Friday, February 23, 2007

Abolitionist drama Amazing Grace screens at Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival!

...And in OTHER news: Abolitionist drama Amazing Grace screens at Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival!

"Jeta Amata’s 135-minute Amazing Grace was screened on Tuesday, February 13 and Saturday, February 17. It is the Governor Donald Duke beloved story said to have been penned by a slave ship captain after hearing it sung by the people captured, enslaved and transported in his ship. But like it happened at the Cannes Film Festival in France last year, the more acclaimed and better-packaged Amazing Grace by Michael Apted was a star attraction at PAFF. It was given a special screening on Thursday, February 15 and it attracted a higher gate fee, drew more crowd and better received. There was, however, no denying Jeta of his five minutes of fame. He shone like a million stars at the Saturday screening of his film and was seen in the company of some female admirers as he stepped out of the Magic Johnson Theatre in Crenshaw, LA, where all the films were screened."

Serendipitous, ain't it?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

August 3, 2006 - “I’m a artist… and I’m sensitive about my s#!t” (Part Two)

(So... It's about time that I got back to posting blogs from the vaults and general backstory. Sorry I slacked off on this before, but things got kinda hectic during my last couple of weeks in Lagos and it actually takes a little time for me to "assemble" these entries. Pretty much all of them were written on the run, so I'll have half the entry composed on my laptop, then I got to find another quarter that's scribbled in one of my many notebooks, and locate various random paragraphs scrawled on the myriad scraps of paper constantly stuffed into the pockets of my jeans and compartments of my backpack. So organization is not necessarily my strong suit; believe me, Denis never let me hear the end of it. Anyway, let's continue with the story I was telling here.)

As it turns out, yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the death of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. As such, there was a celebration of his life and legacy at New Afrika Shrine - the reconstituted version of the club Fela maintained as his personal court, soapbox, and alternate reality for more than two decades - as a prelude to the massive "Felabration" slated for October.

Denis and I want to go to the Shrine. We're both huge Fela fans; in fact, Fela was a bit of a catalyst in our friendship. We "met" a few years ago on the Okayplayer music board when he posted a poll posing the question "Who is the most prominent African musician - Myriam Makeba, Franco, Manu Dibango or Meiway?" Outraged, I immediately fired back with "How the hell you gonna make a post about important African musicians and not include Fela?" He calmly explained to me that he didn't really know all that much about Fela, having grown up in Francophone Africa, where the influence of a figure like Franco loomed a little larger. The truth is, at the time I was just really getting about Fela's music myself.

By the time I was coming up in the 1980s, Fela was a shadow of the fiercely creative and popular musician he had been in the previous decade. Since the 1977 government-mandated firebombing of his home and the resultant death of his mother, he seemed to be become less known for his music than for his controversial public antics--the weed, the nudity, the polygamy, the blasphemy, the highly theatrical presidential campaigns, the frequent trips to jail and drawn-out court cases--kinda like 2Pac would be in the '90s. His music wasn't played much on the radio and when it was, it tended to be humourous, relatively innocuous dance records like "Open and Close" and "Excuse-O." Our government was a fairly repressive military dictatorship, and just whistling one of Fela's more anti-establishment tunes like "Zombie" within earshot of any soldier, policeman, customs officer or even a traffic warden was enough to get you beaten within an inch of the pearly gates and thrown in jail.

In the eyes of a lot of middle-class parents (like mine), messing with Fela was a gateway to a seriously fucked-up life and they endeavoured to insulate their children from his influence the same way you do your best to keep your kids away from crack pipes, stripper poles and religious cults. Because, really, that's kinda what Fela fandom was: a cult. But it wasn't just a cult full of thieves, thugs and hookers, like most people thought; its membership spanned across all walks of society, including some sectors of the government. I was a late convert: Fela didn't really capture my soul until the day I was getting on the plane to leave Nigeria in the early '90s, but now that I was back, I was looking forward to making a pilgrimage to his sacred temple. Me and Denis had planned a trip to the Shrine for a long time and this seemed the best time to make it happen.

