When the Nigerian film industry comes up in conversation or the occasional think piece, perceptions have changed little over time. “Nollywood” is often credited with a brash approach to production, such as a remarkable capacity to cut and distribute in the frame of weeks, but also larger-than-life characters, basic plots and more regard for crowd pleasing than cinematic quality. But thanks to the establishment of film collectives in the past decade, quality is improving.
Additionally, an increased financial investment in the country’s film industry in the past decade and a rise in the number of foreign-educated Nigerians returning home have led to better cameras, better editing, better promotions and out-of-country screenings. But to many, there still remains the crucial issue of better-told stories.
And this is where Surreal16, a collective of three independent filmmakers, comes in. Tired of the status quo, and each carrying varying aesthetic and narrative sensibilities — but united in their desire to carve within Nollywood something identifiable beyond what existed — the filmmakers started talking in 2016 over the course of a year, brainstorming via conversations on WhatsApp. “We were happy there were more fresh voices in the scene and came up with ideas and a manifesto,” says Michael Omonua, one of the trio.
… with further rules like “no ‘to God be the glory’” at the end of films, “no establishing shots of Lekki Bridge” and “no wedding films.”
“We felt that Nigerian cinema had genres no one was really exploring. We wanted to push ourselves into surrealism and genre films and encourage others,” explains Omonua. But how? A peek at their manifesto, shared on social media in bold red text, reflects their feelings toward the existing canon, with edicts like “no fake British or American accents, no sequels, no cheesy lines or characters,” and jabs at the existing Nollywood tropes, with further rules like “no ‘to God be the glory’” at the end of films, “no establishing shots of Lekki Bridge” and “no wedding films.”
So far, Surreal16 — influenced by Dogme 95, the creation of Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, which aims to make films that do not rely on a strong studio influence or technology and special effects — has made some impressive moves. Last year the collective released its debut project, Visions, three shorts made around the concepts of spirituality, conflict and religion. It debuted at the Africa International Film Festival, the biggest in West Africa, where it was received with some confusion (likely due to the novelty of the structure and themes) but also positive feedback. “Many told me they were encouraged to pursue their more artistically minded projects,” Omonua says. The film has since been screened across Nigeria and Europe.
When Surreal16 is not planning a Nollywood takeover, each filmmaker is working on personal projects. C.J. Obasi is set to release the film adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “Hello, Moto” (as Hello, Rain) at the world’s oldest short film festival, the Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Omonua is in preproduction for his debut feature, Graft, centered around corrupt practices in politics and business. And Abba T. Makama is working on his second film’s screenplay.
Surreal16 is proving that Nigerians have been and are ready to take more risks and carve cinematic identities for themselves beyond what exists. If in a year it has achieved this much applause and attention, the collective can be seen as the opening for a generation of auteurs working from the unique ecosystem that is Nigeria. This is worth caring about.
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