That Nigeria abounds in contradictions is understating the obvious. Nigeria’s film industry recognised worldwide is 20 years old from the date Living in Bondage was shot in 1992. Yet the over 100 universities in the country have not seen the need to provide the intellectual, disciplinary environment to train essential manpower for it. But one man who has been crusading for this to happen is Prof. Femi Okiremuette Shaka, the only professor of Film Studies in Nigeria. He is anchored in Theatre Arts at the University if Port Harcourt. In this interview, Shaka wonders at the irony of his situation and that of the entire film industry as he continues to make a case for a film department, which Lagos State University is set to blaze the trail. Excerpts:
Unending politics of a Film Department at UNIPORT
FOR the past five years, I have been involved in the politics of establishing a Department of Film studies. What I’m made to understand, which is shocking, is that if I establish a Department of Film Studies, then the Department of Theatre Studies where I currently teach now, will die
But the irony is that when I arrived here at LASU, the first senate meeting I attended, LASU was already establishing a Department of Film, Photography and Media Studies. Then I stood up on the floor of Senate and congratulated the university for being visionary in their outlook because I know, even they love to start the department, there are no structures on the ground yet. I told them that for the past five years, politicking even, I have been begging that I should be allowed to start a Department of Film Studies and yet I’m in a university without talking to anybody, the university has taken the initiatives, has seen the need to establish a Department of Film Studies, that it was a thing of joy to me.
So, the VC jokingly said, ‘It then means you will start with our first staff!’ But no, my roots are so deeply entrenched in Port Harcourt and it is virtually impossible for me to move from there. As I’m speaking to you now, I have over nine Ph.D students of which four are defending by January; when I mean defending, one had just finished graduate school seminar – the overall seminar, which all doctoral students in UNIPORT have to go through before they are allowed to see their external supervisors. Two will be having their graduate seminars soon; one is a wayward doctoral student. His work is finished and I have approved it, but he said his daughter is getting married.
He is one of the guys that actually started the video film industry known as Nollywood, as the director of Living in Bondage II, Mr. Chika Onu. Then he was known as Christian Onu because he was working with NTA and for fear of being victimised, he used his younger brother’s name, Christian. I’m sure you know Austin Akpuda; he took his Ph.D under me although he did it in English Studies and they asked me to supervise him in English Studies. So, it was Akpuda who advised Onu when he expressed the desire to study film and asked him to come see me in UNIPORT; so, he came and he has finished writing his Ph.D now. His daughter’s marriage is what is delaying him going for his graduate school seminar.
Between January and February, four of them should graduate and that should graduate; I also graduated two others in Linguistics. And in my own Department, you may know the Executive Secretary of National Institute of Cultural Orientation (NICO), Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma; so, by the time these four graduate, I would have produced nine or 10 Ph.D graduates in Film Studies outside of one woman who wrote hers on the Internet; I have over 20 Masters degree holders. And here I am begging for a Department of Film Studies in UNIPORT and it’s being offered me here without prompting!
THAT is the dilemma! A few days ago, I was with LASU VC and he asked me, because Lagos State is keenly interested in starting the film programme here, because he wants a professional training programme here to do the ground work. So, I have designed for LASU a centre, under the prompting of the VC, to be known as Centre for Film, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies and the centre is to be made up of three departments – Department of Film and Photography, Department of Theatre Arts (Theatre Arts not being killed off) and Department of Music; remember the argument of UNIPORT that if you start a Department of Film Studies, Theatre Arts will die! It’s later I knew that Linguistic and Communications Studies will also die.
So, how can one professor – in my Department of Theatre Studies in UNIPORT, we have only four professors, with my own designated in Film Studies, where I took my Ph.D is in Film Studies at University of Warwick, where Yakubu Gowon attended after he was over thrown; I studied there as a Commonwealth Scholar. Right now, that is my dilemma. I drafted certificate and diploma programmes, designed in modular format and I advised him that ‘look, modular format is modern method of teaching certificate and diploma programmes, like the one Lagos Business School is using. You take people from the industry, aspects that deal with digital programmes and take people from the industry. It’s a very comprehensive programme and the VC is very excited about it than I who designed it. He actually gave the name Centre for Film, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies; because we were agonising on how to get a title that will house all these programmes, and as he was writing, he wrote Film, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies, and I said, ‘that is the centre’.
