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When is a Foreign Film Too ‘Foreign’ for Western Audiences?

When is a Foreign Film Too 'Foreign' for Western Audiences?

In making the movie “Black November” for an international audience, I came face to face with a phenomena I found both taxing and disturbing – did I have the right to tell a story of Nigeria from my perspective as a Nigerian, or was my artistic inclination subordinate to market-driven forces that needled and nagged at my quest for authenticity, demanding instead a brew of ingredients familiar to the tastes of Western audiences, with perhaps just a dash of local seasoning for flavor? Here I was, a Nigerian, a man of Nollywood in Hollywood, my African cultural roots entirely different from those I encountered on this West Coast, my views and perspectives formed through an African lens, trying to make the Westerner understand my people and my story simply by watching.

I was face to face with something I did not anticipate – Nollywood …. meet …. Hollywood! A one-letter difference in name, an identical business, celluloid cousins surely, related in vision, both searching for stories that resonate and ring true.

Yet what I found was more than just an ocean and a continent separate us. We barely know each other! What I thought was universal was revealed to be entirely different universes, revolving around different core values, different energies, different chemistries.

Somehow I had to bridge this gap I wasn’t convinced existed to satisfy a Western audience without compromising on my quest for authenticity, staying true to who we really are, as people of the Niger Delta.

It was all about questions, answers to which were not easily found.

An example – while editing “Black November” in Los Angeles, my well-respected American editor remarked she thought it unnecessary to retain certain scenes where a group of Nigerians are seen chanting. Her stated rationale was the chanting was “too melodramatic” and did “not feel real.”

Yet the chanting depicted was entirely authentic within context. It is a fundamental part of community life in the Delta and a Nigerian audience would accept the manner of depiction in the film without question or comment.

As for the scene feeling “not real,” I was staggered by the implication of the remark. Does the “feel” of authenticity depend upon the watching audience’s own cultural touchstones? Should actuality take a back seat to tricks of the trade that seek to affect audiences in visceral ways familiar to them – a sort of cinematic Pavlovian trigger designed to engender maximum emotional effect?

Surely we can expect more of our audiences. Surely an audience for any foreign film expects to be obligated to accept the unfamiliar, be it a indecipherable language made “real” by subtitling, or a scene of ritual alien to their frame of reference but as common, even unremarkable, to the film’s culture of origin as each day’s twilight.

A week before her comments, after spending some in the company of several of my Nigerian friends, my editor mentioned to me that Nigerians seemed to talk in such loud, aggressive and colorful tones. She was convinced we must be constantly arguing! In fact, Nigerians simply communicate in a babble of sound, full of energy and gesticulation, constantly talking over each other and generally – I concede – with some considerable volume! It simply is part of us. It is our reality, how we choose to communicate, and how others interpret our mannerisms is not the type of commercial decision I thought I would have to make when preparing “Black November” for U.S. release.

I carefully reminded my editor of her observations when with my friends and pointed to the scenes she wanted taken out as depicting Nigerian realities. Of course that sparked an argument; “It will confuse a Western audience”; “It will generate bad reviews;” “it is not authentic, at least it is not Hollywood’s authentic Africa”…

Was I really to heed her advice, regardless of the fact I made a Nigerian film about Nigerian issues as a Nigerian. At what point in the process does a director have a duty to change the nature and character of my cast, to de-authenticate my Nigerian story, so as to excise any natural ingredient too unpalatable to the tastes of Western audiences as to risk sending them running from the table?

As children growing up, we reveled in the simple art of storytelling with which our grandparents blessed us as we sat under a tree just before bedtime. We called it tales by moonlight. We would listen for hours to one man spinning a tale without any interruption, without our attention wandering or, much the worst sin, falling asleep.

These stories were told with directness and with purpose; about how greedy children end up carried away by the devil who will cut their hearts out, or how naughty children were turned into frogs or eaten by crocodiles, how envious children were banished to the bottom of the sea and fell prey to mermaids not in the least like Ariel. The stories were parables with a message that resonated in the realities of our everyday lives. The messages that lie at the heart of such parables are universal, yet the manner in which they are told and passed on differs from place to place, face to face, race to race.

Surely the voice of the people from whom the story originates can speak in tongues their own and communicate with mannerisms unique when the tale is theirs to tell, even if the message at the heart of the story is universal.

There are approximately 521 different languages spoken in Nigeria by her population of about 165 million people. “Black November” is set in the Niger Delta in a community of four different ethnic groups.

I was born in the oil rich city of Warri, a place around the size of Beverly Hills. There you will find five ethnic groups, all of whom speak different languages, Urhobos, Ijaw, Itsekiri and Effuruns.

However, English is the official language of Nigeria, a souvenir of our days as a British colony and testament to borders delineated by those men of Empire with little or no understanding of the peoples within. Nigeria is a fiction made real by the lines in blue ink drawn by white hands.

And so, my first words were English words; my entire education was in English from kindergarten through university. In fact, admission to a Nigerian University required a credit in English.

Nigerians speak English. All those different tribes; we all speak English. Dialects make the manner of speaking English radically different from one community to the next. Mix in patois and our words can become indecipherable to the untrained English language ear. But we still speak “real” English.

Allow us to speak plain English to you – Nigerian English – in the telling of “Black November.” Allow the lens its universal language. The message “Black November” tries to convey is universal. It is a film about inequality, oppression, injustice. It is a movie about hope, community and that the power of belief can bring change for the better.

It is a film for change; this is exactly what I told a group of militants in Nigeria when I convinced them to be a part of “Black November.” I asked them to play themselves. They did, using their own weapons as props, real weapons with live ammo. I got a battalion of police, real police, to act as themselves, real mothers who cried at death in the film as they cried when their children were lost or killed in pipeline explosions in real life. There are real doctors, real students, real people of all races in “Black November.” Real events underpin the story.

Surely it should always be the goal for aspiring filmmakers to promote responsible, positive change through truth in storytelling.

It is a global story my people tell. Please allow their voices to be heard.

Jeta Amata, known for such movies as “The Amazing Grace,” “Alexa Affair” and “Mary Slessor,” is an award-winning Nigerian filmmaker, who comes from a family of veteran filmmakers.

Entertainment One Films released Amata’s latest film, “Black November” in theaters, VOD and iTunes on January 9. Written and directed by Amata, “Black November” stars Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Anne Heche, Akon, Wyclef Jean, Sarah Wayne Callies and Vivica A. Fox. 

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