The power of stories: raising the profile of African women’s cultural production

"I’m concerned about the fact that we download a lot about ourselves yet upload very little into mainstream media, no matter which media we are talking about”, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, Nigerian filmmaker and writer, speaks to Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah about her passion for all forms of creativity.

Sandra Mbanefo Obiago Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
25 August 2014

 Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah: Can you tell us about yourself and the work you do?

Sandra Mbanefo Obiago: I founded ‘Communicating for Change’ (CFC) in 1998 and recently started an art business called the African Art Spectrum. The focus of my work is to tell positive stories about Africa from an African viewpoint to Africans and the world. I’m concerned about the fact that we download a lot about ourselves yet upload very little into mainstream media, no matter which media we are talking about. I see myself as a content provider, whether I produce films, curate art exhibitions or events, write poetry or articles, or even teach. I am passionate about how we tell our stories and what sort of images we project about Africa and African women. I believe there is a great deal of misrepresentation, even locally, so I’ve tried to talk about issues such as health, education, women’s empowerment, the environment and other key challenges, through creativity and human interest stories that touch people in meaningful, powerful and also poetic ways. I think we’ve been quite successful; our films have been broadcast in forty countries and all over Nigeria.

Today I am telling stories through art and performance. CFC, in its time, was a powerful content provider to television stations across Nigeria. It was a pioneer in addressing how small and medium scale creative businesses can strengthen their programmes and also be strong institutions. By working with international organisations like the Goethe Institute and the Ford Foundation, we were able to organize fora and conferences where we addressed important issues such as intellectual property rights, business practices and funding. A wonderful collaboration with the Lagos Business School resulted in the Pan African University creating curricula for creative SMEs, and this has since grown into a full-fledged school of media and communications.

I’m passionate about all forms of creativity, working to promote our rich culture and to help us address our development challenges. We need closer links between the different sectors of the creative community – film makers should work closely with the best of Nigerian writers and musicians, and incorporate a stronger visual aesthetic within the frame by working with photographers and visual artists. By working together, the creative community can also tap into the knowledge bank of our content experts in health, development and so on, so that our messages are poetic, accurate and inspirational.

NDS: One of the things that struck me in the forum is that there is no need for any sort of distance between the commercially viable films and socially responsible films.

SMO: Absolutely, I mean look at the film Blood Diamond. There have been a lot of documentaries about the illegal diamond trade but that Hollywood feature film did more than all of them to raise consciousness and inform the public about looking at the source of one’s jewellery. In CFC’s films, we partnered with Nollywood directors such as Tunde Kelani and Teco Benson to ensure we combined art, social responsibility and entertainment in a seamless way.

NDS: I think it’s a very strong myth that socially responsible films are not commercially successful.

SMO: Well, I think there are some propaganda films that are not artistic, that some of the agencies have used here. For instance, the more conventional ‘ABC’s of HIV/AIDS’ is not as engaging as a popular show like Soul City which is also on HIV/AIDS but is based on research and is also a very entertaining series with high production values. I think some of the reasons why people here believe that socially responsible films may not be entertaining is because they often work with low production budgets. I don’t think there is enough investment in the artistic side.

NDS: Where did your passion for creativity come from?

SMO: I started off in school wanting to act so I was in all the plays. I went to drama school and I actually realized that I didn’t have what it takes to be in front of the camera; I didn’t have enough grit. I branched into education, and then into educational film, and that is really how I got into documentary film. Another important creative area for me is photography and poetry. I’m actually working on a photography exhibition right now with my 18 year old daughter which will be presented with poetry. I guess this is why I moved from Communicating for Change which focused on development media and film, to the African Art Spectrum which now connects all the creative dots in my life.

NDS: A number of people mentioned to me that even when you are not there your mark is there, and the people who you work with do what you’ve trained them to do. So it sounds like you don’t need to be physically present to make sure the work gets done the way you would like.

SMO: It may look like that from the outside, but in reality it takes a whole lot of supervision and quality control to ensure the best output each time. It is very challenging to run creative businesses in Nigeria where there is no supporting infrastructure, and one spends too much money on provide private infrastructure and keeping it going. I once calculated that during a period of two years I spent an average of US$3000 a month on electricity and running my generator. This didn’t include staff costs. That’s just crazy. How can we make a profit if we spend so much on production?

The whole process of creative enterprise management is a big challenge, and I think the problem in Nigeria is that we have a lot of creative people, especially in film, who are running enterprises which they shouldn’t be, simply because there are no big studios that one can depend on. This is both frustrating and draining for creative people.  So the challenge remains how do we strengthen small scale enterprises in the creative sector? How do we ensure that people doing theatre, jewellery, fashion and so on can actually continue to do so and have managers to manage the business side of their ventures? It’s really tough; even abroad it’s very tough.

NDS: What did you like about the African Women in Film forum?

SMO: I thought it was intellectually stimulating. We tend to often look at ourselves in isolation. I think as Nigerians, generally, we are over-confident, we believe that we are it, and then you realize that there is a whole historical perspective on the misrepresentation of Africans and the misrepresentation of black women. So how do you as a responsible creative person address that? I didn’t agree with some of the speakers who said ‘I make only what sells,’ and I did agree with what someone from the floor said about ‘creating desire.’ We do have to create the desire. It’s very important, but I thought what was good about the forum was that we had different perspectives so you are not only speaking to the converted – which is what makes it sometimes very boring when it’s just civil society talking about issues. At the forum we were also talking to mainstream Nollywood people, and if we can get them on our side that’s very important in our struggle for enlightenment in our artistic endeavours.

The biggest challenge for a forum like African Women in Film is to broaden the ripple effect. It’s a continuous discussion; it’s not a one-stop thing. We need to constantly remind ourselves what the prize is, and then take daily, baby steps to get to it. Our  young people, many of whom I have mentored, are so open; they are hungry to learn and these kind of fora are very important for them to get new perspectives.

The presentation at the forum about orature, the wealth and nuances of language was also important. We rarely think about these issues, and how we need to translate them onto the screen because the present, young generation does not read enough. My daughter read Things Fall Apart and she loved it but I had to almost force her to read it. The comment from Steven Spielberg that ‘movies are our literature’ is so true, and I will probably say that Facebook is the literature of this generation. How do we ensure that the messages that we are creating are getting onto those types of platforms? How do we ensure that messages get on to mobile phones and catch the attention of young people? How do you challenge perceptions, knowledge and attitudes about vital issues if not through exciting media? The power of the media is the power of stories to influence our decisions.

This is an abridged and updated version of an article first published in Feminist Africa, and available here.

The conversation took place during the first ‘African Women in Film Forum’ organized by the African Women’s Development Fund and the Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts. The conversation was updated in 2014 to include new developments in Sandra’s career.





This article is part of a collaboration between 50.50's Our Africa and Feminist Africa. Feminist Africa is a journal published by the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, that offers cutting-edge, informative and provocative African feminist scholarship. View all articles in the series

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