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Using Documentary to Impact Africa Positively

You co-founded and are presently Executive Director of IREPRESENT International Documentary Film Forum, “an organization dedicated to promoting awareness about the power of documentary films to serve as a means of deepening and sharing social and cultural education, as well as encouraging participatory democracy in our societies.” With Africa as its prime focus, how have you been able to evaluate its direct impact on the continent?

The wonderful thing about the documentary art form is that primarily it causes you to think. Whatever the subject matter of any documentary you watch, it changes you. You are certainly more informed because it gives you a deeper perspective than you otherwise would have. But more than likely, it also influences your understanding of issues and can very much provoke you to act. Documentary film is the ultimate ‘agent provocateur.’ And that is because documentary filmmaking is not a deliberate art form; it starts from questions not answers. Its success relies not in having all the answers, but in asking the right questions. That is why we founded the IREP Documentary Film Forum because we believed that the creative industry revolution going on across Africa and powered by the young and restless, provided a unique opportunity window to explore the power of documentary to foster change. By their nature the documentaries ask questions, so if we can encourage the youth of Africa to embrace their power and promise, then their impact will bring accountability to many areas of governance and social development.

Delightfully, that is exactly what is already happening across the continent. More young people are using documentary film to interrogate the realities of their experiences in ways that are demanding answers from governments and political leaders. They are using documentary film to explore important development issues like education, gender discrimination, the environment and many other areas of their life experiences. The numbers will surprise you, we have gone from receiving less than 10 entries in the first IREP Festival 6 years ago to receiving in excess of a hundred film entries this year. The majority of these are from young filmmakers who realize that documentary film provides them with a powerful ‘voice’ to foster development and be involved in changing their communities for good. As I like to say, documentary film can be an extremely subversive tool for progress, for accountability and for fostering understanding and stabilizing the democracies of our continent. Our greatest ambition in IREP is to take documentary filmmaking out of the hands of institutions, where for all these years it was used as a tool for propaganda, and put it in the hands of individuals as a tool for exploring and projecting what is the ‘truth’ of our collective desire as Africans for peace, progress and prosperity. I believe IREP’s humble efforts have contributed in no small way to fostering this awareness of the power and promise of the documentary film form.

What have been your challenges in terms of funding, have you received any form of government support?

The IREP Documentary Film Festival has been sustained over the course of 6 years by the amazing goodwill and support of individuals and non-governmental institutions that believe in what we are trying to do. Democracy and development are critical ambitions we need to project and protect. Documentary is necessarily at the heart of that conversation because it focuses on building awareness and pursuing accountability.

So government should be interested in furthering the cause of documentary filmmaking with a more deliberate interest and investment in its growth. So far, we have not received the attention or support of the Nigerian government in material form but we are hopeful. We want to partner with the Nigerian government in advancing the values of the documentary film form in its best expressions. I was personally very disappointed, for instance, in the poor quality of documentaries that we saw during the last presidential elections. They were the worst representation of what documentary can do. They were poorly researched, very uncreative and biased, and poor technically. It was an embarrassment for us as a country to imagine that they were screened on the national TV network. Anyway, I still prefer the original. That shows we have a lot of work to do in educating our industry better in documentary filmmaking. The government cannot sit back and watch. They have to join hands with initiatives like the IREP Documentary Film Forum to advance the progress needed in this area of our creative industry.

We also need more private sector support. The larger percentage of documentary filmmaking in Nigeria today is corporate videos. They are documentaries. We need the support of the private sector as we focus in building capacity in the techniques and technology of documentary filmmaking. There is room for many hands to join what we are doing to advance this vision.

As part of its thrust, iREPRESENT’S training programme is specially targeted to expose young filmmakers to the rudiments of documentary production. What can you say about the standard of filmmaking in Nigeria, and what can be done to improve it?

