I’m worried, im seriously beginning to get worried. As a huge film fan and as a budding director , bidding his time to a feature length directorial debut, some of the things I see, read and hear have taken the jelly out of my doughnut, or at least threaten to do so. There seems to be this idea about what an African film should be, or what kind of films an African film maker should make. Now I’ve touched on this topic before, but the pot has been stirred again from some articles i recently saw on African Film Making.
It seems the world and the international film community , have certain expectations of what films should come out of the African continent, or even from any film maker that is genetically African, even though they do not reside or have never resided in the continent.
All films have to be about some social issue in the continent. Now these social issues could range from War, Poverty,Tribal issues, homosexuality and the African reaction to it. Forced marriages etc. As for those that live in the west, the central issue seems to be immigration. A story about an African immigrant, who is either hiding, barely adjusting, living below the standard of his education or socio economic background in the new land, due to either immigration issues, or lack of work. Etc .
Now, don’t get me wrong, those are necessary stories to be told. There are thousands of people going through those things, and attention needs to be drawn to them, but does every movie by an African have to be a heavy social message?? Don’t we need a bit more variety and diversification? Movies which are just pure entertainment and a good night at the cinema? Life is hard enough as it is, we don’t need EVERY film reminding us about the difficulties that happen. We certainly don’t need to keep showing the world all out baggage.
Ok, there are several African films that are by no means social or message filled, a simple visit to the video store offers ,various exhibits, however I am referring to those films that make it to the global stage. Those that make it to festivals and sometimes receive some level of distribution in the cinemas are usually the type I am talking about.
Let’s look at African cinema’s closest counterpart, Bollywood. For many years, and even till now, Bollywood and most of indian cinema, was known just for love stories, indian remakes/interpretations of American movies. However in recent years they have started to do a variety of different films. One of them which I came across a short while ago is 3 IDIOTS, which is where the title of this write up comes from.Now, don’t be deceived by the title, this is not some indian take on Dumb&Dumber or The Three Stooges. It’s a brilliant film that charts the life of 3 friends through their university education. I have to say, it has become one of my all time favourite films , and that includes a list that contains; The Godfather, 12 Angry Men, Die Hard, The Matrix, Arsenic and Old Lace,Rear Window and Back to the Future.
It has memorable characters, a great story line , brilliant performance and heart-warming moments. It’s a movie that everyone that I know who has seen it, has only great things to say, even those that never normally watch subtitled movies. 3 Idiots is entertainment at is best and is the highest grossing Indian film of all time, internationally. You know what else is remarkable about 3 Idiots? Even within it’s entertainment, it is highly informative, educative and affirming. It is chock full of life lessons which you learn consciously and unconsciously on the way. If you haven’t seen this film, i whole unabashedly recommend you track it down and see it.
From the film, we learn about Indian attitude towards education, career, financial security, family and marriage .Though not set in a village or with emphasis on tribal issues, or Indian problems, it is highly idiosyncratic about Indian lifestyle and behaviour without being heavy handed. All while discovering all these things, the fun never ends. Throughout the film it’s takes us on a roller coaster ride of laughter, joy, annoyance, fascination, contemplation, admiration and round again. By the end of the film , not only would you have felt a bond with the characters, you would have actually recognized a bit of them in your life.
In 3 Idiots, the entertainment never stops to announce “Hey we are Indian, pay attention to these important things about us” . We learn all those things along the way, even without realizing it. Due to how well it was made, it has won fans of people all over the globe that have never watched a foreign film before, but may even begin to give a chance to films they never would have given a moment’s notice previously.
This is what we need to start aiming for as African born film makers. 90% of the films I hear about and see. Most of those that make it into the festivals are limited to social issues, heavy messages, which may thrill at the festivals , but dull in the cinemas. No one wants to spend a Friday night at the cinema being lectured or slide into depression. We should refuse to be pigeon holed into such types of movies, if we want to take things to the next level.
Director Roman Polanski witnessed people in the Death Camps during World War 2, he’s of Eastern European heritage, but yet you don’t see him making every film about those issues? Some , yes like The Pianist, but he’s forged other classics such as Macbeth, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby
Steven Spielberg is of Jewish heritage, and has made a few films about Jews and the war like Shindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But he has also made films like E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and produced films like Back to the Future ,Poltergeist and Transformers. Notice how diverse his film making career has been?.
Naturally, there are going to be some film makers, who intend to pass a message with every movie that they do. That is their purpose behind the camera and that is admirable and perfectly fine. Spike Lee did a lot of that early in his career and to an extent still do so, telling stories that he feels need to be heard. The things that appeal to Michael Bay would not appeal to Terrence Malik.
There needs to be a wide range of diversity coming from African film makers. Showing the world that we are not just one trick ponies. We can do different things or any genre as good as any of our western counterparts. As film fans , we have different film makers that we expect different things from we anticipate Woody Allen, Chris Nolan, David Fincher James Cameron and Lars Von Trier films for different reasons, because they do different things for us.
Some because they are going to be profound , some eye opening, some life affirming, and some pure pop corn entertainment. Being more specific and focusing on my own country, I look forward to the time , where like Hollywood had Hitchcock, Wes Craven, John Woo, Peckinpah and comedy etc Nigeria would also have Masters of Suspense, Horror, Action, Comedy on a global stage.
A situation where due to our incredible indigenous features, they would read a script and think, ”let’s give it to Director from Nigeria that made that kick ass film”. A time they’d have such great box office from our films, that they seek to fund and partner on our next projects.
But that’s not happen if all our films are thematically repeating themselves over and over again. A one trick pony can only hold your attention for so long, before you move to something else.
Like the example with 3 IDIOTS, it is very possible to make a very entertaining film, which also throws a spotlight on certain issues that you want to address. Whether it be, intertribal marriage, gender discrimination, brain drain , poverty , corruption etc. I highly recommend the movies of Akira Kurosawa. He had a way of perfectly mixing the action with insight on Japanese culture and idiosyncrasies .His films like Ikiru, Hidden Fortress and 7 Samurai are perfect examples .
Just to be clear ,there are many great film makers in the country that only need that “one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything they ever wanted”. But it seems international partners and some local only want to finance those message films. Either out of “safety” or being caught in the pigeon hole mentality.
Let’s pray such young film makers can find financing that would allow them to make not only entertaining, but ground breaking films that go round the world. I everly remain optimistic, tap my heart and whisper, “Aal iz well”