Aesthetics and Semiotics in Nigerian Films: Repositioning Nollywood for the Promotion of Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy
Okon Udofot JACOB, PhD
Department of Performing Arts
Akwa Ibom State University, Obio Akpa Campus
Film as a genre of arts fulfils the primary functions of informing, educating and entertaining the target audience in any given society. Nollywood being a “brand name for Nigerian film” is expected to key in and fulfil these primary functions of art if it is to be seen as an agent for the promotion of Nigerian’s cultural diplomacy. Furthermore, if Nollywood is to be repositioned for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy, the issue of aesthetics and semiotics must be treated with every of seriousness and attention it deserves. It is therefore on this premise that “Aesthetics and Semiotics in Nigerian Film: Reposition Nollywood for the Promotion of Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy” is considered apt for this paper. For effective and efficient gathering of data for this work, various sources of data collection have been utilized, covering both the primary and the secondary sources, so as to come out with a dependable research outcome that would be relevant to the scholars, administrator’s students as well as the practitioners in the performing arts industry. In conclusion, therefore, it is pertinent to reiterate the fact that aesthetics and semiotic are two basic tools or ingredients needed to spice up Nigerian films in furtherance of the repositioning approach or process of Nollywood towards the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy. To actually achieve the desired objectives in this direction, this paper strongly recommends the training and retraining of both the artistic and the technical directors in the Nigerian film industry, who would in turn enlighten the actors, the personnel or crew members, as well as other stake holders in the industry toward maximization of the output.
In Performing Arts, in which film belongs, aesthetics and semiotics are two invaluable concepts because for arts to perform its primary functions, it is obvious that such an activity must contain some elements of communication and beauty as seen in the definitions of aesthetics and semiotics. Furthermore, for an action to contain qualities of beauty towards effective communication through signs and symbols such an activity must be performed in compliance with the ethics of the profession if such an action in Nigerian films (Nollywood) is to be in furtherance of the repositioning process for the promotion of Nigeria‘s cultural diplomacy. Therefore, this effort is geared towards examining some of the etiquettes in performing arts in respect of the key concept in this discourse. This is apt because both aesthetics and semiotic in performing arts have their principles, theories as well as their basic rules which must be strictly adhered to for the enhancement of the profession.
The Concept of Aesthetics
Aesthetics is said to be the philosophy of art and beauty. Some of the synonyms of aesthetics are among others, tasteful, appropriate and beautiful. The word relates to a set of principles about beauty or art. In this context, beauty is the combination of qualities in film production that cause delight or pleasure. That is, the qualities that is attractive in Nigerian films otherwise known as Nollywood. The qualities that is capable of repositioning the industry for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy. This is why Johnson says that aesthetics concerns itself with the expressed beauty in art (23).
The Concept of Semiotics
Semiotics in Performing Arts refers to communication through signs and images. It relates to the study of signs and symbols and their utilization in communication in film productions. It is through semiotics that mise-en-scene can further be enhanced in film production for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy.
The Concept of Cultural Diplomacy
Cultural Diplomacy here encapsulates those activities that denote the holistic way of life of Nigerians towards managing cordial relationships between Nigeria and other countries of the world. Diplomacy as a concept specifically deals with the skills in the art of dealing with people without upsetting them in any way. Nigerian films, if meticulously packaged with decorum are capable of repositioning Nollywood for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy.
Aesthetic and Semiotic Elements in Films
In film production, semiotic elements bring about aesthetic elements because according to Ikpe, “it is logical to say that aesthetic can be applied to all media and channels of communication” (5). To buttress Ikpe’s position as presented above, Johnson asserts that:
The art of aesthetic application is indeed the art of manipulation. The manipulation is however not the aesthetic. The aesthetic remains somewhat constant, while whatever other art in which aesthetic principles are applied, are the ones which must be subjected to creative and even technical manipulation; for the insignia of aesthetic to impinge if not imprint on them (46).
