The film director stands in the blazing sun of the Kaduna afternoon. Mopping the sweat from his face, he motions for his newest discovery to take centre stage and deliver his lines to the crowd of extras assembled beneath the protective shade of the gateway arch. The camera man does a sweep of the scene to capture the moment as the star confidently rises from his seat to address his audience. The director leans in for a last-minute word of advice and his leading man nods his understanding before turning to provide the climatic speech. A brief pause for dramatic effect, and then, in a booming voice as warm as the afternoon sun, he calls out, “Sannuku! Lafiya! Oh, no! I messed that up!” The crowd erupts with laughter. The director shakes his head and makes a note to do some serious editing later on or maybe add this scene to the blooper reel.
So much for my film debut.
The film industry in Nigeria is a booming affair, ranking only behind the US and India in terms of production, according to some accounts. Local films run around the clock on the Africa Magic television channel, and shelves in the community shops are overflowing with new titles every month. With so many movies being produced, it should be no surprise that most of the films won’t merit Oscar consideration, with camera work that is shakier than an earthquake and acting that recalls the subtle craft of the Three Stooges. But putting aside the technical considerations, the stories are usually very entertaining, whether retelling old myths or attempting to create new ones. The combination of gangsters and lions might seem an unlikely one at first, but a healthy suspension of disbelief is often rewarded with a tale that would never make it to celluloid anywhere else in the world.
My introduction to Nollywood happened last weekend when Kristel invited me to the release party for her first film – Called to Missions. She had been asked to star in the film over a year ago through an acquaintance who knew people in the movie industry. Her role as a development worker in the film benefited from her actual experience of working in the field, and she impressed the director so much that her role was expanded through later shoots. During the course of my time in Nigeria, I heard many times about the progress that was being made on getting the film ready to be launched, but delays pushed the release date back repeatedly, until it seemed that it would be unlikely that we would see the film before we left the country in November. When told of her departure date, the director assured Kristel that it would be ready in time, so a party was planned and Kristel extended invitations to a handful of her closest friends.
As with most things in Nigeria, the event turned out to be quite different than expected. Instead of a simple occasion where DVDs would be handed out after the requisite speeches and thank you’s, we arrived to find that the director had a different agenda in mind. Apologizing from the start that the DVD was still not completed and would not be available for us to take away, he was determined that the event should not go to waste, so he decided that it would be filmed and incorporated into the final cut of the movie or at least form part of the documentary that he wanted to complete that would chronicle the making of the film. These would all be details that would presumably be worked out at some other time .
Speaking to the understandably confused group of people in front of him, he thanked us for coming and then asked us to come again. Right now. Leading us out to the road, he pointed to our vehicle parked in the shade of a tree and asked us to get into the truck and drive down the road with a couple of the other cars. “We want to capture your arrival, so turn the truck around at the end of road and drive toward us. We’ll wait here and greet you when you get here.” Seeing our chance for stardom, Kristel’s entourage eagerly piled into the truck and drove down the road to await our cue. I suddenly became aware of how sad I was going to look on film, wearing a T-shirt and pants that would have been appropriate if I was portraying Charlie Brown in a Peanuts epic. My hair was also a wonder, with sprigs sticking out from the side of my head in what I hoped would be seen as my homage to Kramer from Seinfeld. Seeing the director wave, we drove down the road with deliberate slowness to convey the seriousness and passion of NGO workers. As promised, the crowd waved and welcomed us and we greeted the people that we had already met. My sunglasses hid my eyes well, so my efforts to make them twinkle with delight probably weren’t captured by the camera following us around.
After a tour of the village, we assembled under an arch that provided the only shade in the immediate area. The director pointed at various cast members seated among the crew and gave them their instructions regarding their lines. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether we were still filming the movie or if we had moved on to the documentary, so my performance technique shifted between method acting and pretending I was on Survivor. Eventually, the director came over to Kristel and explained what he wanted from her. “I want you to stand up and greet the crowd,” he said, “Use all of the Hausa that you know.” Kristel happily obliged and delivered a series of greetings in fluent Hausa that were warmly received by the crowd. “And now, I want you to do the same,” he said, looking at me. And that’s how I came to make a complete arse of myself on film in two languages. Giving me the opportunity to redeem myself, he asked me to explain why I had left Canada and what I had accomplished in Nigeria. “Get him to do it in Hausa,” some wiseass in the crowd said. I hope they can edit that out.
With the speeches complete, the film crew had a special surprise in store for Kristel. Bringing out a framed certificate that confirmed her contributions to the film, they thanked her for everything that she had done and wished her well when she returned to the Netherlands. Promising that the DVD would be available before she left, the director assured us that the film would be complete by the following weekend. “And now, it’s time for us to film you leaving,” he said, which we took as our cue to go. Lining up beside the vehicle, the film’s crew and stars shook hands with each of us as we climbed into the truck and drove away. It was too early in the day for us to drive off into the sunset, but I’m sure they can add that in later on.