The standard of filmmaking in Nigeria is a work-in-progress and that is because we have not focused well on film education. The majority of people making films in Nigeria today are self-taught. To secure the future of Nollywood and its incredible achievements over the last 20 years, we must take film education more seriously by encouraging a more formalized approach especially in our tertiary institutions. There are far too few institutions in Nigeria with a solid curriculum in filmmaking. Compared to the mass of people who want a career in the business, the capacities of the few ones available are woefully inadequate. A solid film education structure will foster stronger specialization in the different skill sets of filmmaking. It will also deepen our storytelling capacities in new ways. It will grow new knowledge in areas like film distribution and the technology of digital cinema. There is so much more that a filmmaker can do as an artist when he or she is educated to a tertiary level. We need to foster the consciousness of creative entrepreneurship. This is how we can sustain and surpass whatever achievement our film industry has recorded in recent years. At IREP we recognize that education is the key to building the talent pool to attain our vision, so we focused from the beginning on a vibrant and intensive training programme as a core essence of our festivals. With the kind support of Goethe-Institut, Freedom Park and organizations like the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in the United States, we have hosted top international filmmakers and trainers to conduct filmmaking workshops at every IREP Festival. The result is a steady improvement in the quality of Nigerian documentary films produced to a very high international standard.

You scripted, directed and produced Bariga Boys, a multiple award-winning Nigerian documentary about street performers in Bariga. What was the motivation behind it, and how have you ensured projects like this improve the lives of their subjects?

Bariga Boys is a profound exposition of the amazing artistic talents that abound anywhere you turn to in Nigeria. How else do you explain how such incredible dramatists emerged from the belly of one of the most deprived slums in Lagos to create original plays and performances that spoke truth to power through song and dance? I followed the performances of Segun Adefila and the Crown Troupe for an extended period and then made the film over the course of several months. I think the film made such an impression because people were impacted by the creativity and courage in the works of Adefila and his troupe. The works addressed contemporary issues of governance and development in humourous but pointed ways. These kids said out loud things we were all thinking. As to the film’s impact, Bariga Boys brought national and international attention to both Bariga, the slum and the boys themselves. Of course, the Crown Troupe is today an internationally known artistic brand, having been invited to perform in many countries in Europe and Africa. But more crucially, their art has focused attention on important issues of inner-city development, child education, integrity in leadership and many other issues that form the content of their works.

In 2013, you scripted, produced and directed a documentary titled Literature, Language and Literalism, about the late Nigerian writer, Daniel O. Fagunwa, the author of Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀. Why did you choose to direct this documentary and what was the experience like? I have always wanted to do something to bring attention to the timeless stories of Baba D.O. Fagunwa for a couple of reasons. On a personal level, I am proud to have come from the same family as this giant of Nigerian literature. I never had a chance to meet him but my father spoke a lot about him, and as children we read his books and reveled in the incredibly rich imagination of the context and content of his stories. They were amazing fantasies with unforgettable characters and value expositions that defined the moral millieu of the Yoruba culture and identity. It was important to me that I make a documentary to preserve the importance of these works and define Fagunwa’s eminent place in our rich literary history. The chance to make the film then presented itself in 2013 when a distinguished group of scholars and the Ondo State Government convened a conference on Fagunwa’s works to mark the 50th Anniversary of his death. It was irresistible to me to have a chance for almost every significant intellectual, as well as researchers from across the world who studied Fagunwa’s works to be available in the same environment. I was incredibly happy to take the opportunity and create a documentary that stylistically presents ‘Fagunwa 101’ to a new generation of storytellers who might be hearing about his work for the first time. More importantly as well, I made this film to highlight the weak link between our growing film industry and our literature. We have such a rich literary heritage that I think can deepen the quality of storytelling in our cinema. Beyond that, it also has significant economic dimensions. I like the way my incredibly brilliant brother Obi Asika makes the point. The difference between ‘Thor’ of Germanic mythology and ‘Sango’ in Yoruba mythology is a billion dollars of creative exploration of Thor in film – video games and what have you! Imagine the colourful characters of D.O.Fagunwa’s books in films?

