The Film Script, Nollywood and Cultural Diplomacy: Criticism of Artist’s Knowledge of the Film Story
Nwagbo Pat OBI
National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO)
No. 23, Kigoma Street, Wuse Zone 7
Email: ; ;
The art of storytelling through scripting tradition in theatre productions, filmmaking inclusive demands that members of the cast and crew should be familiar with the story. However, the playwright or in the case of film, the script writer must have finished writing the script, but the artists must read in-between the lines to internalize the story for in-depth interpretation. This underscores how the story affects other dramatic elements: plot, character, idea, locale, language, and spectacle to bring out the aesthetics of the production. Each story in a film dramatizes the culture of a people. The relationship of the dramatic elements to this culture is relevant to how the viewers; especially from other cultures perceive the culture being showcased in the film. The perception of these foreign viewers affects the relationship of both cultures. This determines how that foreign culture relates with the dramatized culture. This study examines how film scripts in Nollywood affect cultural diplomacy through criticism of artists’ knowledge of the film story. Through a critique of scripting tradition as it applies to theatre production, the study shall determine the level of information the artists in Nollywood film have with the film story, its culture and the dramatic elements no matter how minor their roles are. This study finds that the scripts given to the artists in Nollywood film productions are only the pages where they feature. So, many of them are not conversant with the film story, other characters, culture being dramatized until the films are released.
Criticism of artist’s knowledge of the film story is criticism of theatrical production process, which filmmaking is one. This is because its storytelling, though in written form utilizes visual creativity to bring out the aesthetics and culture it is showing. To engage members the viewers, film like the stage performance does to its audience, it makes use of collaboration of artists, which the script writer and the actor are one. In filmmaking, the story is written as a film script, produced and told through visual effects by creating the film’s mise-en-scene. This scripting tradition obtains in Nollywood, like Hollywood, Bollywood, Ghollywood, etc. This story in the script is from the culture of a particular people. As such the script presents story of the people, the script writer got in course of his research. Consequently, film is for identity of culture and traits of a nation’s image to the outside world. This helps to promote a country’s culture to the extent that other countries will be interested in coming to invest in addition to tourism. This is cultural diplomacy, which exposes the character of a nation. For instance, Nigerian cultures are being exposed today; through video films on Satellite Television networks like Multichoice and MNet. These show films in Nigerian languages and culture in Africa Magic and Africa Magic Plus. It is just that the filmmakers of these films cut corners by dismembering the script given to the artists. This singular act affects their acting, interpretation of the scripts, storytelling culture, etc.
Film Script, Nollywood, Cultural Diplomacy, Film Story, Criticism and Artist: A Conceptual Clarification
Hernandez notes that, a film script is an embodiment of what the writer imagines, what the writer wants the audience to see and what the writer anticipates (cited Udomisor & Tosin 23). Therefore, a film script is the precise visual description of phenomena observed through a lens for an audience unable to see what was described. Whatever is described will be seen and recorded through a lens, and the lens is inevitably at the centre of the practice. It is when visual experience is indicated in prose form (Ganz 1, 2, 7). Through the explanation of film as visual and what shows motion. Das presents the meaning of film script from the activities of screenwriter as he avers that a screenwriter writes and will never be read by anyone. They will only be seen and heard as images on a screen. So, the screenwriter must write visually. Theorizing or explaining a concept in a script is pointless; if the audience cannot ‘look’ at the theory, it’s not worth writing. Most of the images you see on screen have action. It is what separates moving images from photographs (5).
The name, Nollywood, comparable to America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood is an informal label for the Nigeria film industry (Umezinwa 19). The birth of this Nollywood is a story in itself. There was a Nigerian trader who brought some blank tapes from Taiwan to Lagos in 1992. To make the blank tapes sell better, he decided to record something legal on the tape. He came up with the idea of making a film called Living in Bondage. This film, produced by Kenneth Nnebue and directed by Chris Obi-Rapu, is considered to be the one that started the model of Nollywood filmmaking and storytelling (Holm 22). Usman, Ohwovoriole, Owoicho, Dik and Walson refer to Franco and Robert as well asHaynes to assert that the name, Nollywood has an uncertain origin but was derived from acronyms such as Hollywood and Bollywood. It appeared for the first time in print in an article by Matt Steinglass in New York Times in 2002 (237). Nollywood, therefore, stands for the “Nigerian film industry whose subject matter, ideas and materials are indigenous; acted and produced by Nigerians” (Umezinwa 14).
