Opinion: Lessons From Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lion Heart” Oscar Disqualification

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By Chima Okereke


Genevieve Nnaji’s Nigerian official film nomination to the Oscars “Lion Heart”, was disqualified from the award for using more English language than Igbo language. In the opinion of the “screeners”, the film should have used majorly Igbo language than the English language. Then as usual, Blane’s are flying left right center. We are all to be blamed. The structure is flawed. The selection committee had to take a decision based on available films, not-for-public factors and time.

It is important to understand that profit considerations cannot allow a big film of that status, that is shot in Nigeria, to be majorly Igbo or any other Nigerian language. It will most likely lead to loss of capital invested in making the film, as audience demography including sentiments, politics and or ethnic nuances, will “kill” it’s potential patronage, no matter how great the film is in terms of theme, interpretation, value and impact.

I think the Nigerian Oscar committee that nominated “Lion Heart” should not be blamed as what they did was the right thing by not allowing an opportunity to slip by. It was a gamble. The gamble did not fly and now, we learn from it. At least, thousands of filmmakers who initially lampoon some of us for not aiming for Oscars will now see the practical business reason to it.

The question I ask, would “King of Boys”, “Trip to Jamaica”, “Wedding Party” etc. that made huge profits from reports we gathered, have made such profit or recouped capital invested, if they were shot in Yoruba or Igbo languages and then subtitled in English? The answer is not “YES”.

In a Directors Guild of Nigeria(DGN) seminar, during a section break some years back, we started talking about films that won AMAA and why they won. Then issue of Oscars came up and one of my colleagues said he was going to shoot an Oscar film in 4 African countries. I asked him in what language and he said “Chima, English of course”. I told him to the hearing of everyone around that, if he is making an Oscar film, it must not be English Language, it should be in indigenous language. A “Marketer” and others with us said I was “talking rubbish”.

In 2016 and 2017, at two separate film schools/academies and workshops as a resource person, I told the participants/students who declared that they will “shoot Oscar films, not for Nollywood”. I told them good, but I was planning to shoot a film in Annang language, that is meant for Oscar. They asked me why waste my time, energy and money to shoot “local language”. I told both the Directors Guild of Nigeria colleagues and the students that only one category is reserved for films made “outside US/Hollywood film structure” and therefore to be qualified to win Oscar for film outside United States and its allied film territories, the language of the film must be less English and more non English language(indigenous languages). It could be Spanish, Portuguese, Igbo, Efik, Mandarin, Yoruba, etc. targeting at least 60-65% usage. They said they don’t believe it. So to the students, I had to give them assignment to go list all non Hollywood films, which is captured under Foreign language films that won Oscar in the last 4 years and they realized that it is the rule.

So to filmmakers planning, working towards a film to be entered for Oscars, you have no choice than to use non-English language. Simply put, use your indigenous language or any language that is not English. Going to shoot a “tush”, Americanized or British English film will not get you a nomination. The only way, which is a long shot for now, is to have a coproduction arrangement with Hollywood for an English language film that will originate, be controlled and pushed by Hollywood structure that can be shot anywhere including your village.

So the lessons from “Lion Heart” disqualification is; take your language seriously, follow the rules. The most important is; Hollywood takes film as serious business and protects it with their award system. If they allow “film democracy”, other film industries in other countries will disrupt their film businesses and the control of motion picture.

So the next question is what next? it’s simple, there has to be collaborative efforts of filmmakers by putting the elements needed to win at the big stage, from story to language options, to value and to marketing.

To filmmakers, it is back to drawing board, and then let the story and other elements be considered and fit for the medium being targeted.

In all, Nollywood needs real film structure, you may hate the MOPICON option, which could be calibrated to address concerns of those who oppose it. Issues as this, always point us in the direction of what MOPICON can achieve towards engaging in international film business politics. As we neglect this fact, it shall continue to be single, one man struggle and accomplishments with all the trial and errors and burnt fingers that follow it, while we miss billions in not keying into global film business.

© Chima Okereke


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