Except that Koko wasn't trynna hear it.

Not that he's not a Fela fan; he is--hardcore. In fact, he was the one who first introduced me to "Baba 70"'s music (or tried to, anyway) back in high school, and he always has a Fela tape in the car (along with a cassette of really cheesy '80s funk & R&B and Toni Braxton's first album, which he plays specifically when he wants to torture me and Denis). As a true Fela-head, he's been to the Shrine a couple of times and he had the portent that the night's event was going to be like an area boy* homecoming festival; unless one absolutely, positively needs to experience the feeling of blood gushing from one's forehead like a geyser as multiple beer bottles shatter upon one's cranium, it might be a good idea to put a considerable distance between oneself and that general area. Me and Denis tried to persist, but Koko was the one driving and if he said we weren't going to the Shrine, then we weren't going to the Shrine.

So there we were yesterday evening, sitting in the middle of one of Lagos's trademark traffic jams, listening to the radio. All the stations are playing Fela's classic jams (well, the two that weren't playing Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" and that dreadful new Beyonce song every twelve minutes, anyway). As "Roforofo Fight" comes on, I'm reminded exactly how much Fela's music informed the creation of TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN. The very first scene I wrote in the script (the one where Boy scuffles in the street with the market woman Madam Kuku as a jeering crowd gathers around) was directly inspired by the abrupt, chaotic energy of this song. The second scene I wrote (which is now the first scene in the script) was inspired by "Water No Get Enemy." The go-slow scene was dictated by, of course, "Go Slow." Hell, even the fast-paced, semi-cartoonish mise-en-scene was less an attempt to emulate Guy Ritchie than it was a desire to achieve the kind of collage of vivid detail, grotesque humour and jarring juxtapositions that characterized the sleeve art Ghariokwu Lemi created for Fela's albums.

These thoughts only reinforced my belief that a visit to Fela's house would restore my sagging confidence, so I tried to gain some leverage for my case by cloaking my selfish desires in the guise of selfless professionalism:

"You know... This might be a good way to earn some much-needed production scratch. Straight No Chaser would probably pay good money for some pictures of that event."

"If you even THINK of taking a camera into that place---!!" Koko snapped. He took a breath, regained compsure and then sighed wearily. "See... That's the reason why we're not going to the Shrine. Because I don't plan to be the one to explain to your parents the events surrounding the death death of their son. Besides, weren't you the one who just had to see Yinka Davies tonight?"

Ah yes. Let's get things straight about that. While I do have the tendency to sometimes come off as an obsessive crackpot who's seen Vertigo four or five times too many, there was a fairly logical and practical reason for my yen to meet with Yinka. In fact, there were at least two such reasons:

1. At five o'clock in the morning, after two and a half hours of watching Nigerian videos that mostly looked like this

Get this video and more at

or this

the simplicity and spirituality of Yinka's video washed over me like a moment of clarity.

[I really wish I could include a clip of the video so you could see what I'm talking about, but I just can't find it anywhere.]

2. The Koyaanisqatsi-esque montage of the video impressed upon me the fact that what I really needed to hold this film together was a powerful score like the one Philip Glass provided.

Last time we were in Lagos, a ladyfriend mentioned to me that Yinka Davies was an old acquaintance and that I should give her a call to provide some music for the movie. I wasn't that interested, though. Pretty much from the beginning, we knew what kind of music we wanted for the movie. We were aiming squarely for a retro-romantic feel, so we wanted some afrobeat by Fela (or if that turned out to be too expensive, one of the many Fela disciples) and vintage highlife, rumba and cha-cha-cha from the 1950s and '60s. The idea of using contemporary music wasn't something we had on the agenda at all. In fact, we had something of a maxim: "No jeans and no rapping!" [I'll explain the jeans thing later, fam] But all of a sudden, I felt that Yinka probably did have a certain sensibility that could add something to the vision we were trying to realize.

