Guerrilla filmmaking in Nigeria
BY definition, the word 'guerrilla' refers to a 'a member of a small fighting force, taking independent irregular action'. This sums up my personal experience and position in Nigeria as a filmmaker. Among those Nigerian pioneer filmmakers of the 1970s, I seem to be the only stubborn practitioner, independently producing films on celluloid today. And it is by no means an enviable position. In the 1970s, there was the general ambition to take Nigeria in to the international professional cinema world. An average production then was between the equivalent of £200,000 and £500,000, depending on the levels of international involvement in terms of cast and crew. Invariably, the 35mm camera equipment which was in vogue then had to be brought in from the U.S. or the UK. However, the pervasive enthusiasm was soon dampened with the rapid closures of major urban cinema houses. The incursion of the military into the political scene and social environment contributed to the insecurity in urban areas resulting in massive drop in night life activities. Be that as it may, the largely Yoruba travelling drama groups attempted to arrest the downward trend by putting their popular stage plays on 16mm celluloid counting on their established loyal audience in urban centres.
This was not to last as the expected profit margin did not materialise. The exception was the late doyen of the Nigerian/Yoruba travelling theatre, Hubert Ogunde, who boldly, and through the technical support provided by some admirers in the British film industry, made some serious efforts to revive the cinema with some three productions of his popular Yoruba language stage plays. These were profitably exploited through his large loyal following. His last film participation before his unfortunate demise was as the local coordinator for the overseas producers of Mr. Johnson directed by Bruce Berresford.
When in early 1990s Sadiq Balewa returned to Nigeria to make his first professional film The Land Belongs to the People after completing his studies in the London Film School, there was a brief renewed hope for professional cinema film making by the younger generation.
This brief historical journey is by way of introduction to the fact that Nigeria never had a structured environment for a film industry per say, at least until within the last decade. In 1992, the old Nigeria Federal (Information)Film Units were converted to establish a Nigerian Film Corporation consisting initially the film laboratory; old antiquated filming equipment, and later with a training institute added.
Filmmaking in Nigeria has always been an independent affair by individuals with passion for the art. No government took serious interest in the industry. This explains the 'guerrilla' style among the few who are passionate about making cinema film. This is a business that requires the spending of valuable foreign currency to import even the film stock to be used. True, some businessmen claim to represent manufacturers of film stock in the country but they don't keep stock due to lack of serious requests for motion picture film. The only existing film laboratory similarly hardly stocks film stock or the necessary chemicals for processing, due to lack of funds by the supervising Ministry for the Film Corporation. When staff of a supposedly commercial film laboratory do not practise or the machines are idle for very extended period of time, only the foolhardy will trust his valuable exposed films to such a laboratory. Worse still, an independent filmmaker who may have had to borrow, beg and or steal funds from his family savings to undertake a production would be insane to entrust his exposed film footage to a film lab staffed by civil servants who are in a hurry to get home by five in the evening, and who do not have the sense of urgency filmmakers normally expect from film laboratories.
I have often been questioned bluntly by friends and sympathisers who are concerned about my insistence of producing on celluloid even when my style of social development films will naturally end up on video and television for use by sponsoring agencies and or N.G.O's. And especially in an environment which make film making an impossible task. I have had numerous instances where, for example I was given the necessary written permit to film on the streets; and when confronted by yet a different official from another security agency, I was disallowed to film for spurious excuses of some 'national security'. This on an ordinary exterior locations like markets, motor parks, and side streets! I was once locked up in a busy part of the Lagos by an armed officer with a threat to smash my camera equipment, until I gave a dash! Except for my wife, who is also my Line-Producer, everyone we know takes us for mad gamblers. There are extended family relations who believe I may have been cursed. How does one explain passion for the art of filmmaking to the same critics who gladly expend sizable sums on imported videos and DVD titles ordinarily produced on 35mm celluloid before being transferred for mass marketing.
Surprisingly such comments are usually from very intelligent, urbane, individuals and government officials who respond to my incredulity with "...You know the industry can never exist here! Why bother yourself as a lone ranger trying to promote interest in a non-viable cinema industry?" Such cynical attitude to local filmmaking does not help to encourage financial investments in the cinema film industry.
