By Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu
Being a keynote at the Kannywood Foundation film training workshop, on 2nd October 2022, Kano
Opportunities of Digital Technology
By 2012 the Hausa film industry has entered into the doldrums I have just described. There was a lot of head-scratching about the next moves. In the meantime, many individuals had formed YouTube channels and were uploading Hausa films with or without the knowledge and consent of the producers. Most of the films were old and were subscribed by internet newbies who had just acquired Smartphones and taking advantage of the cut-throat competition among Nigeria’s main service provers (MTN, 9Mobile, Airtel, Glo) were buying data and watching films on their phones. The DVD and CD players faded away, and although kids were still selling what were clearly outdated CDs at traffic junctions in the city of Kano, the process of watching free films on YouTube made the CD market non-viable. Then Arewa24 came along.
An initiative of the US Government, Arewa24 was part of the anti-terror and anti-radicalization program of the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. The task was contracted to Equal Access International (EAI), which eventually established Arewa24, the first Hausa language satellite station rooted in peacebuilding and entertainment, in 2013. One of the ways the station revolutionized Hausa cinema – and thus succeeded beyond its expectations was the introduction of TV shows, hitherto a neglected entertainment segment in Hausa cinema. Broken into seasons and episodes, the first TV show on Arewa24 was Daɗin Kowa, a weekly drama about a melting pot city somewhere in the north of Nigeria containing a diversity of ethnicities, religions, languages and social classes. Of course, there are actual Daɗin Kowa settlements in Gombe and Kaduna State, but that did not deter the Series filmmakers. It was massively successful on multiple fronts.
First, it deconstructed the then-current Hausa cinema based on Hindi cinema with a lot of choreographed singing and dancing as well as romantic storylines, which was tiring to Hausa audiences. Second, it reconstructs Hausa TV shows of the 1970s, so beloved by cultural purists of Hausa storytelling. Third, as VOD (video on demand), Arewa24’s Daɗin Kowa blazed a new digital trail in film marketing for Hausa filmmakers. Being heavily subsidized, the producers can afford to load the entire series on an easily available platform of YouTube.
Yet, the second TV show on Arewa24, interestingly, was by an independent studio, Saira Movies, and the series was Labarina, made a year before Arewa24 took off in 2015. The novelty of Labarina as a series had a massive impact on online viewing of Hausa communities. Armed with Smartphones and cheap data from competing ISPs, millions tuned to Arewa24 to watch the series and later download it when it shifted to YouTube. It was the success of Labarina as a TV show that provided a backstory to the audience receptivity of Daɗin Kowa.
YouTube is an American online video sharing and social media platform headquartered in San Bruno, California. It was launched in 2005 and has become the main avenue for African cinema distribution. It is important to emphasize its American roots and origins to draw attention to the fact that the censorship regulations in any country do not apply to it. The Google-owned video service is also a major tool for self-distribution, as illustrated by the proliferation of web series in local languages in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Nigeria.
Kano filmmakers were quick to jump on the TV show bandwagon by cloning the success of Daɗin Kowa as a series broken up into episodes. Not only are the story arcs captivating, but they also provide a deeper script philosophy that is often critical analysis of the anthropology of contemporary Hausa societies. Although coming earlier than Labarina, Daɗin Kowa was more successful than Labarina, which was based on basically Bollywood soap operas. Daɗin Kowa was an authentic reflection of the contemporary realities of Hausa communities.
Other YouTube channels quickly followed. Table 1 shows a few of the channels and their overall viewership.
|Izzar So||Bakori TV||969,000||2014||119,764,682|
Bakori TV, which hosts Izzar So, has the highest number of channel views followed by Arewa24, then Saira Movies and Zinariya. These metrics, as indicated, reflect the overall channel views rather than the series – but provide an idea of the popularity of the series hosted by the channels.
Izzar So is a very popular TV show, judging by the audience metrics of each episode. Yet it was hard to determine its overall playlist metrics on YouTube. This was because the channel is so poorly organized that it does not even shift its individual episodes into an effective Playlist grouping. The channel has only two Izzar So playlists; Season 1 with 13 videos and Season 2 with 3. This, of course, is inaccurate since in the main listing of videos, the Channel listed episode 100 in the series at the end of September 2022, although it is unclear which season it was. The average views for the latter episodes are slightly over one million. Even their Facebook page does not promote the series in the light of providing information about the series, the stars or the stories.
Similarly, while Aduniya has a playlist, it only listed 33 videos in the list, whereas the list of videos with the episodes has the latest episode being number 73 with over half-million views. Labarina did not fare much better, with three playlists listing less than 30 episodes, when Season 5 EP1 was released in late September 2022.
