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The eves reign in a depressed Nollywood

By Anote Ajeluorou - Nigerian Guardian

THE Nigerian movie industry, popularly known as Nollywood, is perhaps, facing its worse moment, since Living in Bondage was produced in 1992. Almost two decades after that curtain raiser, the industry is, today, confronted by myriad of problems: movie sales are low, distribution in disarray, TV stations pay so little to have movies aired, as well as lack of corporate support and its attendant lean funding amidst increasing demand for quality movies.

But above all is the issue of piracy, which is regarded as the bane of an already weakened industry. Very few films are being produced as against what previously obtained when hundreds of such were churned out in a year. Now, there's a serious drought even as guilds continue to bicker and tussle over headship.

A few of the producers, especially males, have turned their attention to other areas such as soap operas, musical video among others, just to keep going. For those who opted for soaps, it is another struggle entirely getting funds from sponsors to pay TV stations to have them aired as managers of TV stations decline to commit funds to commission producers.

But the female filmmakers, few as they are, have been forging ahead nonetheless. So, while Nollywood is witnessing its worse depression, some of the female players are active, producing. They have defied the distribution chaos and have sought alternative means of getting their works out so as to entertain and keep their craft going.

This is not surprising. Late last year, some female filmmakers gathered to brainstorm at the 'Reel Women Workshop' organized by Temple Production to assess the place of women in the industry.

This new awareness is a sign of things to come. They are no longer the sex objects usually portrayed in films. Observers say this is good for enhanced female profile, especially where they have excelled just like their male counterparts.

The Guardian caught up with one of such female filmmakers during the week. Emem Isong is regarded as one of Nollywood's scriptwriters; she also produces. Currently, she is on location shooting her new movie, Holding Hope, which the actor, Desmond Elliot is directing. This is the second of such collaboration with the actor, according to her. The last one was Guilty Pleasure, an intense drama, which she also did in collaboration with Elliot. Together with Nollywood Hustler, a comedy she jointly did with Uche Jombo, the movies were premiered and shown at different cinemas.

With cinemas, Isong, and a few of her female colleagues, might have found the panacea to a chaotic distribution network and piracy problem.

But how far can this relationship with the cinemas go? Several Nollywood buffs have long seen the merit of the cinema but have reluctantly embraced it. Substandard films do not get shown in cinemas; it is the reason why Nollywood films are often missing in international film festivals.

But for Isong and Stephanie Okeene, who premiered Through the Glass, also late last year, the cinema holds the key to a depressed Nollywood. This is perhaps, where Isong has an edge above some of her colleagues. She has consistently made good films over the years, that cinemas might woo her to get more works done. Ego Boyo, it is learnt, is also gearing up to produce a new film. She also has a track record of making good films.

So, perhaps in a depressed Nollywood, it may just be goodbye to the pretenders after all. Only those confident with their cinematic art might brave the odds. This then, is Isong's turf. And, with the cinema as a viable alternative, she is making the most of it. Vivian Ejike made and premiered Silent Scandal. She may be considering the cinema as well. Shan George is currently in the studio editing Super Zibraman, a new work she jointly did with some foreign collaborators.

Isong says: "I'm one of those who are really praying for the cinema culture to be revived here. I was happy for Okereke, when she did Through the Glass and took it to the cinema; and it was very well received. Also, was Kunle Afolayan, with The Figurine. I saw that it was a good trend for us in Nollywood and it would also make us sit up and do movies that are cinema-worthy.

"I decided to go with Guilty Pleasure to the cinema because I saw that it was good enough. The acting was superb; technically, we had a few challenges here and there but it was very entertaining. I'm glad that I did it because those who have seen it have good things to say about the movie.

"Distribution is chaotic at the moment; I wish I knew how it could be solved. We really don't know what is happening. Piracy is the name of the game right now. But stakeholders are putting their heads together to see what can be done because it's a terrible thing that in a country of more than 150 million people, we cannot sell 0.5 per cent of movies. I think it's very shameful; it's in our hands to do."

So, how have women been able to forge ahead in spite of the challenges facing the movie industry? Isong could only attribute women's continuing efforts to their tenacity and the need to keep the industry going, as it was the only thing they have.

"Because we're tenacious people!" She said, with a twinkle in her eyes. "We don't give up easily. For me, I can't imagine this industry dying. We employ a lot of people; it has given jobs to a lot of people; it has given a living to many. It has given hope to people; it has brought smiles to faces of people. We cannot afford to let it die.

"And, I feel that we've got to come together; we have to fight with everything we've got to keep it alive. Women are quite tenacious, and I believe that's why many women are still hanging on and never giving up. I personally will never give up; that's why I keep doing productions. I keep looking for strategies on how to survive despite all odds in this industry."

Isong commended the efforts of the few cinema owners such as Silverbird for giving producers like her opportunity to continue with their art and for doing everything they could to revive the cinema culture. It was her view that without such efforts the industry would have sunk further than it already had. She stated that if there were more cinemas everywhere and all over the country, Nollywood would come alive again and possibly escape the jaws of marketers, who are also at a loss to combat piracy- the monster that has brought the industry to its knees.

As a result, Isong canvassed for the setting up of more cinemas in the country to help the industry grow. She particularly tasked investors to look at the potentials of cinemas and invest there. "We need business people with money to invest in cinemas to help this industry to grow," she said.

On women being portrayed as sex objects and denigrated, Isong said she usually felt bad, as most of the producers who originate such negative portrayals were men. But even at that, she could not reconcile herself with such notions about Nigerian women, whom she said show a lot of strength. While saying that such portrayals were in bad taste, she urged her male colleagues to desist from them.

She stated: "In a lot of movies, they show women negatively. I think this is because 80 per cent of these producers are male. But I don't understand why they want to portray the Nigerian woman like that. I particularly take time to show the Nigerian woman as a strong woman, which she is. I do not stand for the debasement of womanhood. I really hate those films that show that kind of thing.

"For the few female producers, I hope they strive to do something about this situation, which is worrisome".

Primarily, making movies for entertainment strikes a chord with Isong's artistic vision. If, however, viewers find the movie life-changing or ministering to needs, she would be pleased. But the entertainment value is her central focus. Like every artist, Isong cannot be immune from the social issues of her time. So, she admits doing advocacy films that tackle social issues as they affect her society. These, she also projects in her films.

She said: "For me, it's entertainment, the entertainment value. If it ministers to you and changes you for good, that's fine. My primary aim is to entertain people, and that's what I do. Occasionally, I do advocacy films; I do films to educate and to tackle some social issues.

"There's the one I did in my language, Edikan, which is on the child-witchcraft syndrome, which has been plaguing my state, Akwa Ibom, for a while now. I did Ekaete, which is on the portrayal of my people as house helps, where I tried to correct such impression. I did Breaking Point, on drug abuse and wife battery in Emotional Crack. I treated the issue of adoption and infertility in Behind Closed Doors. Sometimes, I treat social issues but I don't lose sight of the fact that I want to entertain."

However, she did not take kindly to the statement credited to the Minister of Information and Communications, Prof. Dora Akunyili, that Nollywood is Nigeria's image problem. She argued that the minister could have been misquoted; otherwise, her statement was, for an industry that has put the nation on the world map, unfortunate.

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