In Conversation with Nigerian Filmmaker Nadine Ibrahim: 'The local stories matter the most.'
The filmmaker talks about the art of the short film and the evolution of Nollywood as an industry.
Nadine Ibrahim is a rising Nigerian filmmaker who is passionate about telling what she feels are the "real" stories of ordinary Nigerian people. In a country (as is the case with many African countries) where it's expected that one becomes a doctor, a lawyer or an architect, Ibrahim already knew that she was not interested in academics. After she was introduced to media, she soon realized that she was drawn to telling stories, and soon after, her filmmaking journey began. Her two recent short films, I Am Not Corrupt and Marked, have respectively explored the political landscape between citizen and politician as well as the traditional scarification practices in various states across Nigeria. More recently, however, she's currently documenting terrorism in several Nigerian states and working on her first feature-length film—a coming-of-age story of a young boy from rural Nigeria who moves to the city.
Speaking about the genre of film she ultimately sees herself in, Ibrahim says she doesn't want to be boxed in or limited to just one genre—she wants the freedom to explore and to inspire other filmmakers to do the same. "What I've noticed is that we stick to the dramas and the comedies but there's no Sci-Fi, fantasy or action," she says.
We caught up with her to talk about her current projects, what it takes to create a short film and the kinds of stories she wants to see more of in Nollywood.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your short films address socio-political issues in Nigerian society. Why has that been an important focus for you?
I think filmmaking came at a time where I really had a lot to say about what was going on around me, but I didn't know how to exactly be vocal about this. So using film as a medium to express myself and my thoughts, was the best way for me. I was addressing the issues that I wanted to address. I grew up watching my mom a lot because she was in the government sector, and she did a lot of humanitarian work as well.
Watching her work and then always being in that space, I was exposed to the truth behind what was going on in Nigeria—the poverty and corruption. I just thought it was important for me to, I guess, put my two cents in but in an interesting way where people would actually want to interact with it. If you sit down and talk in front of people, they're not going to listen too much. But once you put a film on, then you get their attention. For me, that was what was important, being able to voice my opinions in an interesting way and spark conversation.
What are some of the challenges in producing a short film versus a much longer feature-length film?
I think in this day and age, especially with I am Not Corrupt, it was a topic that needed to be discussed. Not just among our uncles and aunties and parents, but also young people like me needing to make an impact now. I thought when you think of corruption, nobody wants to really talk about corruption in-depth because there's just this singular opinion of, "Oh, it's never going to stop, especially in Africa. It's just going to keep going." We live in this day and age where social media is bigger and better than it's ever been. I thought if I was able to get all the points across in a minute or two, that would then engage people.
When I made, I Am Not Corrupt, I was thinking along the lines of something viral, something that was going to get the message across but also be interesting enough to engage young people. And I think we did a good job at that because I made sure it was cinematic. I made sure it had the colors in, and then I also made sure it was direct and very confrontational. The drama elements drive the audience a lot as well.
I AM NOT CORRUPT youtu.be
What inspired your follow-up short film Marked?
Marked was a story that was brewing in my mind for a very long time. We had this auntie that I grew up with who used to take care of us and she had these marks on her face and arms. Some of the designs on her arms were like lizards and I used to wonder when I was growing up why it was that she had these marks. When I'd ask her she wouldn't really have a direct answer for me and would say, "Oh, we were just doing it when we were teenagers because it was fun." But I felt there was more to the story because as I grew older, I started seeing it more and more on different people—different variations.
When I was Googling it and trying to research a lot about it in the library, I didn't really find a lot about it. Historically, all I would find were pictures or articles that people had done, university essays, and I just thought it was such an important part of Nigerian history and culture. No one had made something that made sense in terms of explaining how and why. So that's what drove me to do it.
Do you have a particular target audience when you're making your films?
I think the films are for everyone but I may be targeting people in my age group and people around me. It's important for me when I'm having these conversations with people. I'm speaking with people that are my age or five or ten years older. They're saying things but they don't really know how to address it or how to fix the problem.
As a Nigerian filmmaker, what kinds of stories do you want to see emerging from Nollywood?
For me, it's about telling the stories of the true Nigerian because yes, I'm Nigerian and I'm fortunate enough to come from I guess more of a privileged background than many others do, but we're a tiny percentage of that. If we're being true to the Nigerian stories, the local stories are what matter the most. It's about the farmers and the communities, and those are the stories I want to tell. This is what I actually noticed in Marked as I traveled.
At first we traveled to 20 States in Nigeria when we were filming. And the first reaction I got from everybody was, "Why are you doing a documentary, traveling to all these rural states when you can tell a story in Lagos or Abuja?" For me it wasn't about that. It was about finding the true Nigerian stories. Going to all these states and seeing their culture and how they live was a huge eye-opener.
Where do you see the industry in about 10 to 15 years from now?
I definitely think in terms of our quality, of production, that will definitely change because we're seeing a huge transition in that over the past few years. We're paying more attention to detail on the visuals, on the sound so I'm really excited to see where that's going to go. And I hope people actually continue to upscale in terms of production, but I'm also hoping that we open more studios. I myself have dreams of opening studios. We hear things about Tyler Perry opening a studio that's 10 times the size of the Hollywood studios. I'm thinking we have the land here, and we have the resources and the talent, so why not here in Africa and Nigeria?
So definitely more innovation and inspiring, engaging stories. Also, more genres because what I've noticed is that we stick to the dramas and the comedies but there's no Sci-Fi, fantasy or action. In the next few years, I'm hoping that filmmakers like myself will explore those genres and hopefully get a seat at international tables.
Courtesy of Nadine Ibrahim.
Speaking of improving the quality of production, why do you think Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart was the first ever submission to the Oscars in what is a colossal film industry?
I think in terms of quality, we definitely do have a lot more work to do in terms of reaching the standards of international film. So on that part, I do think we need to do better. When Nollywood started, it was for entertainment but it was also a money-making business. People would shoot films in two days, edit it in another two days, and it's already in the market. They would make their money and then put it back in. It was more about making money rather than art.
And I think slowly now these days we're starting to realize that, "Oh wait, people actually are paying attention to our films, so maybe we should up our game in terms of quality and narrative." The stories have always been interesting, which is why you're seeing everyone tapping into it and coming down here, even the diaspora. People are streaming in but now we're getting more recognition because we're paying more attention to detail.
"It's is still a money-making business, but people are beginning to see it as art, which I think is great."
And that is what eventually will get us recognition from the Oscars. Genevieve's Lionheart for instance, their production is one of the best.
Are there any other creators that you're keen to work with in the future?
There are quite a few, off the top of my head in Africa. There's a young woman, Wanuri Kahiu, who made a film called Rafiki which was touching on equality and sexuality and it gained a lot of recognition worldwide. She is definitely a filmmaker that I'd like to either meet or work with. Gelila Bekele of Life is Not Honey, Rungano Nyoni of I Am Not a witch, Mati Diop of Atlantics and Imoh Umoren of Children of Mud.