Four days to discover the best of Nigerian movies in the heart of Paris ? Four days of meetings and discussions with the actors and directors that are shaping Africa’s largest film Industry ? The challenge has been taken more than ever by the Nollywood Week Festival, which for the fourth consecutive year opens premises in the parisian Latin Quarter in June. Behind this idea, far less far-fetched than it seems, stands a man, a film enthusiast moved by the dream of a vibrant Africa, visionary with both feet firmly rooted to the ground. Meet Serge Noukoué, the King of Nollywood.
Everything in his cosmopolitan childhood predestined Serge Noukoué to the Nollywood Week adventure. Born in Paris to Beninese parents, Serge grew up between France, Cameroon, Senegal and the Central African Republic. After a student exchange in New Orleans, USA, he started a Masters program in Cultural Projects’ Management at La Sorbonne in Paris. It didn’t take long for the newly graduate to move from theory to practice by landing his first job as an audiovisual producer for Trace TV first, then for the Sithengui Film Festival in South Africa, among others. But the revelation came from a trip to Sao Paulo in Brazil between 2009 and 2011: then « audiovisual attaché » at the French Cultural mission, he worked for the promotion of French cinema and realized that, this might exactly be what Africa was missing. A voice to push its movie industry forward. Back in France, a conference organized by the UNESCO and dedicated to the Nigerian film industry definitively convinced him. In 2012, Nollywood Week was launched … Four years later, the festival has become the ultimate meeting place for Nigerian cinema lovers in Paris.
Why did you feel the need for such a festival in Paris?
Paris is a must when it comes to cinema! It is a world cultural platform, a city that gives space to every cinematographic genre, may it be Bollywood, Asian or Latin movies. To me, it didn’t made sense for an industry as big and as important as Nollywood not to be represented in France. Way too often, we complain about the poor quality of African movies, and the way they are not well distributed. But you want to know the truth ? The real issue is that we are lacking promotional and distribution structures. And this is what I’m trying to bring to the table, with Nollywood Week.
I decided to focus on Nigeria because Nigeria is one of the biggest movie producers in terms of quantity, and to be honest, I’m also a fan of Nollywood movies. I’ve seen my share of Nigerian movies, the good and the not so good, yet surprisingly, I will always hear about the negative. A shift of this narrative was needed. With the Festival, we are changing the rhetoric by creating a new tool that sorts and highlights Nollywood’s best productions through a rigorous selection. This work had to be done and I jumped in with both feet.
Nigeria is not a country where trust is easily given. How did you first approach Nigerian products to finally win their trust?
The key word here is « trust”. The beginnings were though, far from easy because the Nollywood industry is infested with piracy, hawking … When I first came to them with my frenchie accent, telling them that I weather were wondering “Who is this guy, and what does he want? “. It took a lot of discussion, we had to explain, detail our vision … Luckily enough, for the first edition, great movie directors like Tunde Kelani, Kunle Afolayan or Mahmood Ali Balogun embarked on the adventure. As the project had proved a success, it opened many doors to subsequent editions. We touched the right people !
How would you explain the growing interest and enthusiasm, the hype surrounding Nollywood movies today ?
This is a phenomenon that is gradually and will continue to increase! There’s a growing desire from the public to be able to relate, to identify with the stories. In this age of the Internet, every individual has the power to influence the content that is been viewed. We want and can go further than the formatted usual American movies, people are sick and tired of this « all-Hollywood », they long for characters, tales and stories that look like them ! There is a great demand at an European level for this festival, it is not uncommon that some viewers have made the trip from Belgium, London, to attend the Nollywood Week in Paris. We are already thinking about a way to establish ourselves as an itinerant festival but one thing at a time.
Audiovisual production in Africa is experiencing a golden age right now. As the movies are of a greater quality, there is also a craze, an emulation. Every producer wants to do better than the other. African films are not only viewed on the continent, but also in the diasporas where there is a demand, a thirst for this type of content, which was not necessarily the case if you look back to a few decades ago. I mean, just look around who doesn’t like a little bit of P-Square with a twist of D-Banj ? Who doesn’t listen to Nigerian music? Such things were unthinkable before, and this is the proof that we are at a turning point, the beginning of a new age. I can’t wait to see what happens in the future but one thing is certain : this is a very positive development and I’m confident that tomorrow’s stars will be African !
Nollywood productions are becoming more sophisticated and we’ve seen actors such as Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing opposite Nigerian actors. Yet nothing in French movie theaters’ horizon ! Why?
Nothing new here ! It’s now well-known that institutions (Theaters, TV channels) are always late on such phenomenas. There is a gap between the trends coming from the masses, the people, and these « mastodons » that are not so flexible and very slow to move, to understand. 30 years ago when hip-hop culture was cautiously emerging in France, it took a while for the media to realize that this movement was there to stay. Therefore I’m not worried, things will change, African movies will be distributed in France, it will just take a little time !
What role can the Nollywood Week play in the democratization of the Nigerian movie industry?
Every year, distributors are encouraged to come and see the movies for themselves. Faced with the audience’s enthusiasm, they’ll soon realize that there really is a business for them. Are they going to forever squander a profitable opportunity ? I don’t think so. Of course there is stil some reluctance, « Is there a real business model behind this trend ? Is it viable in the long term ? ». I believe that with time, the choice will just be obvious.
Where are the Nollywood movies in Cannes for example ?
Cannes is our next step but we don’t want to focus on that. It’s yet another institution ! Cannes currently gives priority to American movies, Asian … It’s as if they want to screen African movies but do not really know where to start from! So they are confined with films from Francophone Africa and especially with the same directors, every year. Yet the continent is a real talent pool, Africa is full of remarkable filmmakers. But as far as Nollywood Week is concerned, focusing on Cannes would be a mistake. Our first aim is to attract and retain an African audience, the diasporas, to see Africans consuming, sharing, African content. The rest will come naturally.
You announced the official selection in March, during an event at the French embassy in Lagos. Can you tell us more about the movies’ selection process ?
(Laughs) The process is getting increasingly difficult because the films are getting better every year ! We launched a call for contributions between December and February, then all applications are reviewed and selected by the screening committee, composed of movie directors, members of the Nollywood Week team, movie-goers, and myself. We try to have a representative panel of the current year’s best production in all genres: comedy, drama, thriller. We made the choice to select very few movies per edition, between 7 and 10. We could have had many more but our aim is really to showcase movies which we feel will appeal to the public, with the potential to develop a career in Europe or elsewhere. The Festival lasts 4 days, it’s very short. Not long enough to screen 20, 30 movies. So the selection is extremely rigorous.
In addition to film screenings, the Nollywood Week Festival is an opportunity for spectators to attend workshops led by movie industry professionals …
This professional component is as important as the public segment since this is what will allow Nigerian movies to be established permanently in Europe. It is very important to us that professionals we brought all the way from Nigeria, are able to meet with their french counterparts. It’s a moment of exchange. We need partnerships to be forged between the two sides, african movies to be distributed via platforms such as VOD, and co-productions to be put together. Take this example ! Last year, Kunle Afolayan was appointed as Brand ambassador for Air France, but do you know that the first contact was made during Nollywood Week ?
The official selection is once again very eclectic. Do you already have a favorite?
(Laughs) No no favorites yet! In general, the movies we selected with the screening committee are the ones we really loved ! We just hope the public will do the same!
Nollywood Week Festival
From 2 to 5 June 2016
76 Street in Rennes
Don’t forget to get your Pass here!