Critics are the bridge between audience and filmmaker. You can’t make films in a void. Critics don’t just give opinion or verdict, anyone can do that. They try to analyse the film, break it down artistically, culturally and emotionally.
IN CONVERSATION WITH WILFRED OKICHE was moderated by Dika Ofoma (Rat, Writer, Film enthusiast) on Our WhatsApp group chat on the 23rd November 2019 12noon.
Q: Let’s get a little personal. Tell us your favourite Nollywood films. Three of your favourites.
Wilfred: Hmm. This is a difficult question for me considering I don’t like to do favourites especially for film. But I will try anyway. Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion na wa is a special one. Witty and funny. I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like that since.
Q: Now as a film critic, could you tell us the best Nigerian films ever made?
Wilfred: Lionheart for the dinner scene alone. Perhaps Mildred Okwo’s The Meeting. I am sure I’m leaving other stuff out. Again impossible but I think I will maintain the above 3. Walking with Shadows and The Ghost and the House of Truth are new but I have a feeling they will hold up well. Nodash’s The Delivery Boy.
Q: This session with you is themed around objectivity in film criticism.We’d like to know how plausible/implausible this is. How objective can film criticism be?
Wilfred: They used to make a lot about objectivity in the past, these days not so much. And it is simple really. Art/film is by nature subjective and every person responds to it differently. So no matter how objective- what is that even?- you claim to be your personal biases based on your experiences and information will always seep in. Yes there are criteria, mostly technical with which we use to judge a film but because it is a visual and emotional medium, it is hard to explain objectivity.
It is why a film like Joker despite being excellent technically has elicited polar opposite reactions. Those who love it and those who hate it. Both can recognise technical elements like the cinematography, the sound etc but it speaks to people differently. Americans based on their own realities see it differently than Nigerians. All views are valid. But which one is the objective one, the one I agree with? The one you agree with?
But this all assumes that the critic has a baseline knowledge of film history and at least an appreciation of Film, what is good and what is not so good, what works and what doesn’t.
So a critic owes it to himself and his audience to educate themselves first before educating others.
Q: So how important is film criticism. What do critics offer other than one more opinion?
Wilfred: Very important I would say. But then I am one.
Critics are the bridge between audience and filmmaker. You can’t make films in a void. Critics don’t just give opinion or verdict, anyone can do that. They try to analyse the film, break it down artistically, culturally and emotionally. What does it all mean? Why should we care? What does it say about this moment in time, about anytime really.
Also cinema as much as it is subjective is also objective. Audiences don’t always get it and the informed critic is in a privileged position to teach and influence thought.
Q: You favourite Nigerian films differ from the films you consider the best Nigerian films ever made. I assumed favourite would be a subjective view, a personal preference.
Then best films ever made is an objective view based on the knowledge and education you have as a critic and is ratified by all other critics. Would WWS, TGTHT, and Delivery Boy also make the list of another Nigerian film critic.
Wilfred: Perhaps. If they are really as good as I think they are, they might. But there are so many good stuff out there that there is bound to be stuff I missed out or haven’t seen even.
Q: Critics in a sense then, refine art.
I like that you pointed out that art can be objective. Viewing art as subjective is ambiguous sometimes. Births the question, what is a good cinema/art? Could lead to misinterpretation of films. This is where critics then come in.
Wilfred: Exactly, Sharpen it
Q: This too. How important then is the Award system. Considering then that personal experiences/preferences reflect in the appreciation of cinema?
For instance, does Green Book winning best picture at the Oscars make it the Best film from Hollywood or from among the submissions?
Wilfred: Awards are important if done with noble intentions. It isn’t also a perfect system but the key is to try to adopt a system that strives to reward excellence not popularity or individual preferences.
The Oscars primary aim is to promote the industry. Once in a while they actually reward excellence. The two objectives are different. I think that answers the Green Book question.
Their system is a flawed one but credit to them for making the effort to ensure excellence always floats to the top.
Whenever a group of people gather to decide on something, the result is almost never “the best” but what everyone can agree upon.
That is why it is stuff with a broad appeal that eventually comes out tops as opposed to ambitious, experimental or niche stuff. No matter how excellent.
Q: Moving away a little from film. You once hosted a segment on Africana Literati where you reviewed books, African novels to be precise. I discern then that you’re interested in film as you are in Literature. But you are also a medic and you practice. I know that there are relationships between film and literature; I’m not sure these relationships exist with medicine. Take us through your journey. How do you marry the arts and science?
Wilfred: I still host the book review segment. We shot a new season that hasn’t aired yet. Send sponsor please dear. 😁
Q: Nice! Still on Africa Magic Family? I started seeing episodes on channel 319 (the educative channel, I’m not sure what it is called, Mindset?).
Wilfred: But yeah there is a relationship with everything if you think hard enough. Drs observe humans daily so are in good position to appreciate art as much as they dissect our humanity.
I grew up watching films then reading about them. My dad used to get weekly TIME and Newsweek magazines.
