Nollywood Oscars Selectors Grab the Tiger by the Tail
Shock waves vibrated through the Nigerian film industry when it was announced last month that the Nigerian Official Selection Committee (NOSC) voted not to submit any film for consideration for the 2023 Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars. The committee received three epic films this year − Agesinkole (King of Thieves), Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, and Anikulapo − following its call for submissions in August, but they were all rejected via the voting pattern of the committee members.
On September 3, 2022, the fifteen-member committee met in a panel session that lasted for three hours and recorded a voting count of 8:5:1:1. Eight members voted for “non-eligible,” five voted for Elesin Oba, one voted for Anikulapo, and the last vote went to Agesinkole.
The NOSC is the official body endowed with the authority given by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to choose the film that will represent Nigeria in the International Feature Film (IFF) category. Their mandate was handed to them in 2013 and their mission is “to recognize and celebrate the art of cinema by showcasing Nigerian films and filmmakers to the Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars for the category of Best Foreign Film,” which is now known as International Feature Film (IFF).
This is the second year in a row that Nigeria would not be submitting a film to the Academy for consideration in the IFF category. The last submission was the Desmond Ovbiagele directed film, The Milkmaid back in 2020. Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart was disqualified by the Academy in 2019 for contravening its rules on language adequacy.
Reactions to the NOSC decision became more noticeable after the acclaimed film director and producer, Kunle Afolayan took to Twitter and Instagram to express his displeasure at the committee for not submitting his film, Anikulapo for consideration. On October 3, 2022, he wrote:
“I am so pleased and delighted that the whole world have [sic] decided to tagged [sic] ANIKULAPO film “a masterpiece” even though the Nigerian Oscar selection committee think it’s not worth submitting for the Oscars. Will keep making doing my own thing regardless.”
Anikulapo has caused quite a frenzy on social media. The minute it dropped on September 30, 2022, on the streaming platform, Netflix, it went straight to number one and is currently still trending at number one. It is one of the most talked about films of the year in Nigeria and it has gotten praise worldwide for its stellar directing, impeccable cast, outstanding visuals, and striking portrayal of Yoruba culture. Arguably Afolayan’s best work, industry big-wigs, and fans had high hopes that the film would be the one selected by the committee to represent Nigeria but that never happened.
TNR reached out to Afolayan for a statement on the reason why his film was not chosen, and his thoughts on the NOSC’s decision but he declined to comment.
However, the public seems to be on his side as a cross-section of people expressed their vexation at the decision of the committee. One avid movie-watcher interviewed by TNR said that “the decision by the NOSC to not pick Anikulapo is to me not one that is understandable. The film is a masterpiece and the fact that no solid reason has been offered as to why the film was not picked is mind-blowing.” Another ardent movie-goer said, “Although the storyline for Anikulapo is not the best I have seen so far, it definitely deserved to be the film chosen by the NOSC because of its rich showcase of Yoruba culture.”
According to reports, there are several postulated reasons why Anikulapo was not selected by the committee. First, the film had a streaming release before a theatrical one. The rules of the Academy state that for a film to be eligible for the IFF category, it has to “be first publicly exhibited for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theatre for the profit of the producer and exhibitor.” Afolayan released the film on Netflix at the end of September before it hit theatres in early October.
In his defense, Afolayan said in a recent Channels Television interview,
“For a film to qualify for [an] Oscar in the US, different countries will pre-select and then present the film to the Oscars and then I submitted, and I know a number of people submitted. And, last year, when they said no film was eligible, we ensured that we meet all the criteria. As a matter of fact, Anikulapo is supposed to be exclusive to just Netflix: we were not supposed to do cinema but, because Netflix also would like to submit, they gave a bit of window because one of the conditions is you have to do at least seven days in the cinema, so we met all the conditions and then they went to vote.
“If you have films that qualify, why would you eight members of the committee say no film is eligible? Up to now, they haven’t come out to explain the meaning of “no film is eligible” because they wrote to us to say ‘oh you didn’t have enough votes’ and it’s just a shame because this is the first time you are going to have this quality of the film. Maybe the Oscars need to change and not put fate in the hands of a few colleagues because most of them are colleagues and some of them happened to work for some of the competing films.”
Second, Afolayan may have rubbed some higher-ups in the government the wrong way. The NOSC committee members, contrary to rumors, are not handpicked by the Chairperson, Chineze Anyaene-Abonyi. Yes, the Academy commissioned the NOSC and gave them voting power, but they are picked by the government based on their qualifications, expertise, and merit. If the government does not feel like a film or its director has portrayed them in a good light, they may influence the ones whom they have picked to vote against the director and his work. Afolayan is a very vocal person, and he has been open about his thoughts and feelings about the ruling government. He openly criticized the brute force used by the military and police force in October 2020 during the #EndSARS protests. He has also shared his frustrations at the government for not providing the basic infrastructures like power supply to make his job easier for him.
Third, the film was subject to internal politics and favoritism in the industry. A source with knowledge of the inside dynamics of the selectors exclusively told TNR that the committee did not want certain filmmakers to have their crowning moment at the Oscars, hence the need to axe the three films. This is not the first time that a claim of ethnic politics and favoritism has been used to describe the outcome of the committee’s output. When The Milkmaid was picked over Oloture, Sanitation Day, Voiceless, Eyimofe, and Ibi: The Birth in 2020, it sparked heavy internal debates because the film was stamped as controversial and was heavily scrutinized by the Department of States Services (DSS), human right lawyers, and an Islamic group of filmmakers. Also, Ovbiagele’s filmmaking experience was called into question because The Milkmaid was his sophomore project. Despite this, he somehow managed to beat the likes of Robert O. Peters, who directed Voiceless and Seyi Babatope, the director of Sanitation Day, who have at least four films under their belt respectively.
