Lagos — What should an authentically Nigerian film be like? And what's the best way to distribute it to ensure maximum returns to the producers or investors?
Those at the two-day summit on motion picture content and its distribution which began Monday in Lagos, agreed that they needed the answers to both these questions if the industry was to move forward and perform its role - that of preserving and projecting the cultural values of the country.
As noted by many of the participants - film makers, producers, politicians, officials of regulatory agencies, actors, and others - the current state of affairs in the industry is one of chaos begging for order and a sense of direction.
Some believe there is a 'disconnect' between the content of many indigenous films and the cultural values of the Nigerian society that they should promote.
"There is so much from Nigerian culture that our film makers can dwell on," said Chijioke Edoga, politician and chairman, of Nigeria's House of Representatives Committee on Information. Noting that something was wrong with current dominant themes in the industry, Edoga said, "it's not only ritual murder or people who make money by suspicious means" that will attract an audience.
And for Ola Balogun, renowned Nigerian film maker, the failure of Nigerian scriptwriters to extol the virtues of the Nigerians and Africans generally, is a sacrilege that brought tears to his eyes as he spoke from the podium. "People around the world must be reminded that we are the descendants of the people who built the great pyramids of Egypt," he said, in an emotional address: "Let us recreate our heritage."
"I cried because the Nigeria I see today is not the Nigeria of my dream," he told allAfrica. He said film makers had veered off their trajectory as a result of other considerations, rather than following the dictates of their professional responsibility to the society.
Balogun regretted that Nigerian broadcasting institutions had allowed themselves to become advocates of western culture that clashed with traditional African values. He said the broadcasters preferred the foreign films because they were cheap, but that this was a miscalculation.
"The films are cheap in terms of cost, but are expensive in terms of political considerations," he said, warning particularly of the impact on Nigerian children.
Hollywood's films receive a lot of patronage in Nigeria, and local producers often try to model their themes and characters on those in American films. But Balogoun said America should not be Nigeria's model in the film industry: "The real model for Nigerian movies is India or China, not Hollywood," he said, "because they are defending a culture."
Balogun argued that the confusion in the film industry has arisen because both the government and the private sector have abdicated their responsibilities to the cinema industry.
While the government was unwilling to fund the movie industry, he said, the same government was currently constructing a national stadium at a cost of 38 billion naira ($1=113 naira), for hosting the All Africa Games in 2003. Government is also undertaking other projects related to the hosting of the games, that bring the total cost to about 70bn naira (US$619m).
Balogun noted that a sum "as small as $10 million" could fund as many as 20 Nigerian feature films: "[If we could] have these circulate into the world, the impact will be great," he noted.
Balogun noted that no films had been produced on celluloid in Nigeria in last two decades. "The truth is that Nigerian films are not of sufficient quality," he said. The local industry is now dominated by production for home videos on video tapes.
Despite this, Tony Osagie Abulu, who runs Black Ivory Communications in New York, says Nigerian film makers "deserve a lot of credit. They have built something out of nothing." The technical quality of the films may not be up to world standard, he notes, "but what is important is that Nigerians watch their films."
Abulu notes however that local producers owe it as a duty to Nigerians to improve quality. Balogun says two things hold the key to that improvement. First, Nigerian and African films should aim for a niche market...to cater for blacks. Secondly, he says profit should no longer be the prime reason for film production.
But how feasible that is, remains questionable, given the existing structures in the industry. As Balogun noted, there are no cinema houses in a place like Lagos, for instance. This means that a film producer does not have a place where he can introduce his film to the public and take gate fees.
Instead, a producer distributes his film through traders - at Idumota market, in Lagos, for instance - on a "sale or return " basis. The producer takes his video tapes to the seller and returns to him several days later to collect money for tapes sold, and takes with him those not sold.
"It is not proper," says Zik Zulu Okafor, a home video producer. The proper thing, he says, would be to have the film introduced through the theatre houses first. He believes that if investors could be convinced to invest in theatre houses, Nigerians would go out to watch movies.
But the response of the private sector to film production has been as lukewarm as that of the government. In the formal sector, potential investors - such as the banks - have shied away from funding film production, chiefly as a result of the mis-match between their short-term orientation and the long-term commitment needed to recoup investments.
Consequently, the little investment that does reach the industry has come mainly from traders in Idumota in Lagos, and Onitsha in the southeast, who dole out some cash and then dictate to producers the type of story they must depict. This is one of the factors influencing the content of local films, and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, regulator of radio/TV broadcasting in the country, is unhappy about some of the themes and images being presented. "There is a lot of debasement in some of these programmes," noted an official from the commission.
But Balogun said this is the price the country has to pay for the government's failure: "You must not complain about content until you've done something to make film making possible."