So I called Yinka. I found her to be warm and cordial on the phone, though she seemed a bit curious about how I had gotten her number. I told her that B____ had given it to me. I told her that I had been a fan of her work as a lead vocalist in Lagbaja's band.

"That was a long time ago," she laughed.

"I heard you were doing some stuff with the Jazzhole folks now, right?"

"Well, I've worked with them in the past... But not at the moment."

"So... uh, what else have you been up to? I heard you were on the new Tony Allen record, too."

"Oh yes! Have you heard it?"

"No... Not yet. Heard good things about it, though." [I've since heard it; here's one of the tracks Yinka features on, "Losun"]

"So what's the deal, then? What can I help you with?"

I told her that I was a filmmaker and I was looking for music for my movie. I told her about seeing her video at 5 a.m. and I hoped that I didn't sound like a crazy person.

She was quiet for a moment and then she said "Why don't you come over and see me today?"

I was quite pleased.. If she's actually inviting me over to her home, that means that I didn't sound crazy, right?

Or maybe it just meant that I did sound crazy, but that she recognized a kindred spirit.

(to be concluded)

* The “area boy” is the Naija equivalent of the “rudeboy” or “gangsta” or “generally thugged-out individual that you don’t want to mess with”

Monday, February 19, 2007

How friggin' great is this video, though?

Yeah, yeah... I know you want to say that it kinda rips off Spike Jonze's clip for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," but I think it's much better executed, especially since Conn's performance is so full of ebullience and sheer joy that it never comes off as malicious like Spike's work does sometimes.

I never knew Bobby was so little, though.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

This is Nollywood: The Movie

Once in a while, during the rare reprieves from the dizzying vortex of frustration that was the TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN shoot, Denis, Koko and I would sit back and ruminate upon our state of affairs.

Oftentimes during these moments of reflection, it would occur to us that the seemingly unending saga of us trying to get this damn movie made was actually richer in drama, intrigue, spectacle and pathos than the one we were trying to shoot. (In fact, for a time, Koko was seriously pushing for us to dedicate some resources to the production of a feature-length chronicle of our Nollywood journey. Proposed title? Three Blind Mice.)

Of course, we weren't the first ones to recognize the dramatic (and comedic) potential inherent in a candid Nollywood expose: Nick Moran's sardonic Nick Does Nollywood, documenting the English actor's botched 2003 attempt to produce a Nollywood feature, still airs fairly frequently on BBC Prime, and I was able to catch it one evening, during one of our rare reprieves from the dizzying vortex of frustration. Tears of weary recognition welled up in my eyes as I watched, it seemed, recent episodes from my life being re-enacted upon the screen by a hunky, shirtless white man:

SEE! The director struggle to juggle the inflated egos of temperamental actors!

SEE! The director flail desperately to set up shots in hostile filming environments!

SEE! The director's initial cockiness flag as he comes to the sad realization that he is in well over his head and hopes that the cast and crew don't notice the same!

By the time we got to the scene where Moran spends a good deal of time painstakingly setting up a shot, calls "Action!" and as if on cue, the sky opens up and a torrent of rain pours down, the feelings of deja vu were so overpowering that Koko actually hugged me and said "It's alright, man... It's alright."

While pretty damn entertaining, the slightly patronizing tone of Moran's doc ruffled a few feathers and so industry folks have since viewed any "outsiders" professing make inroads into Nollywood through a veil of suspicion. Later, when we were in Lagos shooting the TV pilot, an editor and a few actors told me that there were recently some other white folks in town doing a Nollywood behind-the-scenes, but nobody knew too much what became of the project. Well, I got an answer to that question when I happened to stumble upon ThisIsNollywood dot com earlier this evening.