Though Cultural Diplomacy has become a controversial term, one that is often used interchangeably with “public diplomacy,” “cultural exchange,” and “propaganda,” it has been defined as the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding, because it is in cultural activities that a nation’s idea of itself is best represented… cultural diplomacy is not government-to-government communication; rather, it is communication between governments and foreign people. It “helps create a better climate of international trust and understanding in which official relations can operate” (U.S. Department of State 4, 13). Asobele posits that, the objective of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy is essentially to make friends, expose and convert other nations to the values Nigeria cherishes and her cultural patrimony. The Nigerian cultural diplomacy, therefore: seeks to make other nations of the world take notice of Nigeria and by establishing friendship; which would in turn foster cooperation and development. Cultural exchange and communication between Nigeria and other countries of the world can go a long way in defending Nigeria’s cultural values and furthering Nigeria’s national interest (Asobele 4, qtd in Sotubo & Chidozie 65).
Every story starts with an idea. At the heart of every great film, you will find that idea. Whether it be ‘love conquers all’ or ‘evil never dies’, the characters and events encapsulate that idea and express it in a unique way. Each action, character trait and line of dialogue has been carefully selected by the screenwriter and woven into the story. Filmmakers are modern-day storytellers. So, whether a film saddens, excites or angers, it is the intention of the filmmaker to affect the audience by spinning a tale. When they weave their stories well they flow effortlessly and seamlessly from the moment the lights dim to when the credits roll. In this regard, the art of storytelling in film is the deliberate layering of complimentary elements designed to mask the craft of filmmaking and give supremacy to character and story (Rogers 1).
Criticism, on the other hand,stimulates thought and debate, and raises the profile of the arts as there is no criticism without judgment. That judgment certainly should be informed by knowledge and standards, since criticism adds to the culture of a community (Orand 18, 22). Ekwuazi, Okome, Okhakhu and Ibagere referred to Murray who in a panoramic survey of contemporary American film criticism, distinguished as many as nine schools of criticism, namely, amateur criticism (as represented by James Agee), sociological criticism (Robert Warshow), auteur criticism (Andrew Sarris), psychoanalytic-methodical criticism (Peter Tyler), judicial criticism (John Simon), pluralistic, non-aesthetic criticism (Paulin Kael), Pluralistic, aesthetic criticism (Stanley Kauffman), ethnological-aesthetic criticism (Vernon Young), and congenital-aesthetic criticism (Dwight Macdonald). However, irrespective of these schools, the basic requirements for effective criticism or reviewing remain the same (19). Consequently, criticism is the ability to see the work in context – in the context of the director’s other works; in the context of the society; and in the context of the circumstances under which the work was produced (Ekwuazi, Okome, Okhakhu & Ibagere 19).
Ugiomoh cites Gombrich as positing that the artist is an agency in the production of culture, as he is that individual enamoured with a communal mission arising from being present in society. The artist, as a member of a public, internalises events that fleet by with time and puts to acute use his or her reflexive self and as one with active social consciousness (15). So, actors and actresses who act on stage and screen are artists, who use themselves as moving, thinking, speaking and feeling instruments. Intellectually, they analyze the play or script, interpret, and memorize lines. Their imaginative powers of memory and creativity give credibility and immediacy to the script (Smiley 230-231). This means that actors and actresses are the ingredients of productions. Stanislavsky states that actors and actresses should act in an original form so that the audience can get attached to the movie (Udomisor & Tosin 25).
Scripting Tradition in Relation to Theatre Production
Udomisor and Tosin posit that a script is the foundation of any theatrical and film as it has an important place for the success of any production. Presentation seen on productions comes with the dynamics in script writing. This makes the viewers to be glued to the film from the beginning to the end (23). It is important to note that art of art of writing a script is a theatrical exercise, because Script writing is said to be an art as well as a craft. The exploration of the environment, great stories of heroes past, making use of superb dialogue all are major constituents of a good script (Udomisor & Tosin 25).
