IN ANY GOOD MOVIE, THE CAMERA SHOULD TELL THE STORY—FEMI SHAKA
Dr. Femi Shaka of the University of Port Harcourt has all it takes to teach and talk about film studies. In this highly condensed interview, he spoke about this not very popular academic discipline in Nigerian universities. Excerpt:
DR. Shaka, you have carved a reputation for yourself as one of Nigeria's most noticeable film critics and scholars. Can you briefly tell us about your background?
Femi Okiremuete Shaka comes from Ughelli South L.G.A. of Delta State, took his undergraduate studies at the University of Benin, post-graduate studies at Ibadan, then did his Ph.D on Film Studies as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Warwick, Coventry, England. By my training, I have been humbled to work hard and bring up people who will help lay the foundation of film scholarship. That is part of the reason why after my training, I did not move over to countries like Canada, the United States or Australia. I was determined to help establish a tradition of excellence in the new discipline of film in Nigeria. You know we belong to the second generation of scholars who were trained in the theatre arts.
When we entered the university in the 1980s, people like Awam Ankpa, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Sam Dede (who was my junior), all of us were given an orientation in the theatre arts. But some of us had always wanted to be in the area of film as a discipline, but then there were no universities offering any course in film.
As a matter of fact, we were trained by people like Prof. Femi Osofisan, Prof. Austin Asagba, Prof. Pat Udoye among other illustrious academics, and they were very strict in the way they trained us. When I finished my first degree, I told myself that I should go back to a discipline that is closer to what I originally wanted to study. I applied then to go to Ibadan and earn a Master's degree in Communication Arts. When words got to Prof. Femi Osofisan that one of his best students wanted to apply to read Communication Arts, he was not very happy. Eventually, I was enrolled to do my Master's in Theatre Arts.
At the end of the programme, I did the usual Commonwealth examination, picked up a job as a pioneer academic staff at the University of Abuja. That same year, I travelled to the U.K. for my Ph.D. Basically, I was determined because I knew that a lot of my generation did not have the opportunity of studying film as a discipline. I told myself that having been exposed to it by the grace of God, I should come back home to help lay a solid foundation. And that's what we have been trying to do since 1995 that I came back to pick up appointment here at the University of Port Harcourt. We have been trying to establish a tradition of excellence in this area, and that of taking film as film, and not as an appendage of the theatre arts. At Warwick where I trained, the department is still the Department of Film and Television Studies, and by the time I returned, I had not read any book on theatre arts for three years.
Film studies of all areas! What was the major motivation?
That was one of the questions I was asked when I was preparing to get into my Ph.D. As you are well aware, film studies in the U.S.A. and Europe represent the very apex of studies in the humanities. It requires a lot of competence and grounding, so they could not imagine someone from a third-world country showing interest in film studies.
If I had gone for instance, to read film production, it would have been a different thing, but film studies, they couldn't comprehend. But I had to tell them that a young lad growing up in the Niger-Delta in the sixties was exposed to a lot of American movies. That was the time when the tradition of mobile cinemas was still alive and every evening when you went to motor parks, you saw mobile cinema vendors mounting their land rover and screening a lot of movies free of charge.
By this time, the government mobile cinema vans were not as regular as the commercial cinema. So these people used the medium to sell their products. By the time they start screening films, a lot of people gather. At intervals of course, they will start narrating the story of the film and they used the opportunity of those intervals to sell their products. That used to be the tradition, and from there, we moved on and started patronizing movie houses where we got a fair dose of Chinese Kung-Fu films, Indian melodrama, etc. So coming from a third-world country does not mean that one did not have exposure in the film culture. We had a fair dose of it.
As more and more film theatres sprang up, we got carried away by the power of the image of the film. So, that was the orientation. Then, when I wanted to go for further studies, that was during the reign of President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, his wife, Mariam had this Better Life for Rural Women Programme. Having experienced the power of mobile cinemas, I thought that that programme was okay, that if I got experience in film studies, it would have been very good to use film to resuscitate that mobile cinema tradition.
Those mobile film vans will go to the rural areas and mobilize and sensitize the rural people on developmental programmes like Better Life for Rural Women, about the health programmes of the federal and state governments. You could go to those rural areas, announce that there will be a free film show, that people should gather at the community school or village square. When you set up there, you give them a pep-talk about why they are there and after that you show them films on that area. It could be in modern agricultural methods, how to take care of personal hygiene at the village level, it could be on career guide at the country-side etc. So, there are a lot of things which I felt one could still do with mobile cinema.