This implies also that all semiotic components are imbued with aesthetic elements. This is apt and clearly explains the reason behind scholarly discourse on aesthetic in script; aesthetic in directing; aesthetic in acting; aesthetic in scenery, aesthetic in lighting; aesthetic in music and even aesthetic in songs and sound effects. Critically explained, this culminates to the issue of mise-en-scene in film making which is an invaluable component in filmology.
What is Mise-En-Scene?
Mise-en-scene is an important terminology in contemporary film making and it is of French origin which refers to the art of putting things into the scene. Bordwell and Thompson opine that mise-en-scene:
was first applied to the practice of directing plays. Film scholars extending the term to film directing, use the term to signify the director’s control over what appears in the film frame. As you would expect, mise-en-scene include those aspects of film that overlap with the art of the theatre: setting, lighting, costume and makeup, and staging in performance…, mise-en-scene usually involves planning in advance. But the film maker may seize on unplanned events as well. An actor may add a line on the set, or on unexpected change in lighting may enhance a dramatic effect (113).
The above assertion is a clear testimony that mise-en-scene is the base of aesthetic in semiotics and encapsulates even the stage business and improvisation. This is why Bordwell and Thompson add that, “other directors have allowed their actors to improvise their performances, making the films’ mise-en-scene more spontaneous and unpredictable” (113).
The Place of Aesthetics and Semiotics in Film Production
Aesthetics as the science and study of beauty naturally deals with the experiences usually obtained from enjoying good and well packaged works of arts. In furtherance of an interesting dimension of aesthetics, Akpan and Etuk clearly say that the concept of aesthetics is not concerned with individual beautiful things as which, but rather asks general questions and seeks to formulate theories about that, such is common to beautiful things (68). Johnson corroborates and asserts, “precisely, it seeks to answer the question: what characteristic in things makes beautiful things beautiful…? (23). This categorically means that aesthetics which epitomologically traces its roots to Greece is highly related to perception.
On the other hand, semiotics that deals with the utilization of signs, symbols and images in furtherance of effective communication in Performing Arts encapsulates, virtually most of the things seen and done on stage which include business as used on stage such as use of hands, symbolic setting, lighting and light effects as well as costume and makeup. Taking this examination further and deeper will involve all the human and non-human (technical) aids needed for effective communication in films, we may not be far from being correct to say that semiotics involves mise-en-scene which simply means “putting into the scene” (Bordwell & Thompson 113).
A close appraisal of the concepts of aesthetics and semiotics as presented above, glaringly shows that films targeted at repositioning Nollywood for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy must work and strive hard to create a niche (place) for the application of these concepts. This implies that all good things must recognize the significant place of aesthetics and semiotics because beautiful things (aesthetics) entertain while actions that are well presented (semiotics) inform and educate in fulfilment of the primary functions of arts, hence the salient place of aesthetics and semiotics in film production.
It is a well-established fact that audience attraction is well rooted in spectacles. So Bordwell and Thompson say that, “throughout film history, however, audiences have also been attracted to fantasy (113). Aesthetics and semiotics are often used for this purpose.
The Components of Aesthetics and Semiotics in Film Making
As stated earlier, aesthetics and semiotics offer the film maker some general areas of choice and control. These areas generally revolve around setting, lighting, costumes, makeup, sound and the staging which includes acting and movement in the shot (Bordwell & Thompson 15). A concise examination of those different areas or component of aesthetics and semiotics promises to enliven our comprehension of this discourse. A brief examination of these areas may further aid comprehension thus:
Setting in Film Making
Setting has such synonyms as the background, scene, surroundings and environment (Grossest & Geddess 430). Right from the inception of the cinema till the present day film practice, critics, scholar as well as the audiences have made strong assertion that setting plays important and more active role in cinema and films than the theatre. To reiterate this point, Bordwell and Thompson quote Andre Bazin as saying that:
The human being is all important in theatre. The drama on the screen can exist without the actor. A banging door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can heighten the dramatic effect. Some film masterpieces use man only, as an accessory, like an extra, or in counterpoint to nature, which is the true leading character (115).