Our typical guerrilla style is to spend more time on the research and script for our subject matter; and also on detailed planning and preparation which often take no less than two months, between myself, my line-producer and one runner. The period for casting and rehearsals cannot be more than two weeks because the largely stage and sometimes non-professional or part-time actors will not commit for more time than this. The successful among them often run between video production locations in order to earn enough to sustain themselves. This, I might add, often affect their performance on the screen. But that's all we've got to work with. Very often one ends up with university arts theatre students as actors. This is a major bane of screen performance in the country. Everybody who appears in one production considers himself or herself a Hollywood film star. I often took the trouble to complain to some of the University lecturers about the speech delivery of these student actors. I discovered that virtually all these students assume they do not require speech training. Unfortunately in our case, we have to produce our advocacy social development docu-drama films in the English language. At the same time, one must appreciate the difficult task of producing essentially African traditional stories in a foreign language like English.
It is ironic that the same university lecturer expert critics who ought to be cognizant of this difficult task, ignore to educate outside observers. In the use of the English language, which is the only thing common to the multi-ethnic society like ours, each ethnic group not only flavours the language with its indigenous tongue but reconstructs its grammar or domesticates it to bear the load of its peculiar experience. To be sure, the wealth and, therefore, the beauty of language is appreciated through collocation; and which in itself is dependent on cultural dictates of phrasing by different ethnic group. This explains why proverbs and expressions from our background are usually pungent with the tang of our environment. Our rhythm of life similarly colours the physical and dramatic movements by actors who, attired in local garbs have to deliver their lines in another culture.
It is at such points like this that it becomes misleading to give emphatic value judgment on the choice of allowing actors to remain Africans even if their acting is considered theatrical. Who says we are not theatrical in our normal life, anyway? We use our hands and, indeed, the whole body; often raise our voice when we talk; we move differently and more slowly than our brothers in London or New York. It is a delicate balance that must be maintained to depict cultural situations in a foreign language, to minimise distractions to the performer. This is more relevant when producing social development and sensitisation films. One must, of course, accept the need for trained actors and actresses who can be truly called professionals by international standards.
Nevertheless, it is still safer to present us the way we see ourselves; the way we really are, to the outside world so that we don't dig the grave of our cultural existence as distinct cultural beings, by trying too hard to smooth the edges of our cultures in order to fit into some expected western style of story interpretation. As a colleague concurs, "Does Hollywood not tell the story of America? Why do Indian film-makers tell their stories in the choreographed spontaneity of songs and dance?" The greater value of the world cinema to humanity can be achieved only if it affords to recognise and celebrate cultural difference!
Making our type of simple advocacy and social development docu-drama on celluloid as opposed to video initially in the 1980's grew out of the demand for high quality production by representatives of International Agencies in the country who insisted on internationally acceptable pictures and sound tracks. Our productions are often distributed for use in social development sensitization programs throughout Africa. It is a fact that when you produce on film our production personnel are forced to be more disciplined in all aspects including the lighting and sound recording. This allows for clean multi-language track dubbing often required for some of our work. An example is our sensitisation feature, Pariah,(16mm) for which we made three language versions, English, French and Hausa. The film about Vesico Vaginal Fistulae (VVF) was made for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt. As if to make it near impossible to produce good international standard films, Nigeria does not have a serious post production outfit where serious sound track laying and mixing can be executed.
For a Nigerian independent film maker, there is no talk of a studio setting as such. Except the television stations, there are no studio sets; none that can be hired for interior filming. For the limited lighting and grip equipment, we have been tied to just one reliable private source from which we hired these in Lagos. And it often becomes difficult if another crew got them before us. We had to wait; for the simple fact that the organization, Cinekraft, over the last two decades hires this equipment out with six well trained and practised technicians who have worked with all international film crews that visited the country. Their equipment came with one or two vehicles; they are very reliable and experienced workers; and capable of the usual improvised utilisation of the few lights and grip equipment available.
Fortunately for us we are able to construct interior sets within our studio complex. Indeed, we tend to film a larger portion of our stories on exterior and semi-exterior sets which fit into our African cultural life styles. For the street sequences, we have learned to roll with the punches. In terms of logistics, we house our main technical crew of about a dozen in a hostel specially built in our complex where they remain for the duration of our production schedule which is usually about four to five weeks.