Storytelling as theatrical activity is demonstrated in the fact that storytelling is a pervasive phenomenon. It seems that no culture or society is without its myths, folktales, and sacred legends. It is narrative and narrative involves distinct activities. Human beings have capacities that enable them to grasp and present stories. Narrative saturates everyday life; our conversations, our work, and our pastimes are steeped in stories. Storytelling and narrative cut across distinctions of art and science, fiction and nonfiction, literature and the other arts, including arts of theatre. So, in studying narrative it, they are paradigm case of interdisciplinary inquiry that involves not only literary studies, but theatre, drama and film (“Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” 1-2). Mba captures this film scripting tradition in relation to theatre and drama thus: To tell a good story, whether it is to write a novel, a play or make a movie, there is need certainly for acquisition of elements of storytelling skills. Film has been a career full of plenty drama and theatre quite similar to a good Nollywood movie. In the old days, entertainment in Africa revolved around music, and storytelling under the starry moonlit nights around fireplaces as grandparents took turns to tell stories about the wise tortoise, and his many tricks. Today, we sit around our television sets, millions of them across Africa, watching films on Nigerian stories (1).
Indeed, film and theatre have become means of communication in a multi-culturally oriented society like Nigeria, beyond the dictate of information dissemination. They perform interrelated functions even though they have different perspectives in their narrations of stories, and it is essential to note that film can be used to promote the story-content in drama just as drama is vital in the analysis of the cultural elements in a film (Ademeso“Towards Deconstruction”). The relationship of film and theatre is further ascertained by Olayiwola who asserts that in Nigeria Yoruba traveling theatre practitioners, having established a rich tradition of touring plays, made a debut with Ogunde’s Aiye in 1979 and Jaiyesinmi in 1980 and introduced a regional dimension to the Nigerian film. He further referred to Adedeji and Ekwuazi to aver these companies, together, accounted for over 60 percent of the films that featured at the 1st National film festival. Among such films were box office hits like Mosebolatan, Taxi Driver, etc. (Olayiwola 186).
Definitely, there is a symbiotic relationship between film and theatre. The dramatic elements in a film provide basic background knowledge on the cultural milieu in Nollywood. Reading a culture through a dramatic experience depends strongly on the creative ingenuity of a story/script writer, and how well he/she is able to equip himself/herself with the principles of dramaturgy. Since drama is the story told through actions and dialogue, and film is a mean of projecting and expressing one’s thoughts in contents and contexts (Ademeso “Towards Deconstruction”).
The Film Script, Nollywood and Cultural Diplomacy: Criticism of Artist’s Knowledge of the Film Story
The strength of Nollywood, according to them, lies in its narratives and dialogue. The film must touch an audience through the intensity of the story and the persuasiveness of the actors (Samyn 19). Samyn underscores the importance of story and artists in Nollywood and how they affect the viewers who own the culture being shown in the film. To demonstrate the seriousness of this view, those referred to ‘them’ in the above are scholars like Osofisan, Barrot and Haynes who were noted to have been convinced that the technical quality of Nollywood films is of secondary importance (18-19). Kafewo cited more scholars to state that: Those who fault Nigerian home video drama talk about its technical limitations of its production. What cannot be denied however is the fact that it is the most popular mode of cultural expression today in Nigeria? Scholars of this emerging genre from Onookome Okome, Jonathan Haynes through Brian Larkin to Abdallah Adamu Uba have however proven that though approaches to the understanding of the significance of this phenomenon may be different and in fact conflicting but its sheer presence alone cannot be denied. It has indeed now forced the world to listen/watch and pay attention to an emerging popular culture. Haynes captures the situation much more succinctly by saying that nowhere else in Africa has a domestic market for audio visual entertainment been captured successfully. The videos are produced on a variety of forms, styles, themes, as well as languages of expression. Taken together, they give an image of the Nigerian nation (Kafewo “Through Laughter and Tears”).