The above explanation means that setting being environment in which film action take place can overwhelm the actor if meticulously presented. So, most film directors purposefully emphasize authenticity in purpose-built settings as they select an existing locale for the action.
Lighting in Film Making
By lighting, Tailor and Strickland say that, it is “any illumination of the set and actors during a performance” (585). In film making, lighting is an integral part of film packaging due to it salient functions of visibility, selective focus, modelling and mood creation which goes beyond ordinary illumination (Gillette 289-290).
For a lighting designer to actualize the objective of lighting for a film, he or she must first of all be familiar with the basic qualities of light that must be manipulated which are distribution, intensity, movement and the colour. Film production, even if it shot in the day, requires some sort of lighting of one form or the other mostly for the creation of mood, the setting of the atmosphere and generation of myriad of meanings. Therefore, lighting is a crucial component of aesthetics in filmmaking.
Speaking further on lighting in filmmaking, Bordwell and Thompson explicitly posit that:
In artistic filmmaking, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the actor. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and guide our attention to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our eyes to a key gesture, while a shadow may conceal a detail or build up suspense bout what may be present. Lighting can also help articulate texture: the curve of a face, the grain of a piece of wood, the tracery of a spider’s web, the sparkle of a gem (125).
Costume and Makeup as Components of Aesthetics and Semiotics in Film Making
Like the setting and lighting, costume and makeup can play significant roles in film making, so it should be properly planned. Uzondu explains that:
Among all these elements of production, costume and makeup are believed to have more significance and indispensable in productions. Hence, they are usually the focal point and the most noticeable aspect of a production…. Costumes refer to garments, items of clothing, accessories, and ornaments worn by performers for the purpose of defining their characters. In every given production, costumes help to establish the circumstances of each wearer by emphasizing time and space. As storytelling medium, they communicate subtle details of a characters’ personality and history instantly and economically to its audience. Costumes help to transform actors into characters, and equally help them to assume roles by positioning them as believable people (1).
Talking about makeup, Uzondu further posits, “that makeup on the other hand deals with items instruments material and substances used to design the body, face, head, hand, and other exposed parts of an actor’s body…. Makeup tells stories of their wearers (1). It is pertinent to emphasize here that in film making, costume and makeup as media of communication give vivid information on the mood and style of a particular film as well as adding colour, quality and meaning to a particular film. Through proper application of costume and makeup, the economic status, period, social class, time and geographical weather of a film is easily established.
Sound and Sound Effects in Film Making
Even sounds and special sound effects constitute important components of aesthetics and semiotics in film making because most sounds and sound effects determine the actions and reactions of the characteristics. Sounds communicate, and according to Enendu, “good communication has been one of the important factors in any successful production (17). Outside the actors’ voices, sound in film making is all embracing as it covers everything ranging from what can be rightly termed orchestrated noise to songs, music and special sound effects. Speaking on the aesthetic in sound, Johnson postulates that “whenever sound is introduced into the milieu…, it is to serve a vital issue. If it does serve that issue, it fulfils its aesthetic essence. But if it does not, it can become a distraction” (184). Some sounds in most Nigerian films are sources of distractions, while in others; they serve and fulfil aesthetic essence.
Staging: Movement and Performance in Film Making
Staging which deals with the diverse movements and performances in filmmaking are an important component of aesthetics and semiotics. This falls within the ambience of a film director because the director plans, coordinates and controls the movements and performances of the various performers. Bordwell and Thompson assert that, “when we think of a film director, we usually think of someone directing performers. The director is the person who says, “stand over there,” “walk towards the camera”, or “show that you’re holding back tears” In such ways, the director controls a major component of mise-en-scene: the figures we see on screen” (131). These involve the different movements and performances including stage businesses and improvisations.
Movement in filmmaking occurs when a character yields to a relationship motivation which must correspond exactly to the motive which causes it by showing the strength of the motive (Nelms 96). Movements in filmmaking are of different types such as straight movement, curved movement as well as sidewise movement. It should be noted at this juncture that staging as a vital component of film making encapsulates what is commonly referred to as the stage business, improvisation as well as the effective utilization of hands.
