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Nollywords Lionheart, Language and the Ghost of Our Colonial Past

Earlier this year, Nigeria submitted Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart (2018) as its first-ever entry into the Academy Awards’ ‘Best International Feature Film’ category. The critical success of the film gave Nigerians an opportunity to celebrate the rise of Nigeria’s female directors, Nollywood’s first-ever Netflix Original, and ultimately, some hope of an Oscar win. However, in early November, the Academy disqualified Lionheart from the competition. According to its rules, films in the International Feature category must be produced outside the United States and have a predominantly non-English dialogue track. Lionheart, which is produced and set in Nigeria, is mostly in English. The prominent African-American director Ava DuVernay opposed the decision and took to Twitter to call out The Academy, asking ‘Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?’. Genevieve Nnaji, the director and lead actor of Lionheart was equally unimpressed, tweeting in response that the English language ‘acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country.’

The Academy’s Rebranding: New Name, Same Rules

In April 2019, the Academy renamed the category from ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ to ‘Best International Feature Film’. Explaining why, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, stated, ‘We have noted that the reference to ‘foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community’. Unfortunately, it appears that this change was in name alone, because the rule book has stayed the same. Rule 13.B.4 of the Academy Awards Rules still states, ‘an international feature film is defined as a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track’. The category remains outdated because, regardless of the name change, it still represents a binary that centres the English language and positions non-English languages as the ‘other’ in a world where languages and their construction (and reconstruction) are more complex than that binary allows for.

Rule 13.B.4 led to Nigeria’s disqualification.

Lionheart is the first film that Nigeria has ever submitted for consideration in this category and the disqualification sets a precedent that many find worrying, and justifiably so. The reactions to the disqualification announcement demonstrate that this is clearly about more than just an international award.

Nigeria and the English Language

Nigeria, as we know it today, is a colonial jigsaw puzzle that the British assembled, forcing hundreds of ethnic groups and linguistic families into one entity. The British ran the country in the only way that they knew how—in English. As long as Nigeria has been Nigeria, it has been administered in English: at first, by the British and, afterwards, by Nigerians. The English language (or some variation of it, such as pidgin English) has been the only effectual means through which Nigerians can communicate to all Nigerians within the country. Speaking to the necessity of English in his 1965 essay, ‘English and the African Writer’, esteemed writer, Chinua Achebe, wrote: ‘There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication’. Achebe was as right then as he would be now.

English has also been the primary means through which Nigeria communicates with the rest of the world. Nigerians conduct business in English, and in global forums, we speak English. The only way that Nigerians can access global narratives around policy and technology, of dialogues and even of cultural exchange, is in the language of those who colonized us. We have had to adapt accordingly.

Most urban Nigerians speak English and pidgin English in their homes, accessorizing conversations with traditional languages on some occasions, and Nigerians are taught in English at all levels of schooling as it is the formal language of instruction. Historically, access to Nigerian universities was contingent on how well you fared in your English exam. In a 1964 essay, linguist, Jacob Ornstein, revealed that the Cambridge entrance examinations—which were sent all the way to England to be marked—were essential to whether or not you had access to higher education in Nigeria. Cambridge may not mark our exams anymore, but English is no less relevant now than it was at the time of Ornstein’s writing.

Yet, the English that Nigerians speak now is not quite the same English that the colonizers left us with. Nigerian English has evolved and is an exemplary case of what it means to take on an imposed lingua franca and make it your own. How much of Lionheart is in English and how much of it is in an English that has been Nigerianized to suit our tongues, a non-standard English made for a uniquely Nigerian voice and accent? When we say ‘do you hear what I’m saying?’, we are asking if you understand us—we are not asking if you are deaf. When we use ‘branch’ as a verb, we are aware that you are not a tree—we are asking you to stop by. Our uniquely stylized English is not just down to how we use English words, but, also, the order in which we use them. Using ‘why did you off the light?’ instead of ‘why did you switch the lights off?’ is the result of the development of our own distinctive syntax. English academic, Mark O. Attah, defined the evolved Nigerian English as ‘an indigenized version of standard English which has respect for [Nigerian] syntax, grammar, [and] phonology.’

In ‘English and the African Writer’, Chinua Achebe writes, ‘I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English…altered to suit its new African surroundings’. He says that African writers, (and I imagine he would, today, include screenwriters), ‘should aim at fashioning an English that is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience’. That is what Nollywood gives Nigerian creatives room to do—to take a language that we may not have chosen and use it to tell our stories in the way we choose. Writing, for print or for the silver screen, is part of a reclamation of a language that we have adapted to suit our environment and our needs. Still, we have no room to appreciate this linguistic hybridity in award categories that still view the world along an English versus non-English binary.