Certainly, from the above it can be inferred that cultural diplomacy is being promoted through the film and what it expresses which is the story. They have put Nigerian culture in the global map. Aňulika Agina agrees that in this regard, Nigerian filmmakers have told great and inspiring stories – stories that Nigerians at home and abroad can relate to, and stories that have opened up vistas of the Nigerian space to the world (Agina“Narrative Structure”). Ajibade points out that though the ongoing debates about Nollywood among producers, consumers, critics and scholars alike, have made critics dwell upon the narrative ‘quality’ of the videos vis-à-vis those of other cinematic traditions like Hollywood, but the same scholars have attempted to read the videos as social and cultural documents of Nigeria. These varied perceptions and readings are part of what helps to confront and understand the video film as a central cultural product of Nollywood (Ajibade “Silent Screams”).
Consequently, Agina makes a reminder that in film story we are dealing with an audio-visual medium, where the art of storytelling takes on an adjective – visual – that has different meanings in the theatre or other media. It uses screen to tell its story, whereas theatre uses stage. The understanding of this distinction is very important to the practitioners in the Nigerian film industry to put their cultural products at par with the best in international filmmaking (Agina“Narrative Structure”). This is to say that through this visual effect, the film story will have a tradition which should follow both in writing and production. This prompted Yerima to ask: Is there a discernible scripting tradition in Nollywood and if so, what is this tradition? In response to the question he describes scripting as one of the fundamental aspects of the mimetic art of which Nollywood is part. He evaluates the scripting tradition in Nollywood by looking at its historical nature and how this has come to impact on what we see on the screens of Nollywood. He concludes that Nollywood is one of the most vibrant art forms to come out of African of late, but the critical question is if it respects scripting tradition as one of the fundamental aspects of the mimetic art? (Yerima “Scripting the Popular”). This attitude on script came at the inception of Nollywood, in the wake of the Nnebue’s breakthrough low-budget video film Living in Bondage, when an engaging moral tale of greed and retribution set in; shot quickly and cheaply on VHS, with minimal scripting (Lobato 340-341).
Udomisor and Tosin categorically answers Yerima’s question by asserting that Script writing has its basics and techniques, which should be considered before production can take place, the Nigerian film industry, despite its record of achievements still battle with the problem of script writing. This affects the performance of Nollywood actors and actresses, because the script as the story for them to perform their roles well in any production, demands that they have to follow instructions and directions based on the script. Also, despite the attention and applause given to the Nigerian film industry, the audience still has complaints on Nollywood films. Some of the major complaints stem from script writing. Nollywood industry recently organized the African magic viewer’s choice award in Lagos. It was shown on African Magic on DSTV cable on 9th March, 2013 in Lagos. The award given ceremony commanded a lot of attention as the world became interested and glued to the ceremony organized by the industry. After the event,the audience still feels there is a sharp difference between Hollywood and Nollywood films and much still have to be done. This is not in terms of high technology that Hollywood possesses but due to the problem of script writing (23-24).
In our interviews with the artists in the category of actors, actresses, directors and producers there are accusations especially on the financiers of these films. The actors and directors accused the producers and executive producers of trying to reduce the cost of the entire production. According to Obi Okoli, a prominent Nigerian actor who has featured in many films, the effect of the artist not being familiar with the story is terrible. It has implication on the aesthetics and quality of the films. However, he said as an actor, he has observed that it is really the practice that is prevalent, because the traders who sponsor the films want to cut corners. Meanwhile, they do not know the implication of sponsoring a story that those who acted on it are not fully in the know of the story. Indeed, “the effect is phenomenal. It is all round. In Asaba, just like other parts of the country where films are made and traders are involved in the sponsorship, the traders will always want to cut corners. The script is one of the ways this is done, because for them it does not matter if everybody does not have the full script. The money used in making copies of the scripts for all the artists involved can be used for other things.” (Interview with Obi Okoli).
