Imperatives of Literary Redefinition of Nollywood
Best B. UGALA
Department of Theatre Arts
College of Education, Agbor, Delta State
The Nigerian video film industry, Nollywood, has blossomed into a highly subscribed enterprise and a major revenue earner for the country. The industry has firmly grounded itself; but to sustain this noble profile and promote it to a pre-eminent degree, the elements that bedaub it with mediocrity need to be weeded out. One of such elements is poor scripting, which manifests in poor dialogues, wordiness, gory details, far-fetched cultural practices, recycling of old stories and all the likes. This paper examines the practice of screenwriting in Nollywood. It traces the history and evolution of screenwriting and proceeds to conceptualize and offer some theoretical and practical prerequisites for the advancement of the art of screenwriting in Nollywood.
For a long time now, critics and key players in Nollywood have been trying to balance the Nollywood account so as to identify its strengths and weaknesses as a strategy for repositioning it to meet the challenges of its meteoric rise. It is also a strategy for tackling the effect of ‘diminishing return that usually dogs human enterprises of astonishing success. It is for this reason that Onyerionwu argues that the time indeed has come “for new things to be said about the Nigerian film, fresher challenges to be squarely tackled” (4). One of those nascent issues, according to him, is the need to encourage institutional study and greater intellectual appreciation of the Nigerian film.
Intellectualization of Nollywood is an unfinished project which poses a great challenge to the major stake-holders in the industry. This challenge springs from the intellectual and philosophical vacuity that chokes the industry. The best place to begin the intellectualization of Nollywood is its literature because literature is a product of the intellect and human creativity. Literature, according to Anatoly Lunacharsky, is “the art of the word, the art which is closest to though...,” (cited in Dukore 951) and modern film, by its content and form, is an art of the word mediated by action. When the ranges of belles lettres are being discussed, film would come under focus. The objective of this paper, therefore, is to examine the art of the word, both written and spoke in the Nigerian video film industry.
The literature of film can only be approach and captured in the art of screenwriting. Screenwriting is the art of writing a screenplay, and a screenplay is a script or text (manuscript or typescript) on which the performance of actors in a television or film is based. The screenplay we mean here is the one professionally referred to as “spec script.” This is the screenplay on “speculation,” that is, an original script that was not owned or commissioned by any producer or studio, but written for possible sale to any willing buyer. The spec script is raw; it has to be treated or processed by the director and the production personnel into a “shooting script” or production script. This is part of international film culture.
The screenplay is a blueprint for what the film will be. It encapsulates a variety of meanings and information which are to be discovered and illuminated to enrich and embellish the film. The primary concern of the screenwriter is to contrive a a story that is fresh, provide apt and intelligent dialogue, describe the actions in what is commonly known as direction, provide visual exposition, aesthetic clues and perhaps, the direction of scenes.
At this early stage of this discourse, it is necessary to point out that the objective of this paper is not to pontificate on the technicality of screenwriting nor teach the nitty-gritty of timing, formatting, font or spacing standards; it is not to discuss established screenwriting rules, but to show the discredit of mediocrity and unprofessionalism in Nollywood screenwriting which have limited its reach and dimmed its glory.
Evolution of Screen Writing
According to Straczynski, the origins of the modern movie industry whose global polarity has hit unimaginable proportions are rooted in the earliest silent films which evolved from the patenting device called kinetoscope developed by Thomas Edison at the end of the 19th century (136). The kinetoscope allowed some photographs to be recorded into a single strip of negative film, and when developed, printed and replayed at the original recording speed, created a moving picture.
During the period of the silent films which Charles Spencer Chaplin took to a dizzy height, performers and directors were widely known and respected for their cinematic efforts while the writers were almost an irrelevant and invisible collective entity. Screenwriting was an art for the future. As Straczynski explains, “in a sense, screenwriters didn’t even exist” (138). The reason for this then was that the written word had no substantial place in film making beyond the laying out of the general and rough scenario. But in 1926, the entire film industry underwent a major change with the invention of sound movies which were able to match pictures with synchronized musical score.