In the process of staging – movement and performance – various types of businesses come to play. One of these businesses includes inherent business being absolutely required by the plot. This type of business also has sub-types as business for realism, and business explaining lines. Besides the inherent type of business, another very important type of business is added business with sub-types as, business for exposition; business for enrichment; business for characterization, comic business and business for filling the gap.
Furthermore, it is important to point out at this juncture that if all the types of businesses mentioned above are based on separate ideas only; it is quite obvious that the unity of action and time may be weakened. Rather, this may be avoided by combining the business. Contributing on this subject, Nelms carefully explains:
At first glance, it would seem that any attempt to express several ideas simultaneously by one piece of business would be confusing, but this is not the case. A character who rises from his desk and crosses to turn on an electric fan is performing business which (1) Motivates his cross; (2) Adds a realistic touch (3) Conveys information about the time of the year, the atmosphere (hot), and the characters state of mind (suffering from heat). It may also (4) call attention to the fan; (5) suggest that the character is a type that easily becomes overheated; and (6) be comic or dramatic; if the surrounding situation makes it so (111).
This clearly expatiates the point that performance business is inevitable and is an essential component of aesthetics and semiotics in filmmaking.
Another important aspect of movement and performance (staging) in filmmaking is improvisation. It is widely believed that imagination is the key to improvisation. In this context, improvisation is the important portrayal of a character or a scene without rehearsal or preparation (Schanker & Ommanney 12). With a careful manipulation of the above mise-en-scene components, the aesthetics and semiotics in Nigerian films would be highly improved towards repositioning Nollywood for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy.
An Appraisal of Aesthetics and Semiotics in Nigerian Films
Knowing the significance and the place of aesthetics and semiotics in the packaging process of films, it becomes quite glaring that Nigerian film directors and producers are all striving towards the betterment of their products through effective utilization and application of semiotics in film production in order to garnish their products with the aesthetic values necessary for them to thrive in the competitive world of entertainment industry. Nigerian film industry has a remarkable track record in which some names are closely attached. The genealogy of Nigerian film today has different versions.
One of the versions of the genealogy of Nigerian films states that “the first Nigerian films were made by filmmakers such as Ola Balogun and Herbert Ogunde in the 1960s, but they were frustrated by the high cost of film production” (Shimsenge & Agav 318). Ayakoroma’s perspective of this version also says that, “though late Hubert Ogunde, the doyen of professional theatre practice in Nigeria, initiated moves in 1945 toward producing local films, Nigerians only became seriously involved in film production after independence, and this was at a time the feature film format was gaining prominence” (30).
The second version has it that the history of Nigerian film production could be traced to the time:
when a few professional dramatists and businessmen, dealing in blank video cassettes, saw the need to record for home viewing. This evolution has been traced to names like Alade Aromire with the Ekun (1987) and Kenneth Nnebue who did Living in Bondage (1992). The latter’s efforts was followed by Gabriel Okoye’s Battle of Mussanga and Nnekka: The Pretty Serpent. And so, the wide acceptance of these flicks by movie butts could be said to have opened the floodgate to the craze to direct-to-video production, thus bringing about what today has come to be dubbed Nollywood (Akande 8).
However, critical examinations of these two versions seem to have one thing in common, that is the involvement of Nigerian dramatists in the premier productions of Nigerian films. More so, another salient point to note in this discourse is that, prior to the advent of true Nigerian films which refers to films made in Nigeria by Nigerians, there was in existence cinema/films in Nigeria made by foreigners since about 1903, preceding the world record of 1885.
Ayakoroma in an intelligent chronicling of the background of Nollywood, the contemporary Nigerian film industry, in his book, entitled, Trends in Nollywood: A Study of Selected Genres, succinctly asserts that:
In the history of film, Thomas Armat has the credit of perfecting the projector in 1885. Incidentally, Nigerians only came in contact with what had been popularly referred to as, “the Magic Lantern,” in 1903. This was exactly at the time Edwin S. Porter produced the first feature film, The Great Train Robbery (27).