So, if you look at the programme, it’s in modular format that will teach history; as diploma, you have script writing as a module, digital editing, acting and directing as a module, film history as a module, set and lighting design as a module; these are some of the segments. You go to the industry and pick somebody who is a practising person because we are not here to teach just theory; we want to produce people who will leave here and go outside and practice film and as film and don’t need any orientation because you’re going to be taught by the masters. They will come here and teach you. The only area we will be concerned with is to teach you theory, advanced history of world cinema, criticism, colonial and post-colonial history of films and African films – these are the only areas of theory.
But the areas of production will be handled by masters in the field such acting, directing, voice training, dance choreography, costume and make up and all – bring people from the industry to teach. And because it is a modular format, they can come teach one topic and leave, and then come again another day and teach another thing; when they finish the module, they set examine whether others have finished or not. Then, there’s the Bachelors programme. That’s the work I’m doing as I’m round off my Sabbaticals.
So, you can imagine how agonising it is for me. I have so many Ph.D students in Port Harcourt I cannot abandon. At UNIPORT, my own base, I’m struggling to get a Department of Film Studies established, but in here in LASU, I’m being told here’s the Film Studies to start off one at once! It’s so frustrating; it’s explains to me why Nigeria is really not developing. Here’s a vibrant industry that does not have a theoretical, academic framework to fall back on for development and growth.
Interestingly, my VC at UNIPORT, Prof. AJenka is passionately culturally oriented even if he is a petroleum engineer by profession. He established the new Arts Village in the university. He actually encouraged me when he was still the Director of the Petroleum Institute muted the idea of the Film Studies because he is very open-minded; he understood what I meant; he knew where I was going to. He was the first to do the critique of the first curriculum I drew up. And he took it personally and gave it to the then VC, Prof. Tom Baridam, who then handed it over to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics to look at it.
And when Ajenka became VC, I shouted Halleluya! But suddenly, people – the Dean of Faculty, everybody – in fact, some have been quoted to have said, ‘the Department of Film Studies will be started over their dead bodies. I’m telling you it’s that bad, as if I was out to destroy them. For God’s sake, in Warwick where I studied, there was a Department of Film and TV Studies, where I studied, and a Department of Theatre Arts Studies, a Department of English, a Department of Modern European Languages. They were all there. I went to New York University as a Fulbright Scholar; there was a Department of Film Studies, a Department of Performing Arts, where my friend, Awam Amkpa studied. I was at the Institute of African American Studies, where I taught under the direction of Mathia Diawara. He comes to Nigeria regularly.
This is my orientation. In great universities where I have been, there are the Departments of Theatre Arts and Film Studies side by side. And here I’m in Nigeria trying to make a case for the need for a Department of Film Studies! For a God’s sake, I have a chair in Film Studies without a department. How will people feel? I gave the annual Nigerian Film Corporation lecture at the Silverbird Cinema, where I said that Wole Soyinka studied English at Ibadan; he went to Leads and finished. When he came back he had the option of going back to English Department, but with George Ashworthy and others, he went to the School of Drama. He could have become a professor of English specialising in Drama. But with other colleagues, they started the School of Drama, which has metamorphosed into Department of Theatre Arts, which has mothered all the other Departments of Theatre Arts across the country today.
Here I am; I came back after my studies and want to start a Department of Film Studies, the first of its kind and I’m being denied. Look at the irony of my case! With Ajenka, my god father, I thought it would come in a platter; but two years after, nothing has happened. How do I leave 10 to 12 Ph.D students in Port Harcourt and come to Lagos, and then I have to convince my Ph.D students I have given topics to move with me to Lagos; it just can’t be done. I cannot do that.
As you see me now, I’m what can be referred to as a frustrated academic! I don’t now see the need for making a case for it.
Well, the first thing I did when I last visited Port Harcourt was to present to them the curriculum I had drawn up for LASU, to say at my first Senate meeting at LASU, a Film Studies Department was being established alongside a Department of Theatre Arts and Music, that I was too new there to have made a case for it, and nobody has said one if going to kill the other. All I can conjecture is that my VC is weighing the opposition from the Faculty of Humanity; I don’t know. But it’s as frustrating as it can be. So, that’s my story!
Possible nexus between academic training for film and actual film practice
LET me reassure you that we chanced accidentally upon the future of film; the future is digital; video is digital. Most films that are shot in high definition video camera can be burnt to 35mm or celluloid film. like I said, we chanced upon it accidentally due to poverty of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that made it impossible to find foreign exchange to be able to import both technicians and equipment. Now, what I have been doing, which I designed for UNIPORT, it’s intended to marry industry practice with academics. That means that I bring people from the industry to teach production aspects while those of us in the aspect of teaching should teach film history and film criticism as a social system in advancing the beliefs system, the culture and the moral values of society.