As Pickering explains, during the 1930s when Hollywood, the movie capital of the world, entered this age of the talkies, Charlie Chaplin still held on to this pantomimic form (251). With the advent of the sound movies, the need to have script writers became necessary and urgent. As Stracznski further explains, the various studios then had to go out to “solicit writers with varying degrees of success.” Even then, many of the established writers looked at the emerging motion pictures with total disdain and “opted to have little to do with them, at least, officially” (193). Because of the apathy of the writers, the studios then turned to other sources such as the vaudevillians. An example of such people is W.C. Fields who later became fully involved with the film business both as a writer and later as performer.
Appraisal of Nollywood Screenwriting
“Filming,” according to Coker “is a phenomenon that is common in almost all societies in the world, and it is a powerful medium in which information is passed across to people in concretizing, empowering and educating them on certain issues” (15). Ekwuazi, further expounds this view: “the film is a matrix of the people’s culture, hence it reflects, in varying degrees, the history beliefs religions, politics and vision of the people” (12). Zheng Dongtian, one time Chairman of the Directing Department of Beijing Film Academy, shares the same opinion when he states that “...a nation’s cinema can be said to crystallize its entire national culture and even the level of its material and Spiritual civilization” (11). Nollywood, undoubtedly, crystallizes social and cultural beliefs but with very crudely exaggerated and barbaric abandon.
Indeed, the film is a modern phenomenon that has gained wide popularity in almost every society in the world, including Nigeria. Video film production in Nigeria far surpasses that of any other African country and in fact is now rated as the second largest in terms of output after Indian Bollywood (Ashuntantang 113). According to Lari Williams, as at the middle of the year 2003, Nigerian movie industry could boast of about 3000 films with Chico Ejiro alone churning out as many as 90 films (32). But by 2009 the annual output rose to 600 titles a year. This is from a survey on global cinema carried out by UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS). Indeed to borrow the words of Onyerionwu, Nollywood has reached the glories of Indian and American film (4).
When we consider the fact that Nollywood has been able to make a broad inroad into Southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa and has in fact beaten Hollywood to a distant third position, we will realise that a lot more is needed to make it remain vibrant and attain an almost continental appeal. The question that we may need to address our minds to at this juncture is how Nigerian video movie has fared in terms of quality, variety and dynamism. From the outset, critics have been blunt and unsparing in their criticism of Nollywood with the intention of ridding it of all the negative elements and tendencies. Wole Ogundele contends that the Nigeria video industry is as exasperating as it is fascinating, full of contradictions in which crass opportunism and commercialism mix with some flashes of true art, and “the dullest, and most plodding productions” contest for the same space and attention with the few that are good and original” (90).
Awani is unpretentious about his verdict: “Nigerian video films are failing in content, cinematography, lighting, etc.” (88). He lists Domitilla Part 1, Living in Bondage, Suicide Mission, Blood Money, Evil Genius and Score to Settle, as some of the films that are guilty of these shortcomings. According to him, Andy Orewere, another film critic, shares the same view and traces the low quality in content to the inability or failure of producers and directors to carry out good researches on themes before production.
Because of this lack of research, according to Orewere, our films have become “engrossed in themes of violence, rituals and sex which are not in good taste particularly to the elitist class and well meaning Nigerians who are concerned with the effect of such movies on the society.” Lari Williams passionately shares the same view as he argues that: Since our young industry has been so colonized by violence, blood, rituals and words that burn like fire, hate has become the motivating force, especially in home video movies; the nation and our world is being taught to hate... and this plucks the fruit of morality before it blossoms (Vanguard 31).
The argument of Williams is quite compelling and persuasive, especially when we give serious thought to his sermon that violence against individuals, whether they are good or bad, is not the way of love, and that the drama of blood, rituals and killings is teaching the world to hate. As he concludes, “violence cannot be justified on the basis that it is exciting to the viewer.” Our attention here should be drawn to what Shakespeare achieve in Romeo and Juliet where in the ancient feud and hatred which eventuate in crushing fatality are finally dissolved in the crucible of love.
