On March 7th I woke up to this unexpected email from Nigeria: “I am pleased to inform you that your DOCUMENTARY, COEXIST, is nominated in the BEST DOCUMENTARY category of the Africa movie Academy Awards 2011 edition holding in Bayelsa State on the 27TH MARCH 2011”
The news turned more exciting two days later when the AMAA organizers asked for my traveling dates to arrange a flight to Nigeria. So the journey to Yenegoa, Bayelsa state, Nigeria began culminating in the “African Oscars” event.
Coexist is a 40-minute documentary film on the current situation in Rwanda where a social experiment in forced reconciliation is underway, now 17 years after the genocide. The film aims to engage youth and young adults in a conversation about how the capacity for violence lives in all of us, how violence escalates, how today's victims can become tomorrow's offenders, and whether it is possible to rehumanize those who have killed.
Since we work in the U.S. and live in Massachusetts this Nigerian departure prompted the frequent question from many friends, what are the African Oscars? The AMAAs are an event like no other. The AMAAs (pronounced by everyone as “ah-mah”) are the largest gathering of African filmmakers, producers, and actors in the world.
The event is promoted as a weeklong gathering of industry elite in the small city of Yenegoa in the Niger Delta region of Africa’s most populous country. After 20+ hours of flying, the journey to Yenegoa really begins when you arrive at the Port Harcourt airport. A tiny open air arrivals hall swarming with bugs greets weary jet-lagged travelers. Upon clearing customs we found our ride and an armed man haphazardly slinging his gun over his shoulder right at me. He would ride shotgun as our guard on the 2-hour ride through dozens of police checkpoints and many more potholes. The driver would do well with video games. He and other road warriors seemed to treat the road as their own personal race track where the only rule was: try to not hit anything.
Safely arriving at our hotel we ran into a few hiccups as we tried to figure out where to throw out trash (unsuccessfully) how to get hot water (successfully, eventually) and how to obtain towels, soap, and toilet paper (success).
For days nominees, organizers, industry professionals, and journalists hung out at the local tourism bureau office for an almost non-stop barbeque. Dishes included grilled chicken and beef, several varieties of rice, and coleslaw. All of it was heartily spiced, we presume with what Nigerians call normal dried peppers. They look like habanero peppers. The pre-show news conference attended by a flock of journalists from across Africa was held outdoors just a few yards away from the grill where men prepared meat all day. After the news conference the press corps seemed to multiply. TV, radio, and print journalists from Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya swarmed nominees. Questions ranged from, “How do the subjects of Coexist feel about being involved in the film?” to “Who will you be wearing?”
We pushed for an opportunity to explore beyond the Tourism Bureau. We explored Yenegoa which seems to be a hub of construction activity. We were told the city used to be a group of villages until a dozen or so years ago when Bayelsa state was carved out of another state. The villages coalesced into a city becoming the capital of Nigeria’s newest state, home to the current President Goodluck Jonathan. With one of the first free elections in the country’s history scheduled to conclude on Saturday April 16th, posters for the President and the governor were on every available streetlight, billboard, truck, and car. We visited the Governor’s House where we saw signs of ample government funds in the form of a palatial home, gardens, pools, and the setup beginning for the AMAA after-party banquet. We stopped by the lake, and passed by parks and a river. Everywhere we went we attracted polite attention from the locals.
Some people may think of the region as a violent place overrun with militia who kidnap foreign oil workers. The milita’s goal is to force the Nigerian government to give the region its fair share of oil profits, since much of the country’s oil is extracted here, often with devastating results on the rivers and sea and the fishermen who rely on it (a story explored in the documentary, “Sweet Crude” and soon to be dramatized in a major movie called “Black Gold” to be released in the coming months.) We saw few signs of the industry. Flares were among the few lights visible on approach into Port Harcourt. We did travel through some thinly populated jungle where signs warned of an oil pipeline. Our guide explained that most people stay away or are in some cases forcibly relocated.
On Sunday the red carpet was rolled out hours before the show and hordes of locals crowded outside a fence to get a glimpse of the stars. If not for the crowd outside and the predominantly African presence, the red carpet seemed no different from what one might expect in Hollywood. Everyone was dressed to impress and entertainment reporters really did ask “Who are you wearing?” They call it Nollywood (as in Nigeria’s Hollywood) and this is Nollywood’s biggest night.
Twenty-six awards were on the line including familiar ones (Best Actor/Actress, Director, Film, etc.) as well as Best Nigerian Film, and Best African Language Film. Three awards are for documentaries and the rest are dedicated to narrative films, much like the Academy Awards. All of the nominees had some connection to Africa. The vast majority were made on the continent. Nominees came from all over Africa with the host nation Nigeria dominating the field along with strong showings from Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. Nominated films were made in many other nations including Cameroon, Mozambique, Togo, Congo, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda.
After walking the red carpet, we went through metal detectors and pat-downs and entered the hall and waited. Throughout the weekend it hadn’t been exactly clear what would happen and when. Rumors circulated that the show would be televised which would suggest a firm start time. Then suddenly the show began at 8:45pm with numerous musical and theatrical style performances from Nigerian and African troupes. We later learned the organizers were likely waiting for the arrival of the Bayelsa state Governor to begin the show. His presence was noted and praised by numerous presenters.
At 9:45 the presentation of awards began with clips of nominated films played on a mostly functioning DVD player. The crowd of several hundred was mostly subdued throughout the night. Despite the long distances many nominees had traveled, most winning films did have a representative on hand to accept an award. The biggest cheers came anytime “Inale” was mentioned. Billed as Nigeria’s first musical, starring popular Nigerian-born actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim, the film won for Best Soundtrack. Kae-Kazim is known in the U.S. for his bad guy roles in the TV series “24” and “Hotel Rwanda.” Because of his interest in Rwanda he said he is eager to watch Coexist. You’ll also see him in “Black Gold.”
Just 5 and a half hours later at 2:15am the final award for Best Picture went to the night’s big winner “Viva Riva” a Congolese crime drama said to be the country’s first Lingala language movie in decades. (The director Djo Tunda Wa Munga was also nominated in the same category as Coexist.) The film team sitting right in front of us was really overjoyed and seemed to be appreciative of all the accolades and the experience. Most people we talked with shared that sentiment of just being happy to experience Nollywood.
But wait, did Coexist win? Well, no. But it was an honor to have been nominated! The winner for Best Documentary was Kondi Et Le Jeudi Nationale, Directed by Ariana Astrid Atodji from Cameroun.
Photos, top to bottom:
- One of the AMAA winners claiming their prize
- Cooking up the feast at the Yenegoa Tourism Bureau for AMAA Nominees, Journalists, and Jury
- A girl spotted in a busy Saturday market across the street from the Ayalla hotel in Yenegoa