Nigeria indie films seek acclaim in Nollywood’s shadow
In an abandoned print works in a scruffy but bohemian Lagos neighbourhood, an improvised cinema has opened, gigantic black drapes blocking out the light.
Dozens of young people crowd round the screen on plastic chairs, ready to discover the new wave of Nigerian cinema.
The second edition of the S16 film festival, which took place late last year, brought together Nigerian filmmakers looking to do things differently.
They are determined to break away from Nollywood, the powerful and influential film industry that has inundated Africa’s market with blockbusters that generate millions of dollars.
Nollywood is driven by two things — entertainment and profit, according to Abba T. Makama, cofounder of the indie film festival S16.
The films on show are far from typical Nollywood productions, boasting underground, political and innovative credentials.
“With S16, we want to celebrate cinema as an art form, spotlight the new voices of independent cinema and screen movies that we would not see anywhere else,” said Makama.
– 16 rules –
Disillusioned by his work in Nigeria’s TV industry, Makama co-founded a creative collective called Surreal 16 with two filmmakers, C.J. Obasi and Michael Omonua.
The collective, launched in 2016, seeks to promote diversity in filmmaking and storytelling.
They are in stark contrast to Nollywood films which tend to be comedies and dramas about love and betrayal.
Makama was inspired by the Dogme 95 movement of Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who sought to counter Hollywood’s dominant position in the 1990s.
Surreal16 has established a list of 16 rules to guide aspiring filmmakers.
Among them: no marriage plotlines, no melodrama, no stereotypes, no religious propaganda or censorship.
Other rules concern technique, including a ban on shots of the bridge linking Lagos’ wealthy Ikoyi island and Lekki, seen in almost all Nollywood films.
It was initially “a joke” he said, but it was retained “to show that (Nollywood) films all look the same”.
The rules have been a helpful guide for this year’s festival.
The short film “A Japa tale” by Dika Ofoma is a deep and intimate dive into the life of a couple caught between family obligations and their desire to emigrate.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said 23-year-old festival goer Zee. “I feel represented here… I see more of myself in those movies than in the mainstream productions.”
Not all films are of equal quality or budget but the festival aims to be thought-provoking and spark debate.
“Ixora” celebrates blossoming love between two women — a taboo topic in the highly religious country were homosexuality is criminalised.
Growing community –
When the two women kiss on screen, the crowd bursts into cheers — a scene that would be unimaginable in a traditional cinema where films have to be approved by a censorship board.
“The community of indie filmmakers and their audience is growing in Lagos and other cities in Nigeria,” said Aderinsola Ajao, a film critic and founder of Screen Out Lout, a club that stages viewings in the city.
Away from the print works, more and more alternative locations opening their doors for screenings, from bars to residential buildings and rooftop venues.
The community is also active online, uploading films to YouTube and creating groups for cinephiles on WhatsApp.
“Almost everyday, I discover a new indie movie. It’s a joy to see this multiplication of voices,” said Ajao.
“Many film directors are realising that there is an audience for their films, not just at home but also abroad.”
In 2020, “Eyimofe” which follows two young Lagosians in their daily struggles premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
This year, “Mami Wata” by C.J. Obasi, a film that pays homage to a water goddess venerated in West Africa, was selected for the prestigious Sundance festival.
C.J. Obasi hopes his avantgarde, black-and-white production offers “a new way of looking at what African cinema could be”.