While most of the TV shows streaming on either Hausa VOD or YouTube are romantic soap operas, Aduniya stood out because of its focus on the gritty urban life of a Kano city – exposing what I call ‘corruption from below’. It competes only with Daɗin Kowa but surpasses it in its presentation of the harsh, tough and ruthless social culture that operates below the radar of public spaces.
It is clear, therefore, that Hausa filmmakers are gradually favouring the TV show format, but their lack of digital skills to effectively present the contents limits their appeal. Further, with millions of views, the TV show filmmakers have not been able to provide adequate information on either the series or the synopsis of the episodes anywhere on a dedicated website (for which there is none, except Arewa24) or even Wikipedia entry.
Besides the challenges of poor digital marketing skills of the TV shows, filmmakers in Kano also faced the problems of censorship from the Kano State Censorship Board. In a bizarre revenue-driven focus, the Kano State Censorship Board demands that TV show series must be submitted to it for censoring before being uploaded to YouTube. Yet the servers are not based in Kano nor under Nigerian government control, so it is difficult to see how the Board will have authority over the contents on a server located in California.
Towards a Cultural Film Policy
The key objectives of film policy are to promote new artists, create new jobs, increase investments in film production, attract foreign producers and enhance the outward-looking character of Hausa cinema. So far, the only film policy available in the country is the policy of regulation from both the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) for the nation and the Kano State Censorship Board for Kano State.
The regulatory focus of these bodies was to ensure cultural specificity in film production in whatever language it is produced. The usual focus was on avoidance of foul language, nudity, and reproducible behaviour, especially for impressionable viewers and religious sensitivity. It would appear, therefore, that any policy would have to revolve around the cultural and religious frameworks of the audiences.
This issue had been a sore point with Hausa filmmakers right from the halcyon days of the industry from 1998 till its eclipse in 2007. Market-driven Hausa filmmakers are focused on commercial rather than an artistic success. Arthouse films like Kazar Sayan Baki, and Ibtila’i, did not sell because they had no commercial motifs of singing and dancing. And once the studio feels it is not selling enough to remain afloat, it simply closes shop and moves to selling essential commodities.
This is where the Kannywood Foundation comes in. A training program such as this will pave the way to the future after emerging from a cloudy and rocky past. I will not presume to give a policy here because it is a group effort. However, while thinking about the policy directions of Hausa cinema, the following might be points to ponder:
- Move away from commercialization to professionalization. Other professions include specific, targeted and focused entry points and exits. You don’t wake up one day and claim to be a doctor. One has to go through a rigorous process of certification. This should be the same with the film industry. It is not to say, ‘I am creative, and I have money’. You have to demonstrate competency since what you do is representation.
- Seeking storylines in community arcs. A policy should demote the idea of transnational copying of films that focus on blindly copying Indian or Western films. It should focus on the anthropology of our experiences – of which there are myriad ways of getting story arcs. A policy can, therefore, effectively reward those ethnographically based films, through additional funding, rather than ineffective ‘film awards’, most of which were bought by the filmmakers
- Any training program that would be part of a policy should include cultural studies. Scriptwriters, directors, actors and production designers must know what constitutes public culture – beyond what they experience. They need to be aware of it from the structural perspective of a research process. Production designs, therefore, must be not only accurate enough to the period being recorded but also aesthetic enough to convey a sense of elegance and pride in cultural tradition
- A greater focus of the policy and training should be on digital marketing. It is not enough to simply open a YouTube channel and upload films. Practitioners need to be aware of how to drive traffic to their channels and organize their content in a structured and easily accessible form.
- Reaching out to the larger world. While it is pleasing that many Hausa TV shows are now flooding YouTube, most have no subtitles in an international language that will communicate to international audiences. This is clearly a misuse of the social media platform – where although open to the world, Hausa TV shows are restricted to Hausa audiences. If there is anything to copy from Hindi cinema, it should be its marketing strategy. With their subtitles, their films are seen and accepted as cultural products worldwide – for language is the best representation of culture.
- Careful attention must be given to Hausa VOD services, particularly Northflix and Kallo. While still in their early stages, these VOD streaming services effectively show the way to the future.
Cultural commodities – whether tourism-related or popular culture – are marketed with the assumptions of their impact on the daily lives of their consumers. Marketing determines the success of especially media industries, often with a disregard for the content. The commodification of the Hausa popular cultural industries was premised on profitability motives, not art or aesthetics. Financiers are ready to continue investing in the industries as long as they can make effective profits. It is this profit motive that commoditizes art and elegance to common supermarket products with a short shelf life.
Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu wrote from the Department of Information and Media Studies, Bayero University Kano, Nigeria. He is, among many other things, the former Vice-Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.