Every few weeks, a heated discussion breaks out in the Nollywood corner of Twitter. The configurations differ from time to time but the two sides are almost always intact: one wants Nollywood to succeed the way it is or for its films to “grow the market”; the other group hinges their arguments on the creation of better movies, the kinds of films that can travel to prestigious festivals outside of the continent.
In some ways, it is the old “money vs quality” argument.
It might occur to any onlooker without skin in the game that both are valid arguments. The question then is: Why can’t these people all get along?
The answer is simple: the status quo favours only one group and that group would defend it to the death. The opposite is true for the other group. As these arguments are mostly between directors and producers, the industry’s client-facing currency, the actors, are caught in the middle. If they want to survive, they must find work and if they must find work, they must keep quiet when these arguments take place on Twitter. And so has it been and so shall it continue to be. Amen.
So while you would find certain directors, producers and cinematographers of films from either side but rarely both, actors do not quite have that liberty of choice. That lack of choice, ironically, offers freedom. You are likely to find an actor in a supporting role in a Nollywood blockbuster and in a lead role in one of the indie short films at the Africa International Film Festival. Is this selling out? Not in Nollywood, where stakeholders are likely to call existing in both spaces practical. If great roles aren’t forthcoming, is the promising actor expected to starve for his art?
The answer is anyone’s guess.
At the Lagos Fringe Festival, you could see one of the more promising actors of the current dispensation of Nollywood, Seun Ajayi, in a one-man play called Dreams. It is the portrait of a Nollywood actor as a young man, as written and acted by a Nollywood actor.
Dreams is a bit of an interesting entity insofar as it presents parts of the Nigerian film industry from the point of view of an insider for an industry that, quite unlike its US equivalent, isn’t heavily invested in presenting fictional versions of its workings. Nollywood hasn’t made A Star is Born or a Sunset Boulevard. You might say Nollywood is not quite ready for its own close-up.
In fact, over the past few years, when a character familiar with the workings of the industry appears onscreen, not only is the story told by a director or writer working on the margins of the industry but the industry and its quirks are either mocked or satirised, as it is the case with scenes from Abba Makama’s two features The Lost Okoroshi and Green White Green.
In Confusion Na Wa, one of the first films to bring up a discussion of Nollywood, the scene is played for laughs as it subtly makes fun of certain Nollywood conventions.
Makama and Gyang are young directors and could be taking revenge on an industry that still hasn’t quite embraced their talent. Ajayi isn’t playing their game.
As a member of the younger generation of actors currently making his way towards prominence in Nollywood, Ajayi has been featured in both films from mainstream Nollywood directors and those on the margins. (He is the star of The Lost Okoroshi).
This adaptability could be seen as compromise, but prestige isn’t going to pay Nigerian bills. At least not in the same way constant work will. So when Ajayi begins the lengthy monologue that forms the backbone of his play, the viewer familiar with his work watches, waiting for the moment when his character, unarguably based on himself, comes to the realisation that his need to be and be seen as a great actor will need to be eclipsed by or blended with the need to, as the line goes, “put food on his table”.
That moment never comes in Dreams. Or the play stops before we get a chance to see the psychological wrangling that has to take place within the actor before the decision to exist in both spaces occurs. Dreams ends before we see how compromise is negotiated with oneself and then with the industry that doesn’t quite grown a system to reward excellence removed from popularity.
What then do we see?
Well, we see how a child’s gift for mimicry, sometimes hazardous, as in one occasion when a bewitchment with action flicks nearly burns down a neighbour’s house, can lead to a career as an actor later in life. We see how school sometimes gets in the way. We hear episodic tales of an actor’s life.
On a stage marked by the absence of decorations, Ajayi, sans elaborate costume, commands the attention, narrating and acting out scenes from his real or imagined life, backed only by speakers supplying other sonic elements.
For much of the play, he speaks the part of everyone else while also being the voice inside the protagonist’s head. He’s both voice and voice-over. The vocal adjustments required are not sophisticated but effective. The major sense one gets watching the man is that he’s enjoying himself. The characteristic Seun-Shrug comes out a few times, but the sense of a man having fun acting out a story of his own, is never lost. At one point, he name-drops an actor who he believes is having a better run in Nollywood than himself and he does this without apparent bitterness. In the version I saw, the actor was Daniel Effiong, another young actor who happened to be in the audience. Effiong laughed at the mention.
It was a lighthearted moment for Nollywood insiders, a number of whom were in the audience. It would have gratified those who preach the importance of community. I might have laughed at the scene myself. And yet, if everyone understands that Dreams is make-believe, even as it is cut from a true story, could that scene not have been the source of high drama if Ajayi had explored the darker impulses of actors from the same generation struggling to be seen in an industry where to be seen is currency?
Tales of actorly camaraderie are welcome, but if Dreams gets a sequel, it would be valuable to see conflict, to see a Nollywood insider explore the industry’s darker stories. I’d bet that the audience can handle it. The only question is this: Can Nollywood bear to see its own face?