INTERVIEW: Nollywood will soar to unimaginable heights — Asharifa Johka, African-American film producer

Asharifa Johka: "The future of Nollywood is limitless. It will soar to heights that are hard to imagine now"
Asharifa Johka: “The future of Nollywood is limitless. It will soar to heights that are hard to imagine now”

How were you introduced to the Nollywood film culture?

My introduction to Nollywood was sparked by a few things. First, I’ve worked in the film industry for over ten years and, for a significant part of that time, in the field of acquisitions and co-productions for a Hollywood studio called New Line Cinema. At New Line, I was responsible for soliciting, screening, and reviewing independent films from around the world for distribution consideration. My personal interest led me to aggressively seek out African films for distribution. In 1997, this quest led me to a small makeshift video screening house in Accra where I saw my first Nollywood film. Unfortunately, I do not remember the title and, quite frankly, it was not the actual film that perked up my interest. Instead, it was the overwhelming positive and enthusiastic response the audience members (approximately, one hundred people sitting on plain wood benches) had toward the film that grabbed my attention. There and then, I knew I was witnessing something very special. At the time, though, I had not heard of the term Nollywood and had absolutely no idea what the future had in store for this budding industry. Years later, my interest in Nollywood was solidified during my first trip to Nigeria, which occurred in March 2006.

What was the reason for your trip?   

I was invited to Nigeria by Amaka and Charles Igwe whom, I’m sure you know, are the organizers of BOBTV in Abuja.  I should mention that coupled with my work in acquisitions and co-productions at New Line Cinema, I also held the post of story editor at Fine Line Features, where I was responsible for developing screenplays into shooting scripts for production. Due to my experience with developing screenplays, I was asked to conduct a workshop on screenwriting at BOBTV. It was conveyed to me that there is abundant talent in Nigeria and, for the most part, the filmmakers were interested in furthering their skills in screen-writing; especially, to create stories that had a stronger impact and could compete in the international market. Of course, I immediately accepted the invitation. Although, the world defines me as an African-American, I define myself as African first and the opportunity to come to Nigeria and participate in any way or form to further advance a homegrown African enterprise like Nollywood was an honor. So, I was on the plane without hesitation.

Your screen-writing workshop at BOBTV was hugely popular and, from all indications, quite successful? How do you account for that?

I cannot take the credit for the success of my workshop. All the credit should be properly placed where it belongs. The reason why my workshop was so successful is strictly because of the incredible individuals who participated in the three-day series. I was amazed by the stories we formulated in the workshops and equally impressed with how quickly the participants absorbed the information. When I was invited, I had no idea what to expect and there were people in the workshop who had never written before. At the end of the series, however, everyone had proven that they were one hundred and ten percent committed to the process. Their dedication encouraged me to continue to push and challenge their capabilities and, each time, they responded with a zeal that I will never forget. At the end of that workshop, I learned as much from them as they learned from me. For this reason, I will always be grateful to the organizers and staff of BOBTV for the wonderful opportunity. I look forward to returning and continuing the work we started.

From the foregoing, what are your assessments and expectations for the next wave of Nigerian filmmaking? 

Wow. That’s a great question, and the answer, to me, is simple: the future of Nollywood is limitless. It will soar to heights that are hard to imagine now, but I know the day is coming when the producers, marketers and stakeholders of this budding industry will solve the issue of distribution, which will lead this industry into another phase of development. I do not think enough credit has been given to the enterprising engineers of Nollywood. I have tremendous respect for the producers and marketers of Nollywood because they have been able to accomplish what we have not been able to accomplish in America. They are able to develop, finance, and distribute their own films on their own terms. That is a big deal, and this accomplishment should be applauded, respected, and supported. I understand the arguments that exist regarding the quality of production, content, etc., which are important issues, but that should not deny or take anything away from the accomplishments of those individuals who gave birth to an industry celebrated across Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and America – It’s amazing and it makes me proud.

What kinds of dialogues do you think are possible between Hollywood and Nollywood given, especially, the latter’s unique production and business practices? 

I believe that a dialogue between Nollywood industry professionals and Hollywood industry professionals is definitely possible and the time for that dialogue and collaboration is now. I am currently consulting on a project that is in production in Los Angeles which was written by both a Nigerian and an African-American, is being directed by one of Nollywood’s most celebrated directors, has a Nigerian producer, is entirely financed by Nigerians, features very popular Nollywood actors alongside popular Nigerian actors who live and work in America, and a nearly all African-American crew. This project serves as a shining example of what is possible. We receive phone calls daily from individuals, from all backgrounds, who want to get involved with the project to show their support and enthusiasm. What that means to me is that the desire to collaborate, share resources and expertise is there, it is our responsibility as film professionals to reach out to one another with respect and sincerity and move forward together.

