Kannywood: A Luta Continua!

A Hausa film poster with the title misspelled
A Hausa film poster with the title misspelled

Why is Kannywood – the Hausa film industry – both more backward and more despised than Nollywood, and its promoters poorer in terms of material comfort? Why did Nollywood, the English language movie industry based in Lagos and Onitsha, grow so exponentially within a few years than Kannywood to become, according to UNESCO, the second largest film industry in the world in terms of the number of annual film productions, placing it ahead of Hollywood and behind Bollywood? Some reports say that Nollywood is estimated to rake in between US$200 million and US$250 million per year, churning out some 200 videos for the market every month.

Some would think it is foolish to make this kind of contradistinction because the two industries appear to be operating on different turfs. On a closer look, however, it is possible to glean the factors that make the two similar and why the fortune of one should ricochet on the other. The greatest point of divergence is language, which may appear to present certain restrictions on the Hausa industry that could militate against its growth. But if you look closer, you will wonder why Bollywood movies were able to penetrate societies globally even though they came loaded with Indian cultural motifs. If Hindi melodramas could have a universal appeal, why should the Hausa ones be restricted to particular audiences? The answer to these questions will tell us why our movies remain in chains twenty years after they began while those of Nollywood wax stronger. First, let’s take a look back at the origin of the problem. The Hausa movie industry is going to celebrate its 20th year anniversary next week, but of course not many outside its circle know this. And this is very instructive. This momentous milestone is generally lost on most people, including those who should know better, because this is an industry that has always suffered the fate of being misunderstood, misreported and even cast in the wrong league of Nigerian entertainment history.

Official history says the “Nigerian home video industry” had origins in the release of the movie ‘Living in Bondage’ in 1992. This drama thriller, written by Kenneth Nnebue and Okechukwu Ogunjiofor and directed by Chris Obi Rapu, is believed to have been responsible for the beginning of the shot straight-to-video ventures that came to define what is generally known as Nollywood today. This wrong historicisation of the art form does not take cognisance of the “other” movie industry known as Kannywood, which is so named because of its main base in Kano. It is a home video industry that is as big as Nollywood in terms of number of productions per month and the sheer population of stakeholders – stars, directors, producers, crew and marketers. Its viewership transcends northern Nigeria because its flicks are watched all over West Africa and the Hausa Diaspora.

The truth also is that Kannywood predates Nollywood. As Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu, unarguably the leading scholar on Kannywood alive, told an audience in Kano on November 25, 2010 at an event to mark 20 years of the industry, Kannywood began in March 1990 with the release of the home video ‘Turmin Danya’. Written by the late Aminu Hassan Yakasai, it was produced by the pioneer drama group in Kano, Tumbin Giwa, and directed by Salisu Galadanci. The relative success of ‘Turmin Danya’ caused an upsurge in Hausa filmmaking as more and more production outfits, called companies even if they were not formally registered with the authorities, emerged, mostly as breakaways from older groups. Kano, with the biggest army of unemployed youth in the north, got an industry that was self-created, independent of government intervention.

According to Adamu, “Another landmark in the history of video films in Africa was recorded in August 1999 edition of Tauraruwa magazine – the first magazine in Africa devoted to indigenous African video films – edited by Sunusi Shehu … that Sunusi created the term ‘Kannywood’ to refer to the Kano-based Hausa video film industry. It is significant that the term ‘Nollywood’ to refer to the Nigerian English language video film industry was created by Norimitsu Onishi, in an article titled ‘Step Aside L.A. and Bombay, for Nollywood’ published in The New York Times on September 16, 2002. This was three years AFTER Sunusi Shehu created ‘Kannywood’.

“Of further significance was the fact that ‘Turmin Danya’ was released in 1990, two years BEFORE ‘Living in Bondage’ – the video film generally acknowledged as the first in English language Nollywood film industry. So either way, the Hausa video film industry – both in terms of an industry as well as a label – is the first full-fledged video film industry, not only in Nigeria, but also in Africa.”

So, why should an industry that made this milestone be licking its wounds today instead of licking the juice of its labour? The answer is that Hausa movies veered off culturally by their adoption of alien cultural mores – Indian, Western and even southern Nigerian. They lost their uniqueness. The early movies were responsible for the monumental growth and popularity of the new art form. But when some producers in the heat of deadly competition injected the ‘Indian-type’ movies – the singing and dancing aspect, forms of dress, storylines, and even posters, etc – the audience began to shrink. I watched with keen interest, as a reporter deeply embedded within the industry, as the market went into a spin, crashing a lot of hitherto legendary production outfits and names.

Then in 2007 came the infamous Hiyana affair. An A-class actress and her non-industry lover had foolishly made a video clip of themselves having sex in a hotel room, using a cell-phone camera, apparently for the fun of it. Even though it was a non-industry event, the inadvertent release of the clip into the society created a consternation and opprobrium against an industry that had for some time been struggling to remain popular and tolerated. The scandal forced the Kano State governor, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, who feared a backlash from Islamic clerics at a time he was instituting a Sharia law regime, into a clean-up exercise in the industry. He appointed a new boss for the state censorship board known for his heavy-handedness while working for the state Sharia police. The man, Abubakar Rabo, took it as part of his duties to emasculate the industry in any way he could. Acting on his weird understanding of the functions of a public officer and a pitiable misreading of the public mood, he battled the industry for three years, using the instrument of government power, ensuring that many actors, producers, directors, etc., were jailed or fined heavily on false charges. Many stakeholders migrated to other states. It took the sudden occurrence of his own sex scandal to check his acts of injustice and persecution and make him mellow down and seek rapprochement with his opponents.

At 20, Kannywood needs to take a pensive look at the progress it should have made but hasn’t. The stakeholders, most of whom are young, need to train for roles in moviemaking, especially the technical aspect. Skill acquisition is low. The marketing system is rudimentary and pedestrian. Piracy, a big spectre, is gobbling up potential profits and keeping producers on the verge of bankruptcy. Movie stories are shallow and thematically restricted, lacking in unique cultural motifs that can create a universal loyal audience. Unity of purpose is almost absent, leading to an individualism that is injurious to the common interest of stakeholders; this makes it impossible for outfits to collaborate on productions and sometimes lead to court cases such as the current one between a leading director and a famous actor/producer. Overall, government empowerment is necessary in growing the industry as a private sector capable of sucking in thousands of school leavers and dropouts, as well as gearing the movies towards the common good.

Kannywood, as its struggles continue, can learn a lot from Nollywood, where collaborations and norms and conventions have created a cohesiveness that promotes the common good. There should be rules and regulations that everybody should be subjected to. The Motion Pictures Practitioners Association of Nigeria (MOPPAN), Hausa movie industry’s main trade association, has a role to play in this. Education is of paramount significance; an under-educated class cannot even write grammatically correct subtitles, talk less of producing captivating box office hits. A cursory viewing of Kannywood flicks on Africa Magic’s Hausa channel today shows just how backward Hausa movies are in this regard. If Kannywood refuses to start cleansing itself of its present imperfections, it cannot hope to make any headway in its next twenty years.

Published in LEADERSHIP WEEKEND, last Saturday

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