Commenting on the nature and quality of Nigerian video films, Haynes and Okome argue that Nigerian video productions “give us an image of the Nigerian nation, not necessarily in the sense of delivering full, accurate and analytical description of social reality, but in the sense of reflecting the productive forces of the nation, economic and cultural” (51). Appraising the performance of the Yoruba Travelling artistes in the video and cinema media, they observe that the artistes “always proceeded on the basis of a minimal scenario rather than a fully written out script.” According to them, the actors on the set may well not know the title of the film they are acting in and the producer may not want to divulge the whole story for fear that one of the actors might steal the idea (957).
In a similar vein, Femi Shaka confesses that his problem with the Nigerian film industry was that, “they were too wordy” (29). According to him, “in any good movie, the camera should tell the story.... These days, so much corruption of the soap opera tradition, so much talking and so much music even when it is not needed, create a lot of problems.” Another worrisome trend identified by Lari Williams is that producers “release more and more films that are shot within a very short time – quickly written scripts, quickly rehearsed, hurriedly shot hastily sold and consumed and forgotten as quickly as possible (Vanguard 32). This statement is as true today as it was when it was made about twelve years ago. The astonishing prolificity cannot allow standard to be instilled nor allow Nollywood films to be collected and archived as Okome would want (7).
In filmmaking, the starting point is the conception of reality, and it usually begins with the scriptwriter. And this reality, according to Houston carries with it a peculiar code or matrix of credibility. It is this conceived reality that the director brings to life through the synthesis of picture and movement. The screenwriter, after writing, turns the script to the director or producer and cast. It is true that these personnel whose duty it is to give the script life are at full liberty to change or alter the script in a thousand different ways. The original script may even be rewritten and the camera directions may be completely changed. This does not vitiate the relevance and importance of scriptwriters. The cinematic potentials of a good script can be ruined in the hands of a lousy director while a poorly written script can be transformed into a great hit on the screen by an ingenuous director. But whichever way it goes, the basic truth is that a script should be written with the aim of improving rather than debasing humanity.
Now, with regard to how the text has fared in Nigerian video films, opinions differ. While comparing the Nigerian script writers with their American counterparts, Lari Williams submits: Indeed some Hollywood films with huge budgets (e.g Sylvester Stallone’s) are based on incredibly childish scripts. To make up for the poor quality of plots and dialogue, we then have a high number of stunts, amazing sets and breath-taking technical means. In comparison with other countries, the success of Nigerian films is based on the stories they narrate (Vanguard 32).
Williams, himself an accomplished actor and dispassionate critic, concludes: “However, Nigerians, as tireless narrators of stories are far ahead when it comes to script.” Perhaps, it is in justification of the stand or position of Williams that the Third Lagos Film Forum held in 2003 was devoted to paying tribute to scrip writers and story tellers.
Jonathan Haynes, to some extent, agrees with Williams when he states that, “the power of Nollywood springs from the story it tells,” but he argues forcefully that serious attention has not been paid to the scripts on which the films are based (1). Kelvin Ikeduba goes further to corroborate this fact: To tell the truth, most of the stories are recycled; people just change characters. I wouldn’t say because we lack script writers in Nigeria but basically, most of the producers are myopic, they don’t want to pay for good writers to write stories, that is why they keep recycling stories (32). Ikeduba merely states the obvious when he says that most stories are recycled in Nollywood films. No matter how ingenious a writer may be, any story he recycles will always lack the freshness, originality and aesthetic ingredients that excite, and can hardly measure up to the original.
One common practice that is becoming a custom is “script-conference or writers’ conference. Such conferences are usually convened by producers or directors to get writers to construct a screenplay or critique and revise a “spect” script into a shooting script. This is because most Nollywood films are not written by professionals and therefore need to be processed in a script conference or workshop. If a good percentage of the films we turn out yearly jars upon our socio-cultural sensibility, the blame must first of all go to the scriptwriters who, in the words of Awani, were the first to fail to give “the true depiction of the sound and rhythms of a nation marching towards the twenty-first century” (93).
