40-year-old Nigerian star and film director Genevieve Nnaji has shown that she is a force to be reckoned with, so the disqualification of her Netflix film from the Oscars is unlikely to frustrate her ambitions.
We are optimistic that the rejection of Lionheart earlier this month from the Academy’s best international feature film category may well act as a springboard for her future success.
Genevieve has starred in more than 80 films over the last two decades and her rise to prominence coincided with the exponential growth of Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is called, across Africa.
Yet she suffered a major setback in 2004 when she was blacklisted by a powerful cartel of film studios in Nigeria, along with several other A-list actors.
These film studios, operating out of Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos and Onitsha in the south-east state of Anambra, largely bankrolled Nollywood in the 1990s and early 2000s.
They gave funds to producers and told them who to hire, says BBC Igbo reporter Vining Ogu, who used to be a film producer based in the southern city of Asaba.
“At some point, the studios felt these A-list stars were collecting too much money and felt they were being held to ransom,” he said.
“At its height, one actor collected 10m naira [$28,000; £21,000] in the early 2000s in cash, which was a lot of money.”
With no producer brave enough to go against the studios, Nnanji found herself out of a job – so she decided to move into music, releasing an album called One Logologo Line.
Her one and only album, it is best remembered for the track No More, a love song with lyrics that could be seen as metaphor for the rest of her career: “No more crying oh, no more fighting oh, no more tears oh, I got my freedom, power and more.”
Could Netflix help with standards?
When in 2018 Netflix announced that it was acquiring the rights to Lionheart, her directorial debut, it was seen as a massive boost for Nigeria’s film industry.
Nollywood is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise but with short turn-around times, not much attention is paid to technical details and storytelling.
With an average production budget of between $15,000 and $70,000, most films are shot within a month and expected to be profitable.
Kenneth Gyang, an independent producer based in the northern city of Jos, said Nnaji’s deal with Netflix “has opened up the possibility that money can be sourced from other avenues”.
“Netflix has a quality control that is very high. Now they [producers] know that if it is a very good film they can sell it as an original and make more money,” he told the BBC.
Film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo agrees that the Netflix deal showed other filmmakers that good films could be profitable.
When Lionheart was nominated for the Oscars, Nnaji described it as a “pivotal moment in the history of Nigerian cinema”.
However, films in the best international feature film category must have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track”.
Lionheart, in which Nnaji also stars, is largely in English, with an 11-minute section in Igbo – hence its rejection.
Nnaji hit out at the Academy, tweeting: “We did not choose who colonized us.”
But the rules were clear and the Nigerian selection committee had bungled it.
Yet some feel it may be a watershed moment for more local language films to be produced.
“Nollywood has proven itself stubborn to change. Perhaps Genevieve and the rest will spearhead it,” says Mr Aigbokhaevbolo.
So it may be that this rejection could open another chapter for the director and Nollywood. (BBC)