How Toronto fell in love with Nollywood

Olumide Iyanda

Buzz by Olumide Iyanda

Email: Twitter: @mightyng

Organisers of the 41st Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which ran from September 8 to 18, knew they were spot on in shining the spotlight on Lagos in the City to City programme of what is regarded as one of the Top 5 film festivals in the world.

Welcoming hundreds of actors, directors, producers, marketers, journalists and other motion picture stakeholders to the 10-day event, TIFF CEO, Piers Handling; Executive Director, Michele Maheux, and Artistic Director, Cameron Bailey, declared that “Nigeria has one of the most prolific film industries in the world, with a new generation of ambitious, complex and bold filmmakers.

“These burgeoning, electric voices are challenging norms and advancing artistic expression, and we are excited to share Lagos’ boom of inspiring storytellers as part of the Festival’s international cinematic landscape.”

Speaking later at a press conference on Tuesday, September 13, Bailey disclosed that it took a lot to put the programme together. For that, “we are grateful for the help of many people, including Steve Ayorinde who is the Commissioner for Information for the Lagos State Government.”

The artistic director added: “Steve is someone that I knew going back 10 years when he was writing about films. He was a journalist. He is now a very important man in Lagos and was very kind to express immediate support for this spotlight that we are doing.

He signed off his pre-conference remarks by saying “thank you to the Lagos State Government.”

With established and first time Nollywood directors sharing the spotlights with hundreds of others from around the world, Toronto was a bankable suitor. Nigerian filmmakers were soon to become baes.

Nollywood’s opening film at the Festival was Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party. The screening on September 8 was attended by no less a person than British-Nigerian actor, David Oyelowo.

Being her first feature film, Adetiba said directing the movie was like getting dropped in the deep end of the pool.

With an ensemble of star actors and over 200 extras, she had to manage egos and skills. The result is a film critics think has more stars than substance.

The Wedding Party, however, brought out the laugh in many people, even if it was generally agreed that it should not have opened the City to City run at the Festival.

Day 2 saw the screening of the eagerly awaited 93 Days, the gripping drama about sacrifice, courage and survival during the 2014 Ebola crisis in Nigeria.

Directed by Steve Gukas and starring the likes of Bimbo Akintola, Danny Glover, Keppy Ekpenyong, Gideon Okeke and Somkele Iyamah-Idhalama, 93 Days was undoubtedly Nollywood’s best showing at TIFF.

The global theme, human drama and politics of the Ebola crisis, coupled with the sheer artistry of the cast and crew make the movie a must-see. It was the most reviewed of the Nigerian productions at the Festival and one of the most watched.

Directed by Uduak-Obong Patrick and produced by Judith Audu, Just Not Married was screened on Day 3, September 10.

The film, according to the director, “didn’t allow for any veteran actor to star in it, and we took that chance with young people.”

It attempted to give a lie to the belief that you need known faces to have a good cinema run.

Patrick argued that “we need new faces, new stars to grace our screens”.

The audience in Toronto agreed with him. Bailey also disclosed that the film was a favourite among TIFF staff.

There was a dilemma on Day 4 as the screening of Izu Ojukwu’s 76 clashed with In Conversation with Genevieve Nnaji and Kunle Afolayan.

The screening of 76 at the Isabel Bader Theatre began at 7:30pm while the session with Kunle and Genevieve ran from 8pm-9:30pm at Glen Gould Studio.

Nigerians ended up dividing themselves in equal halves.

If any film deserves to compete with 93 Days as Nigeria’s best at TIFF, it is most definitely 76, a period drama about the 1976 coup against Nigeria’s then Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed.

According to Ojukwu, “before now it would have been impossible to walk up to the Nigerian Army with a script that has a coup theme and get their support.”

But that is exactly what happened with 76, a film that took over four years to complete.

“The willingness of the Army to open up to the kind of support they gave me is a sign that the Nigerian film industry has made a great impact,” Ojukwu continued.

With Ramsey Nouah, Rita Dominic and Chidi Mokeme playing major roles, 76 tells the human stories that is often ignored in the planning and execution of military coups.

It is a classic tale told with vintage acting and retro fashion.

Omoni Oboli, who arrived Toronto before almost everybody else, sashayed on stage on Day 5 to present her Okafor’s Law, a film about the myth that a man can always sleep with any woman he once satisfied in bed in spite of her current status.

Aside directing and producing the film, Omoni plays the role of a beddable but deeply conflicted woman to the delight of her real life husband whom she invited on stage before the screening.

Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration was the third film at the Festival starring Somkele.

The legal drama taps into the sexual dynamics between men and women in a business environment.

There is no middle ground with The Arbitration. You will either thoroughly enjoy this film or sleep through it.

Like Not Just Married, Oko Ashewo also stars Ijeoma Grace Agu, who appears alongside Femi Jacobs, Odunlade Odukolaand Hafiz Oyetoro.

Spoken in Yoruba and subtitled in Pidgin English, it appealed to Nigerians in the audience. Others had a problem understanding it, and the number of people in the hall at the end of each screening said a lot about its reception.

Director of Green White Green, Abba Makama, neither looks nor sounds like a typical Nigerian filmmaker. Neither does his film.

The full title of the film is Green White Green and All the Beautiful Colours in My Mosaic of Madness. It reminds one of Paris Barclay’s Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood released in 1996.

Like every other country at the Festival, Nollywood served up an interesting cocktail of epics and near misses in Toronto.

Beyond the screenings, there was an Industry Conference on Nollywood on Monday, September 12 and a TIFF organised Lagos Party on Tuesday, September 13.

A business roundtable with the Bank of Industry, Peace Anyiam-Osigwe’s Africa Film Academy and the Lagos State Government was held on Wednesday, September 14.

More will be revealed in days to come especially in areas of business deals and individual collaborations brokered.

Unfortunately, with the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) and National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), the two federal agencies mandated to drive Nollywood, still in suspended animation, it might take more time for the gains of TIFF to fully materialise.

For the Festival-goers in Toronto, the City to City spotlight on Lagos was the beginning of a love affair with a new set of storytellers.

In the words of Bailey, talent agents with voracious appetites are already looking for the actors, writers and directors from Nigeria who can help feed what Hollywood needs.

Little wonder Genevieve was smiling at the end of the press conference.