Some say the bane of Nollywood is that it is too commercial and obsessed with the bottom line: profit. Is this a fair criticism? If so, what are your suggestions? 

I think the habit of criticizing Nollywood as an industry because the participants are interested in making profit is completely ridiculous. The film industry is an industry for a reason. It is business. The success of any business is based on its ability to consistently turn a profit and the margin of that profit is what distinguishes it from its competition. Hollywood is not a charity. It is recognized as the most influential film industry because of its massive financialreturns. Why should Nollywood be any different?

The African Voices Cinema Series, founded by you, is celebrated at the American Film Institute Festival (AFIFEST). What motivated you? 

The American Film Institute is a world renowned institution that is an industry leader in the promotion of film excellence. Its annual film festival, AFI FEST presented by Audi is a symbol of that longstanding tradition. AFI FEST has featured world-class presentations of international films for over 20 years. Until now, however, they have never dedicated a series to the presentation of African films; that is, films made by African directors, producer, and/or writers who were born in Africa. Due to my personal affection for African films and my understanding of the business that African films could generate, especially with the booming success of Nollywood, I felt that it was imperative that we create an opportunity that allows AFI FEST to expand its programming to include the talents of Africa.

Could you, please, briefly discuss the importance of the AFIFEST to African cinema, generally, and, Nollywood, in particular? 

Absolutely. There are a million festivals around the world and since they all serve their respective purposes, I think there is space on the landscape for everybody. However, very few festivals are distinguished and offer very unique, beneficial, and viable opportunities. In the US there are three: Sundance, which provides American independents with a remarkable platform; Tribeca, which is the premiere festival in New York; and AFI FEST presented by Audi. AFI FEST is the longest-running film festival in Los Angeles. As the strategic partner of the American Film Market (AFM), it is the first and only festival/market structure in North America. More so, the partnership that exists between AFI FEST and the American Film Market provides a tremendous opportunity for participating filmmakers to obtain financing and distribution. Specifically, as participants, Nollywood producers and marketers would have opportunities to sell their products to major film, studio and television outlets from around the world. No other film festival in North America offers that benefit. That is what makes AFI FEST unique.

It is common knowledge that film is America’s biggest cultural export and foreign exchange earner. What kind of ‘enabling conditions’ or prospects do you think the Nigerian government could institute for Nollywood? 

Unlike Europe and other parts of the world, American film production is largely a private enterprise. It does not exist through government support. It primarily rests on the shoulders of multi-national conglomerates that operate film studios, which are private businesses. However, there are government-affiliated models throughout Europe, Latin America and Canada that can serve as examples to Nigerian governing bodies. These structures provide the necessary financial support that is crucial to a budding industry. For instance, if a government body were to set up a development fund that would provide producers or writers with the opportunity to spend more time developing a script before production and, possibly, employ a consultant to assist with the development of the screenplay, the Nollywood industry would move beyond its highly criticized plots to showcase tremendous creative possibilities. This transformation will lead to other transformations, which will result in the overall and long-term improvement of the products.

Without a doubt, building links across and among the Black Diaspora is fundamental to the spirit of African Voices Cinema Series. How do you hope to actualize and sustain this ideal? 

I think the key to the success of the African Voices Cinema Series is to move forward with the spirit of inclusion. As a series, unfortunately, we will be forced to create an on-screen program that will inevitably not be able to include everybody. However, it is my intention to incorporate the contributions of the diverse peoples who represent all parts of Africa. As such, I am currently assembling an Advisory Board that consists of members from America, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. With the help of the African world community I intend to move forward with humility and let the process unfold.

Nollywood is still evolving and, no doubt, stands to benefit immensely from exchanges with other global film cultures; so, what are your thoughts?  

For some strange reason, people expect Nollywood to transform overnight. That’s unrealistic. Rome was not built in a day and it took God six days to create Heaven and Earth. So, I think people should remember that Nollywood is in its infancy and those people who are interested in furthering its advancement should step up and concentrate on how to contribute to its growth through, among other means, dialogues of collaboration. I look forward to playing my small role and I encourage others to do the same.


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