But for God’s sake, I’m not going to handle camera or aspects of production. But I don’t believe in teaching film abstractly; it’s not the proper thing to do. In a proper film school, you come to the class with your camera and be asked to set up his own shot. All the students will be asked to set the same shot. In a proper film school, every student will have his own camera with a tripod; so, as the camera man or director is setting up, everybody is doing the same. It’s a production workshop. We don’t have a film school, even at the Jos Film School, where I had gone to accredit their programmes.
To come back to your question, film is not being well practised in Nigeria. Film production is not being well practised. People who moved into film came either from TV or from Theatre Arts; many have over the years developed and become professionals, but they are still being obstructed by the baggage of their disciplinary backgrounds – TV or Theatre Arts. I always tell my students, in films, it’s not the way the story happens in drama; it’s the camera that should tell the story, not the story is unfolding and you just use the camera as a photographic equipment to just follow it; no! That was the first shock my students had.
I said, ‘look, you will start with establishment shot just to orient the viewer to the space of narrative action’. And that after they got a feel of that initial narrative action, you are free to move to any aspect of that narrative space as part of the process of horning in on that main character who should define how that space is narrated in that film. This is where Nigeria films do not have the main character, in spite of our culture, where individualism is projected at the expense of the collective entity. But even then, why should elders holding meetings be arranged in an arc form as if you are on stage and take the camera and begin to look at them like that? We don’t do films like that, even those films set in ancient Rome and the rest of them. When you see them, the camera is ever busy; that is why to take a particular scene, you can sometimes take more than 100 shots.
But here, it’s papapa, and they soon wrap it up! Why? It’s because they are still using the camera in a photographic sense; it’s trained on the scene and replicates what it is in front of the camera. That is not film.
THAT’S where disciplinary studies comes in. if you don’t have a Department of Film Studies that teaches film the way it should be taught, how can you get things right? That’s the dilemma we have. This industry now, taken it from 1992, is 20 years; but there is no Department of Film Studies in Nigeria to teach film as film; ‘film as film’, to quote Victor Perkins. The way it’s done all over the world is that film is narrated by the camera.
So, we have to train new crops of professionals; that’s why I’m excited about this Afronolly Film Contest, where they are trying to encourage young filmmakers to be innovative, to be experimental in the way they handle the camera. And many of our still photographers are already doing a lot of work. Why can’t they do that for the cinema? Most of our narration follow the key genres that have been mentioned –either fiction, Christian, epic – all them are still being narrated in the same method. There is no experimentation, which can only come about the way you and I became experimental, became different when we went to school to study and when we now tell stories is different from the way our fore-fathers used to tell their moonlight tales – totally different.
I tell my post-graduate students ‘that we’re figures of transformation; many of you still talk about play even when we’re in a film class; this is no play, for God’s sake! This is no play; film is no play; it’s no drama. You cannot reduce it to drama; it may have affiliation to drama but it’s no drama’. So, unless disciplines, schools or Departments of Film Studies are established and proliferated across the country, we will not get it right. We need a discipline to teach the basics just like the way students went to Departments of Theatre Arts to study the basics abd Nigerian theatre artists have been world acclaimed for the play they’ve produced; people like Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Soyinka of course, is the godfather there; they have been world acclaimed.
But who will teach the next generation of filmmakers? Where will they be trained? Where? Where are they being trained?
In any case, to produce a film is not a problem. I can handle a film. If I go back now to Port Harcourt and they create a Department of Film Studies for me and provide the money, we intend to go into production. That’s why I was able to attract Chika Onu and I’m employed him. And I told him I didn’t bring him to vegetate; no. That he should continue with your practice; private practice is allowed now in academia. So, production is not a problem. Sam Dede is rounding off his Ph.D programme as my student; he is a notable actor, who can teach any aspect of acting and directing; he’s there. Production is not a big issue; most of the stars in the industry graduated from UNIPORT – Bob Manuel Udokwu, Ejike Asiegbu, Rita Dominic, Monalisa Chinda and a host of others.
And I gave them a prophecy way back that when they get into the industry, we will not be able to get close to them, and they didn’t believe. There was a time Ayakoroma and I went to Lekki to trace Rita for something; it took us over three days of talking to her PAs, who didn’t know us. Until she learnt it was her teacher before we saw her. That’s how it is; today, she is a star, a continentally recognised star; so also is Chinda. All these people passed through us in UNIPORT in theatre.
