Nigeria’s Oscar Disqualification Sparks Push for Films in Native Languages

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ABUJA, NIGERIA – Nigeria’s Oscar Committee is urging the country’s filmmakers to use more native languages in their productions.  This, after the U.S. Academy Awards disqualified a Nigerian entry in the International Feature Film category because the movie used too much English.  While some in Nigeria’s Hollywood – known as Nollywood – support the idea of more native languages in films, others argue that non-English films limit their audience reach. 

Nollywood filmmaker Desmond Utomwen is aiming for a U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award, popularly known as an Oscar, by producing a film in a native Nigerian language.

“It’s actually a Hausa-based film, so it’s a language film, it’s not English.  I’ve done a couple of them in English but, that’s actually my first film in Hausa,’ he says.

Most Nigerian filmmakers make English-language movies to reach a larger audience globally but also inside Nigeria, where the former British colony made English the official language.

Filmmaker Darlington Abuda has been in the industry for years.

“In Nigeria, if I do a purely language film, I have made my film a regional film,” Abuda says.  “It will not get the appeal and audience traction that it needs in the other parts of the country.”

But that tide may be slowly turning after the Academy Awards this month disqualified Nigeria’s first entry in the International Feature Film category.

Only 11 minutes of Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lion Heart” – the first Nollywood film by Netflix – was in the native Igbo language.  To qualify for the international feature award, at least 50 percent of a film’s dialogue must be in a language other than English.

While the rejection was roundly criticized in Nigeria, C.J. Obasi, a member of a Nigerian Oscar committee which was set up five years ago, is optimistic.

“If you look at the bigger picture you realize that it’s a victory in that we made a submission for the first time ever,” Obasi says.  “What that does is that it re-positions the hearts and minds of filmmakers as to how we are going to tell our stories moving forward.”

Nigeria’s Oscar Selection Committee says the rejection should motivate Nollywood filmmakers to create more movies in the country’s over 500 native languages.

But convincing Nigerian filmmakers to turn away from English – the language that ties the country together and with the world – will remain a challenge.

And, for some Nollywood filmmakers like Jim Iyke, the language used is not the point.

“If someone sits in their living room and decide where my movie should be, and what platform or what awards I should get, that is on them,” Iyke says. ” I’ve done my job.  I’ve fed the artist in me.”

While Lion Heart won’t make the February Academy Awards, being rejected and having the backing of Netflix are already drawing more international attention to Nollywood — and what Nigerian filmmakers will produce next.

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