The Power of Movies

If I asked everyone here to tell me what period of the year is summer, I am pretty sure most of you would mention somewhere between May and August, right? I always thought so until my first visit to South Africa a few years ago. My visit was in July/August and was a great eye-opener. I had previously visited New York in winter so I knew what if felt like to experience winter. But nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience in Johannesburg. Not even New York when I visited was that cold. And I was told it was even colder in Cape Town. That took my mind to when South Africa hosted the FIFA world cup. I remember it was in June and the footballers were always putting on gloves and neck warmers. I only saw it through TV and always wondered why they dressed that way till my visit
to SA. I was told it was winter in SA. So I quickly went to my dictionary to look for the meaning and season of summer. The Cambridge dictionary defines summer as “the season of the year between spring and autumn when the
weather is warmest, lasting from June to September, north of the equator and from December to March, south of the equator.

So the question here is why is it that we always saw summer as just May to August? Simple. This is because that’s the period of summer in America and Europe and virtually everything we watch come from there. So we have taken their reality as ours. That’s the time they experience summer, but for countries in the southern hemisphere like Australia, South Africa etc., it’s the complete opposite. They experience winter during that period. But it seems most of us only know what happens in the other region because of what we consume via the media and movie. You even hear Nigerian schools talking of summer holiday, summer camps etc. How can we have a summer and not winter? If anything we have summer all year round. What we mainly experience here is the dry season between November and March and wet season where it rains other times of the year. Just like what Chimamanda said during her Ted talk about the dangers of a single story. She said that the first books she wrote were when she was seven and that her characters were all white, eat apples and talked about the weather.

 

All contrary to what she experienced where she lived in Nigeria but because they were what she saw in all the books she read and thought that was how books
should be. This is because all her books were written by western authors, so they formed her reality even though she had never travelled out of Nigeria until she came across African books. Films and other forms of media are very powerful tools. They have a way of subtly controlling how you see things and these things are deliberate. If you watch the movie ‘Thank you for smoking’ you would see how they used movies to get Americans smoking in the 50s and 60s. These were very powerful and the effect was amazing, as you didn’t look cool if you were not smoking. This showed how powerful and influential TV could be. Haven’t you ever wondered how come whenever aliens come to earth, it’s only the United States they visit first? And guess which army usually comes to defeat them and save the world? Hollywood is the number one branding tool of the US and their government would never joke with it. Over the years, the idea of what most parts of the world have of The US has mainly come from what they have seen in Hollywood movies and sometimes the news. But a lot of people don’t watch the news but everyone watches movies. So Movies have shaped our understanding of the west whether it is true or not.

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So whenever we make films, we deliberately pick what we want you to see and shoot in such a way that you focus on what we want you to focus on. I remember the very first time I was going to travel outside Nigeria. I was travelling to New York and I was about 34 years old. I had seen American movies my whole life and felt like I already knew everything there was to know about America. I mean, what else could you tell me about New York? The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. If you make it there, you can make it anywhere. (Thanks to Jay Z and Alicia keys for that bit.) To the average Nigerian that has never travelled out of Nigeria, I am sure that the trip can be likened to a visit to heaven. And I was going to be staying with my cousin in Manhattan. What other heaven on earth could be like
that? I remember as I arrived and took a cab and we drove through the streets. My cab driver was Jamaican and he couldn’t but help but noticed I had a certain look of surprise on my face. I guess I was expecting their roads not to have a single bump like we have here and you would find a single paper on the ground. I thought wrong. I remember saying at some point that some places are just like it is in Lagos. In fact, my biggest shocker was when I went to take a train at the subway station. Till today, I haven’t seen rats as big as the ones I saw and they were just strolling with a sense of entitlement. It dawned on me that a good PR had me thinking in a certain way all my life about the city.

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I often tell my students, as a filmmaker, there’s one main thing we sell with our movies, and that’s emotion. When we are writing our stories and scripts and during the process of shooting as well as postproduction, the one thing we keep asking ourselves is “how do we want the audience to feel at this time?” When you watch a good film, you have to feel something. It could be anger or laughter, sadness or anxiety. You have to go on a journey and feel something otherwise the filmmaker didn’t do a good job. So when you are watching a movie and a tear leaves your eye, running down your cheek during a scene; it wasn’t by chance. The filmmaker deliberately designed it so you would shed that tear at that point using different tools from music, to dialogue and performance etc. Our job is also to make sure when you set your eyes on the TV, you don’t take it off again until that movie or TV program is over. It’s very easy to change the station as it’s just to tap a button on the remote control, so we put in so much effort to make sure we prevent you from doing that. That’s why you are flipping through channels and stumbling on a let’s say a lady being chased by a guy, you first pause to see why he’s chasing her and if he will catch her. Then before you know it, you could spend the next hour waiting to see what will happen to her next when your intension was just to flip through channels.

It’s the same way vice versa. I realized that the kind of stories the west likes to tell of Africa is that of poverty and deprivation. I observed that most of the film festivals in the west are mainly interested in screening African films with these themes and not the ones that show you the wealth of Africa. They love films shot in the ghetto areas showing poverty. These are mainly the films that get selected to screen at their film festivals. I once asked someone why that is the case. Asking if they haven’t seen enough of those in their news year in year out. I didn’t get a good answer but this is something I would really like to know. And that’s why I feel African filmmakers have to learn to balance these stories. Someone once joked that why is it that in recent times, the only black actors that got nominated for an Oscar were the once that played the character of slaves? Well, please when you do have an answer please let me know, as I would be eager to know myself.

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Unfortunately, it’s the same with early Nigerian films. I like to visit African countries and meet people. I realized some years ago that each time I speak to many of my fellow Africans about visiting Nigeria, they were usually cautious. They often will say they don’t want to be affected by charms or voodoo by a native doctor. All these are mainly what they saw from watching Nigerian movies as these were the stories that dominated our movies when Nollywood started. When I told them that most Nigerians in Lagos where I was born and raised have never visited a native doctor or know where to find one, they found it difficult to believe. They would also talk about other negative things they saw in the movies. So that got me thinking. What if we projected positive things in our movies? What if we showed them the beautiful things about Nigeria? Nigerian filmmaker, Izu Ojukwu once told a story about when he screened one of his films in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel and he had some beautiful drone shots of Lagos in it. He said that the Nigerian embassy in Israel said that the application for Nigerian visa increased after the screening and this was due to the fact that they saw a side of Nigeria that is different from what they thought.

 

I teach film at Pan Atlantic University as well as organize free workshops every year. One of the reasons why I do these is because I believe we have to make young Africans understand these things and begin to create a new Africa and thereby a new world for the world to see. Sometimes when designing my film, I don’t use what I see every day here. Someone would say but this is not realistic. What I tell them is that I am using my film to build the kind of world I want to see. I see it as being futuristic and showing our people what could be. But there are so many beautiful things to see about Nigeria and Africa. It doesn’t have to be about poverty and the ghetto all the time. Films can be used to tell the negative stories of a people as well as make them look bad but the same media can be used to correct the wrong impression that has been created. So let us think about this seriously and use films to create a new world.

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