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Film Festival Circuits, a New Frontier for Nigerian Indie Filmmakers?

Film Festival Circuits, a New Frontier for Nigerian Indie Filmmakers?

Rehearsal - Michael Omonua - Nigerian Indie Filmmakers - Afrocritik

As more Nigerian indie filmmakers tell their stories and exhibit and distribute them through viable channels, it’s interesting to witness. These successes and conversations are indications of a film industry that is sporadically moving towards establishing itself in global film culture.

By Seyi Lasisi

Nigerian Indie Filmmakers at the Kurzfilmtage Winterthur Film Festival

In November last year, Nigerian director and writer, Micheal Omonua shared a post on his X (Twitter) page.  In the thirty-three-word post, deceptively bereft of information, Omonua revealed a culturally significant moment in the Nigerian film industry. In a few words, the post announced three things: Nigerian Cinema was the focus at the 27th edition of the Kurzfilmtage Winterthur Film Festival — Switzerland’s major short film festival. Secondly, the festival showcased, through the “Nigerian New Wave”, the works of Nigeria’s emerging indie filmmakers whose short films were selected for their world premiere. Lastly, the tweet passively instils into readers the importance of the historic moments. 

Selected for the Nigerian New Wave was Besida, the Chuko Esiri-directed short noir drama about the fragile relationship between two siblings. The short was shot in Abraka (a town in Delta State) and produced by Arie Esiri. Also showcased were Ixora, a queer love story about two female journalists directed by filmmakers, Nengi Nelson and Nosazemen Agbontaen, and produced by A ZENN Collective Production; and Egúngún (Masquerade), a bilingual (English and Yoruba) film made by Olive Nwosu in 2021, another queer story about a young queer lady who returns to Nigeria for her mother’s funeral, where she discovers herself and her purpose. Hello, Rain, directed by the award-winning C.J. “Fiery”, is another short showcased — story about a scientist-witch who distributes powers to herself and friends through tech and magic —  Harmattan, directed by Muyiwa Awosika, a new psychological horror short about two army recruits who turn against each other in their boot camp; and A Quiet Monday,  directed by Dika Ofoma, a short social drama that centres around two siblings who involuntarily defy a sit-at-home order during social unrest in the eastern part of Nigeria. 

Besida (Short 2018) - IMDb

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Other selected titles include: Do You See Me, directed by the wanderlust Wale Oyejide of Bravo, Burkina! fame; You Matter to Me,  a short directed by Immaculata Abba, which captures how the parents of the film director experience joy even in the midst of grief or tension; Memory XX,  a 15-minute collaborative production by Ewoma Great Oro and Olamide Akinjare that captures how a once vibrant romance is sap of its energy; A Study On Love,  an experimental documentary  made by Olayinka Eno Babalola, exploring the topic of  love in an elementary fashion ; Àlááfíà Ni — interpreted as “peace” in Yorùbá — written by Tobi Onabolu and co-directed with Sonia Irabor, a film about the life of Lagosians, exploring the internal serenity that prevails regardless of trials and tribulations of living in Lagos; Aje and Bruja, directed by Nosa Igbinedion; I Am An Easy One to Forget, a 10-minute Sonia Irabor-directed film; The Nightmare on Broad Street,  made by Ayo Lawson and Femi Johnson, which  follows five friends who meet to hang out at a Freedom Park museum then ended up running from a masquerade; Lizard,  directed by Akinola Davies Jr; and Rehearsal,  which is Omonua’s directed film currently being developed into a feature film. It captures the art of staging miracle healings.

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There is a common relationship between these selected short films screened at the Oscars-qualifying film festival and the other genre-bending indie films in Nigeria. These films boost filmmakers’ confidence to tell daring and unorthodox stories. Trying to contextualise what this means for indie filmmakers and the Nigerian film industry, I spoke to  Omonua, who was also a jury at the event, shortly after the festival. Speaking to the cultural significance of the film festival programming of Nigerian short films Omonua said, “For a Nigerian spotlight at this time, it’s significant. Although people in the industry may not necessarily feel the significance of this, I’m sure it’s a significant milestone. Eventually, some of these voices (filmmakers whose films were screened) will have the ambition to enter the Nigerian mainstream space with their voices.”

Film festivals, mostly international ones, have over time become the exhibition point for Nigerian indie filmmakers. With access to screen their films to a culturally diverse jury and audiences,  these filmmakers whose films might not have been popularly accepted in Nigeria, are finding ways to screen their films at international film festivals. With the possibility of building a strong international network and community of cinephiles intrigued with their work, more artistically minded filmmakers are taking the film festival route. This new generation of filmmakers wants to tell a new kind of story, and they are growing in numbers. “Unmindful of how you want to separate it – mainstream filmmakers versus indie or artistically-minded filmmakers – there will be a coming together. There will be a new mainstream that may coexist with the ongoing mainstream. But, I’m inclined to believe that the new mainstream is going to come from the filmmakers making a lot of weird, artistic films going to film festivals”, Omonua added about the importance of Switzerland’s programming. 

To build a more eclectic film culture in Nigeria, it’s imperative to have alternative cinema aside from mainstream film. Nigerian screenwriter, Isaac Ayodeji aptly expressed this opinion in these words: “For too long, showing your film in the cinema or other distribution platforms like ROK TV and Africa Magic, was the viable place to show films. But now, filmmakers are exposed to festival circuits. Young Nigerian filmmakers are realising that the world is craving for stories from the continent and are using the successes of other filmmakers to push themselves to keep trying.” While each filmmaker struggles to find a viable business and distribution model to adopt, what is topmost is that each creative finds their audience. As Ajodeji puts it, “There is the YouTube series, there is the TV series, the artistic indie filmmakers and all. Everyone is catering to different audiences.”