You see, mobile cinema started in Nigeria, as a matter of fact in 1925, there was an out-break of a major epidemic in Lagos, and then the chief health officer, a man known as William Sellers thought about how to use cinema as a medium of illustrating to Lagosians about how the plague came about. He tried to use this medium to inform them against the popular belief that the plague was brought to Lagos by non-Lagosians. Through the use of the film medium, he was able to illustrate to them that it was caused by unhygienic environment. Sellers himself had got the exposure in the United States from activities of the Documentary Film Movement.
Thereafter, the full import of the significance of the mobile cinema was acknowledged by the then colonial government. Although this tradition spreads to all former British colonies, the first set of modern cinema vans operated in Nigeria. It eventually spread to the Caribbean islands, Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, etc. So, that is the tradition. We got exposure to the film culture in Nigeria early enough. That was why we caught up fast with the television medium that came in later, because we already had that tradition. In a nutshell, the impulse was that I thought I could help to promote government policies.
At what point in your career were you contemplating all these?
That was in the late 1980s, when I had finished my Master's. I was contemplating because I was following the programme of the woman; I was just imagining, I was not satisfied with what the information officers and commissioners were doing at both federal and state levels to promote that woman's programme. I felt it was a programme that should really touch the lives of our rural people, and that it needed a medium as powerful as film for its objectives to be properly articulated and conveyed to the people. Most of the things they wanted to tell the rural women would have best been illustrated by showing the images to the women. When I got to the U.K, I found out that film studies is radically different from production. They have areas of complementation, of course, but the language of discourse is a little bit strange and different from that of production.
To what extent do you think that the film genre deserves scholarly, critical and academic attention especially in the Nigerian milieu?
I can assure you that in the next couple of years, there's going to be an improvement in film studies. Since I came back, I have been training people quietly; I have been linking up with my colleagues, people like Professor Austin Efua-Enahoro of the University of Jos, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Onokome Okome (who incidentally was the person that got me interested in the Nigerian film industry because when I came back from the U.K, I had this disdainful attitude towards the video film industry. By my orientation, I knew it was not a part of the film qua film industry. Film as film is usually shot on celluloid).
So I was a little bit snobbish, I didn't want to have anything to do with the popular culture. It was until Onokome Okome called me and told me about a book project he was organizing about the Nigerian film in Germany, and piled up pressure that I accepted to look twice in the direction of the Nigerian film. Apart from the article contributed by Jonathan Haynes, I can say that my article entitled Histories, Genres and Texts of the Emergent Film Industry in Nigeria, is one of the most insightful and fundamental papers on the Nigerian film.
Most of my students read it as under-graduates but could not understand it. They have now read it as Master's students and have found out that it is one of the most introductory essays on the Nigerian film. I could do such an essay courtesy of my orientation as a film scholar. So, film scholarship is a very complex area, and unless you are trained in it, you may dabble into it, a very shallow kind of dabbling but not hit the nail on the head. When you see people talk about the film industry these days, you find a lot of ignorance- about what film is, what film scholarship is, what a film industry is, etc.
Every discipline has its own language. Film of course has a filial relationship with literature, because most of the stories start off as scripts, screenplays, and the whole idea of style, characterization, plot etc is also in film but the orientation is totally different. Part of the problem I had with the Nigerian film industry was that they were too wordy. In any good movie, the camera should tell the story. Whether you spoke the language of discourse within that film or not, people could still follow it. And that was the beauty of Living in Bondage. It was shot in Igbo but even a non-Igbo speaking audience could still follow the story.
It was the explosion of the movie that made Kenneth Nnebue and others to rush back and make other films. They may have succeeded but that film, if you watch it again, remove the volume and you will still understand it. These days, so much corruption of the soap-opera tradition, so much talking, so much music even when it is not needed, create a lot of problems. Now going back to your question, film is a serious area of study and scholarship.
It is a little bit complex. People may be a little bit impatient to learn the rules and if you don't learn the rules and you are discussing film, you will discuss it of course in a shallow manner and you will discuss it with an orientation of drama. Film is not drama. So that is the problem most of my colleagues are having. It is my students now who will help change that orientation. I have over six Ph.D students.
I have trained over eight Master's students. When they graduate, I hope to build the foundation of the first real Department of Film Studies in Africa around them. Forget about some of these private institutions who claim that they have departments of film. We know ourselves.
Film scholars in Africa, we are very few. I can count them on the tip of my fingers. When you set up that, I ask you where your manpower is. I will tell you that apart form Onokome Okome who is in Canada, Sam Akudinobi who is in Santa Barbara, myself here who decided to come home, Ekwuazi who is in Lagos, Enahoro who is in Jos - how many of us? So if you are establishing a Department of Film Studies, who are the people that are teaching there? What are they teaching, is it film they are teaching or something else? Unless you tell me you are bringing in expatriates. If you want to put up that kind of thing, you take the pre-requisite training because when you have the training, you can then establish a tradition. Establishing a tradition is a very difficult thing to do. But you need patience.