23 August 2003

Nigeria: Ignore Hausa Films - At Your Peril

An international conference raises very serious issues regarding the role of the entertainment phenomenon presently affecting lives in northern Nigeria.

For almost all of the week beginning August 4, 2003, the ancient city of Kano played host to the first ever International Conference on Hausa Films. From Monday to Thursday, at least 300 people were daily in attendance at the imposing Murtala Muhammed Library Complex, venue of the conference, comprising writers, researchers, critics and stakeholders in the Hausa home video industry. Apart from the massive turnout by Nigerian residents, some came from Europe and Asia - and thus gave credence to the organisers' use of the term 'international' - while others from the United States sent their papers via e-mail. They presented academic papers and impromptu speeches - arguing, rationalising, lambasting, commending, defending, dismissing, and generally acting expert in knowing the crystal ball of the popular genre now dominating television screens in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries as well as the Hausa Diaspora. At least 51 papers were collected, including those presented in absentia.

Abdalla Uba Adamu, a professor of Education and a leading computer and Internet expert in the West African sub-region, was ecstatic throughout the duration of the conference. Initially worried that the event might fail, he was happy about the turnout, the proceedings and the peaceful atmosphere and camaraderie at the four-day event. He had worried about the 'fire-brigade', frenetic arrangement and the almost saboteuric attitude of some of his colleagues during the pre-conference days. Now the whole thing was a resounding success. Adamu (or Professor Abdalla as he is generally called) was the initiator and convener of the conference, having been active for years in the contemporary nature of popular culture in his Hausa land. Even prior to the conference, he has served as informal adviser to many filmmakers. A chat group that he founded, named "Majalisar Finafinan Hausa" (Forum for Discussion on Hausa Films) is a popular platform on the net (see below for link).

Even though no one seemed to have made the reference, the International Conference on Hausa Films was originated in the reaction to the first National Seminar on Contemporary Hausa Films and Writings that took place in Sokoto last year. Organised by the Centre of Nigerian Languages, Usmanu Danfodio University, the seminar was well-attended, but it was flawed in the sense that it was seen by the filmmakers to be one-sided; only a few of the actors and producers attended, and not surprisingly it ended up concluding that the whole home video genre in northern Nigeria was anti-culture and almost anti-Islam. The industry, with its hub in Kano, did not digest the Sokoto conclusions well. Stakeholders like Ibrahim Mandawari, himself a popular actor, at first thought of organising a 'return match' seminar in Kano whereby the industry would be issued a clean bill of health. But to academics like Abdalla, the issue was beyond playing tackles and whitewashing panties that clearly smelt a bit; rather, a global perspective was required to the entertainment cum socialisation enterprise, with the view to arriving at a realistic, albeit academic, understanding of its nature.

For five years now, Nigeria has been inundated with TV content known as films, even though they are actually home video. There is a clear division of the nature of these films, as it is with the polity, with those in the English language being produced in the southern part, while those in the Hausa vernacular being produced in the north. The southern types, known braggartly at inception as 'Nigerian films' to show that they were locally manufactured, try to reflect, albeit with a dose of hyperbole, life as it is in the south - with its violence, rituals, and scantily clad women. The Hausa types reflect life in the rather conservative Hausa dominated north, with filmmaking styles copied from local ways as well as borrowed from India and the West. Warts and all, the home video industry expanded and grew into a huge cultural movement, flourishing very fast on the rich soil left by the old cinema-going and TV drama-watching culture among the Hausas. Today, there is hardly a home with a TV set and VCR in Hausa land where the home videos are not consumed. Consequently, many Hausa and non-Hausa actors and actresses have become pin-up icons in the mould of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman or, rather aptly, in the mould of Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor.

Generally, the moral community in the north (comprising Islamic teachers, the "malamai", academics and other "'yan boko" or western educated persons) regard the Hausa home videos as mostly anti-culture. They rail against storylines, costume, utterances and the Bollywood-style song and dance episodes that, to be fair, helped popularise the films in the first place. The whole question is whether the video phenomenon should be totally banned, as the Kano State Government once did, or remould it to serve the socialisation process. Many culture extremists would go for the former option.

Culture, then, was a driving force behind both the Sokoto and the Kano events. The challenge lay in bringing together the critics and the stakeholders to brainstorm about their concerns and find alleyways through which to reach the desired destination. To achieve this, Professor Abdalla began by setting up a small committee of filmmakers, academics and critics to start planning the conference. This committee expanded and transformed into a Centre of Hausa Cultural Studies, an independent NGO. The Centre organised three mock conferences in June, two in Kano and one in Kaduna, where a taste of the pudding was known.

Abdalla was right to have his scepticism turn into enthusiasm as the conference opened and went underway. At the opening ceremony, many of those that in the past kept the film industry at arm's length were conspicuously on the high table. They included top officials of the Kano State Government, representatives of the Emir of Kano (who said he would have attended in person if not for his medical check abroad at the time), members of the Ulema, university dons, etc. Alhaji Magaji Danbatta, a well respected retired civil servant, chaired the occasion. Abdalla informed the gathering the purpose behind convening the conference. He said the Hausa home video genre was here to stay, and it was only rational that everybody joined it or be left behind. It does not mean by joining we are then part of the perceived rust, but we could influence its outcome. Danbatta, in his remarks, traced the history of the phenomenon to the colonial days when the British used mobile cinema to propagate simple messages of agriculture, among others, and the immediate post-independence years when the Northern Regional Government carried on in like fashion. "Baban Larai", the first Hausa film, carried a message to cotton growers. With the advent of radio and television, drama became a useful vehicle of transmitting messages from the government to the people.

