In 1996, when Kenneth Nnebue’s NEK Pictures released Part 2 of the movie Glamour Girls, I wrote a piece warning Nigeria’s moralist army that they had seen nothing.
Criticisms of the movie then revolved around the scene where Zach Orji and Eucharia Anunobi, both of whom now wear religious collars, were in the bathroom. Nigerians cried sacrilege!
Nevertheless, people received the movie well, and it became one of the most successful flicks of that era. You would wonder if ghosts were the ones watching. But we will return to this point.
My argument then, as now, was that the art of production has its own tradition, which would most definitely overrun any other tradition that embraces it.
I said in that essay that practitioners in the dramatic mode of representation of reality dare to venture into unconquered territories and tendencies. As an example, I pointed out that sometime in the development of theatre; it was taboo to see blood on the stage. However, that became history by introducing effects, makeup, and props. I postulated it was the same with nudity and that Nigeria would get to this stage one day unless we banned filmmaking.
The uproar that followed last weekend’s release of Shanty Town, a Netflix limited series, brought this almost thirty-year-old intervention back to mind. As expected, filmmaking in Nigeria has now gained global attention. Practitioners now do their best to match up to international best practices and expectations. It’s a prerequisite for not being left behind in this developing world.
To achieve this, productions are tending far more towards realism in content and form. Mostly adopting the naturalist and psychological realist tendencies, the narratives, and visuals in a lot of Nigerian films now try to make it as ‘real’ as possible. This milestone, undoubtedly, is one reason Nigerian productions draw the attention of platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and is what Dimeji Ajibola, who directed Shanty Town, tries to achieve.
In portraying a story of some courtesans who are pawns in the hands of a politician kingpin, he introduces copious nudity and sexual images that got on the nerves of many Nigerian viewers.
These viewers, in ventilating their opinion, do not concern themselves with how appropriate and effective the ‘offending’ scene is. They worry about the audacity of veteran Richard Mofe Damijo and the gorgeous Nancy Isime in the scene where Damijo, as Chief Fernadez, orders his goons to strip Shalewa (Isime). Many of those who have seen the series criticise Isime for exposing her body and RMD for “descending so low” by groping the courtesan who came home with his son.
The vitriol got so bad that Isime caved in and took the unprofessional decision of revealing that the ‘body double’ technique, which allows a double take an actor’s place while an editor will switch their faces at post-production, was employed in the scene.
Although the camera shots used in the scene would inspire people who know about filmmaking to suspect a body double, the director intended to make his audience believe it was Isimi’s body. This was why he went that route of using a body double. The premature revelation aborted any sustained suspension of disbelief, taking away a lot of the pleasure that viewers should derive from the movie. The ancient Roman poet, Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, wrote that “art (great) lies in concealing art.” Hasty disclosures like this detract from the overall impact.
But it will be hard and unrealistic to blame Miss Isime. Nigeria is full of self-righteous people who do not just judge and condemn, but also feel like they can dictate the way other people should live. For an adorable young, hardworking lady, it is not out of place to desire the respect of your fans and expose a trade secret to avoid trouble. Damn trade secrets when concealing them jeopardises the professional’s estimation in the eyes of reasonable members of the public and threatens to expose her to emotional risk, instigated by social media trolling.
The irony, however, is that no explanation satisfies some extremists’ views. Even after the actress explained that this was not her body, some so-called fans continued to wonder why she took the role in the first place. With his experience, RMD has carried on like he didn’t hear the critics and their rants.
And this is one thing I would never understand. Nigerians do not just understand how to live and let others live. Being the most fundamental requirement of democracy, this is probably why we will continue to struggle with Western democracy.
Apart from being an adult, old enough to make her own decisions, possibly with just deference to her family, Miss Isime is also a professional. Just like a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant who strives to excel and breaks new ground, an actor is a professional who strives to increase capacity, expand range, and break barriers.
Consummate artistes like RMD and younger ones like Isime are professionals who stretch themselves playing assorted roles and accomplishing feats. It is presumptuous to condemn and label actors and actresses just because they are passionate enough to undertake realistic presentations of every day events that Nigerians deal with. Thuggery, kidnapping, involuntary debauchery, and poverty-induced crimes are the daily reality of millions of Nigerians, and bringing them to us in the most graphic forms possible should never tempt us into passing judgement on committed actors.
And speaking about tradition, the television and film industries provide ample avenues for puritans to avoid programmes like Shanty Town. Productions are censored and classified, which is why some musical videos cannot be on air at certain periods of the day and why people of certain age groups should not see some movies and programmes on television. Shanty Town, for example, has an 18 rating. The classification is further explained with a bold warning that the content has “sexual violence, sexual images, violence, injury detail, and drug misuse.” This is enough to dissuade those with contrary theologies or philosophies and spare us the misplaced social media rage.
Then, there is the unparalleled hypocrisy amongst us. As angry as we were about nudity and those who perpetrated it in Shanty Town, it remains the most streamed programme by Nigerians on Netflix almost one week later! Nigerians disparage confident artsites in public, even though they are closet consumers of pornography from around the world.
For instance, in 2016, social media strategist and data analyst Subomi Plumptre disclosed Nigeria has overtaken the United States for the most search for pornographic content online. She wrote in an insightful article titled, “Nigeria, we’ve got a sexuality problem!”, that when she conducted the study in 2015, “the number of average monthly searches by volume was 135,000, and the states with the greatest popularity for porn searches (from high to low) were Enugu, Oyo, Ogun, Rivers, Lagos, Abia, and Cross River.” The relative popularity of rape porn videos was also above 80, with Lagos State leading the charge. Also, in 2019, Pornhub claimed it gained a 32 per cent increase in traffic from Nigeria. So, what is the hypocrisy?
Productions like Shanty Town, which could be better in many respects, present Nigeria to us as it is. Shouldn’t that agitate our minds about those ruling us and how they have dehumanised the citizenry with their mindlessness? We trample on the rights of our compatriots for expression, but sing the praises of those who rape our society and render us helpless. Hopefully, we got to the polls next month. Nigerians should think more about ending their own subjugation rather than turning the fire on independent, hardworking Nigerians who, even though without support, contribute their best to national development.