A Confidence Boost For Young Indie Filmmakers

An important aspect of the New Nollywood film programming is that seeing indie filmmakers screening their films to rave reviews at international film festivals subtly gives others in line the confidence to tell their unconventional stories. This programming revealed that there is now a pathway to exhibit and distribute their films as opposed to earlier years when there was little attention for Nigerian films.  

Reflecting on his filmmaking journey, Omonua recounts how arduous the pathway was when he started as an indie filmmaker. “When I started making shorts, from 2014 to 2016, there was no pathway in sight. It was like a ground that hadn’t been threaded.” Having now screened his films and won laurels at international film festivals, Omonua is confident of a path for indie filmmakers. According to Omonua, young indie filmmakers, with an alternative filmmaking style and visual language, can forge a different route, “Now, with more Nigerian filmmakers going to festivals and winning awards, there is a bigger pathway. Young indie filmmakers see their peers at Sundance, Berlinale, Rotterdam, Locarno, and Toronto International Film Festival, and will start seeing a pathway for themselves.” 

Ayodeji shares a similar thought process with Omonua. He draws references from the success of Damilola Orimogunje’s For Maria Ebun Pataki, which won the 2022 Film Africa Audience Award for Best Feature, to make his point. “Once other indie filmmakers see the financial success of other artsy filmmakers like them, it will boost their confidence. For Maria Ebun Pataki and Mami Wata’s successes and other short films’ success help inform indie filmmakers that there are other financially-rewarding routes to tell their stories”, he said. Ayodeji alludes to Obasi’s Mami Wata, Nigeria’s first homegrown feature-length film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which won the coveted World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance. Also worthy of mention is Babatunde Apalowo’s All the Colours of the World are Between Black and White which won the Teddy Awards for Best Feature Film at the 2023 Berlinale. The film also won the 2023 Jury Award at the Queer Film Festival Munchen and the Best Director and Best International Film at the 2023 edition of the Out on Film

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Creating a New Audience and Market

Over time, Nigerian indie filmmakers have been at the forefront of pushing alternative Nigerian cinema. By showing their films in film festival circuits and uploading them on publicly accessible streaming platforms, these filmmakers are satisfying the craving of a growing community of Nigerians looking for alternative films. Although one can’t outrightly measure the expanse of this growing audience base, when one attends indie-curated film festivals — S16 Film Festival, The Annual Film Mischief (TAFM), Ibadan Indie Film Awards (IFA), and Screen Out Loud — we catch a glimpse of these audiences. Mostly composed of young people who are actively watching films and TV series from other film cultures, these cinephiles are making new cinematic demands that mainstream filmmakers have not yet conceded to, while still telling stories grounded in Nigerian realities. “There is a growing generation of Nigerian cinephiles with a well-cultivated understanding of film. This generation is exposed to not just Hollywood films but films by French and Polish directors. These people might be small but they are the market for the indie filmmakers”, Ayodeji buttresses.

As artsy filmmakers gain more ascendancy in Nigeria and globally, it pushes an argument that there will be a conflict between indie and mainstream filmmakers, that there is often a feud between advocates of indie/artsy films and mainstream films. It is a contention that has been ever-present. But as the screenwriter opines, as filmmakers get funding and build confidence, the film market will keep expanding to accommodate all kinds of stories. “Indie filmmakers aren’t here to displace mainstream filmmakers. And this is what we see in other film cultures. Yes, there will be contention with indie filmmakers believing they should get more screening time. There are contentions that big-budget films are choking other films. Many kinds of films and sensibilities can co-exist in Nollywood.  And the first step is for filmmakers to recognise their audience. And this will ultimately influence the business angle of their filmmaking endeavours,” Ayodeji concluded. 

The filmmaking success of Mami Wata, For Mara Ebun Pataki, and several short films prove one of Ayodeji’s points: artsy and mainstream films can co-exist in Nigeria. Omonua further expands Ayodeji’s opinion: “Mami Wata might not be in the audience’s consciousness compared to other mainstream films. But if Obasi makes a horror film for his next project and if Apalowo does a genre film next, which eases itself into audiences’ consciousness, a new mainstream, whatever that means, is being born. And I have held this thesis for years now. Another important question is: will this new mainstream coexist with the current one? Sure, it will coexist. But what will happen next I’m not sure. What I do know is that we do need more filmmakers telling weird and artistic stories going through the festival circuits while cultivating a voice for themselves.” Omonua’s comment goes to show that while the Nigerian film industry is attracting global attention, the need for internal dialogue and introspection is needed. 

Nigerian culture writer, Jerry Chiemeke, adds his thoughts to the foregoing conversation, “Art house cinema and indie films don’t necessarily exist to uproot what currently exists. They are carving their part. And yes, art-house cinema can exist side by side with mainstream Nollywood films. It will help if more art house filmmakers get more distribution and cinema deals. However, it will be inimical to advocate for art house cinema to uproot what currently exists. Both co-existing help to diversify and create a more structured and expansive industry.” 

As more Nigerian indie filmmakers tell their stories and exhibit and distribute them through viable channels, it’s interesting to witness. These successes and conversations are indications of a film industry that is sporadically moving towards establishing itself in global film culture. 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: seyi.lasisi@afrocritik.com

Cover Photo: The Rehearsal by Michael Omonua Short of the Week

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