Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mopping-up MOPICON

Recently, the Information and Culture Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in inaugurating a committee to review a decade-old draft of what is generally described as the MOPICON Bill, lifted the lid of a simmering pot of anxiety and discontent in the film industry. With the review’s submission imminent, I engaged eminent film scholar and Nollywood enthusiast, Dr. Jude Akudinobi, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in extensive exchanges. The following are excerpts, in relation to some key contentions around the Bill:

UMU: Why are expectations on the proposed MOPICON Bill so high?
JA: With the industry being consolidated into the national economy, stakes could not be higher and the initiative more timely. In principle, an entity, not regulatory body, which will work to integrate the industry fuller into the economy, boost private sector investments, ensure constitutional rights to creative expression, and so on, is pertinent. Nollywood is faced with shrinking profits, caused by piracy, policy, operational and regulatory lapses; so, discerning long-term development and investment plans are needed to maintain its competitive edge.

What, then, can one make of the contentions between industry members about the Bill?
Those are indicative of current afflictions, even tribulations, that do not augur well for the industry. If MOPICON comes into existence, it must focus on harmonizing the diversity of voices, visions, even idiosyncratic dispositions, not boxing in or boxing out certain creative impulses or prerogatives. Some, like CJ Obasi, Steve Gukas, Seke Somolu, among others, who have drawn attention to problematic aspects of the Bill have, regrettably, been vilified. Insofar as reviews are about critical examinations, all opinions, whether complimentary or contrary, should be taken into consideration.

Could you share those problematic aspects and your thoughts about them?
It depends on how much time each can spare, as there are elements in that Bill which would subject the nation to ridicule and may, ultimately, sound a death-knell for the industry. A few salient ones include prospects of jail terms, fines, power to regulate and control professional practice in the industry, exhortations to “correct thinking” and “tell a story honestly,” whatever the latter means, prohibitions against film practice in Nigeria, based on age, nationality, learning, ostensible skills, non-membership, three-tier membership order . . . 

The scenario appears quite grim...
Well, policing creativity, especially who may engage in it, runs counter to the national constitution, basic human rights, freedom of expression, making a living, etc. So, conceivably, individuals, guilds and the council would be embroiled in protests, legal challenges, and, with the power and reaches of new media technologies, a global outcry that would waste time, scarce resources, and imperil co-production prospects, thus spurring runaway productions.

Could you elaborate on the last two, co-productions and runaway productions?
Each raises knotty policy issues, with the industry’s prospects for long-term growth. Co-production treaties are entered between countries, not guilds, and increase global networks for the respective signatories. So the guilds should press the government for such, as the benefits are plentiful; for example, cultural exchanges, transfer of skills, access to markets and funding sources. South Africa, for instance, has eight co-production treaties. Nigeria has none and may never do, with the prohibitive elements in the bill’s current draft.

What about runaway productions, a fascinating term . . .?
Coined by the American film industry, the term refers to Hollywood productions which, for a number of reasons, like cheaper labor, tax incentives, production costs, favorable exchange rates, are shot in more amenable locations, like Canada, costing the US billions in lost revenues. If the draft’s shortcomings hold, film-makers will, predictably, hop across borders to Benin Republic, Cameroon, or Ghana, shoot films, release them from there, destabilizing Nollywood’s distribution points, depriving Nigeria of billions, thus laying the foundation, however gradual, for the industry’s undoing.

What do you make of the composition of the review committee?
Well, it is fairly composite, insofar as film-making is a collaborative process and an umbrella forum is at the core of the current endeavor. That said, the dynamics of the deliberative process is key. The integrity of the process, for instance, would be better served if members of the current committee, who may have been involved in the initial (2006) draft, recuse themselves. Town-hall meetings, open to the public, would help foster constructive exchanges, as well as allay fears, founded or not, of hidden agenda.

Positions on the Bill have undercurrents of Nollywood’s inter-generational conflicts. Would you agree?
That is regrettable because a cursory glance across Africa reveals audacious pushing of creative boundaries and more worldly reference points, from a younger generation of writers, musicians, artists, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, and, crucially, here, film-makers. In this are shifts in interests, experiences, sensibilities, and audiences. Living in Bondage, a seminal Nollywood film, would, next year, be a quarter century old. So, whether seen as renegades or upstarts, Nollywood’s younger generation must be reckoned with, considerably.

Advocates of the Bill cite the need for professionalism...
A film’s production gloss or high budget does not necessarily guarantee “professionalism”, “quality” or, crucially, commercial success. A film may be a critical hit and still flop commercially. In all, a mix of elements should count, including creative merits of the film as art and entertainment, how it is positioned in the marketplace and resonates with audiences across the board.

Tenets of APCON (Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria) are, also, referenced as model... Any comments?
“Model,” is putting it charitably if one juxtaposes certain elements of the proposed Bill, like “Functions of the Council”, with “Functions of APCON” on the latter’s website, where it is noted that its establishing Act “vested APCON with powers to control and regulate practice of advertising in Nigeria, in all its aspects and ramifications,” has a “governing council composed of the Chairman who is appointed by the President of Nigeria,” and other provisions that make it, in effect, a parastatal. With the Nigeria Film Corporation, National Copyright Commission, Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board, Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, National Film Institute in existence, such “modeling” is intrinsically flawed. Film practice is different from medical practice, legal practice, advertising, etc.

Are there middle grounds, then, for the government and guilds’ stakes?
Certainly . . .  the government should robustly encourage private sector investments and confidence in the industry, promote indigenous content, production subsidies, tax incentives, help develop sturdy industry structures like production and post-production facilities, expand distribution and exhibition channels, support film festivals, maintain digital and comprehensive libraries of software, books, manuals, worldwide industry journals, create special funding schemes for aspiring and emerging talents, vigorously enforce existing laws, articulate public enlightenment campaigns against piracy, conducive policies and, generally, the environment for the industry’s growth.

And, the guilds or associations...?
The guilds should register an independent lobby forum, premised on solidarity rather than facile notions of “unity”, and articulate bankable visions. They must, relentlessly, invest in the professional and strategic development of the industry through further education or training, websites, networking, workshops, seminars, mentorship programs - not apprentice programs - identifying emerging talents, however young, eschewing hierarchies, encouraging diversity and range of innovative projects, insisting on and respecting contracts, and with recent deaths in the industry look into health insurance programs, even, pension plans. In essence, premium should be placed on collective bargaining power for negotiating with the government, private investors, corporations and international businesses.

Quite a lot, there. Anything else, for all concerned...?
Look to the future with discerning eyes. Build for the future with discerning minds.