The Evolution of Language and the Politics of Linguistics

Language transfers and language shifts are part of a global phenomenon whereby more powerful national languages overtake those less widely spoken. As a result, the Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages predicts that anything between 50 and 90 per cent of existing languages will be severely endangered or extinct by the end of the century. In the case of Nigeria’s schools, indigenous languages, which, if taught at all, are only taught as secondary languages, are limited in their potential for intergenerational transmission. Nigeria’s minority languages are at the greatest risk: according to UNESCO’s Language Vitality and Endangerment framework, 29 of them are already classified as ‘endangered’. While it might be too early to speak to the complete extinction of our more popular native languages, we can at least speak to their anglicization, an early indicator of a language shift.

Although the process of globalization and worldwide integration is multidirectional, it remains an imbalanced system of exchange. In the tug of war between English and Nigeria’s various native languages, (as many as 520 according to Ethnologue), our native languages are fighting an uphill battle. English is the language we hear most commonly on our screens, both big and small, and although there are a number of new-age Nollywood films being produced which make considerable use of our native languages and have the ability to reach a wide audience—like ‘Mokalik’, which also came out on Netflix this year—it is unsurprising that our industry is also subject to a Western cultural hegemony that is naturally Anglocentric.

Nollywood cannot evade the cultural implications of this context, a context that means that our films are more easily commercialized when they are written predominantly in the English that we easily recognize. It is unlikely that Nollywood would be able to be the third-largest film industry in the world if most of the films weren’t predominantly in English. For an industry that prides itself on the authenticity of its stories, would Lionheart have been an accurate representation of the life in an Enugu-based corporation if it was written completely in Igbo? Nollywood films are as diverse as the people producing them, the scripts often include a blend of multiple languages—including English.

Nollywood is an industry that is also reflective of its diverse viewership. Nigeria suffers from fratricidal ethno-religious divides between the largely Muslim north and more Christian south. Moreover, groups divide themselves by different linguistic zones, the predominant languages being Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa-Fulani. It would soon become a point of deep political contention to nominate a film that only represents one of hundreds of languages on behalf of the whole country. Future submissions for the International Feature Film category would have to toe this line carefully because it is a point of discord for many Nigerians. English is a functional national language because it does not serve one ethnic group more than another and, as a result, is believed to cover a multitude of divisions.

In Nigeria, English is the only language that can be said to hold any nationwide currency. That is relevant when it comes to the question of how we are represented on an international stage. Nollywood, by making films that are predominantly English but that still tell a variety of Nigerian stories, plays its own role in helping us construct a national identity. Writing in 2013, academic Olabanji Akinola explained that ‘the diversity of films produced in Nollywood crisscrosses ethnic and religious lines’. In our increasingly divided world, this is something for the Academy to applaud, not penalize. For as long as a country this large and this diverse is only allowed only one submission, submitting a film that is not predominantly English is going to be difficult to justify.

A Ticking Time Bomb?

In a globalizing world, attempts to bind a national industry together by a minority indigenous language feels like a step backwards. Our borders are more permeable, our languages less resilient to global hegemonic pressures, and our cultures continuously transcend national boundaries. What hope is there for this category, and specifically, for Nollywood’s place in it? Having no wiggle room for the type of linguistic diversity and hybridity that characterizes multilingual countries is not very promising for future contenders for the award. Current global migration patterns lead us to believe that these linguistic concerns will eventually materialise for a large number of countries in the future. We can’t win in English, and we are unlikely to win in our indigenous languages because the rules reproduce the same linguistic hierarchy that the existence of this category is supposed to combat—all it does it take English off the top of the ladder. Widely spoken, non-English European languages like French, Spanish, German, and Italian are at a considerable advantage. Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Fulani and the rest of our languages are shoved to the bottom, where our European colonizers always designed for them to be.

The issue of language, which is so inextricably bound within culture and identity, is always sure to be an emotive one. After all, language has the potential to both impede and foster unity, to facilitate and to obstruct dialogue. In Nigeria, we have had to inherit a nation that was forcefully and arbitrarily amalgamated, adopt a language that was imposed on us, embody that language, embrace it, and wear it like our own so we could fall in line with a global cultural hegemony that didn’t give us much choice. Now, we’re being punished for playing the part too well.

In ‘English and the African Writer’, Chinua Achebe wrote: ‘I hope, though, that there will always be men…who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literatures will flourish side by side with the national ones.’ There are those who write films in our indigenous languages and these films will remain important and glorified for what they represent. But we must be candid about the limits of such films. Films in English, our Nigerian English, an English that we have twisted to our tongue, should be just as worthy of celebration⎈