You became President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN), ending your tenure in 2006. How did you tackle piracy during your time, and in your opinion, what can be a lasting solution to the scourge?

When I was President of ITPAN from 2002 to 2006, we spent a lot of time working with the Nigerian Copyright Commission to focus strategies to fight piracy. My honest opinion from that experience is two-fold. The first is that we need to invest in a massive awareness campaign to educate the general public in realizing that piracy is a crime. If you and I refuse to buy the pirated DVDs, books or music in traffic as we now so nonchalantly do, the pirates will do less business and be less encouraged. People just don’t understand that piracy is theft. Intellectual theft. Because we are not sensitized to its criminal nature, we fail to understand that every single pirated DVD we buy dispossesses legitimate artistes of earnings from their sweat. The pirate has zero investment, zero liability, and is legally a criminal. So yes, the kind of investment needed is a public service campaign that needs to be mandated for all broadcast licensees in Nigeria to regularly broadcast creative jingles and announcements that would make the anti-piracy campaign a top-of-mind thing for Nigerians.

The second important thing I learnt is that we have enough laws against piracy, yet there is zero enforcement. Pirates don’t sell DVDs in secret, they sell them in traffic where police officers see them everyday. The markets where pirates sell wholesale are known. The warehouses where their duplicating machines are humming are not hard to find. The printers designing fake sleeves for pirated CDs and DVDs are in the open. So we have to ask if the law enforcement institutions like the police, the customs and the Standards Organization of Nigeria have the political will to help our industry survive. These are the sorts of institutional support I have always encouraged the government to give to the creative industry to help it grow. Piracy will eventually kill the industry if we do not do something drastic and urgent. There is no doubt that President Buhari’s government has shown seriousness in tackling corruption in our nation. We beg him to invest support in the creative industry by also helping us eradicate the scourge of piracy.

You started off your career in the advertising sector, and still produce commercial content for corporate organizations. What difficulties have you faced, considering that several prefer to outsource their work internationally?

The biggest crisis in the advertising industry today is how to stop investing local money in the production industry of foreign countries. Today, sadly, the majority of TV commercials airing in Nigeria are produced abroad. These commercials are targeted to appeal to Nigerian consumers who buy products and services with locally earned money. It is a crazy trend that began over 10 years ago. Back then, agencies told their clients that these commercials could only be made to international standards if they were produced abroad at incredibly huge budgets. With over a decade of making films exclusively abroad, the question is how many of these ‘international award-winners’ have broken any creative bars consistently enough to merit the millions of dollars we have invested in the production industries of other countries at the expense of ours. It’s a shame to say it, but there is a level of selfloathing that seems expressed when we spurn local technology or expertise in deference to anything foreign. I spent over 15 years in advertising and this much I can tell you–the majority of the TV commercials that resonated most with Nigerians and built powerful brands in the history of advertising in Nigeria were conceptualized and produced locally. Who doesn’t remember the Bagco Supersack TV ads of the 90s? There are many more like that… Government, especially the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) must do something to protect the indigenous production companies in Nigeria that have been denigrated and incapacitated by this foreign filming trend in advertising. It is the perfect oxymoron to ask the question, how will they grow in capacity and retool their technology if nobody patronizes them?

Please tell us about your forthcoming projects?

Well I am excited about my upcoming feature film currently in post production titled Gidi Blues. We hope to release the film in April and I am looking forward to sharing this with the public. I also have a new documentary in the works that is focused on the crisis of public education. We are still in the early stages but will hopefully finish the film towards the end of the year. Right now I am focused on the 2016 IREP Documentary Film Festival tagged #CHANGE – Documentary as Agent Provocateur. Its happening from March 24 to 27 at Freedom Park, Lagos and also at the Afrinolly Space, Oregun, Lagos. We are excited to be screening over 30 exceptional international films and hosting filmmakers and speakers from across the world.

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