Furthermore, a special privilege seemed to have been given to the film before its selection. The Hausa thriller was censored by the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) on November 16, 2020, due to its raw depiction of the Islamic religion and its honest take on extremism. Thus, there was a delay in its approval for public exhibition in theatres. It was eventually cleared, and its documented release date was November 27, 2020, but the NOSC closed its portal for submission on November 2, 2020. How did the film scale through? Remember, the Academy rules state that to be eligible for the IFF category, a film has to first be screened in a “commercial motion picture theatre” for at least seven days. An answer was given by the NOSC to a reputed publication: the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Academy to adjust its eligibility rules in 2020, giving films a seven-day screening grace till the end of the month (November 31). In addition, the rules also stated that the screening of a film could take place outside the shores of its home country. The Milkmaid had allegedly been screened in Zimbabwe and Cameroon.
Are these answers adequate or highly convenient? Many things may never be explained, but what seems clear is that the NOSC is no stranger to controversy. Since its inception, three members have left the committee due to undisclosed reasons. The first to tender his resignation was film director, producer, and essayist, Charles Novia. Next was the founder of the African International Film Festival, Chioma Ude, and recently, film scholar and culture journalist, Shaibu Husseini. Interestingly enough, Husseini’s resignation came a month after the controversial decision by the committee to not submit any film for consideration this year. Whether or not this is a coincidence is unknown, but it is a curious development.
TNR reached out to Novia for his thoughts on the committee’s decision and he said, “I think the NOSC has the rules and templates for selection and as honourable as the names in the Selection Committee are, they have done their duty as demanded by the rules of the Academy setting them up. Such decisions will not always be palatable to many, but I believe the utmost professionalism needed must have been implemented.”
There have been rumors that the Anyaene-Abonyi-led committee’s decision was plagued with “ethnic divisions” and “personality differences” among the members. In a sea of fifteen, four are from the Yoruba tribe. The remaining eleven are either Igbo or from minority ethnic groups. The three films rejected were all Yoruba epic films. So, could the rumors be true?
The official statement made by the NOSC, defending their actions has also been heavily criticized. It goes thus, “Our filmmakers are (however) implored to get more acquainted with Oscar-nominated films in the IFF category to achieve the needed international recognition and put our films in its acclaimed level of creative discourse.”
Another informed source with knowledge of the industry and of the international praxis associated with judging creative works called this statement “a vague, dodgy and insincere statement drafted and approved by only one person.” The source further stated that the job of the NOSC is not to determine the technical quality of a good film. Once it has passed the basic requirements and eligibility criteria, it should be submitted to the Academy for observation and scrutiny.
Sharing a similar sentiment, veteran filmmaker, Tunle Kelani said, “The NOSC should not constitute self-appointed goalkeeper or border police. Their role should be to select a film to represent us. The decision for a nomination should be left to the Oscar machinery who is best qualified to take the final decision. Films are not made solely for Oscar consideration. The NOSC’s action is dangerous and should be condemned.”
Photography and television production guru, Philip Trimnell, provided TNR with a detailed response on why the NOSC action is not acceptable:
“I don’t necessarily agree with the decision of NOSC not to present any Nigerian movie at the 95th Oscars, International Feature Film (IFF) category. Firstly, I think it is worthwhile to present the work at the Oscars because the producers have worked very hard to achieve the product.
“Secondly, I believe it is a platform that promotes opportunities for learning and improving the skills and craft of the producers especially when they fail to win an award. Any serious producer, director, or actor will strive for improvement by learning from the work of those who are winners.
“Having said that, I must be clear that over the past few years, the Nigerian movie industry has improved tremendously. I dare say we are capable of competing and giving our competitors from around the world a run for their money. However, one must admit we still have a long way to go.
“We lack the financial backing that makes a multi-million-dollar production possible. It is therefore unfair to put Nollywood on the same platform as Hollywood. Nollywood’s miserly budget is obviously inadequate in comparison.
“Nevertheless, the Academy considered this disparity when the IFF category was established. Can Nigeria win this award? I believe so. Although it’s necessary to keep in mind that as we have improved, so have others. The global improvement is a result of equipment affordability. The technical aspect of production such as picture and sound clarity is now easily within reach.
“I still wonder if technical sophistication is enough to win awards. In my opinion, the answer is an emphatic no. I must confess that as much as we have tried, Nollywood in general has not been able to successfully incorporate all the ingredients of an award-winning film into their production.
“Stories must be interesting and captivating. Characters must be well-developed and believable, while dialogue must be crisp and life-like. In this arena, Nigerian movies are still painfully lacking.
“Award-winning movies, in my opinion, must have humanistic and social appeal. More importantly, it must promote the essence of our very existence. It must be culturally and socially relevant. Award-winning films have more of an intellectual and cerebral appeal as opposed to only sensory satisfaction.
“Under this type of microscope, it becomes glaringly clear that we might still have a bit of work to do. Our producers, directors, and screenplay writers must be well-vested and experienced. They must have the ability to recognize the right recipe and meet the challenges of cooking with all the necessary ingredients to produce an award-winning film. Are we there yet?”
The bitter pill to swallow is the NOSC’s reluctance in issuing a concrete reason for its disapproval of the epic films in contention. Hazy statements embellished with glaring counsel may not suffice this year.
As of the time of publication, efforts were made by TNR to reach out to Anyaene-Abonyi, for her thoughts on the accusations levied against the NOSC as well as more elaborate and insightful official reason why the three epic films were not selected, but TNR is yet to receive a response.
The directors of Agesinkole −Tope Adebayo and Adebayo Tijani, and Mo Abudu − the CEO of EbonyLife Films (the production company responsible for Elesin Oba) were also reached out to for comments, but no response was received as at press time.