‘Far From Home’ and the Nollywood Challenge
This looks like a good time to talk about Far from Home (directed by Catherine Stewart and Kayode Kasum), the limited five-episode series, which premiered on December 16, 2022, on Netflix. The series has generated a lot of buzz and why not? Far From Home, by all measures, is Nollywood’s contribution and Nigeria’s first venture into the young adult genre on Netflix. So, understandably, there has been a lot of back-slapping and high-fiving from all concerned, directly, or indirectly. The list reads like the who’s who of Nollywood. Seems like everyone (almost) was involved in Project Far from Home; or knew someone who knew someone. That was the situation last month. It didn’t look like one could get a word in edgewise. So much so that one stakeholder mused out loud on social media wondering who the bigger employer between the Nigerian federal government and Netflix is.
For some context, let’s talk a little about the series. Far from Home is centered largely around Ishaya Bello (Mike Afolarin), a gifted but indigent boy who’s bent on pursuing his dream of studying in a prestigious art school in the UK. But he has no support from home. His mother, Patricia (Funke Akindele) sees fine arts as no more than a curse because ‘the arts’ is what she blames for the loss of another son and the withering away of her now wheelchair-bound husband, Ishaya snr. (Paul Adams). However, undeterred, refusing to be discouraged, Ishaya cheats his way to the prestigious Wilmer Academy, a halfway prep school for the very rich where the usual rich kids-poor kid shenanigans ensue. On this front, so much has been said and a lot of talk wasted on the ‘realness’ (or otherwise) of Wilmer Academy. I could say a few things about this having attended a rich kids’ school as a not-so-rich kid myself, granted that’s an entire lifetime ago. Perhaps I could even dig into my experience from my kids’ schools and their stories. But I’ll only say one thing in response to the “Just because you’ve not experienced it, doesn’t mean it’s a lie” gang: No creator should go out of their way to showcase the exceptions in society. Except if, of course, your film or series is titled “The Exception,” or something fancy like that.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I like in Far from Home. For starters, I like that there are many new faces; at least, to me. And as far as casting goes, I have no real complaints. A great deal of thought appears to have been put into that aspect. I also cannot fault any of the actors. I may find some of the dialogue clichéic, but I can’t hold the actors responsible. Anyway, the actors pull their weight. I liked reconnecting with some of my fav faces like Bucci Franklin (who wowed as Neza/Nebuchadnezzar in Jemeji, 2017-2019). I like that he actually works in the series whereas some of the big-name ‘guest stars’ are more or less ‘waka pass.’ Another notable plus in Far from Home is the music design which is quite dynamic.
After the accolades are the makers of Far from Home willing to listen (or hear) about some of the gaps in the series? That’s the real Nollywood challenge: The seeming inability to take any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise. Yes, I know tearing down is easier than building up and many a critic have fun breaking all breakables. In this case, however, all I can do is place Far from Home alongside the other young adult series on Netflix with the obvious being Blood & Water the series from South Africa with three seasons.
Whereas Blood & Water is recognizably South African, Far from Home appears to wear its Nigerian-ness with noticeable discomfort which gives ‘far from home’ another meaning. This comes out in the dialogue, the turn of phrase that sounds more American than African. It’s like there’s an unknown audience being courted, or some external puppeteer is pulling the strings. For what it’s worth, this is actually a common challenge in Nollywood (new Nollywood?) where some believe that to sound civilized is to sound American and that this shows class. The only ‘teeny weeny’ detail that gets lost is that characters (in a film or series) ought to speak in a manner authentic to their roles. What does it matter if the writers are experts in Americanese? It’s also difficult to comprehend Ishaya speaking impeccable Queen’s (ajebutter) English with his sister Rahila (Tomi Ojo) at home (trenches no less) but the same Ishaya would speak pidgin English to the educated people he’s trying to sell his drawings. What gives? I’m not saying there are no siblings that talk to each other like Ishaya and his sister. But it’s a stretch to say these two characters specifically are English Pro at home. It isn’t just English, it’s the level and quality of ‘the’ English. If there’s an explanation or backstory that’ll help, why not let the audience in on the secret?
Speaking of back story, the senior Ishaya’s back story is grossly inadequate, to put it mildly. All we know is that him and his late son were passengers on a motorbike on a certain rainy day. We are to assume that this somehow led to or contributed to death of said son. So? What exactly happened? No one knows, or if anyone does, no one is willing to spare us from our guessing game. The lack of an appropriate backstory may not be unconnected to the fact that Far from Home has only five episodes to Blood &Water’s (6, 7, 6) episodes in its three seasons respectively. Let’s not talk about the Korean drama series. Just for comparison, I checked out Boys Over Flowers, and the 2009 series has 25 episodes. Love Alarm, another Korean drama series on Netflix has two seasons, with (8, 6) episodes. Could there really not have been one more episode of Far from Home? Although I’m tempted to reject any extra episodes if they’re going to focus on scenes like the vulgar and distasteful display of women dancing naked in the club. As mature as Blood & Water is, so many things are left to the viewer’s imagination. For a series that’s targeting young adults, is there no way to shoot the club scenes without resorting to the not-so-soft porn flesh peddling for the shock value? When you add that to the jarring editing which shows almost blinding transitions between scenes, the average viewer is left feeling unnerved.
To conclude, it’s important for filmmakers and other actors in the Nigerian film industry to dig deeper and present the world with more authentic stories. Or rather it’s imperative that Nigerian stories are told more authentically. While stories may not be exclusive to any one group of people, their treatment can make all the difference.