Again, the Nigerian video film industry is dominated by what could pass for historical epics, fearful sagas, voodoo, wholesale apotheosis of mercantile Christianity and the farcical. True comedies of hilarious proportions are difficult to find in Nollywood films. This is due to the inability of our screenwriters to construct stories like J.P. Clark’s The Wife’s Revolt or Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Undoubtedly, stage playwrights are far ahead of the writers in Nollywood.
On the question of morality and decorum, Nigeria video films have been adrift. The trend has been arbitrary as there has been no explanation as to why a particular genre would become dominant in the industry at any particular period of time. Perhaps it is an evolutionary stage that Nollywood must pass through in its historic match to becoming. After all, Hollywood had the same experience in the 1920s. As Pickering recalls, the Hollywood films turned out in the early 1920s capitalized on the permissive “new morality” that came in the aftermath of the World War I (252). In Hollywood films of that epoch, drinking scenes became epidemic, orgiastic acts were apotheosized while infidelity was exalted as a pattern for material living. This “new morality” which was so evident in Southern California and which Hollywood sought to promote met with severe public indignation and abhorrence. Hollywood, disconcerted that its concept of morality was antipodal to taste and standards, rallied to salvage its image through self-censorship and diligent moral laundering. Nollywood must take a cue and embrace self-saving measures such as self-censorship.
After an in-depth interrogation of Nollywood literature, attempt should be made to recalibrate the literary tools and reinvent the creative tropes, muse and paradigms. The deficiency in craftsmanship which renders the films mere stereotypes should be dealt with; such dramatic devices as surprise, suspense, reversal, wit and juxtaposition should find their way back into our spec-scripts. For instance, let us consider Eisenstein’s paradigm, taken from Ambrose Bierce’s The Incorporate Widow: A woman in widow’s weeds was weeping upon a grave. “Console yourself, madam,” said a sympathetic stranger. “Heaven’s mercies are infinite. There is another man somewhere besides your husband, with whom you can still, be happy”. “There was,” she sobbed – there was, “but this is his grave” (page).
As Eisenstein notes, the whole of this is built upon the circumstance that the grave and the woman mourning beside it lead to the inference that from established convention, the woman is a widow mourning her husband, whereas in fact, the man for whom she is weeping is her lover (14, 15). Again such juxtaposition is good but it needs a unifying principle that will bring the word and the content of the shot into correct relationship. This is exactly what craftsmanship in screenwriting demands.
Screenwriting is by no means a cheap or easy discipline, especially for the unskilled and lazy hands. Galsworthy fully expounds this fact: The reason good dialogue is seldom found in plays is merely that it is hard to write, for it requires not only a knowledge of what interests or excites, but such a feeling for character as brings misery to the dramatist’s heart when his creations speak as they should not speak…. (48). He avers that the art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art, it is “handmade, like good lace, clear of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated” (48). If a film must stir the heart it should begin from the script.
To be able to write a good screenplay, the writer must first of all have full understanding of the cinema or film. He must also be able to create his own idioms and metaphor that can enable him match or surpass the standards that have already been set. His theme must have a strong, powerful and meaningful thrust because this is the only way it can be universally relevant and appealing. One general prerequisite for excellence in screen writing is that the writer should have a certain degree of craft-worthiness, a genuine feel for the development of the script and good sense of proportion. Above all, he must read as many screenplays and watch many films as he can lay his hands on.
One other thing that needs to be stated here is that the primary force or motivation that makes a writer write is, in the words or Straczynski, “an internal pressure, an inner drive that won’t rest until the tale has been told”. Without this drive, the writer never tastes the joy of self-fulfilment or satisfaction in any of his finished scripts. Again, to borrow the words of Straczynski, the writer must “develop a highly tuned sense of discipline, a willingness to write and rewrite the same story as often as necessary, to polish it until it is as hard and bright as a diamond” (161). So the writer must always remember that he alone is fully responsible for the story while the director is responsible for the look of the film.