Henry Ndubuisi said in the screen productions he has taken part, he really witnessed a different thing from what he was taught and was used to as a Theatre Arts student of University of Port Harcourt. On stage the moment you are auditioned and given a role, the full scripts will be made available to all the members of cast and crew no matter the role you are playing. But what I saw in the productions I have done in Nollywood was a situation where the pages your role appears is photocopied and given to you. I played the role of Rev. Fr. in the film Drug War, Prof. on Sparkle (a soap opera), and stubborn boy in King of Mafia. In all these three productions, I was given the photocopies of the pages where my roles appeared. I must tell you that non provision of full script to the artists is really the culture in Nollywood. It is the denial of the artistic right of the artists in the contract of theatre and film production. There is no doubt that, it affects the culture of filmmaking and the culture of the people the film being made is showcasing. Most of the filmmakers give say that why they do not give the full script is that the script could be photocopied by somebody and such a person will steal the idea and the story and quickly produce it before the original owners of the story. For me this is a flimsy excuse (Interview with Henry Ndubuisi).
Samyn categorically captures the situation thus: To limit the costs and owing to the high rate of competition, a film is made in one to two weeks on average. The quality of the movies suffers under these conditions. The volume tends to change according to the position of the camera, even during a dialogue. External noises, like cars and other street noise, sometimes make dialogues unintelligible. A lot of directors work with non-professional actors, for financial reasons. There is often barely time for rehearsals and a lot is improvised. The script frequently lies open on the floor during the shooting… Jeta Amata, considered one of the best Nollywood directors, said in an interview that when in the script, it says it is a sunny day, but on the day of the shooting it is raining, they do not wait but change the script (18)
Indeed, the above is what Okioli earlier described as the effect being phenomenal. It is really unusual that an artist should lack of depth of the story he is acting in. However, Okoli said no matter how it has been accepted by many artists as the culture, one thing is sure: Even though there are artists who do not border about this full script issue, I have never been in a film production and I was given only the pages where my roles appear. One thing I observed is that star actors are given the full script even if such actor will play a cameo part in any particular film. In fact, an upcoming artist who will play a major part may be given the pages where the roles are but you do not try that with a star actor or actress. The star actor or actress will actually contribute in helping to sharpen the story. That is if such person is knowledgeable in the art of script writing and logic of storytelling and making. Of course do not forget that some star artists are directors. Meanwhile, whichever way it is looked at, making the full script unavailable to all the artists is bad and unprofessional. If a story is dramatizing the culture of a people, and the full scripts are not given to all the artists just because the financier wants to cut cost, there is a tendency that many of the artists in the production may have one thing or the other to suggest as to where the script may got it wrong, such artist is denied that opportunity. The story is also denied the opportunity of the reality it would have presented to the viewers. This affects both the foreign and local viewership. I mean showing wrong culture through a poor story to the outside world using the artist is a breach of cultural diplomacy (Interview with Obi Okoli).
Really, one of the greatest challenges facing the Nollywood is script writing. Script-writers like Ben Akponine, Joe Dudun, Reginald Ebere, Ken Oghenjaba have to quit the art of writing for Nollywood due to the problem of poor remuneration, problem with producers and the lack of appreciation. Emedolibe states that the remuneration of script writers is not fantastic and producers have the perception that writing is easy and can be done by anyone. This has led to poor scripting pervading the industry. In Emedolibe’s observation producers do not see writers as essential to a successful production and this has downplayed the significance of quality scripting (Udomisor & Tosin 25- 26).
Ndubuisi, who commended the script conference, which is a tradition by many of the filmmakers in Nollywood, said it helps to address the issue of poor quality. This is situation where many stakeholders gather to discuss and criticize the script, as commendable as it is, does not remove the fact that the scripts are not well distributed to those who will make use of them; that is the actors and actresses. You may have a beautiful script but if the interpretation is not done well, it becomes an ugly story and script. If the actor who will interpret a story does not have the complete script, it will affect his acting. Of course, it is when you interpret a role very well that you will act it very well. What happens in most cases is that the artists when given the dismembered scripts keep guessing so many things, pending the day of shooting. Unlike on stage, where you rehearse very well and know those you are acting with, in Nollywood, in most cases, you do not even know those you are acting with until you appear on set to record. During recording, most of the scenes are improvised. This means that even at the point of shooting films, many scripts in Nollywood are not complete or are not even there, yet the film shooting like we have on stage production’s parlance, ‘the show must go on’, must go on. Apart from being a graduate of Theatre Arts, I took courses like, Performing Arts in Nigeria, Cultural Diplomacy during my Postgraduate Diploma in Cultural Administration (PGDCA) in the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) Training School, Lagos. With the knowledge of these courses, I can tell you that all these are not helping Nigeria’s cultural image before the comity of nations (Interview Henry Ndubuisi).
