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For the love of Kannywood

I walk into the museum, my hands filled with bags of onions and tomatoes. I find myself on the set of a historical film Bakin…

I walk into the museum, my hands filled with bags of onions and tomatoes. I find myself on the set of a historical film Bakin Mulki being shot by the Jos-based 3sp productions, produced by B. Bello and Muhammad Dahir and directed by Abubakar S. Shehu. “Tally Baby!” yells a costumier I know from another film. I usually bristle when men call me “Baby.” But in this context, I grin. I feel like I have come home. It is good to see producers, and actors, and crew I know. The Hausa film industry feels like family. “Kwana biyu,” they say. In the cavernous hall of one of the palaces in the museum, lights are set up on a throne, where comedian Ibro poses in royal robes. The hall is filled with extras.
A Jos-based producer on set tells me how during the crisis in Jos, many of the filmmakers based there left and shot films elsewhere. Now people are coming back. In Kano, another actor told me, business is booming. You might find five locations a day in the city. I linger on set, soaking in the camaraderie I have missed as I have locked myself away for the past year trying to finish writing my PhD dissertation. I promise them I will be back when I finish.
Back at home I make a basil and tomato salad. I am briefly filled with a fragile happiness. I feel guilty about my happiness at seeing film friends, when there are so many people in mourning. I think of a friend who sent me a text the other day, telling me how happy she was and how she felt guilty to be happy when there was so much suffering in the world. “My dear, don’t feel guilty for being happy,” I responded. Such moments are so rare. They should be savoured. I should take my own advice.
The PhD dissertation is discouraging work. I spend days stuck, re-writing the same five pages, re-reading articles I’ve read dozens of times before, pushing out new sentences, which I later go back and delete. It is easy to become so absorbed with the words and the paragraphs and the citations that you forget what you are writing about and why you are writing it and why entering a PhD programme ever seemed like a good idea.
I returned to the same film set a few days later, and I was reminded of why I decided to write on Hausa films. Bakin Mulki is a historical film, and up against the adobe models of palaces in the Jos museum were kings and courtiers in turbans, princes in velvet and a scary looking horseman played by Shu’aibu Kumurci, who wielded a sword and wore a veil that masked his face. He handled his horse expertly and while waiting for the director took selfie phone photos of himself on his horse.
I joined hundreds of other onlookers, many of them children, who perched on walls and stood surrounding patient actors, giggling and taking photos on cell phones. I experimented with my new 50mm lens. I was filled with love for this place, this profession, this community of filmmakers who have been so kind to me over the years.
According to the producer, Bakin Mulki is a serious film, but there are a few moments of comedy —the appearance of the comedian dan Ibro, being one of them. This mixing of tragedy and comedy in Hausa films sometimes reminds me of the crowd-pleasing plays of Shakespeare: the clownish gravediggers in the meditative tragedy Hamlet, for example, or the drunken porter with his vulgar jokes in the gory play Macbeth. With the canonization of Shakespeare as one of the world’s greatest authors, people sometimes forget that he was a commercial playwright and director who borrowed storylines far beyond Elizabethan British culture, “ripped off” other plays of the day and mixed crass street humour, singing and dancing, meandering monologues, witches and ghosts, and scores of tragic deaths into plays popular both with the royal court and the street. In his description of the Yoruba film Ami-Orun/Birthmark, Nollywood scholar Jonathan Haynes has noted parallels with Shakespeare’s “grafting a popular comic style onto a nascent bourgeois one,” and I’ve seen this in Hausa films as well. Certainly, not all Nigerian films have the same depth as Shakespeare, but I think more comparative readings would be useful. The actor Umar Gombe once told me that he had been entranced by Shakespeare when he read him in secondary school. The playful elements of the movies often mask much deeper messages.
I suppose one could say that love for film in the time of bombs and gun battles is frivolous, but yet there is something gutsy and healing and beautiful about it too. So much of how we remember the history and culture of Elizabethan England is coloured by Shakespeare’s plays. He directed his performers in the retelling of gory murders, the schemes of corrupt leaders and civil servants, the buffoonish jokes of drinking parlours, the songs and dances between swooning lovers. Hundreds of years later, we remember the facts of history less than the human stories he gave us.  In the midst of the worst crisis Nigeria has faced since the Biafra war, filmmakers continue making movies, musicians fill the airwaves with their songs, novelists keep writing.  The stories they provide are sometimes an escape from suffering, but just as frequently they confront the structures of inequality behind the suffering. After visiting the set on Friday, I went home and watched the 2010 film Hijabi directed by Imran S.I. Ashir. Although I thought that it was filled with too much speechifying and not enough action, especially in part 1 of the movie, it is painfully relevant: there are corrupt politicians, kidnappers, assassinations, and the radio exposes the secret corruptions of the government.
Even a film like Bakin Mulki with its mythic setting seemed to—from what I was told of the story—deal  metaphorically with the abuse of power and injustice that is relevant today. And while the love stories Kannywood is known for are often seen as escapist, many filmmakers and novelists have told me they based the heartbreak of their heroes and heroines on true life stories, whether things that happened to them or one of their friends.  Even those stories that are not realistic capture the mood of the times in which we live and give context and humanity to the harsh news headlines.
I love Kannywood. They weathered the Kano censorship crisis, and the stories and cinematography continue to get better and better. I think of films like Falalu Dorayi’s Zarar Bunu, based on the novel Linzamin Shaidan by Nazir Adam Salih. I loved the novel and I thought the film was one of the best Hausa films I have seen.  In the past few years, the industry has upped their game. Kenneth Gyang’s Hausa-language film Blood and Henna, about the deadly Pfizer trials in Kano, was nominated for 6 Africa Movie Academy Awards this year and won the best costume design. This story told by Kannywood actors has now reached a global stage.
There is a proverb that I first heard in the Burkinabe film Keita: the heritage of a griot directed by Dani Kouyate. In the film, the griot Djeliba tells his young pupil Mabo, “Do you know why the hunter always beats the lion in the stories? If the lion told the stories, he’d win sometimes too.”  I always add that the logic of the proverb extends even further to the antelope, which is hunted by both the human and lion.
This is why I think literature and film and music are so important in these times of suffering. Because when the oppressed, those “antelopes” caught between lion and hunter, tell their own stories and are heard, they have the potential to affect audiences for centuries. 

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