To be précised, Orubor, Nwuneru and Oreh meticulously state that:
The first film to be exhibited in the country was at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos in August, 1903; and the feat was achieved by a European merchant, Stanley Jones. The films shown then included scenes of the Coronation of King Edward VII at Westminister, Abby, and a brief glimpse of the Alake of Abeokuta during a visit to England. One could imagine the excitement of the audience at seeing their own brother and kabiyesi appearing in the magic lantern. Apparently, this exercise was part of the colonial play to score a political point – a display of the supposed wonders of the western world (2).
From this period under review to the present day 21st Century of digitalized era, film production in Nigeria has grown from strength to strength. This is why Shimsenge and Agav say that, “the Nigerian film industry has been around for some decades and has now grown to become a robust employer of labour in the Nigerian Labour Market” (318). Having achieved this feat, the question is, how well is it faring in terms of standards towards quality assurance in Nigerian films in furtherance of repositioning of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy? To be sincere and objective, the answer to this pertinent question is in the affirmative because tremendous improvements have been injected into the industry between the period of inception and now in 2015. But a lot more must still be done if Nollywood is to serve as the conduit pipe through which Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy flows.
In spite of the colossal efforts towards improving the quality of Nigerian films mostly in the areas of technicalities and professionalism, there is need for more creativity mostly in areas of actualizing aesthetics in Nigerian films through effective and efficient application of semiotics in acting. An appraisal of some recently churned out films testifies that something must still be done to place Nigerian film industry in its right pedestal. For instance, canny and solicitous appraisal of some films like Okada 50, The Lion Girl, Port Harcourt Nurses, Daughter of Elephant by Prime World Production International Limited, as well as Born with Tears by Best Life Production, show that in spite of their efforts in technological and professional improvement, there are still a whole lot of technical as well as semiotic flaws that mar the films from complete aesthetic entertainment. This flaws range from wrong usage of hands resulting in masking, wrongful and incongruous utilization of sound and lighting effects resulting in misinformation as well as unintelligent transition to mention but a few of them. These semiotic flaws go a long way in inhibiting the realization of the much desired aesthetic value in Nigerian films thereby constituting myriad of constraints to Nollywood in its earnest and conscious strive for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy.
In conclusion, it is worthwhile to say that right from the early days of inception of cinema and its latest metamorphosis to films, it is quite glaring that the production strategy is complex and requires a colossal amount of professionalism. In their own opinion, Thompson and Bordwell in the book, Film History: An Introduction, clearly opine that, “the cinema was invented during the 1980s. It appeared in the wake of the industrial revolution, as did the telephone…” (13). They further assert that, “the cinema is a complicated medium, and before it could be invented, several technological requirements had to be met (14).
In Nigeria, the early day’s cinema and films were being produced by the Colonialists with foreign contents to ease their process of colonialism. But Nigerians later began to produce Nigerian films with local contents and artistes for the consumption by Nigerians and beyond. Since the inception of Nigerian films in its true sense, it is unequivocally clear that there has been a tremendous improvement. In spite of these positive trends, there are still some gaps that must be filled if Nollywood is to be repositioned for the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy.
Sequel to the above elucidation, it becomes quite pertinent that the following recommendations should be proffered:
- The scholars and students of the prestigious Department of Theatre/ Performing Arts should rise above board and shun the negative criticism by ignorant masses and take over and properly occupy their legitimate profession as obtained in every other professional area.
- The art of film making is expensive, complicated and interwoven with a lot of intricacies, so the government, corporate organizations well-to-do individuals should accept the responsibility of sponsorship.
- Performing Arts departments where theatre and films rightly belong should be well equipped with both infrastructural facilities and equipment.
- Personnel development/training and retraining should be encouraged and intensified.
- A minimum educational and professional qualification should be determined and placed as entry requirement into the Nigerian film industry otherwise christened as Nollywood so as to check influx of amateurs and mediocrities.
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