While a majority of the actors and actresses come and go as each is required during the period, we similarly house the lead actors and those from out of town in the hostel for the entire duration of production for safety reasons. This we make part of our contractual requirements. Because of communication hiccups it is mandatory for us to be able to use our time judiciously. Our wake-up call is between five and six in the morning; and breakfast is promptly served at seven for every one by our caterers who follow a diet schedule decided by the cast and crew on weekly basis. With about six vehicles we set out for our outside locations before eight o'clock in order to beat the usual chaotic morning traffic. We are able to rehearse as the technical crew set up; and can take our first shot by 10 in the morning.
Apart from a short break for snacks between 11 and noon, we film until our lunch time at two in the afternoon. The meal is served on location. By three o'clock, the sun is beginning to go in the direction which allows for the afternoon filming. We film till almost sunset around six. There is a rest period of some two hours during which we have dinner before some two hours of work on our prepared interior sets. This is the advantage of having a complex where some two to three sets can be permanently built for quick takes since less time is required for setting up. Usually between nine and 10, we wrap for the day. Fortunately for us, the crew and cast relaxation in the evening takes place in the expansive complex on a hill overlooking a large area of the city. Some take a stroll while some
have their drinks and chat before they all go to bed. It is not always a satisfactory arrangement for everyone. Some individual who prefer to keep late nights are, however, reminded of the next day schedule and they do have a re-think. The camaraderie atmosphere has been unbroken for the two and half decades we have been producing our style of films in Ibadan, Nigeria. Word gets around, and many individuals are attracted to our camps each time we call. To many, it is a short holiday from home.
Of course, there is one day break every Sunday; but many don't bother to travel home every week. This camping style has contributed to our being able to minimize our cash outlay; to save on hotel and transportation bills, and remain within our usual small budget outlay of between 40 and 50,000 pounds total per feature film. Out of our total feature film budget, items imported include the 40 to 50 (10mins) cans of film stock and adequate quarter inch tapes, special bulbs for film lighting and a few props, depending on how much limit (£6,000) we put on these. We also deposit no less than £5,000 for developing and processing of virtually the entire exposed footage with the laboratories in London. Shooting on a small ratio of four to one, every inch becomes useful during editing. It is instructive to note that in addition to the first four exposed reels sent to London to check for technical points from the laboratories, the entire 20 odd days of filming is without access to viewing the footage until we receive the video copies of the entire cans. We only use fax messages from the laboratories to get camera reports. Our necessitated method is to require for a telecine copy of the entire footage on video tape at the completion of location filming for our first rough editing in our studio.
Among services that must be paid for in Pounds Sterling include the final film and sound edit, negative cutting, titles and graphics expenses, optical sound track, the answer print, the release print and related expenses, music score, and the final mix and dubbing . All these can be calculated for a 90-95 minute film. The usual domestic expenses are strenuously limited to about £10,000 equivalent in our local currency, per production largely due to the savings made through our working pattern.
Little wonder many observers believe we have to be mad to make cinema films out of Nigeria. What we expend on a feature film is no more than the daily budget on the average independent films in the West! But to produce a purely commercial entertainment celluloid motion pictures in Nigeria will require a moderate budget (£500,000 to £1,000,000) which we cannot independently afford. I will also not be willing to accept a loan or an investment for such a production unless some internationally known stars are involved. And when you have stars you can begin to add numbers to the basic one million pounds tag for the technical production.
Remember, we have no cinemas from which to recoup even the basic budget back. It will be an unnecessary risk; and will be a total madness. This is why my wife and I, so far, stick to social development films with no pretentious fanfare. It also explains why the home made video craze spreads like wild fire to the detriment of the development of cinema films on celluloid. It also explains why we produce only the advocacy type social development docu-drama for which we could obtain sponsorship if not before, then after the completed programme so far; plus the potential for foreign TV broadcast where quality of production matters.
We have, of course, also produced on Betacam sp format. Among these video programs, our advocacy docu-drama, In the Name of Tradition, on female circumcision/female genital mutilation won awards in the U.S.A in 1997; our 39 episode television series, Baba-TC, similarly won international acclaim at the 1997/98 Rotterdam Museum of Ethnology - SOAPS - Season, in which nine episodes involving the youths were featured for an entire nine months. However, we have approached even these video productions as if they were celluloid films in order to keep our international standard.
Despite all these difficulties it has been an enriching experience for us; and with a feeling of self satisfaction that we did our best to encourage quality film making with little resources and hardly any industry infrastructures or government assistance for the industry