Sunday, April 14, 2024

The school Nollywood built: How new Nigerian filmmakers got their groove on | Arts and Culture

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In November 2020 while the COVID-19 pandemic was strangling creative endeavours across the planet, veteran Nigerian filmmaker Steve Gukas announced a new venture. Called First Features, it launched a search for 12 disciples, or first-time directors, to elevate storytelling standards in Nollywood, the world’s second largest film industry by volume.

For decades, Nigeria’s bustling industry has been known for its scrappy, do-it-yourself resourcefulness.

Local and foreign supporters and critics were united in pointing out that the industry was held up for years by bootstrapping directors and amateur producers shooting cheap, straight-to-video films using the most basic of resources since the ’90s.

Today’s Nollywood is a multibillion-dollar behemoth, but for all its real or perceived success, structural challenges remain. With little by way of government support or training infrastructure, budding filmmakers often struggle to get their start.

For London Film School-trained Gukas – the brains behind multiple Nigerian classics like 93 Days, the story of the Nigerian doctor who sacrificed her life to contain Ebola in Lagos – the solution was clear.

In 1993, just as the scene was being set for what is today Nollywood, the channel M-Net was establishing New Directions, a landmark training and development initiative for writers and directors across the continent. One of the inaugural beneficiaries was Gukas, who, upon returning home, was dissatisfied with the kind of training available in Nigeria.

“A lot of it was happening in silos, didactic, non-practical and very short term with little strategy about how you then launch the careers of these directors,” he tells Al Jazeera.

He felt a need to replicate that M-Net model but also make it more comprehensive and Nigeria-focused. “Beyond providing opportunity, we wanted to expose them to the entire journey of a director from story to screen. What does the director do? What does he bring to the table, and how does he harness the vision he has and share that with a team?” he says.

Training a new generation

Those thoughts crystallised into First Features, a 1-billion-naira (about $2.6m at the time) initiative spearheaded by Gukas and Dotun Olakunri, another seasoned filmmaker.

It is the first phase of an initiative that identifies 12 young directors and provides training, mentorship, funding and distribution support for their debut feature films.

The process of making the final shortlist is a competitive undertaking – almost 1,000 entries were received in response to a national call-out.

With all of the shortlisted filmmakers, Gukas was struck by their eagerness to learn. He also talks about a realisation that occurred in the minds of all the filmmakers who have had their films enter production so far.

“At around the halfway point of the training, it would dawn on them that if the process was this rigorous, one cannot possibly make more than one or two films in a year,” he says. This is at odds with the quick turnaround times that have characterised the Nollywood system.

Faculty members were found in Nigeria, Los Angeles, London and Johannesburg. Directors were paired with writers and the trainees were invited to a boot camp and masterclass sessions for six months in 2021 to develop their respective projects. The boot camp was held in Abuja, and while directors were physically present, some of the facilitators delivered classes virtually.

“We wanted the training to be oral, practical and experiential. But again, how to fund that and make it sustainable had always been a challenge,” Gukas says.

Responding to this challenge, First Features was rejiggered to deliver a final slate of 12 films that had some commercial viability. An original plan to deliver made-for-television movies of the month fell through as funding support from television stations failed to materialise.

Gukas’s Native Filmworks and Olakunri’s Michelangelo Productions put up initial funding and invited investor partners to get the first three projects off the ground. Additional investors meant the films now had to be distributed in theatres with commercial viability as a goal.

Olakunri says an additional development also factored into this decision, “We realised the quality of films that were being developed was much higher than what we anticipated and so decided they can go to cinemas or streaming.”

In setting up the projects, the directors were deliberately surrounded by experienced cast and crew on set to help boost confidence. Despite early challenges, the filmmakers began to blossom into professionals in their own right.

“They were fully involved. They grew during the training, sure, but those who have made their films grew even further. They went in and came out totally different,” Olakunri tells Al Jazeera.

A still from the set of It Blooms in June, directed by Korede Azeez, one of the beneficiaries of the First Features initiative [Courtesy: Native Filmworks]

Finding continuity

The first film from the project to see the light of day, the romantic comedy Cake, directed by Prosper Edesiri, was released in theaters in 2022. Subsequent entries like Love and Life, a star-studded drama with Nollywood superstar Rita Dominic in the lead, and It Blooms in June, directed by Korede Azeez, went straight to Amazon Prime Video.

For the directors, the experience has been life-changing.

“This is literally what it means for one to enter the industry,” Reuben Reng, director of Love and Life, tells Al Jazeera. “The vision I have always had for myself is telling stories that people can relate to. It is a miracle to be in the same room, directing people I grew up watching even before I knew I wanted to make films.’’

Dominic says her attraction to Love and Life was the prospect of working with a team supervised by Gukas. “I didn’t know Reuben’s work, but when I was assured he was under Steve’s tutelage, I was convinced,” she says. “I believe in giving young people opportunities, and if they are coming through a channel as legitimate as First Features, then why not?”

“When we got on set, it was difficult at first, and we had our disagreements,” she says. “What I admired about Reuben, though, is that he really knows what he wants, and in this industry, you need to have that.”

Then there is the matter of the films themselves – and continuity.

Beyond demonstrating that the directors are capable of seeing their projects to fruition, the films have not had much else going for them.

Akintunde Damilare, publisher of the industry platform ShockNG, has not been enthused by the quality of the titles so far or their rollouts. “After a year of delivering these titles, the filmmakers should have been incorporated into the mainstream Nollywood system. … Maybe the films did not make much of an impression, or perhaps we have a problem with plugging new talent into the ecosystem.”

“First Features is a great idea – picking and funding talent is important – but I don’t think the initiative is thinking too much about where these filmmakers go from here,” he adds. “And that gap needs to be considered.”

Despite the challenges and shortfalls of First Features, there remains a consensus among people in the industry that the project serves a need.

“For me, I think of it as a kind of film school, one that offers theory and practice with someone overseeing your work. I think that is important, and we need more to be honest,” Dominic says.

Gukas is mindful of the feedback and is hopeful that the project continues to improve through subsequent iterations.  “We want to continue to build a new crop of filmmakers who come to the art with a deeper understanding of what is expected of them as well as a greater commitment to growing the industry,” he says.

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