Samantha Iwowo grabbed headlines in 2016 with her award-winning film ‘Oloibiri’. The film which plumbs the consequences of oil exploitation in the Niger-Delta region was particularly praised for its rich storyline and visual aesthetics. A profound writer and film director, her screenplay credits include the M-Net TV series ‘Tinsel’ and more recently ‘The Tyrant’, a biography on the late Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe; commissioned by Theatron Media Inc., Canada and stars British-Nigerian actor, Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Benin, a Diploma in Film Directing from London Academy of Media, Film & TV, a Masters Degree in Corporate Communications and PR from the University of West London and for her Ph.D researched Colonial Continuities in Neo-Nollywood.
Iwowo is passionate about transnational cinema, advancing discourse on existing realities in the increasing international collaborations between Nollywood and the West. She recently invited documentary filmmaker and Academy Award voting member Femi Odugbemi to an interactive session with her students in Bournemouth University, U.K. where she lectures in Directing Drama for Film and Television. She shares her thoughts on Nollywood in this interview with Vanessa Obioha
What is the USP in Nollywood that has held the world spellbound?
As I see it, the Universal Selling Points of the industry are a combination of passion, defiance and an in-ward looking marketing strategy, which creates an army of passionate filmmakers defiant to the international capital-intensive hegemonies of filmmaking. It is like a (sub)conscious philosophy, and upon its frameworks a sea of movies have been created and transported across the continent.
This philosophy also birthed that relatively pocket-friendly budget template which has been widely adopted by many filmmakers in several other countries of Africa. Furthermore, it equally engenders that globally rising popularity, which challenges and arguably threatens the central place of African Cinema. By African Cinema, by the way, I mean the sphere of filmmaking in the continent largely characterised by anti-colonial/decolonisation narratives, and big budgets often requiring funding from Western organisations.
Nollywood tends to recognise the sheer population of Nigeria, and primarily cater to it. In the pre-social-media times of the early 2000s, this in-ward looking approach to extents, unconsciously, generated a rather successful culture of word-of-mouth marketing by its primary audiences in Nigeria, to those in the diaspora.
Having said these, one cannot ignore that the USPs also bring the curse of piracy, and equally importantly, a high number of charlatans, who though are illiterate in filmmaking, yet continue to passionately and defiantly churn out poorly made movies. Thus, typically, these days, one out of three Nollywood films just might be appalling to watch.
Do you share the view by critics that Nigerian scriptwriters have not been able to situate the Nigerian story within a global context that attract attention worldwide?
I tend to think that the critique of Nollywood scriptwriting can be best done in a context that does not exclude the director. The finished work on screen arguably is largely how the director envisions the script. Therefore, if the director has little knowledge of implicit dramaturgy, s/he tells a story reliant on dialogues and melodramatic performances; and fails to present motifs of a global context of – for instance nuances of capitalism – which the script has effectively placed in nuances. In other words, on several occasions, nuanced storytelling by several screenwriters have gone over the heads of several directors, but the mediocrity on screen is then blamed on the former. Granted there are scriptwriters who do not understand that stories should be told with a consciousness of global realities, many directors are equally guilty of not understanding this.
In which area of filmmaking would you say Nollywood has comparative advantage?
I think it is in the themes of our stories: they are varied in their advocacy for the fostering of human dignity. They are although largely unharnessed because they are often poorly treated in terms of the other aspects of filmmaking.
Are you impressed by the recent stories from Nollywood? Which Nigerian story has been most compelling, in your estimation?
In my view, Kemi Adetiba’s ‘King of Boys’ is a masterpiece for the way it brings women to tell the sometimes harrowing stories of their journeys to the spotlight. ‘Gidi Blues’ is also one of my favourites. It dares the middle-class to tell itself truths about its attitude of entitlement. I am also taken by the Africana-Womanist theme of Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart’. I think too that upon its release, Rogers Ofime’s ‘Make Room’, which dwells on the less-known huge fatalities of the Boko Haram menace, will stun the world.
You explored Film Aesthetics for your Ph.D. study in Colonial Continuities in Neo-Nollywood, how has that influenced your view of Nollywood films and generally?
In studying the film aesthetics of Nollywood, I come to be empathetic toward the near-absence of cinema vocabulary in Nollywood films, because the industry subconsciously holds on to colonial legacies of inferior filmmaking techniques. From scriptwriting to directorial articulation of stories, there is the overreliance on dialogues and linear storytelling that reflects legacies of the Colonial Film Unit under its director, William Sellers, who institutionalised what he termed ‘Specialised Techniques’ of filmmaking for the colonies.
This was based on his insistence that the African could not comprehend sophisticated cinematic techniques. While we have done away with most of William-Sellers techniques, vestiges of them have travelled into our present-day filmmaking culture. They hamper the spread of our visual storytelling into mainstream film markets spaces of the West, for in their halting language of cinematic vocabulary, they are inaccessible to non-initiates of Nollywood films. However, I think that the power to change this lies with us and the level of our commitment to research and development in the area.
You recently did a biographical film on the late Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. What influenced that decision?
My research is in African postcolonial cinema and I am quite drawn to stories situated in this area. Therefore, when the producer, Rogers Ofime approached me, I welcomed the idea.
Have you considered doing a biopic on any of our past leaders?Yes, I have. I am though interested in the lesser-known figures who worked in the backgrounds. Such personalities like Samuel Ikoku, Nduka Eze, Gogo Chu Nzeribe who were part of the Nigerian nationalist struggles but not as celebrated.
Do you subscribe to the view that there is an old and/or new Nollywood?
Indeed, yes. Though, I do not term the earlier sphere ‘old’. I term it the ‘traditional’ and agree with Charles Novia’s terming of the latter as ‘neo-Nollywood’. The former is not inferior to the latter; it is rather the path-clearing parent of the neo which defiantly challenged the difficulties of production at the time of its inception. Without this lot, there would be no Nollywood researchers, or even the filmmakers we celebrate today.
You are known as a transnational filmmaker, are you impressed by the progress of the concept?
I like that the concept increasingly sees the indispensable place of Nollywood in its discourse. I recently came across a call for papers for an edited volume investigating crime films from transnational perspectives. Amongst others, the call also specifically asked for papers on Nollywood crime movies on videos and film. Long overdue, I thought, but progress nevertheless.
What is the greatest misconception about Nollywood today?
That it is some small industry in faraway Africa unimportant to film studies and practice.
Are you attracted to other forms of art?
I like the art of clothes designing, particularly those with African print. The symmetry of the cuts fascinate me. I am attracted to the power of the theatre, and the authenticity of its production. By this I mean performance and visuals that are not mediated by postproduction corrections in the editing room. That’s one spot where artistic excellence is firmly tested, and mediocrity, promptly spotted.