Nollywood and the Academy Awards

By: Victor Okhai

In light of the recent media exchanges between the Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC) and Nollywood filmmakers, which have expressed concern among Nigerians over the country’s lack of representation at the 2023 Oscar, Victor Okhai, President, Directors’ Guild of Nigeria (DGN), has recommended filmmakers focus on making and creating wonderful films rather than engaging in any internal conflict that would distract from this.

When the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929 to honour films released in 1927 and 1928, no mention was made of foreign-language films.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) created the Foreign Language Film category in 1956 and invited film industries across the world to submit their best films.

Since then, the Academy has given the IFF Award to a feature-length motion picture produced outside of the United States that has 80% or more non-English dialogue.

 The Foreign Language Film Award

The committee is in charge of overseeing the process and reviewing all films submitted. Following that, they vote by secret ballot to choose the five award nominees.

The first recipient was the Italian neorealist film “La Strada,” whose citation stated, “The high quality of this motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scared by war, is proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.”

The outstanding quality of this motion picture brought to expressive life in a war-torn country is a testament to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity,” helped establish Federico Fellini as one of Europe’s most influential directors.

Similar awards were given out in subsequent years. In the following years, similar awards were given to seven other films.

During the early post-war era (1947–1955), eight foreign language films received special/honorary awards. Academy leader and board member Jean Hersholt argued, “An international award if properly and carefully administered, would promote a closer relationship between American film craftsmen and those of other countries”.

Eight foreign language films got special or honorary honours during the early postwar period (1947–1955). Jean Hersholt, a member of the Academy’s board of directors, stated, “An international prize if properly and carefully administered, would create a stronger interaction between American film professionals and those of other countries.”

The International Feature Film award, in contrast to other Academy Awards, is given to the submitting nation as a whole rather than to a specific person (although the film’s director does accept it on stage).

Since the Chineze Anyaene-Abonyi led Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC), registered under the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as “The Oscar Selection Association of Nigeria,” a cultural organisation whose aim is to recognise and promote the art of cinema by exhibiting Nigerian films and filmmakers to the Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, for the category of Best Foreign Film, the committee has submitted two Nigerian feature films to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards.

The academy’s board of governors agreed on April 23, 2019, that the category would be renamed Best International Feature Film, commencing with the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.

It was stated that the term “foreign” was “outdated within the global filmmaking community,” and that the new name “better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking and the art of film as a universal experience.” This category will also allow animated and factual films.

Nigerian filmmakers approach their craft differently because they are all driven by the desire to win the Oscar rather than by the need to ensure that the films they are submitting to the International Feature Film (IFF) category of the Academy Awards are technically and artistically up to par.

To be eligible for the Academy Awards, a film must also meet a number of additional requirements, such as being dominated by the native language of the country it represents, being released during the calendar period mandated by the Oscars, having appropriate English subtitles, and having been seen in cinemas or theatres for at least seven days in the nation it represents before being shown on streamers like Netflix, Amazon, and terrestrial television.

In 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences caused a stir by disqualifying the first Oscar entry from Nigeria’s massive film industry. The submission of the film was seen as a watershed moment for the country’s film industry, known as Nollywood.

It’s a film called “Lionheart,” which is Genevieve Nnaji’s first directing debut that met every other requirement, and it was disqualified from the International Feature category because the 95-minute film “Lionheart” is largely in English, with an 11-minute section in the Igbo language.

The decision prompted widespread outrage and criticism in the Nigerian, British, and American film industries, like Ms. Ava DuVernay, director of “Selma and A Wrinkle in Time,” with many blaming colonialism rather than Nigerian filmmakers.

Others sided with the Academy, arguing that the rules for the best international feature film applications are well-defined.

The Executive Committee for the International Feature Film (IFF) category of the Oscars confirmed in January 2021 that Nigeria’s official entry, “The Milkmaid,” a Hausa language insurgency thriller produced and directed by Desmond Ovbiagele, was eligible after submission in December 2020, along with other contenders for the 93rd Academy Awards. Nigerians’ expectations, however, were dashed once more when it failed to make the first shortlist of the 15 foreign films chosen for the International Feature Film category.

In a sense, the fact that European films are already produced in foreign languages gives them an advantage, especially those in languages like German, French, Spanish, or Italian, even though they are currently not in very good shape because they don’t have the places to distribute the films. Unlike Nigeria, that has a clear open market.

The fact that Nigerian films are not eligible for submission at the awards ceremony is due to a number of factors impeding international attention, including a lack of funding for collaborations and technical support from foreign institutions.

Meeting minimum tech specs and strict adherence to the requirements for qualification and submission instead of whipping up sentiments remain a basic challenge.

Prior to the establishment of the Nigerian Oscar Committee in 2013, Nollywood productions frequently failed to meet the technical requirements of a cinema film due to the emphasis on home videos.

However, with the emergence of multiple streaming platforms, they appear to be more promising, but it remains to be seen how far and sustainable the current trend will last.

The Nigerian film industry is attempting to demonstrate that it can compete favourably with other developing film nations throughout the world.

However, even if the quality of Nollywood productions improves, an Oscar nomination or win is not certain as we continue to drag ourselves out there, especially when the Oscars are coming up.

The Oscars are merely a marketing game in which anyone who can attract attention can win.
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The quality of films at the Oscars will not depreciate, as good films will always stand out. National interests should take precedence over personal interests, as the Oscar is not the beginning and end of the world.

Nigerian filmmakers should focus on making good films and, as much as possible, avoid dragging ourselves before the Oscars.

Nigeria is not the only nation embroiled in controversy over the submission of an ineligible film. Film critics and other interested parties are also upset and perplexed about Egypt’s failure to submit any movies for the International Feature Film Award.

In nearly 75 years, just three African films have won the Oscar for best foreign feature, and despite the enormity of Bollywood’s film industry, India has never won the award for best international film. The category is dominated by Europe.

The last time a film representing an African country garnered a nomination was Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which represented Tunisia at the 93rd Academy Awards earlier this year.

After being nominated with “Yesterday” the previous year, the South African film “Tsotsi” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, one of the few times the prize went to an African country. South Korea’s entrant, Parasite, became the first international feature film winner and the first non-English film overall in 2020.

The fact that Nigerian films are not eligible for entry into the awards ceremony is due to a number of issues that prevent worldwide recognition, such as a lack of funding for partnerships and technical assistance from foreign organisations to give the film a global appeal following the subject it’s treating and a lack of government support to fund the producers and directors to hit the international market.

Making movies is an expensive endeavour, and like with any investment, a clear path to returns must be provided.

Few people are ready to accept the chance, especially given the abundance of safer ways to profit.

Can we begin by winning top film festivals, where we can compete on the global stage with the best? Can we focus solely on winning ours at our own top film festivals?

The world, like our colleagues in music, accepted and applauded our stars before the Grammys. Quality comes first, followed by recognition. With the kind of production that has been coming out of the business in recent times, we are well on our way.

The Oscars will find us at the right time if we focus more on the work that we do. The recognition that we get from the work that we do is far more valuable than any validation that will come from any external source. 

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