Okoli, who is also a lecturer in Theatre and Film Studies in the University of Nigeria Nsukka, further dwelt on the issue of interpretation, which he said, this lack of full script affect all the necessary ingredients needed for it, like characterization, internalization of the lines, role and cues, fellow feeling with the co-actors on set. This informs why some of the scenes lack the traits of the culture they are dramatizing. For instance, in most of the chiefs’ or elder s’ scenes, there are unnecessary shouting from most of actors. This is what the situation of shooting in a hurry, lack of knowledge of the story and full script cause (Interview with Obi).
On the part of Chief Chika Okpala, aka Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4.30 of the New Masquerade fame, said so long as he is concerned acting on the screen demands that the full script will be given to the actor to let him know the full story and what the culture being dramatized is talking about. Honestly, in the New Masquerade, we all have our full scripts and you can see that everybody interpreted and realized his or her role very well to the point of being natural. You can agree with me that the New Masquerade took Nigeria to the global community and the story is told everywhere (Interview with Chika Okpala).
Be that as it may, there is hope that Nollywood as it continues to script and tell stories, will take Nigerian culture to the globe as we now talk of global village because though films are scripted, shot and released within a matter of weeks and many films still suffer from cursory scripting, but technical standardshave risen dramatically over the last decade (Lobato 342).
In an interview with John McCall, filmmaker Kabat Esosa Ebgon said Nigerian filmmakers have been able to touch a sort of sensibility of the people – their life, their aspirations, their family values, their world view, their cosmology, the spiritual and otherwise…. The content, the form, is African… I think this is the truly African cinema we have been waiting for…. We are telling our stories now for the first time. Filmmaker Charles Igwe offers a similar explanation in an interview for the documentary, Good Copy Bad Copy: We can tell our stories with our own pictures. They look atrocious, the acting is horrible and all that, but it is piecing together the stories (Schultz 253).
In any case, other film industries across the world have their faults. For instance, in Bollywood the storylines are relatively long. Bollywood film consists of six to eight songs and intricate choreography that are used to emphasize the story’s emotional high points. Bollywood is actually separated into different regional production centres, such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Lahore, in which films are made in different languages and cultures. New directors are slowly trying to challenge the old storylines and methods of structuring the Indian film (Holm 16-17). Though some are there but Nigeria needs filmmakers who will effect change in its script writing tradition. The presence of government is needed not only through National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), etc. but for adequate funding. Individual businessman cannot be completely patriotic to Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy as he wants to recoup his money after financing a film.
However, Ayakoroma raises the hope of Nollywood for better story by recalling and asserting that: It is pertinent to note that in its close to two decades of existence, Nollywood has gone through some generic and developmental trends. Somehow, there are some shades of opinion to the effect that there is nothing like Nollywood; that the industry is celebrating quantity instead of quality; that the executive producers have killed the industry to the extent that it is living on past glories; that there is undue emphasis on rituals and occultic practices in the films; that the country is not well projected; that the industry is all about sex-for-roles or sexual harassment; or that the scripts lack depth because you can easily predict the end of the films at the beginning. In spite of such concerns, the truth is that Nollywood has taken Nigeria to higher heights in the area of revenue generation, cultural tourism, and cultural diplomacy (26).
We have attempted to criticize the lack of depth of artist’s knowledge of the film story in Nollywood. This is caused by the filmmakers who at the instance of the executive producers cut cost, hence see script as unimportant for all the actors and actresses in the production. The complete scripts they fail to give to them affects filmmaking process and mar cultural diplomacy. It is recommended that government’s attention is urgently needed in Nollywood, because individuals are interested in making money. Filmmakers cannot be completely loyal and patriotic to cultural diplomacy promotion as they cut corner in the process of film story making and script writing. Let filmmakers change this habit to script writing tradition.
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