Projecting Nigeria

Curator's Note

In 2005 a controversy broke out on the internet over a song “I Go Chop Your Dollar” by the Nigerian comedian and film star Nkem Oweh. Taken from his hit film The Master (2005 Dir. Uzodinma Okpechi), the song, sung in pidgin English, (whose lyrics and translations can be found here) tells the story of a Nigerian 419er (conman) threatening to con an ‘oyinbo’ (white man) by selling him the national airport or an oil refinery contract. The song, described by some bloggers as “the spammers anthem” spawned a predictable outcry. Western bloggers, few of whom watched the film the song came from and wholly ignorant of its place in the story, saw it as a celebration of (and evidence for) Nigeria’s corruption. Nigerian bloggers rejected this, alternating between pointing out that Owoh is a comedian and the song a parody, and that the only people conned by 419 are Westerners attempting to steal from Nigeria anyhow. I think the controversy interesting on several levels for issues it raises about the transnational projection of Nigeria’s image. 419 letters claiming to represent oil executives, or dictators sons with $50,000,000 to move out of the country might unfortunately be Nigeria’s most prominent presence in global media. The international success of Nollywood is seen by many Nigerians (and the government itself) as a correction to this and to endless stories of Nigeria’s corruption projecting a powerful ‘good news’ story about Nigeria. But as Nkem Oweh’s song suggests, the success of Nollywood comes precisely through depicting stories of sexual and economic corruption, juju and the occult, crooked politicians and pastors and many Nigerians themselves are deeply critical of these films for projecting the underside of Nigerian life. Franco-African filmmakers have argued that Westerners are only interested in Nollywood because it reaffirms exotic stereotypes of Africa and that the poor quality of the videos ends up reinforcing ideas of Africa’s poverty – ideas that the entire concept of African Cinema was designed to reject. Both Nollywood and 419 emails in their stories and in their form of circulation are sites of intense interpretive struggle over the projection of Nigeria’s image. This is an issue which haunts Nollywood particularly, forcing directors and actors to justify themselves and their work against intense criticism even as they are celebrated for their tremendous international success. It is the expectation that Nollywood stands for Nigeria, forced on unwilling filmmakers by fans and critics alike that makes these films operate as national allegories. The controversy over I Go Chop Your Money is a striking instance where Nollywood, 419, and the Nigerian image collide and where the intensity of this struggle is revealed.

Comments

Olivier Tchouaffe's picture

Great post, Brian! Indeed,

Great post, Brian! Indeed, this is a Nollywood’s version of Robin Hood, a testimony that it had become a global fantasy shared by all the downtrodden of the world. This could be another example of the death of ideology when even the most exploited are beginning to internalize the “Laws of the Market.”

Ibrahim Amidou's picture

I am all for the comment of

I am all for the comment of Brian on the song and the controversy it caused among not just the ordinary people but also among the scholars. “I Go Chop Your Dollar” to some extent echoes Tchouaffe’s piece in the sense that things or situations or events can be reversed. The dominated can at some point be the dominant, the dialectics of the master and the slave, the deceitful deceived. But where I may disagree with Brian is the generalization that Francophone film-makers argue that Nigerian films/videos give to westerner what they expect to see from Africans. This point is arguable since most of these movies/videos are drawn from the happenings of the terroir (See the video “Usuofia in London,” the main character being the same Nkem Oweh and you’ll come to the realization of one of these instances). Africans in general have little stories, rumors, enigmas and lived experiences known to local people that the film-makers translate into images for primarily a capital gain and second to lay out some of the facts or plagues of the societies they live in. I think the real case that can be made about Nigerian films/videos is that of financial/economics. Some of the Francophone film-makers contend that by mass-producing films/videos as Nigerians do with cheap equipments, they actually drive down the value of films causing the professionals to lose their markets and attention. Others (English speaking Film-makers/critics) think otherwise. For them, Nigerian Film-makers capacity to mass-produce videos is an economic force to reckon with because of globalization. Both arguments in my view are valid. My point here is that Francophone and Anglophone film-makers are not at war at all since they both seek to portray Africa or Africans based on the milieus they live in. Overall, I think it is an interesting piece that Brian put up and to interpret the song it must be put in its context as part of a whole not the whole as a part.

Brian Larkin's picture

Ibrahim, I think you are

Ibrahim, I think you are right to caution against simplistic dichotomies between anglophone/francophone. I was trying to make the point that the critique comes from both within Nigeria and without (just as positive responses come from within Nigeria and without). My interest is how the controversy over I Go Chop Your Dollar replicates aspects of the wider controversy over Nollywood ias a whole n that both quickly come to be analyzed as emanations of Nigeria itself. The controversies make them stand for Nigeria both by critics - Western bloggers; those critical of Nollywood - and by those who come to the defense and I am interested in the intensity of why and how the films are made to work as national allegories (both in content and form).

Your point in arguing why filmmakers (as opposed to home video makers) are of the mass production values of Nollywood is also strong. There are differing audiences, different cultural ambitions, different structures of production at work and both should exist and be strengthened - not opposed to the other.

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