?
  2. Character Spines
  3. Character Wants
  4. Circumstances
  5. Dynamic Relationships
  6. Expectations
  7. Dramatic Blocks
  8. Fulcrum
  9. Primary Conflict
  10. Scene Turn
  11. Blocking
  12. Relative Character Movement
  13. Movement Within The Space
  14. Shooting
  15. Central Image
  16. Visual Motifs
  17. Necessary Story Information
  18. Visual Connections
  19. Final Image
  20. Lens Choice
  21. Camera Movement
  22. Camera Perspective
  23. A studied understanding and application of the above canons will most decidedly make a remarkable difference.

Do any necessary trial shooting to:

  1. Audition doubtful artistes.
  2. Work out communications with a new crew.
  3. Set standards for work you are going to do together.
  4. Test new or unfamiliar technology.

Conclusion

One trend that has persisted with us is that directors do not edit the films they directed. This very serious anomaly has obvious implications for directing theory and practice in Nigeria. Can a director rightly claim authorship of a film which editing he was not privy to? In most cases, the general practice is to regard the director’s work as finished the moment he intones the final, “It is a wrap… strike set.” This phenomenon is worrisome; it is ripe for further critical study in the light of prevailing film theories, especially those that bother on directing and editing. This is the albatross of the Nollywood director; this is moving away from film auteurism.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Works Cited

Anyanwu, Chika. You Too Can Be a Star: The Best Guide to Film Acting, 1. Aba: Masta Plan Publications, 2011.

Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. Film Art: An Introduction, (9th Ed). New York: Mc Graw Hill, 2010.

Brocket, Oscar G. & Ball, Robert. The Essential Theatre. New York: Harcourt Brace Coy, 2000.

Directors’ Guild of Nigeria. Constitution, 2010.

Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art, Naturalism, Impressionalism: The Film Age, 4. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Hill & Gibson, Eds. Film Studies: Critical Approaches. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lahey, Frederic. “Lecture Notes.” Colorado Film School, 2014.

Rabiger, Michael, Directing, Film Techniques and Aesthetics, (4th Ed). Oxford: Focal Press, 2009.

Richard, Rushton & Bettinson, Gary. What is Film Theory: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates. Berkshire: Mc Graw Hill Open University Press, 2010.

Ugezu, Ugezu J. Interview in Asaba, 18 Aug. 2012.

Weston, Judith. Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film and Television. Michigan: Michael Wiese, 1996.

Filmography

Idejimba. Dir. Obi Okoli. Perf. Obi Okoli, Emma Udevi, 1994.

Things Fall Apart. Dir. Dave Orere. Perf. Pete Edochie, 1984.

Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. Dir. Obi Okoli, 1981.

Call Me Raw Deal. Dir. Obi Okoli, 1987.

Child of Promise. Dir. Obi Okoli. Perf. Pete Edochie, Nkiru Sylvanus, 2002.

                        

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