It is doubtful that any Nigerian government, federal or state, has found reason to comment on the unfortunate disqualification of Lionheart, the country’s first-ever entry for the coveted Academy Awards last week.
The Academy Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars, is the reward system for practitioners in the American film industry broadly known as Hollywood. The awards governed by theAcademy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now in its 91st year having been first held in 1929. It rewarded films released in the United States until its 29th edition in 1956 when the Best Foreign Language Film category was created to reward “Excellence in International Film with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.”
Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart happened to have been Nigeria’s first entry for the category. It sadly made an untimely exit as it got disqualified last week for running afoul of the very basic requirement of having predominantly non-English dialogue!
So, the argument may be, why should government concern itself with such issues when filmmaking cum the entry and disqualification from the Oscars are all private undertakings? But I ask, why a government, especially of a country like Nigeria, should not be concerned and make a public statement one way or the other in the circumstance. This is more so because this issue agitated the minds of Nigerians like no other thing in the past week.
More than that however, filmmaking is increasingly becoming an instrument of politics and diplomacy, a reason with which accusations like racism are being thrown around concerning the disqualification of Lionheart. It is even a more prized endeavour in Nigeria for the myriad of favours that it does for the country. For a country where youth unemployment is a visible epidemic put at 52.65%, the Nigerian film industry is a veritable saviour with which the country must not fiddle with.
Even concerning the economy, Nollywood, as the film industry is called, is a significant part of the creative sector which, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study, contributed 2.3% (N239bn) to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016. This report also described filmmaking as “one of the priority sectors identified in the Economic Recovery and Growth plan of the Federal Government of Nigeria with a planned $1bn in export revenue by 2020.” Given that the country says it is committed to diversifying its economy, the creative industry remains one of the lowest hanging fruits in the attainment of the same, and so at this largely formative stage, all hands, including that of government, should be on deck when getting the best of the industry spoken about.
Most importantly however, films contribute hugely to the preservation of a people’s culture and tradition, part of which language is. So, when an American body throws out a foreign product on the strength of its failure to significantly promote the lore of the people where it originates from, it is not out of place for government to encourage the industry and its people, even lead an aggregation of efforts to ensure that not just for the purpose of the awards, but that the cultures of the nation do indeed not go out of fashion, which would be a tragedy.
The truth is that a language not only expresses a people’s identity, it is also their historical treasure. A Welsh proverb says, “A nation without language is a nation without a heart.” Our cultural values, spiritual essence and cultural treasures can be easily discernible through the proverbs and idioms and thoughts in our native tongues. Our indigenous languages are the archival for history. So, government must care!
Yet, neither the failure of government to join the conversation or the entitled disposition of a lot of Nigerians surprises in the circumstance. In fact, those inclinations, which deprive people from introspection account for the reason why Lionheart failed to pass the rather simple test. On the part of government, it has largely paid lip service to developing the capacity of Nigerian filmmakers to compete favourably with their counterparts across the world. Most of the attainment of this industry indeed results from the efforts of private individuals who have defied all the odds.
And a lot of Nigerians do not still get the point. For starters, the Oscars is an award system founded by Americans for their film industry. This is why this category only recently renamed the Best International Feature Film is the only one that does not have to fulfil the requirement of having to be advertised and publicly exhibited in a commercial motion picture theatre in Los Angeles County or the New York County in one or two instances. This international award is therefore just a token probably coming from the Big Brother psychology that the US has over most of the world. So, questions about how fair the rules governing the category are, are totally misplaced.
It is in the same breath that producing a Nigerian film in English should not be compared with producing a Senegalese film in French simply because they are official languages in both countries. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not speak about official languages in its rules. It requests films substantially made in languages other than English and it does not matter whether that language is French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo!
One of the reasons why this seems so difficult for us to comprehend may be because of our natural proclivity to disregard and circumvent rules. But that is okay as much as it works for us and allows us to mess things up. Societies which respect rules will however, not bend protocols simply because a big country, (with hundreds of dialects at the risk of extinction), where anything goes has managed to submit one film for a largely subsidiary category 92 years into the existence of the awards.
What is worse of all of this is the chance that Nigeria will not learn anything from this situation. With all the emotions flying all over the place, the prospect that Nigerians would see this as an incentive to do things better next time is almost non-existent, not with all these entitled, sentimental conjectures, which hamper the desire for hard questions and reformation of our hours.
What about exploiting this opportunity to support some homegrown reward system? What about learning to live by and always follow the rules instead of asking for a change of the rules like the Oscars was some United Nations body committed to fairness to all men? What about even daring to compete in the more prestigious categories of the Academy Awards? What stops Nigerian filmmakers from mobilising for that and compete in the Best Motion Picture of the Year or Best Director category? That is the kind of ambition that a country drunk on its own hype but fortunate to have the blessings of an uncommon collection of talents should nurse. While considering that though Nigerians must realise that the Oscars is about to look at its 100th birthday currently, because it has stuck to a set of rules that it set for itself. It is the same way with countries that hope to stay relevant.