This past summer on a rainy June afternoon, I spent a few hours interviewing Nigerian poet and critic, Odia Ofeimun. I met him while co-producing a radio documentary about Nollywood (streaming in full here). Odia has been writing about life in Lagos for the last forty years. His observations reflect many of the key tensions in contemporary Nigerian life. The following quotes are culled from my interview with him (some audio of that interview is embedded here) at his home in the Oregun section of Lagos.
Odia Ofeimun: “Lagos is a city you get to and feel like you can achieve anything in the world. It is not the most beautiful city, but it has its seductions. It is a society that sucks you in, and even when you are not part of the shaking or the moving of the city, you begin to have the feeling that you too will be there one day.”
“There is a headiness the average Lagosian has — you do not really feel that the big man, no matter how big he is, is your boss, the man you call “Oga.” And he, the man you call “Oga,” knows that you do not really regard him as your master. “Oga” does mean master, but the average Lagosian who calls you “Oga” is just doing it to silly you. Those who take him seriously are fools.”
“When Nollywood gets it right, there is something marvelous in having your stories told in a way that you can just lap up like syrup. Even when you know that the story has been badly told, you still want to know what comes next. There is a self-flattering in it for many Africans. And beyond that, people are generally looking for answers for questions that they don’t have answers to, and you can’t be too sure whether the next film might provide an answer.
People swallow it like gospel. In some African countries, when an original film star is visiting, you would think it is a head of state — and that is part of what makes it bothersome for me. Young people don’t get their own history told in the right way. In many Nollywood films, it is not about getting it right. It’s not about representation.
Many people do not like the word representation. But there is a need for us to know what a human face looks like before you bring to it all the jazziness that artists sometimes bring to it. In art, if you did not have those well-realized Roman noses and facial structures, the kind of things that Picasso had to do would be more difficult to understand. It’s like trying to understand African art without seeing those original Ife forms that were styled to match nature.
The standard Nollywood narrative pays very little attention to knowledge as knowledge, in which case you are not allowing the storytelling to dictate what is knowable. There is a reality before the story.”
On the portrayal of traditional culture in Nollywood
“There is a sense in which we have not quite taken traditional society seriously enough. The Westerner who moved to Africa drew a line and said this is Western and this is African, but what we needed to do was to do a proper matching. You look at a Nollywood film of pure fetish, and it does not reveal the underlying science. All of these issues about importing the West or not importing the West — that’s running away from the problem. There were inoculations in Africa against whooping cough, against all manner of diseases, before Western science brought their own methods of inoculation. Because our universities have not developed enough to the point of actually taking the knowledge of the English language into the traditional and taking the knowledge of the traditional into the English, we have a sharp divide between the two, which has made it very difficult for so called African science to become a part of the mainstream of world of science.”
“Nigerians discuss federalism like it was something imported from outer-space, but I’ve seen many traditional African societies in which federal principles were rigorously adhered to — we’ve just not managed to study them enough as federalism. We have studied them as traditional African culture, and we distinguish them from the other forms as if the two can never meet. We end up bastardizing the original without having made good use of the Western fields of discourse. In my view this creates a lot of problems. And of course, people try to solve the problems by going into magical realism in fiction, or animist realism, which is sometimes just a way of running away from what you don’t understand. So you find a lot of padding in some novels which tell you next to nothing about what is really happening.”
Religion in Nollywood
“Much of what you see in Nollywood in relation to religion is hogwash because the human capacity to solve problems is denied. The power to make things happen is given to God, who already gave you powers to use. It’s as if you are denying that God gave you those powers when you credit to him every evil or good that happens. In Nollywood, that is the way it happens. Problems that have direct objective and scientific solutions are made to appear so outlandish, so out of this world, so otherworldly, that it is solely by appealing to God that they get solved.
There are psychological problems that have direct solutions. Somebody living alone who has little oxygen may have nightmares. It is biological. But in Nollywood, when you come across someone who lives in this situation, rather then taking a look at the circumstances of that individual, you appeal to God. Every nightmare is interpreted as a spiritual attack which some pastor will deal with. People have stopped using their brains. Societies like that are asking to be colonized. They are asking for forces outside their own orbit to intervene in their environment. So much is granted to that otherworldly power that the powers that individuals have always been given by their maker are neglected and allowed to decay. Nollywood is a good example of how Africans are taught not to use their minds. I am just hoping that some smart kid, some smart young women or man, will enter that business and turn it upside down. It will be the radical revolution, the break and rupture that will make a difference.”
The role of criticism
“Much of what I am reading still fails to engage Nollywood in the way that Nollywood should be engaged, because it does not deal with the society that is producing Nollywood. The two need to be looked as connected — Nollywood as the product of our society. And you need to look at that society to see how it is either engendering, encouraging, or distorting what can be produced.”
“Nollywood films are as underdeveloped as Nigerian society, and when you watch them, you see all the forms of underdevelopment, both technically and socially. If you really want to know what is going wrong with Africa, Nollywood shows it: the very unscientific approach to problem solution is there, brazen. And the self deceit that is part of communal life is there, also brazen. So it is a case of the mirror that is itself problematic. What it tells you is not exactly what you ought to know, but without the mirror you would probably see nothing. And that’s where the relevance of Nollywood comes in. We manage to see something, even if it’s not what we should be seeing.”
“But I must confess I am sometimes kind to Nollywood because I don’t want to destroy it. It’s like: this is the only thing we’ve got, we might as well not destroy it. But again, we don’t have the media that can do it well. Everyday, newspaper attention to Nollywood is at the same time propaganda and advertisement, before it is an artistic assessment. And therefore, much of it is not valuable from the standpoint of the creation of standards. The way that the universities have started to move into it, and actually creating Nollywood subsections in the departments of film, can help. But in Nollywood, you have a situation in which those who would use the highest of standards have to go through media that would not accommodate those standards properly.
We also appear not to have acquired that academic sense of objectivity, which can take a hard look at the culture and go after it. Because, as I tell some of my friends, if you put culture or ancestors on the line, I will go after them. There is no reason I should worry about whether your ancestor was better then mine. We judge the ancestor by what the ancestor did in relation to certain values. And if your or my ancestor cannot meet those values, too bad for him or her.
At the end of the day, it is the capacity to do a critique that sometimes engenders the capacity to create. The best critique of a work of art could also be a work of art.”
* Click here to hear the full 50 minute radio documentary, ‘Nollywood: Nigeria’s Mirror.’