Documentary Cinema as a development ideology
by Femi Odugbemi, Co-Founder/Executive Director IREP International Documentary Film Festival Lagos.
In 2010 Makin Soyinka, Jahman Anikulapo and I founded the I-Represent international documentary film festival in Lagos. Since then, We have made some progress making a case for rebuilding a vibrant documentary cinema culture in Nigeria. Our annual documentary festival has screened over 250 films from across the world partnering with other documentary festivals such as the Dok.fest in Munich Germany and the WADF out of the University Missouri in St. Louis Missouri and the New York University’s African Studies department. We have vigorously advocated documentary cinema as an important art form, yes, but more so as a powerful tool for empowering new voices and new perspectives on the issues of our political and cultural history and our development agenda within the framework of our ambitions for development, constitutional liberties, human rights, social justice and democracy.
That is why IREP chose from inception to frame our intervention on the theme “Africa in self-conversation.”
The clear recognition being that, Nigeria needs more than a cinema that entertains. Whilst we must continue to celebrate the emergence and growth of our Nollywood industry as an artistic and economic engine projecting globally the realities of our culture in fictional cinema, non-fiction day-to-day realities of institutional corruption, poor governance, gender inequality, ethnic divisions and economic paralysis of our country challenge our sense of responsibility as artistes. Our film industry is stronger and more relevant to our community if our filmmakers, can be persuaded to also turn their cameras on questions of important social issues armed with the power and perspective that makes documentary cinema so compelling.
For me and for IREP, Making the case for documentary cinema at every opportunity such as today presents, is an on-going conversation. We need all of us in Nollywood especially to continue to hear it. The vibrance of our industry, the audience attention we have gained, gives us huge power to which we must now add purpose.
Someone said filmmaking is an “act of provocation.” Perhaps the irony of Nollywood’s success, in this regard, may be that after these many years we are challenged to wonder what is the subversive value of our thriving cinema culture?
What is our artistic response to the stagnation of development in our nation? We cannot continue to abdicate the space for the public intellectual to silly NYGoodHealth online bloggers and compromised newspaper columnists.
The world is going through a whirlwind of complex issues on many fronts that challenge our understanding of the world, of ourselves and how we sustain our pursuit of peace and prosperity.
These challenges are urgent and critical. They demand a response. As artistes, WE ARE THE RESPONSE!
In a world of Sound-bites, documentaries provide us an opportunity to think, understand, and connect the dots. They are exploring the issues of our time, offering perspective, historical context and possibilities. They are controversial, divisive, fascinating, unexpected, and surprising.
That is because Documentary is not a deliberate art form. It starts from questions not answers. Its success relies not in having all the answers, but in asking the right questions.
And because development is a conscious agenda that requires mass mobilization, documentary cinema is a desirable “ideology” embracing diverse voices and realities.
It insists on reflection.
It invites debate.
It is too important to be left in the hands of institutions. It needs to be in the hands of the population. Documentary cinema is vital to helping us express our ‘individualities’ within the blurred boundaries of globalization.
All human experiences today, (social political and economic) are moving at a rapid pace requiring not only perspectives but individual interpretations of their meaning and impact. Thankfully the ‘accessibility’ of digital film equipment and the ease of digital broadcast and distribution have created possibilities for personal perspectives and individual voices to be heard.
We need a cinema culture that deepens democracy, we need a cinema culture that advocates responsibility, elevates accountability, defends human rights and freedoms and exposes the vestiges of disease, poverty and illiteracy. Documentary cinema must be at the centre of these conversations.
The complication of documentary of course is the intersection between art and activism. The narrative of reality and “truth” does not always allow for simple answers. But because its content is about shared experiences, its capacity for emotional connections cannot be contrived. That is why Nigerians have for so long dismissed the institutional documentary structures as more propaganda. We have to engender a new consciousness that reframes documentary’s importance not as a place to archive history but as a tool to make history and forge a future we desire.
Our Filmmaking culture must do more than entertain, it must commit itself as well to engineering open, honest, connected and more vibrant human experiences.