Dear Nollywood Director,
Let me begin my letter to you with this unpopular quote:
“I am altogether opposed to popular entertainment, because I consider that all good entertainment is popular”
My friend, It’s no news that the most financially successful movies in Nollywood have been comedies and romance dramas, thus ensuring the oversaturation of the same tropes and characters from television films to webseries, leaving films from other genres and their respective expressions in the dust of relative oblivion. It is the safe route, the trusted formula players in industry hold dear because “Man must chop”, ” this is how we used to do it” and all that jazz.
You have also read prominent Nollywood commentators, filmmakers and thought leaders agree that these box office earnings reflect the taste of the Nigerian audience: a browbeaten people seeking to escape from the grind of their arduous daily life into the sweet worlds that these films create (the 1% of the 1% ecological space). You’ve seen stern, acerbically laced warnings that filmmakers looking to make profits at the box office must be able to create the same kind of films over and over for this audience.
Sadly, with all this noise, the stark truth recognized globally (but hidden from our highly esteemed brothers and sisters here in the industry) has been submerged: That cinema created to entertain the viewer can retain artistic depth, soul, meaning and more. But when this is pointed out, furious Nollywood people unlock their artillery, arm up like Rambos, only without nationalistic dignity, and wage a hard war against preachers of depth or every/any critic or observer that dare questions them.
Don’t get me wrong my friend, providing entertainment is the most important function of cinema, but we both know these box office killing films (their supposedly entertainment delivering vehicles) do not provide this entertainment, at least not the kind we enjoyed with our poorly produced Baba Suwe/Osuofia comedies of the 2000s. We both know that their comedies are not truly comedies but forced farces soullessly embodied and unskillfully delivered that are immediately forgettable.
We both know Odunlade Adekola and Sanyeri can actually make us laugh even with their slapstick characters. But they tell us differently, they say New Nollywood does it better, when we know only the cameras and lights are new. We both know it’s their powerful marketing that compels us to buy their tickets, while eating popcorn hoping for at least three excellent scenes. We both know how overjoyed we are when we find one or two of these movies that at least portray some coherence. We support these films by talking about them to friends and family, joining the New Nollywood delusions.
But why are the directors and producers of these films joyfully telling “detractors” that Nigerian audiences do not appreciate depth. In the words of one, audiences only care about their famous faces doing interesting things? Really? Should we conclude that these filmmakers lack the artistic depth themselves, or is it really impossible to entertain an audience while still creating a work of art that holds depth and beauty?
Shall we point to films from all over the world that managed to balance these two properly? Doesn’t Peele use the horror genre in order to discuss racism while still creating “popcorn entertainment”? I can go on and on, but not today.
You know what they say when these questions are asked, they refer to tales we all know; sad tales about Nollywood struggling to grow, with no funding and not enough cinemas or film schools.
Yet imagine the cricket silence when we point to films made in the same industry that have managed to entertain and yet provide artistic depth, I won’t mention names so you won’t label me sentimental. But if they won’t deliver on artistic depth and beauty, they should deliver on entertainment and quickly. I can’t say what effect it has on us as audiences. Are our tastes getting eroded as we get used to mediocrity or will more, like many before, turn away from Nollywood? I cannot say.
But what I can say from watching films around the globe, is this: My dear filmmaker, Entertainment and Depth Are Not Mutually Exclusive.