Can Documentaries Change The World?

Femi Odugbemi
Femi Odugbemi


A lecture by Nigerian Filmmaker Femi Odugbemi presented at the Centre for African and African-American Research, Duke University Durham North Carolina United States on Monday 21st February 2011.

I want to begin by saying Thank you to Professor Randy Matory, Chair of the Centre for your kind and generous introduction. I also want to appreciate members of your staff especially Ms. Bernice Patterson and
others who have welcomed me with great hospitality and generosity.

I am excited to be here and I appreciate your kind invitation. I am also excited really because I have come to understand that this University and this Centre has a strong documentary studies programme. I am a filmmaker and a culture activist. I am deeply interested in African cultural history and practices and also the emerging transcontinental cultures that are changing the face of what is known and unknown about our world today. The work that your centre here does in cultural anthropology especially in the Yoruba traditions and
mythologies is important to me and I am glad to have had a chance to be here.

I have just screened for you excerpts from my films “BARIGA BOY” and “ORIKI.’ In them are the core ideas around which I have concentrated my work as a filmmaker. My philosophy is that I am not just a filmmaker, I am an African Filmmaker. That is an identity that I take seriously and it is an identity that inspires my content. I believe that my art and my identity are interconnected and must feed each other. The idea and the context and culture of the artiste shapes his work. Filmmaking as all artistic undertakings, is a cultural practice and every form of its interpretation enriches and projects the experiences of a culture as captured from the artiste’s perspective.

The Nigerian Nollywood film industry was born of this understanding and has over the last 12-15years it has found a global audience amongst Africans and immigrants in the diaspora. Whilst we readily admit its technical deficiencies, Nollywood films have become a critical connector for many. Across the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, Cuba, as far as China and Australia and all across Africa, Nollywood as a filmmaking phenomenon is less about the fictional narratives and more about the interactivity of its visual

The Nollywood movie industry is young, revolutionary and organic. It is young in the sense that movie making became a phenomenon in Nigeria only in recent years. It is revolutionary in the sense that it represents a radical break with the past. It did not have much history to go by and yet it has made international impact. More importantly, it is organic in the sense that it has a life of its own and it grows on its own steam. The Nigerian movie has its primary audience within the society in which it is produced, and this has been its most important attribute.

In every effective way, Nollywood is a form of pseudo documentary-making, showcasing the issues and conflicts and complexities of living the African experience in a way that is practical and to which Africans are connecting. While fiction, its narratives and sources are based on realities and actualities. It is a powerful form that has also inspired a new generation of filmmakers across the continent who are energised by the opportunity to make their voices heard. In this emerging globalization, cultural distinctions and dissection aid understanding as well as protect and preserve diversity. Documentaries are critical to helping us express our individualities within the blurred boundaries of the global community.

Cultures are in real and present danger of extinction. I am Yoruba. And my culture for instance is ancient with an amazing history full of spiritual mythologies. Its essence are profiled in family values, community, respect courtesy and individual responsibilities of integrity, industry, diligence and courage. For hundreds of years that culture has survived through history passed on by word of mouth. Today technology makes it possible to document this culture, to interrogate it and project its mysteries in a way that inspires a sense of belonging and pride.

Documentaries are also important today less as mere recordings or archiving tools of events and history and more for how they shape our thinking and mediate our experiences. That is a very important consideration if you accept the idea that whilst technology and globalization has made our lives easier it has blurred our
understanding of what is truth. Everything is complex and whilst you may have access to the facts of a situation, the truth of it has many sides. I believe the capacity of the documentary form to go beyond the news cycle and present to us perspectives gives us a deeper understanding that is useful in an era where the news cycles are overtly political.

Western colonialists in Africa used documentaries to shape group behaviour and manipulate perception and history. In Africa today the narrative of the global information order preserves an unfortunate sound bite that feeds our economic ostracization. The perspectives of experiences defined is at best narrow and one-sided. For Africa the global information order presents a narrative of wars, death, corruption and diseases. The question is ‘who is telling the story of Africa and its realities and from what perspective?’ Can African filmmakers bring better understanding within and outside the continent with documentaries that give a more rounded definition of the African experience?

Today Africa continues to be a hotbed of economic and socio-political change. From Tunisia to Egypt and now Libya. The primary questions are as urgent as they are fundamental: How can filmmaking serve the interests of Africa? How can it force the development agenda of Africa into global consciousness? How can it educate the world about the tremendous opportunities in Africa and highlight the importance of this continent? What are Africa’s strengths in a fiercely competitive global economic environment? And how do we create and grow a sustainable business model for African films to thrive? These questions underscore an important part of my own personal philosophy.

My work, not just as a filmmaker, but as an “African Filmmakers” is very important and vital to the sustenance of my own identity and even more ambitiously, my work is vital to the economic and social transformation of my community.

There is a dialogue on-going. Africa is in a conversation with itself concerning the shape of its future. A new order identifying new voices and new leaders, propagating new values of accountability, transparency, fair competition, social justice and economic empowerment is emerging. It is a revolution of immense significance
that is bringing a new optimism and pride about our future.

Documentary filmmaking can be at the centre of shaping these discourses — guiding and laying bare the issues.

The images of Africa’s emerging new order of political social and economic regeneration needs to get out there. The responsibility cannot be that of those outside of the experience. African filmmakers have a responsibility to mediate these perspectives because they have the priviledge of their craft and the audience it attracts. Back in 1935 the pioneering British documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha declared that “above all documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present.” Rotha was a socially-conscious director who believed that the role of the documentary filmmaker was to help change the world for the better. I subscribe to that but will add that that the filmmaker must also question the nature of truth and reality. That is a key contention as governments and economic manipulators fully understand and use the documentary medium well as propaganda tools rather than for its more affecting power to educate, elevate and inspire. Today its boundaries are being stretched to keep up with the unreality of the real world. But the documentary form is a generous basket and it holds a lot of different things, afterall It is structured reality.

Many recent documentaries also denote a generational shift in both style and subject matter away from the political towards the emotional. There is a sense in which also the grand narratives globally are that people are living in an age of uncertainty and documentary increasingly reflects that because documentaries as an art form is traditionally progressive. Which is why as Professor Awam Akpam affirmed at the iRep documentary festival in Lagos in January, documentaries are way too important to be left in the hands of institutions. It should be in the hands of the population.

Today everything is happening at the speed of light – fast foods, fast cars fast communications, fast revolutions as we have seen all over the Middle East recently. All human experiences are moving at a rapid
pace requiring not only documentation historically, but perspectives and interpretations and individual voices to be heard. There is definitely a new energy for documentaries by people who need to tell their stories and can suddenly afford to do so. We are living in a time when young filmmakers in particular are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in.

They are more alert about and suspicious of the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way even if that form is rough or even low-key. It’s a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the transformative power of the visual arts.

People are looking for bigger truths. There is a hunger for narratives that are personal, broad in scope and with integrity in its perspectives. How much change can documentary films really inspire?
I say it can change the world!

Thank you.

Femi Odugbemi is an Award-winning Filmmaker.
He is CEO of DVWORX Studios Lagos and former
President of the Independent Television Producers
Association of Nigeria.

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