Not too shabby, eh? I have to admit that I bristled a bit at about 1:33 where the nice lady says "We're doing films for the masses; we're not doing films for the elite and the people in their glass houses." It gets my goat whenever I hear people say shit like that. To me, it's nothing but a half-ass excuse to rationalize half-ass movie-making, but working in Nollywood you hear it a lot:

"...We're making African movies for African people, not for the judges at the Berlin Film Festival..."

"...Movies aimed at
real, everyday Nigerians, for the illiterate bus driver and market woman, not for the aristos drinking champagne on Victoria Island..."

"..Our audience is not highly sophisticated, so why should our movies be?"

I will never cease being offended by the idea that the "illiterate market woman" is somehow more of a "real" Nigerian than an educated professional by sheer virtue of being poorer and more ignorant. It's just a different version of the low expectation/definition by lowest common denominator syndrome that weighs down Negroes in the States: the more "ghetto" you are, the more inarticulate and uncouth, the "realer" a nigga you are. The fuck outta here with that bullshit.

Anyway, I was interested to learn that two of the the movie's three producers, Franco Sacchi and Aimee Corrigan, seem to be based here in the Bean. I'll probably holler at them later in the week, just to see what's up.

I wonder why This is Nollywood isn't screening at this year's African Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, though. I actually forgot that it was going on this week, to be honest. I used to go to the festival every year, but I sort of gave up on it last year. Granted, it's a great site to sight some hot, Afrocentric boho sistas, but by and large, it depresses me.

Most African film festivals depress me a little, really, because it's kinda like a bizarro version of Nollywood: One panders to poor and uneducated Africans, the other panders to white liberals' fantasies of poor and uneducated Africans ("calabash cinema" is what we call the latter).

Neither one of them ever has relatable, well-rounded characters; in Nollywood it's because the producers are often inept and assume that the audience is too dumb to notice or care. In calabash cinema, it's because the audience really doesn't care about African characters as, y'know, characters, but prefers that they function as symbols of social problems. I really can't make up my mind which one I think is worse.

Either way, neither one of them really portray an Africa that I recognize from my own experience. And I know that a lot of Aficans agree with me. When I got to Nigeria last summer, I was really surprised to find so many people who didn't like Nollywood flicks at all and ridiculed me for my interest in them... In fact, for a while, it was a challenge for me to find anybody who did like them. (I eventually found a lot of them, though.) But that's why we're making TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN, isn't it? There's a pretty large segment of the audience that's not being served by the current crop of movies being made in and/or about Africa. And we intend to exploit that.

I did kinda want to see Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako, though; not because it sounds particularly interesting to me (an African village puts the World Bank on trial? The premise might be a bit too polemical for my taste) but I missed seeing it when I went to the New African Film Festival in DC last December, and hey... It's got Danny Glover in it!

But dammit, it's too damn icy out for me to go anywhere, so I think I'll just wait for the DVD. Shit... I'm Nigerian, right? Home video is our preferred mode of movie viewing.

Friday, February 16, 2007

I almost want to see this movie

I never really got the appeal of Hugh Grant during his heyday in the 1990s. Actually, that's putting it a bit lightly; I was nothing short of bewildered by the fact that he was considered to be something of a sex symbol. I mean, since when did America develop the hots for foppish, effete Englishmen? While we're at it, why don't we crown Prince Charles a bird-chested love god?

It wasn't until Grant's subdued, laddish turn in Paul Weitz's About a Boy that I was able to see him as something other than a Bertie Wooster-esque stereotype,* and since then I've really wanted to check out more of his stuff.

Too bad this particular film comes courtesy of the man who gave us Two Weeks Notice and the Miss Congeniality movies. I'll have to pass, thanks.

*Interestingly, I read somewhere that Grant himself admitted that About a Boy is the only one of his films that does not make him cringe. I guess the guy has good taste, after all!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Since last we spoke...

An essay rehabilitating the image of much-maligned Negro movie star Stepin Fetchit?

An explanation for my seeming near-religious obsession with John Wayne?