Language is the major means of communication. Script writers must, of necessity engage in the study and understanding of the language of his choice, they must set the tone and style of the genre. Thus, the horror genre should employ the language of horror just as the comedy, crime, detective, love, myth absurdist and other genres must employ the language appropriate to them.
Another prerequisite for good scripting is fertile imagination, and imagination according to Archer, implies “a profound understanding or motivation and purpose and the nature of groups, including audiences” (77). Stated bluntly, a good script is known by the imaginative intensity and profound pathos it elicits. Thus, a good screenwriter who is doing a story based on a rural area must be able to imagine and present the rustic simplicity and pastoral tastes of the countryside. He should handle the story according to the rhythm and poetry of the spatial and temporal settings.
Again, the vitality of a film hinges on immediacy of appeal, and this power of immediacy becomes more active when drawn from contemporary events. Therefore, the themes and stories of our films should be distilled from all available sources. Two of such sources which Nollywood filmmakers have completely overlooked are literature and history. For literature, Emenyonu declares: “In particular, many African novels and plays have been distinguished for their complex, intriguing and edifying themes and plots which would make great and exciting movies if adapted into film” (x). Writing on the place of history in literary creation, Sam Ukala says it is “the cornerstone for building an enviable future” (7). Recycling of old stories is a symptom of creative exhaustion. Nollywood screen writers should hurry, therefore, and plunge into the pool of literature and history to “refill.”
The critical and scholarly attention which Nollywood is receiving from the international community attests to the astonishing success which the industry has achieved since 1992 when it announced its arrival with the Igbo film, Living in Bondage. By virtue of its prolificity, commercial lucrativeness and economic success as well as the large audience it has drawn from Africans and African migrants, Nollywood has been crowned with glory. The splendour of this glory has made it an object of serious evaluation and critiques which have identified a number of shortcomings that are rooted in mediocrity. Some of these short comings include poor technical devices, varietal vacuity, low quality content, wordiness, far-fetched themes of violence, voodoo, sexual impropriety and wickedness. In Nollywood, crass opportunism commingles with unhealthy production practices whereby non-standard materials and non-standard methods of construction are given free rein.
A serious investigation would reveal that these problems emanate from the script which is the blueprint for the film. As Haynes rightly observes, most of the Nollywood screenplays are written by non-professionals, people without professional experience; hence “screenwriting has always been the least organized aspect of the Nollywood industry” (13). Nollywood parades a galaxy of star producers, directors and actors, but cannot boast of a handful of screenwriters of the finest stock. The notable professionals are, Tunde Kelani, Adebanjo Faleti, Emem Isong, Charles Novia, Femi Kayode, Remi Adesoye and a few others.
The extent to which Nollywood can go in global reckoning will depend on quality, and the task of raising the quality must necessary begin with the redefinition and rebranding of its screenplays. The practitioners and critical stake-holders should make a strong case for professional training of screenwriters and invest in such training. The ancient ways and cultures are sources of African thought and character, but should not be scandalized with unmitigated barbarity, Satanism and licentiousness. In the same way, our film scripts should forbid the current mawkish and mortifying glorification of alien life-styles. The stories should be handled in film terms by being economical with dialogue and lavish with visual action. As Anton Chekhov would say, “brevity is the sister of talent” (23).
Classics have an uncommon degree of vitality and originality. Our screenwriters should strive towards the emergence of Nigerian classics that can compare with what, in Hollywood, is called blockbuster. Blockbusters are products of diligent and professional scripting, and professional scripting, as a rule, draws attention, not to the star, but to the story. The screenwriters need to reorganise their guild, professionalize it and provide the enabling environment for the emergence of new writers who would out-distance the old. New wine should burst the old bottles!
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