Naturally writing followed. I had a lot of time while waiting to resit a course in Med school. I got in touch with an editor and did an internship. The rest is history.
Q: Speaking about humanity now. There’s this new thing in publishing called sensitivity screening where a bunch of people read your manuscript and determine if there are bits in it that people would find offensive. You’re then asked to take it out (or nuance it) before publishing. Do you think this could harm storytelling in a way? From your experience through reading and watching cinema, do you think nuance as important as it is to storytelling has watered down truth in storytelling?
Wilfred: I don’t think nuance has been watered, matter of fact I think it is quite the opposite in terms of non fiction and even criticism. The personal essay hasn’t been more popular IMO and writers are constantly asked to reach deep down to express their feelings and how art speaks directly to them. So I feel like with perceptive and sensitive editors it is hard to lose out all nuance. Also you know the world is trying to get more inclusive.
Q: No. I’m asking if nuance, in any way, has watered down truth in storytelling.
Wilfred: I don’t think so. We have been getting stories mostly from a particular part of the world. Hearing from other minority voices means understanding what works and doesn’t. Truth is important but if your truth is based on the oppression of another, maybe we don’t want to hear it, at least not in the way that it is the dominant or only narrative.
Q: Can we talk about your Dad. I’m sure the role he played to your appreciation of art goes beyond purchasing Time and Newsweek magazines.
Wilfred: My parents were learned so books were always in the house. As children we were aware of my parents studying for one degree/course or the other so if you look hard enough at both of their shelves you will find something to read.
Also he tried to keep up with trends in film. The first film he got when he bought our video player was Coming to America. He also got us classics like Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Bollywood classics etc. Also made sure we had Cable TV to watch plenty cartoons and foreign entertainment. This was all before dstv.
In retrospect, he had good taste and transferred it to us I guess. So I owe it all to him. Rest his soul. 😇
Q: All of your education in Lagos? Please share the schools you attended. And some of the trainings you’ve received. Your educational background.
Wilfred: I’m sure I attended nursery school but I cannot recall which one 🙄. Command Children’s School, Command Day Secondary School Ikeja, Medical training at Nnamdi Azikiwe University and MSC at UNILAG. Hopefully the next degree if any is from the abroad. Please dear, I have tried.
Q: Bringing this home, we know the AMVCA is a popularity contest so we are leaving it out. But can you say similar for the AMAA, and AFRIFF as regards their awards and films that get screened at the festival?
Wilfred: I will start with AMAA. I have worked with them at pre-selection level so I know the system at that level works to pick out the strongest films. What I don’t understand is what happens after, once it gets to the jury. I haven’t been involved in this process so I can’t tell. But I think they let in a lot of considerations that don’t always include selecting the best. Sometimes balancing several interests will do more harm than good.
I can vouch for Afriff’s selection process. And thankfully films are getting better. This years programming was particularly strong. The problem was in the jury that was selected. I don’t think they know much about cinema because their pick for best film was actually the weakest film on the lineup. Juries are subjective but you need to try to get it right unless they spoil all your good work.
It is also the problem of balancing several interests.
Q: Too many times , Nollywood film critics/commentators and some filmmakers continue to disagree on what a good (Nigerian) film should be.
The filmmakers argue that Nigerians love a certain kind of film and fling Box office receipts in their defence.
Is that assertion correct, are Nigerians limited to only a kind of film?
2. The second most common accusation is that Nigerian film critics, (actual critics) judge Nigerian films with Hollywood/European lenses and hence must be wrong. Is this accurate?
Is there a need for a “Nigerian/African vision” for film criticism?
Finally, How do you handle the dissonance that must come from “thumbing down” a film the audience enjoyed immensely?
Wilfred: This argument happens everywhere. In America we have seen it with Scorsese vs Marvel. That a film is popular doesn’t mean it is good. And we see it every year with the Oscars.
Scorsese put it best when he wrote about chicken and egg. You give people a certain kind of stuff, they are going to demand for that kind of stuff.
I don’t think we need to put ourselves in a ghetto. Film is film and has a universal language. We may be behind technically but we can tell stories with the best of them. So no need to reduce our worth.
Having said that, there are nuances and contexts we need to pick up on as naija critics. No one can understand our films better than us so we should be able to understand and appreciate all the aggravating and limiting factors in our reviews. So no need for “Naija criticism”. But there is need for Nigerian contexts and nuances.
Your last question, I suffered this with King Of Boys. The way I see it, people will like what they like, doesn’t mean you should abandon your duty to tell them it is shite if it isnt.
Wilfred Okiche is a reader, writer, medic (epidemiology), culture critic and film programmer, one of the most influential film critics in Nigeria with expertise in Nollywood and pan-African cinema. His writing has appeared on various print and online platforms.
He is on staff at YNaija.com, and has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian. His work has been published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country, and South Africa’s City Press. Okiche has participated in critic workshops in Durban, Berlin and Rotterdam.
SOURCE: African arguments, Lorcarno festival and LinkedIn