Down Goes Genevieve’s ‘Lionheart’

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A largely Igbo cast movie, Lionheart, which is Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut was disqualified from the Oscars Best International Feature category for having too much English dialogue. Ferdinand Ekechukwu reports

Nigeria’s hope of earning its first Oscars nomination was cut short last Monday after the Academy disqualified Genevieve Nnaji’s critically acclaimed directorial debut movie, Lionheart from consideration in the Best International Feature Film category. The Academy announced the disqualification of “Lionheart” to voters in the category via an email on Monday. The film was scheduled to screen for Academy voters in the international category on Wednesday in a double bill with a Honduran entry, “Blood, Passion, and Coffee.”

According to the Academy, the film does not meet the language requirement necessary for inclusion in the category since it was filmed mostly in English. Despite the film having some Igbo parts, an Academy rule which states that films must have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track” in order to be considered for the category makes it ineligible.

It was revealed in October that the Nigerian Oscars Selection Committee (NOSC) had picked the movie as Nigeria’s submission to the Best International Feature Film category of the 2020 Oscars.

The news of Lionheart becoming Nigeria’s first Oscar submission was originally met with widespread excitement that is now being dimmed by news of its early disqualification. It was however revealed that ‘Lionheart’ was not vetted by the Academy’s International Feature Film Award Executive Committee when the NOSC first picked the film.  After a recent viewing, the Academy deemed the film to have too much English dialogue and disqualified it from the Best International Feature Film category which until this year was known as Best Foreign Language Film.

The decision comes as a disappointment considering it was Nigeria’s first ever entry to the Academy awards and it was one of the record-breaking 29 films out of 93 originally submitted this year that were directed by women. There were a record breaking 10 films from the continent submitted this year. The Best Foreign Language Oscar, established to honor non-English language films, was first awarded in 1956. The Academy changed the name in April 2019 after it was argued that the term “foreign” was “outdated within the global filmmaking community.”

The new category name “better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience,” the Academy had declared. However, the language eligibility requirement was not changed. Reactions to news of the film’s disqualification from the Oscars dominated conversations on Twitter Nigeria in the early hours of Tuesday, November 5.   ‘Lionheart’ was number three on Twitter Nigeria trends with ‘Oscar’ and ‘Academy’ among the top 10 trending items.

News of the film’s disqualification had also drawn the ire of many on Twitter including American filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because it’s in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria,” she tweeted at the Academy. “Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”

Nnaji took to Twitter following the announcement, to respond to the film’s exclusion, writing, “I am the director of Lionheart. This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.” In another tweet she added, “It’s no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonised us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”

Many had also pointed out that despite Lionheart being primarily In English, the film is unmistakably Nigerian. To deem it not culturally-specific enough is to essentially ignore the country’s complex history of colonialism and the fact that many Nigerians speak English as a primary language because of it. In fact, it’s the country’s official language, as writer and editor Britni Danielle pointed out on Twitter.

Speaking on the development, NOSC chairperson, Chineze Anyaene, said the budding Nigeria film industry was often faced with making movies for a wide reach of people “which is why the movies are predominantly made in English with non-English infusions in some cases.”

Anyaene noted that to make the step easier, workshops and seminars would be organised to create awareness on the Academy Awards’ requirements regarding the International Feature Film Entry. “We are therefore urging filmmakers to shoot with intention of non-English recording dialogue as a key qualifying parameter to represent the country in the most prestigious award.”

A largely Igbo cast movie, Lionheart starred Nollywood greats like Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie, Chika Okpala, Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu and Kalu Ikeagwu. Set in the eastern Nigeria, the movie tells the story of a woman-played by Genevieve- who steps in to run her father’s struggling company and keep it away from rival businessmen in a male-dominated environment.  It premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and was released worldwide on January 4, 2019, on Netflix as the first Nollywood original content to be acquired by the America movie streaming platform.