Nollywood’s attitude to film training
INDUSTRY people don’t want to work with us. There are so many stories I watch and I just want to vomit. All they needed to do to tie up the loose end is to bring the scripts to me and some other persons to look at these scripts and pay us money for it just to tie up the loose ends. How can you have a story in which there are so many coincidences that are unexplained even though we’re supposed to suspend our sense of belief? But when you are watching some of these movies, even the most naïve person will say that most of the incidents don’t make sense.
So, I don’t know why industry players refuse to seek professional advice from us. Nobody has brought a screenplay for me to look at and I refused. It’s a professional work and I will charge you but do it competently. All these loose ends will not be there. And there are several films like that out there. When you watch them, you see that the stories are contrived; people just stay put because they want to find out how they will end otherwise they a waste of time and money.
There are many things that are wrong with the industry, especially in the area of training and competence. Competence comes with regular training and there’s a discipline that goes with the regular training.
Well, my teacher also ought to be a professor by now but I don’t know what Ibadan is doing about it. I mean, Dr. Hyginus Ekwazi. So it’s strange, indeed. I jokingly told Ekwazi to pray for me, that if I start a Department of Films Studies, he will have to move to Port Harcourt to join me. But the man laughed because Ekwazi’s taproots are so deep in Ibadan; he’s like an iroko. He cannot be moved (luaghs). My own idea is that let’s start the department in UNIPORT, train as many Ph.Ds as we can and they can go to other universities and start film studies departments across the country.
Right, I can confidently say that I have trained people that can start two departments of film simultaneously across the country. I have attracted some to Port Harcourt already; there’s a chap, a reverend father, Innocent Uwa, who came from Ireland, U.K. with his Ph.D and came to me. I’m keen on starting the department in UNIPORT; anytime I see a good material, I grab him because film scholars are hard to come by.
Integrating the modular method in film training
Well, this time they will see the need for a marriage of ideas between industry and the academia. Nobody has done it before. People in business school have tied it and it’s working very well. Pat Utomi is using the module; his model is a success. The Lagos Business School is one of the best in Africa. Why is it so? It’s because people from the industry are working hand in hand with academics to train a new crop of managers, of entrepreneurs, of accountants, etc. and when they go back to the industries, what do they meet? It’s the problems that have been taught them by people who are already managing directors of companies; case studies that have been handled together. It’s due to ignorance that people in our industry don’t talk or work with us. They are scared.
I’m hardly involved in festivals in Nigeria. I was surprised that they came to meet for this Afronolly Contest; it’s because of my friend, Femi Odugbemi, who knows me; one of my students has just finished a Ph.D on him. He is one of the greatest documentarists we have in this country and no work has been done on him. So, he told organisers that if you want to do a contest on short films, go and get Prof. Shaka involved, otherwise, nobody involves me. There are so many film festivals; I’m not involved; they know where I am. I don’t know why they are scared of me; I’m not an ogre.
I would have enriched the content. I would have designed new parametres on how to judge the films. I’m not involved in Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA). I don’t think I’m unapproachable. It’s only people like Odugbemi, who are trained film people that understand what we’re talking about. He trained in the U.S.; so when we talk, he’s excited. If I was staying in Lagos, there is no way I will not have Odugbemi by side to get things done. What will I be doing? He’s one of the eminent documentarists we have in this country. So you can imagine when Odugbemi teaches a student documentary and goes on the field with him to do a documentary, why can’t the student cannot be a good documentarist? Odugbemi is doing a lot of things; he’s in practice. He’s in charge of i-Represent International Documentary Film Festival. He’s working.
He should be involved in training the next generation of filmmakers. When he retires who will take over from him if he’s not allowed or made to train others? That is why an institution is very good; not just any institution, but a Department of Film!
Future of Nollywood assured
Nollywood is great; nobody can kill Nollywood! Nollywood is a gnii; you can’t kill it. It grew out of Nigeria’s survival culture; Nigerians are very hardworking people who cannot be put down. Nollywood grew out of necessity and today, a new crop of directors are emerging, who release their films first on cinema circuits and it runs there for a while. You may call them a new set of professionals; they have taken a professional attitude to their work, and it shows. Some of the new releases in cinemas are making a lot of money. So, the future is very bright. Still, we need to train people because in 10 to 15 years, some of these guys will retire. If you an actor, you can go from son to father to grandfather before bowing out. So, we need new hands who are well trained; people who will stand in front of camera and not start shouting as if they are on stage. Why? If you’re trained, you’ll see that you don’t need to do that because there is a boom microphone to pick up whatever you’re saying.
