Last Sunday was the Academy Awards which technically I believe is the national awards in the USA for cinema. Sort of like the BAFTA in the UK, Cesar in France, SAFTA in South Africa and the Goya Awards in Spain. You have probably not heard of the last two and you may have heard of the Cesar. Chances are you have heard about the BAFTAS but the Oscars is probably the one you care enough about. Because America as a super power runs true in la la land too. No pun intended.
The Oscars have somehow morphed into the global film awards that everyone monitors for representation. I doubt very much that there is a #goyasowhite or #saftassoblack because no one really cares as much about recognition in South Africa or Spain. But there is something golden touchish about America. You make it there, people back home who had ignored you will call, thick and fast. Just ask Idris Elba.
So, on the morning of the 27th of February, amidst the best picture winner fiasco, there were think pieces about who might be in the running for Oscar 2018. Because to the film industry, once the Oscars are over, that is the end of the awards season. But only as we know it. Because truth be told, there is a bigger world outside the UK and USA. A world where cinemas are being built, attendance is on the rise, people want to go and watch movies on the big screen and high speed internet is too expensive for Netflix to be a threat. And in one of the worlds continents, Africa, this weekend, there will be the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Award. Hosted by one of the largest cable networks, Africa Magic is probably the TV station with the greatest churn of movies in the world.
All original, from the continents filmmakers, some commissioned to deliver 2 or 3 at a time, which they do turn around in impressive time – announce production today broadcast on Friday. I exaggerate but you get the pattern. The budgets are probably in the region of Medicine for Melancholy, the first film by Barry Jenkins. But thanks to the lack of competition and proper regulation, commissioners at Africa Magic, do suffocate the growth of filmmakers in the region by taking all rights to the original work of the filmmakers, including theatrical in say Japan, which they are never likely to exploit. Censorship is strict as I discovered when I was told that I was promoting lesbianism which is against their broadcast guidelines. My crime, a montage of wedding scenes, one of which included a same sex couple. Fully clothed, no physical intimacy, just standing at the altar waiting to be married for variety sake. I could find it amusing and shrug my shoulders at the regulations and lean back to wait for the right partners.
But for filmmakers in the region who have few options for their work to be commissioned or social security if they are out of work, there is little to do other than give in. But I digress.
So this weekend, the channel will host its annual gathering in a lavish party though ticketed this year due to Nigeria’s economic woes. Switching countries is of course not an option because Africa means Nigeria and Nigeria means Africa for pan African broadcasters. Television is really about ratings and advertising, so the country with the largest population wins.
You may have never head of the nominees but the continent and some of its diaspora has. And over the past few weeks they have been voting. Because the Viewer’s Choice Award is like the People’s Choice Award. The viewers vote via texting. Forget one person one vote, you can vote multiple times, from different sim cards. Given that democracy is a numbers game, you can probably guess how this is going to work. What’s film got to do with it? The countries with the largest populations will probably win. But then the categories are also dominated with nominees from you guessed it, Nigeria.
Maybe they are the only ones who bother to enter. Or maybe they meet the criteria of the jury that does the shortlist. Difficult to say, the eligibility rules are not public. I am not sure the jury is either.
As we scan the list of acting nominees it is difficult to identify a non- Nigerian name. There are best movie categories for West Africa, South Africa, East Africa but no North Africa. I chuckle. Five out of Five West African movies are from Nigerian despite West Africa having 16 countries.
There are the pacifying categories like best indigenous language, which bizarrely stops at three, Hausa, Igbo and Swahilli. Nigeria alone has over 100 indigenous languages and I am certain the films from Equatorial Guinea would not have been shot in any of those indigenous languages. And therein lies the problem of treating Africa as a country. Pan Africanism is great in concept but impractical because there is so much diversity. Communication and travel links within Africa are poor, so most Africans probably know more about American and British movies than the ones from neighbouring countries. The only exception is of course Nollywood which to some extent, also explains the dominance of Nigeria.
The content rewarded this weekend may be far from Oscar quality or even broadcast quality. But whilst some of us may sneer, niche awards of this nature, gives the continent [read Nigeria] a reason to celebrate, motivate and inspire on its own terms. The event, the local heroes, will trend on Twitter because social media buzz is a meritocracy. There will be fashion police commenting on the frocks in the same cutting language used by the team at E. Timelines will be flooded with thanks to God and all manners of inspirational quotes from winners whether they are on the cover of Variety or not, the next day. Hollywood Reporter or Screen Daily will not be queuing up to give you the winners list as they are announced as they do with every major film awards but you will be able to find them on every major specialist blog, of which there are many. Most you have never heard about but they have a readership of millions run by founders who are millionaires. It is a different world.
A world where the public is also tasked with choosing Best Editor, Best Lighting Designer, Best Short Film, Best Documentary, Best Cinematographer, Best Art Director, Best Costume Designer, Best Editor and Best Sound Editor.
I am not trying to underestimate the astuteness of the audience but there are very few people I know who do not work in film but watch short films as they play mostly in the festival circuit. There are even fewer in Africa who watch documentaries given that the NGO has destroyed any notion of documentaries being anything other than an educational or fundraising tool. There are probably even less people outside the film industry who assess a films production design or sound editing whilst watching it especially in Nollywood where Sound Editing is yet to be discovered as a component of the filmmaking process.
In a few months, there will also be the African Movie Academy Awards. Also to be dominated by Nigeria. There is one lone reporter from Variety, who authors every article about films from Nigeria. He may cover it. He may not. But it will happen. It will mean something to the region. Because the awards season is only getting started. As they know it.
Victoria Thomas is a writer and producer based in Edinburgh and Managing Director of The Polkadot Factory [www.thepolkadotfactory.com]