The 20th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), here in New York City, kicked off its 2012 edition (also its 20th anniversary, a milestone year), last Friday, November 23rd, opening with Nigerian filmmaker Tony Abulu's cross-continental drama/thriller, Doctor Bello (a screening premiere I was present for), a film S&A readers should already be familiar with, as we've been covering it since it began production earlier this year.
The Nollywood/Hollywood collaboration stars Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Bern Cohen, Genevieve Nnaji (maybe the most internationally well-known Nollywood actress), Stephanie Okereke (also a well-known Nollywood actress) and Victor Browne.
Here's a long synopsis:
Brilliant Cancer specialist Dr. Michael Durant ( Isaiah Washington) is emotionally troubled, wrestling with the traumatic loss of his 10 year old daughter from Cancer. Immersing himself in his work in the hospital, away from his wife ( Vivica A. Fox) he forms an unlikely bond with a sick, loving, but rambunctious 11 year old boy Sam, the son of a rich Jewish couple who are major contributors to the hospital Cancer research fund.Unfortunately, Sam’s health deteriorates drastically, and with only a few days to live. Dr. Durant becomes desperate, willing to risk anything to save the child’s life. A surreptitious Nigerian Nurse convinces him to seek the help of Dr. Bello ( Jimmy Jean Louis), an uncertified Nigerian Doctor with a controversial past, known in the Brooklyn-African underground as a miracle worker. Dr. Bello secretly administers a strange African potion, replete with incantations to Sam and miraculously, the child begins to recover, the Cancer speeding into remission. Little did Dr. Durant know that this would start a criminal investigation by the hospital board, and eventually lead him to a mysterious, riveting journey of self discovery, love, forgiveness, and hope in the mysterious “Garden of life,” lodged deep in the recesses of Nigeria’s sky mountains.
The screening was well-attended, and was actually made up of an audience that was quite diverse; it wasn't an entirely black/African crowd, which I would've expected, which, we could say, speaks to how widely awareness of Nollywood cinema has traveled.
In chatting with a few folks before and after the screening, I'd say that there was definitely an interest/curiousity, both among those who are intimately familiar with Nollywood movies, as well as those who weren't at all familiar, before Friday's screening; the former wanting to see the latest effort from a beloved filmmaker; the latter curious about this brand of cinema we've come to label as Nollywood; pockets from both groups influenced by the fact that this was a Nollywood/Hollywood collaboration (although the Hollywood side of it came primarily in front of the camera in the form of Isaiah Washington and Vivica Fox), and one of the most expensive Nollywood films made today (I believe the film's producer, and wife of director Tony Abulu, said it cost about $1 million to make, which I'd say is about 20 to 50 times the cost of most Nollywood movies).
Some members of the cast were present for pre- and post-screening Q&As, which could collectively be summarized as affirmations of Nollywood's growth and respect on the global film stage, as witnessed in the Pan Africanist production of Doctor Bello (featuring a cast of actors from different continents and backgrounds), and re-emphasizing the need to be supportive of multi-culti collaborations like this one, as the industry essentially fights for international respect.
Obviously, there are likely those Nollywood directors and audience members who are content with the status quo (we could say, films by Nigerians, about Nigerians and for Nigerians), and who resist any calls for change; while there are those, like a Tony Abulu, Obi Emelonye, Kunle Afolayan, and a few others whose names have been mentioned often on this site in recent months, who are clearly pushing for a brand of Nollywood cinema that is recognized, and can compete on the International cinema stage, with the likes of the Hollywood movies that dominate much of the world today.
Even Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, seemed to agree, in 2010, creating a $200 million loan fund to help finance locally-produced film projects.
And with those considerations in mind, in further thinking about Doctor Bello as a work of commercial film art, I reached the realization that the film, like other Nollywood movies, will probably be received very differently by fans of Nollywood cinema, and those who aren't familiar enough with Nollywood cinema, and were raised on, and thus have become used to, we could say, a Western brand cinema.
This *separation* was made evident, in chatting with different audience members who attended the premiere, and/or eavesdropping on conversations after the screening; In short, Nollywood cinema fans loved it; while the others didn't.
I even recall one of the American actors who was present for the screening, commenting about learning how to act for a Nollywood audience, versus an American audience – something that I'd actually never even given any thought to, but after he made the remark, it registered with me.
The actor added that the director, Abulu, wanted him to, essentially, tweak his performance for a Nollywood audience; the suggestion therefore would then be that this is a film that was made for a Nigerian audience, first and foremost. It's not clear whether the other actors were given similar directions, but the overall impression I got was that the intent with this film (and maybe we could say this new movement in Nollywood cinema that's being spearheaded by a handful of Nigerian directors), is not to necessarily change what Nollywood cinema is in order to suit international audiences, but rather to acclamate international audiences to what Nollywood cinema is – in terms of it's style and structure especially.
With a million-dollar budget, production values are definitely on par with what we'd call "international standards" set by the West. However, there are still the previously mentioned style and structure differences that will take non-Nollywood audiences some time to get used to – that is if they choose. You either appreciate the film on its own terms, or you don't. It's kind of unapologetic in that sense.
If I may make the following comparison: I think of the Tyler Perry brand; he has his core audience here in the USA – a really loyal, faithful audience (as long he stays within certain boundaries), despite the fact that the rest of the country doesn't respect his filmmaking/story-telling ability/style. They may respect his business savvy, but not his talent. Yet, he continues to thrive, because of that niche audience he targets – one that continues to support him and his work (although, again, as long as he stays within certain boundaries; they can only take so much change).
In this country – the USA – Nollywood cinema is still very much niche cinema, and I'd say still largely an unknown entity, despite recent documentaries and news reports from prominent media about the industry. I'm not sure if it'll ever become part of the mainstream; but I don't know if it needs to (or even wants to) in order to survive and grow over the long term. As I said earlier, I think there are those from Nollywood tradition who are actively working towards that kind of recognition/affirmation, or at least, who seem to want to challenge the status quo; while there are those who could care less about how the rest of the world sees Nollywood cinema.
But while Bello may not be THE film that some hope will shift perceptions of Nollywood cinema around the world, it's one entry in a list of recent films (some similarly cross-continental, Pan-Africanist efforts) that the director himself has called a movement, which will open doors for other Nigerian filmmakers who seek a similar kind of global rep; suggesting that, a time will come when we look back on films like Bello, Last Flight To Abuja, The Figurine, Black November and others, as significant milestones in Nigerian cinema history (and maybe even African cinema) that gave birth to later efforts that would compete on the international cinema stage.
There's a much longer conversation to be had here (and in the near future, I plan to introduce first-hand experience commentary from those who know far more than I do about Nollywood cinema).
Doctor Bello opens in Nigeria, and will soon head to the UK. The filmmakers say that a limited theatrical run in the USA is in the works; so some of you just might have the opportunity to see it for yourselves.
When we have more information on all of that, you will know.
For those in New York, however, you should know that it'll screen a second time at the African Diaspora Film Festival this Friday, November 30, at 8:30PM, at the NYIT Auditorium on 1871 Broadway.
Also, be sure to check out the rest of the festival's lineup as well, by clicking HERE, which includes highlights like Moussa Touré's acclaimed immigration/survival drama La Pirogue, which will be making its USA premiere; and also, Philippe Niang's 3-hour epic drama Toussaint L'Ouverture!