Annotated reviews of various great yet underappreciated DC comics of the 1980s, maybe?

A wild-eyed rant about how the main reason so many people believe that Amy Winehouse's gimmicky and garish new album is superior to her confidently understated debut is because the contemporary "urban" audience is addicted to "production"?

My picks for the Oscars?

A review of Dreamgirls?

An account of bumping into former New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight in the movie theater when coming out of Dreamgirls?

Or perhaps an appreciation of Gjon Mili's 1944 short film Jammin' the Blues

and some random theorizing about its influence on the aesthetic of hip-hop videos of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

How about an argument positing that the true modern-day heir to pioneering American Negro filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, and the most important Black filmmaker in America today is not Spike, not Charles Burnett, but in fact, this guy?

It's been like three whole months since I last updated this blog and for the past month or so, my mind has been a revolving door for different subjects to blog about. I'll admit that most of these ideas have been pretty shitty. A handful of them have been cool. But ultimately, none of them have had much to do with the mission statement indicated in that little marquee at the top of the page ie talking about a little motion picture project I'm supposedly working on with two other guys? A little something called TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN?

Yeah... I haven't talked much about it with anybody since I got back to the States--I mean nobody, not even my family--mainly because... Well, to be honest, I don't really know what to say.

Last time you heard from me, I was still waiting to start production on the TV pilot. Well, I eventually went on and got through that and while I'll talk more about it a little later, for now I'll just say that it was an experience that was simultaneously exhilarating and enervating. On one hand, I came out of it feeling more confident and motivated as a filmmaker; on the other, it made me ever more conscious of the unique challenges inherent to making movies in Nigeria. Both of these discoveries ultimately impact the plan for completing TMBW.

I feel a lot wiser than I was when we started shooting the movie last July--we all do, really. Remember how I had to fight with Denis and Koko to reshoot two scenes? Now I feel like there's almost thirty scenes we could do better, knowing what we know now. I was hesitant to pitch the idea to my partners, but surprisingly, they agreed almost immediately. We've all put so much into this, and we appreciate all the support that our friends and families and even perfect strangers have given us, we're not willing to come back with anything less than best work we can possibly put together.

Originally, the plan was to return to shooting around February, but me and Denis talked about it... The thing that crippled us most--beyond even the lack of money--was underestimating the difficiulty of the Nigerian landscape and not allocating enough time to pre-production. We all want to get back to work as soon as possible, but we had to face the fact that if we go back to Nigeria right now, we're most likely going to face the exact same problems we did last time. So yeah... We decided that the smart thing to do would be to take a few months to plan this thing the right way before jumping back in.

Actually, after we made that decision, it occurred to me that there was even more reason for us to take a little hiatus. You see... 2007 is an election year in Nigeria, and I don't know if you know what often happens during election periods in so-called Third World countries but it's usually not the safest of environments. Hell, even when we were there last summer, the curfews and the killings had already started. It's probably not a great idea to return to Nigeria until after the elections... Which are in June. sigh... The thought of it kills us, but it's better it's better than some political thugs killing us, no?

More recently, another issue popped up that basically clinched it for us. Apparently, for various reasons, Nollywood is going on holiday. There have been moratoria on film production in the past, usually when the market has gotten too saturated with product. We can't get too much done during the break, so we're better off just staying where we are (me in Boston, Denis in New York, Koko in Lagos) and working on getting our organization as tight and effective as possible for when it's time to go back.

It hurts, though; after the intense high of being a flashy filmmaker in Nigeria for a few months, it's a massive crash coming back to life as an everyday schlub back in the States. Now I fully understand the way Denis described being back in the grey little town of Pointe Noire, Congo after our Nigerian adventure: "It's kinda like being dead."

Well... In the meantime, I'll be updating y'all on the pre-production process for phase 2 of the TMBW, as well as filling you in on the backstory of phase 1.

Aluta continua!