During the opening session, and throughout the duration of the conference, history of film and drama was traced by almost all the speakers, which became monotonous, but the crux of each paper was interesting. Almost all of the issues relating to the home video phenomenon among the Hausa were discussed in either Hausa or English. They included the role of the films in shaping Hausa culture; songs and dances; censorship; new technologies; investment; religion; women; socialisation; new parlances; violence; law; global politics; economy; film distribution and marketing; cinema, etc. It can be said that not much was omitted in the discussions; floor members provided more insight into the issues and brought up fresh angles to be brainstormed upon during the question and other sessions.

The communiqué, drawn up by about five committees that reviewed the papers and proceedings of the conference, rightly noted that the event was a success. It said, "What we have witnessed this week is a historic occasion of monumental significance, such that one of the presenters compared this to the impact of the great events in the history of Hausa land such as the emergence of the Sokoto Caliphate." An exaggeration, of course, but it reflected the enthusiasm that this is the beginning of "a truly dynamic process incorporating filmmakers, film critics, the government, religious leaders, international partners and the millions of viewers of Hausa video films, ably represented by some of the participants today."

The communiqué raised five key issues that emanated from the conference. First, Hausa films are "here to stay" and play an important role in the economic and socio-political life of the Hausa community both in the core Hausa enclaves of Nigeria and Republic of Niger and in the Hausa Diaspora at large. Second, the role of women in the industry, though criticised by some, was highlighted. Third, Hausa films play an educational role in the community, "and is imperative that community needs, such as projection of an Islamic religious culture, are addressed in the process of entertaining the people." Fourth, Hausa films have borrowed extensively from both the oral Hausa culture and the international film culture, with heavy reliance on Hindu "masala" film motifs. "The conference frowned on this as Hindu films are inevitably mechanisms of Hindu 'religious' worship and thus run contrary to Muslim Hausa mindset and worldview. The conference urges Hausa filmmakers to focus of the 'differences' between Hausa Muslim culture and Hindu culture, rather than perceived 'similarities' which are glossed over by the Hindu religious worship." Fifth, Hausa films are currently facing financial crisis as a result of non-sale of the films, reduced patronage, fractitiousness among the filmmakers themselves, lop-sided marketing mechanism which favours the marketers rather than the filmmakers, and constant criticism from the religious and cultural establishments.

For the future, the conference urged the government to support the industry because of its socio-cultural and economic contribution to the development of the state. Especially, the Kano State Government should provide soft loans for the sector, via a proposed Arts Grants Commission. Also, the business sector should invest in the industry. Other recommendations included the organising of a Oscar-like ceremony where professionalism could be rewarded, the need for adequate publicity for future international conferences, the need for the filmmakers to do research on any theme they are shooting a film on, the need for the Kano State Government to establish an Institute of Performing Arts to complement the work of the State History and Culture Bureau, and the need for the filmmakers to find ways to reach out to the non-Hausa viewers by way of, for example, subtitles.

NGOs and religious organisations were also called upon to invest in the films; whilst the former have a ready-made "sure means" of promoting their programmes in northern Nigeria, the latter also have a handy powerful tool for reflecting moral values. Finally, the broadcast media in the region were urged to gradually stop showing Hindu films and substitute them with "carefully selected quality Hausa video dramas, so that future generation of potential Hausa filmmakers will have proper role models to copy from, instead of Hindu religious rituals depicted as entertainment."

It gave kudos to the Centre of Hausa Cultural Studies and saddled it with a huge task. The Centre, it said, "will be the umbrella organisation within which all future activities concerning the development and promotion of Hausa popular culture would be conducted," starting with organising another international conference on another aspect of Hausa popular culture in August 2005.

An editorial comment in the September issue of the leading industry magazine, Fim, notes that the proceedings of the conference "are, indeed, onerous tasks and challenges to not only the filmmakers but also to the government, critics, and the moral community. Yes, the Hausa films are here to stay; since you can't beat them, join them and try to mould them to suit your purpose. Ignore them at your peril.

This seems to be the thunderous message of the conference. The challenge is that people should not sleep off as foreign media-fare, beamed into souls via the too powerful and influential new technologies - satellite TV and radio, the Internet, computer programmes, books, the press, etc. - are dominating minds. What the conference did was tap us all on the shoulder, point the way forward, and generally appeal to our sense of propriety regarding the complex nature of cultural imperialism. Imperilled, we have ourselves to blame if we prevaricate. The conference has, no doubt, legitimised Hausa home videos, which were a taboo only a few months earlier. At least two prominent Islamic scholars of international repute, Sheikh Karibullah Nasiru Kabara and Sheikh Aminu Deen Abubakar, have situated the origin of 'drama' in Islamic history, saying the contemporary brand is not against the religion. Nonetheless, they cautioned against irreligious content, a lot of which can be found in the Hausa videos of today. They challenged the filmmakers to make amends and corrections so that the content could fit in neatly with religious and cultural imperatives.

Under Governor Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso, who lost re-election recently but was made Nigeria's current Minister of Defence, the State Government would not touch the industry with a long pole; it even banned the videos for a short while in order to assuage religious bodies following the launch of its Sharia programme. Now under a new administrator, the government has finally recognised the potential of the films. During the closing ceremony, the Deputy Governor, Engineer Magaji Abdullahi, attended in person and vowed that the government would work hand in hand with the filmmakers to make the necessary corrections. Under this veneer of acceptability, the Hausa film industry, if it can put its house in order, might conquer more minds and more pockets." All courtesy of just one week of energetic brainstorming.

Go here for the discussion forum.

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