Having Fun Idiots???

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”



Cinephile Rant:What’s an African Story??

Im a Cinephile, phewwww, there , i said it.  i LOVE movies, there are few other things i love more than a great movie. In addition to that i’m a film maker myself , so talking shop about movies  the  movies i’d love to make,the one’s i wish i had made and the directors i admire is one of my favorite past times and something i often find myself doing when i get with fellow cinephiles.

When i express the desire to make certain genre specific films ,  with  stylized dialogue, pop culture references, every once in a while i’ll get some Afrocentric Malcom X  type that says “As an African, you need to tell ‘African’ stories, tell “our stories/culture”. This has increasingly begun to get me peeved.Why!! Because it presupposes that there is something specific that is an African story.

What exactly is an African story, and why should i be restricted to this? Should creativity or artistic expression be limited to your genetic code, culture or geographical settings? Is an Artist born in France only limited to drawing the Eiffel Tower, Croissants,Stripped shirts and Marie Antoinette. Is a German writer bound to only write about WW2, German engineering, and skinheads????.

It reminds me of a time a friend was mad at MTV Base when it first came out. Mad at their assumption that because we were African we only listened to Hip Hop and R&B ,and therefore they never showed any Rock or Alternative music.Should creativity be limited only to what one has experienced or sees around them?

If George Lucas had stuck to this “your culture” babble he would never have created the Star Wars franchise, there would be no Superman, Lord of the Rings, He Man, Robocop or any story beyond human experience

So what is the definition of an African Story?
Is it one set in Africa?
Is it one that tells of a historic event or historical figures?
Is it something that puts African traditions and culture on display?
Is it one that involves out fore fathers , mythology and superstitions?

Is it one from South Africa ,Kenya , Nigeria or Sudan. If there is an African Story is there also a European story, that British,French,Italian, Russian film makers have in mind and should tell?

Is the African story that which Hollywood has portrayed in films like Amistad, The God’s must be Crazy , I dream of Africa. Those films that give westerners the idea that we all run around in loin cloth chasing wild animals and retreating to out huts.  Or is it those War child,Famine,poverty, martyr boring ‘African’ movies that win at festivals but you wouldn’t want to watch at the cinema even if they gave you a free ticket , pop corn and a massage.

I suppose Native American film makers should only make films about Tepees, Totem poles,Peace pipes, performing rain dances and being chased by cowboys.

When you talk with some people about making a film.You get excited , cos it’s inspired by a classic, it has stylized dialogue, great sequences and enough pop culture references to blow QT’s and Kevin Smith’s collective load.  They start to push , an African Story agenda on you. “That’s not African,you have to make an African Movie”. You have to make something bus drivers, area boys and people in the village can enjoy. By the time they are done, they have watered down every creative juice from your idea and it is a bland,dull semblance of it’s former self. An emaciated version which you’d cross the street to avoid.

But let’s really take a look at this from a Global point of view. Tarantino has Italian roots, Guillermo Del Toro has Hispanic roots,Hitchcock was British and Truffat was French, all great directors from diverse cultures.But you never see any of them , making films that say “hey , look at me, this is my culture.And i hardly think when picking projects , any of them thought, “Hmmmm. Let me tell them, my Italian,Hispanic,British or French story”. Nor do the fans, go to the cinema thinking,”i want to see a European story”.

I, like many others grew up reading books by foreign authors like Enid Blyton, Roahld Dahl, Judy Blume ,Alan Ahlberg,Dr Seuss etc Not for a second did i read the back of the book and say ,”Huh, that’s a good British/Swedish story, let me read it”. The one and only thing that drew me were the characters,the story, the plot and the reading pleasure i perceived I’d get from reading them.

Also as a cinephile i love a wide range of movies. From the works of Frank Capra to Hitchcock to Woody Allen to Guy Ritchie etc . They make great movies, which you can enjoy regardless how different your culture is from theirs. It never feels like you are being schooled on their culture. The engaging story with interesting characters is what grabs the viewers attention, and if we learn something new about another culture , that’s great.

Now, there are specific films that are like constant exposition of a certain culture, which still manage to be entertaining . Usually stories involving ; Culture clash, e.g An Indian girl growing up in England wants to play football much to her parents chagrin . A wedding eg A Greek Girl marries outside her culture and the groom learns how bizarre their traditions could be.  Fish out of Water stories do this quite well.

If say, someone chose to adapt Chimanda Adiche’s book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ for the big screen, THAT would be a good telling of the Biafran Story, not only will it cover a significant aspect of history, but many traditions and cultures of the characters involved. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a brilliant African story, the key word being STORY. It was a human story that happened to be set in Africa, and that is why it did so well. The events could have happened half away across the world ,granted a few changes here and there,but it was the human story, and not the African story that captured our attention.

Like in mythology, it’s the construction of the stories and the characters that capture us, and not necessarily their geographical location. For example, Shongo is a mythological god of thunder in Nigeria, but all the way over in Scandinavia , they have Thor, in Greece it’s Zeus in Roman mythology it’s Jupiter. Some could surmise that it’s all the same character seen from different cultural perspectives. Now, their geographical locations will affect the cultures they come from, and there is where the culture is put on display.

For example,if we properly wanted to tell a story “our story” distinct from a Western story, with elements of our culture;let’s take a coming of age story, with characters , say 12 years old boys.

They skip  going to after summer tutorials(lesson) to instead go shoot at lizards with catapults, throw sticks at fruit trees in a crazy neighbors house, and get chased, a general day of adventure and exploration.They are pre teen boys morphing into adolescence and developing new interests, and we see how it affects their friendship, as some mature faster than others. Wrap all those element around the story of one of the boys dealing with his father’s conflict with the extended family over his turning down of a Chieftancy title that could make them all rich because of it’s clash with his “western” religious beliefs, BOOM, there’s a story.

And things along those lines.

Many “African” films that manage to make it to film festivals , are , stating it bluntly, DULL . They may have great cinematography and performances,but ‎are more effective as Valium than entertainment, and won’t be flying off DVD rental shelves anytime soon. And personally, even the African American films,with themes that shout  “i am black, hear me roar”.”We are black here’s how we are oppressed”. Let’s put sentiment aside,i find them exhausting,a bit depressing and have no desire to watch them.

If instead of setting out to tell a good story, you want to force feed er sorry, i mean educate people on  “this is my culture check us out” , you might as well go and make documentaries for National Geographic or The History Channel.

Now don’t get it twisted, there are stories that need to be told. Historical events, both from the immediate past and from yesteryear. Figures in our nation that need biopics made about them. Dark stories of keeping traditions  that need to be brought to light so they are eradicated,  it’s not all about escapology. But, that all depends on the interest of the story teller. Directing is often equated to getting married, If one is not totally passionate about it, there is no point. There is a reason Michael Bay makes different type of movies from Michael Moore, or Kevin Smith from Paul Greengrass.

So i am not totally opposed to telling stories that inform both the world and upcoming generations ,who we are and where we are coming from. But back to the case at hand

We need to  tell a great human story that captures the emotion,and imagination. Whether it be to make one laugh, cry, shout or sit down and reflect, should be the most important agenda. Tell an engaging story with fascinating characters FIRST and then, the location,nuances, idiosyncrasies, slang and speech patterns and world view of your characters will represent their culture, THEN you have your African Story. KAPISH.