African writers, according to Malian academic Manthia Diawara, are turning to film making to link up with their audience. Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembene for example has released nine features after his first one Borom Sarret in 1962.Nigerian Wole Soyinka delved into the film arena as did Meja Mwangi of Kenya. Did they see potential in the film industry? Why did they backtrack? What aileth the film industry? The African Executive talks to ardent movie goers in Nairobi City.
Telwa: Most cinemas lack the state- of- the- art facility. As other theatres embrace digital surround systems, others still use outdated speakers and projectors which interrupt shows by snapping and taking time to reload. Some theatres also keep on screening same movies say, Kamasutra, year in year out making their shows predictable and boring. There is thus no evidence of growth. In addition, the reels they use are extremely worn out with overuse and managers believe ear- bursting volumes are the essence of movie watching.
Mueni: Some movie houses don’t screen their shows at designated times. Some do so an hour or two late or even cancel the shows, interfering with clients’ schedules.
Stella: There are other things that movie goers look for. Is there parking space for their cars? Is there ample legroom in the theatres? No one would enjoy a place where he is so much squeezed that his feet grow numb. In addition, some seats are quite worn out. The sponge is showing and there is evidence of bedbugs. Other theatres are full of mosquitoes.
Telwa: There is one thing we are leaving out, and that is security. Nairobi cinema attracts only 30 percent to its 825 seater theatre while the 480 seat Casino gets less than 60 viewers a day. Cameo with its over 300 seats gets less than 20 viewers per day. It is quite intimidating to be almost all alone in a huge dark hall. One can’t tell what may befall him in such a setting. Take the case of Eastlands cinema for example. There was a person who would leave his seat, sit beside another person, look at him in the face, transfer, do the same to another one until he had virtually sat beside everybody in the hall. When this matter was raised, the patron took no step. In addition, that theatre is situated along a dangerous spot where one can be mugged in the dark.
Mueni: I concur with Telwa. Insecurity led to food items being banned in Odeon Cinema although this measure has been repealed to attract clients. People would get drunk and use bottles to fight. Cinematographer Martin Munyua says insecurity has made him avoid going to theatres at night. As a result of insecurity, late night screenings have been discontinued in most theatres.
African Executive: What coping mechanisms have been employed by theatres for lack of business?
Stella: According to UdaySingh Charda of Casino, letting churches use theatres for lunch time and Sunday worship services brings in more money than film shows. This is true for Cameo, Odeon and Eastlands theatres. Ngara’s Shan and Nairobi West’s Rainbow have been transformed into permanent churches.
Mueni: But some of these churches are the undoing of the theatres. One clergyman had to be literally ordered out for extending counseling and prayers at a time a movie was supposed to be on, by people who were waiting for a show.
Telwa: As a survival mechanism, some theatres even advertise they are screening movies which they aren’t. Others like Eastlands screen mainly videos and offer six films for one ticket in an attempt to pull crowds. Anil Kapila of Fox Theatres says their secret of remaining in business has been their targeting of upper class movie goers.
African Executive: What other challenges face the film industry?
Mueni: There are high incidences of piracy forcing film suppliers to demand that they be bought outright from the source. This is too expensive. Late film deliveries and entry of films on TV contribute to the decline. The emergence of film on VCRs and DVDs has made people to the theatre to watch a film which is not yet pirated or screened.
African Executive: Malian academic Manthia Diawara intimates that government involvement in the film industry has led to one sided Cinema in Africa and that most African films alienate urban Africans by employing village images. What is your comment?
Telwa: It is true that although the French did a lot in promoting Cinema for example, they excluded film makers who criticized them and supported those who toed their line. Ousmane Sembene, dubbed the “father of African Cinema” was abandoned in favour of Suleymene Cisse, who was later shunned in favour Abderrahemane Sissako. The film industry should be free and left to compete with the market forces. Government has never been good in business. The best a government can do is to provide a supervisory role as well as offer incentives to nurture the growth of this industry. I however disagree with Manthia for criticizing films with village sceneries. A film, far from being a tool of entertainment is a mirror of the society. What has given success to the Nigerian video industry? Isn’t it employing a storyline that Africans can identify with devoid of western elements? Village screening is not a sign of primitivity.
Stella: I am afraid that in spite of the liberalization of Media in East Africa and the increase in the number of television stations, filmmakers have not benefited as foreign content continues to rule the airwaves. Local independent filmmakers must pay the stations heavily to have their productions aired. Why can’t Africans love their own? Why should Africans impose heavy tariffs on their own filmmakers? Can’t we cultivate our own Cowboy and Red Indian culture? No wonder most African filmmakers are receiving recognition awards outside as we trample on them back home.
African Executive: Mueni, what in your view is the secret behind the success of the Nigerian movie Industry?
Mueni: I think that Nigerians handle contemporary themes. Not only are they aggressive and willing to experiment but they also do most things themselves and involve professionals. They bring in their tapes as cargo and don’t care whether they are pirated or not. They also use low quality tapes and keep their cost of production down.
African Executive: What is the way forward for the African film industry?
Stella: Africans ought to add value on their films by making them objective and issue oriented. With big screens coming to the market, Cinemas can now be taken near the people in places such as hotels, churches and bars among others. Patrons should be innovative enough by including variety in their films such as family shows, ladies’ days, days for Indian films. Theatre should also employ qualified personnel with good Public Relations. Look at this old man in one of the cinemas for example, after loading a film he disappears. One has to go and look for him when the tape is done. “I don’t watch this stuff you people are watching”, he says. But why is he there in the first place? Doesn’t he know that people have paid for the show?