Most of the things they are doing is out of ignorance and also because they are not trained. In fact, many of the filmmakers today learned on the job; as a result, they are very hesitant to experimentation. They just want to do it the way they have been doing and it has been selling. And, of course, the marketing or distribution is nothing to write home about. After all the work Emeka Mba did at Nigerian Video and Film Censors Board, nothing has come out of it. In order to teach marketing and distribution, I brought a professor of marketing to handle it.
Remember when films were coming out, before every release there used to be advertisements everywhere on radio and TV. Are you still seeing that these days? No! Nollywood started doing films very well. I tell my students, ‘if you want to see a good filmmaker, go and watch Living in Bondage. It was a well-made film. If you remove the audio, you can follow the film and understand the whole story. That’s why even though the first release that came out was in Igbo, people struggled to see it; they understood the film before they subtitled in in English. Nowadays, they are not making films; they are just using the camera to cover drama; films are not made that way.
INo discipline to back up Nollywood 20 years after!
AND until we have departments training people, training new crops of filmmakers, we will go nowhere; we’ll just be agonising over the future of the industry. If we had Departments of Film Studies, the industry would have exploded by now. Look at what I’m talking about – getting people from the industry to work with academics to produce new crops of filmmakers. So, I bring you, a costumier who has several jobs in the industry to train somebody in the university; by the time he graduates and after reading volumes of books on costuming, watched several Hollywood and Nollywood films on how costume is handled, he’ll learn from you, take something out of these films, and bring out his own style of costume-making and be an excellent costumier by the time he leaves university. That is the importance of academic discipline we’re talking about, which we currently don’t have.
So, Nollywood will continue to grow in spite of whatever conspiracies theories there are. It should have been bigger than the oil industry if we had proper government backing, I mean institutional backing, not about putting money down for production. Government should set up a Department of Film Studies; government should know what to do to make a country develop. What stops government from asking Ahmadu Bello University to have such a department; Lagos and Port Harcourt to have such departments for a start and even spread. If we don’t have people, then bring people from abroad to train the first set of scholars that will train other people. That way we have a discipline.
Just imagine if we don’t have Departments of Economics to train economists in the country, what would happen? Who will put in place economic policies to run the country? We have not trained people to handle the film industry. So people graduate from Department of Theatre Arts and if they are lucky to have brothers or relations in the film industry, they go and attach themselves and learn on the job as apprentice director. After about three, four, five years, they now begin to direct. It’s not the same thing. If you go to National Film Institute, Jos, you will see the work they are doing. But that also is a little bit deficient because there are no film scholars teaching all aspects of film because every discipline has its own philosophy, its language, its own history and theories, which must all back up the aspect of production. That way students get acquainted with films from all over the world; that way they can think of their own styles.
It’s just like the way we read the Greek classics and we did our own adaptations; the way J.P. Clark, Soyinka and Osofisan did their own adaptations of the great Greek classic dramas to create their own styles. So also with films; when we have film schools and people would have been trained, they will go into experimentations. They will be passionate about watching movies, not just recent ones, but old movies - films from Japan, Sweden, Russia and films from around the world. We’re building an industry without a discipline; you can’t have it that way.
You can’t have a bank without a place to train finance experts. So, what are we doing? We’re just placing the cart before the horse. The irony is that here am I begging to have one place established for proper filmmakers to be trained in a professional way. But people think Shaka wants to build an enpire for himself. Do I have to build an empire? For Christ’s sake, I’m from a poor family. But I studied in the U.K., and my father could not have paid for my ticket. If it was an accident, I couldn’t have gone to the U.S. to also study film; but I did it in these two places because of scholarships – Commonwealth and Fulbright!
So, if I have done all of these, I should give back to my society. But people think I want to build an empire. Do I have to build an empire? My book Modernity and African Cinema was published in the U.S. and is being used everywhere. What do I need? Nothing; I feel fullfiled. But I still feel a hole within my heart. I just need to give leadership in the training of film scholars and filmmakers! Ekwazi is anchored in Theatre Arts in Ibadan; one fellow with a Ph.D is anchored in Theatre Arts in Benin and Shaka is anchored in Theatre Arts in Port Harcourt; you can’t build a discipline for an industry like that.
film is not being well practised in Nigeria. Film production is not being well practised. People who moved into film came either from TV or from Theatre Arts; many have over the years developed and become professionals, but they are still being obstructed by the baggage of their disciplinary backgrounds – TV or Theatre Arts. I always tell my students, in films, it’s not the way the story happens in drama; it’s the camera that should tell the story, not the story is unfolding and you just use the camera as a photographic equipment to just follow it; no! That was the first shock my students had.