“There is no teaching without entertainment!”
Film producer Iyan Tama (centre, seated) almost jumps out of his skin when he speaks about his movies. His enthusiasm seems to be in his bones, and desperately trying to get out.
Iyan Tama has just finished shooting his 25th movie. It is story about Sani, a Hausa boy who meets Helena, an Igbo girl, in Kano, and they fall in love. Their relationship across ethnic and religious lines would be difficult at the best of times, but they are pitched into mortal danger by the eruption of a riot between Christians and Muslims that tore the city apart in 2004.
The film, called Tsintsiya -the broom, comes at a difficult time for Kannywood. In August the Kano state Islamic authorities announced all filming should stop after a phone camera video showing actress Maryam Hiyana having sex with her boyfriend emerged. It spread from phone to phone before an entrepreneur burned it onto a dvd and sold the low quality disc for $40. The Kano state censorship board then announced that all singing and dancing will be banned in films shot or on sale in Kano, and actors will have to be vetted by the censor before they can work.
Iyan Tama said: “When they said stop, I stopped. I called my lawyer and we went through the law. Then I continued to film.” He says that federal censorship laws mean state censors could not stop him filming because his latest project is funded by the United States embassy. “Federal law supersedes state law on this matter. It says that state censors cannot stop a film being made if it is funded by a diplomatic representative of a foreign country.”
This is the second film the US has funded from Iyan Tama’s production house, and they are making plans to fund a third. Spokesman at the embassy Sani Mohammed said: “We are funding this film because of the employment it will bring to young people in Northern Nigeria, and because it has a message of non-violence and unity. We want to promote that message.” He denied that the film would bring them into conflict with the state's Islamic authorities, the A Daidaita Sahu, or 'organisation for societal reorganisation'.
He said: “It is not our intention that Iyan Tama should defy the authorities. Filming began before the incident that gave rise to the ban. If the authorities want him to stop he should, but as we understand it he has a letter from them giving him permission to continue.”
But the new head of the Censorship Board Abubakar Rabo disagrees. He said: “This film is equally banned. You cannot be filming while the establishment is ignorant of it. If Iyan Tama had brought his script for registration, for vetting, his script picked some corrections from this board, and he submitted his shooting locations then he can continue.”
If the film is to be sold in Kano it will need his approval. He criticised Iyan Tama for going to the Americans for money. He said: “This approach to things is myopic and narrow minded. If you cannot go to the local authority to regulate you, you undermine your operation.”
The film is unlikely to get approval from the board because of some scenes of dancing and singing. In Tsintsiya, Iyan Tama says, they are central to the plot; the lovers meet at a university dance contest, and the film concludes with a celebratory dance.
But the censorship board are afraid that filmmakers in Kannywood are polluting Hausa Fulani culture with “indecent” dancing and dressing.
Filmmakers themselves, the censorship board says, need to be protected from the public who are angry at the shame they suffered after the Hiyana film emerged. Kano city has been the flashpoint for violence between Christians and Muslims several times since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. The conflicts are driven by the large number of illiterate, jobless youths in the city who are easily provoked, sometimes by political leaders -known as "Godfathers". Over 1000 people were killed in 2004.
In 2006 at least 16 people were killed in protests against cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.
In 2000 12 northern states enforced Sharia law, which bans indecent conduct, drinking and gambling, but the Christian minority, usually traders from the Southern Igbo and Yoruba states are exempt from the laws.
Mr Rabo said: “The confidence of the general public must be restored. Their religion, their culture is at stake. Such foreign things, such alien things that were brought into the culture, were brought into the religion by way of filming, by people who were mischievously sponsored.
“People see our filming and see it negatively and we say that is not how the typical Hausa-Fulani are. The dancing the illicit things and the dressing. We have our cultural way of dressing. Dress that way, portray it. Take it to Europe people will appreciate it. You appreciate variety if I try and bring out my peculiarity, my norms.
“If you are putting it on the screen representing millions of Hausa Fulani you are not being just to those clans. It ought to be the actual people because you are taking it to the outside world.”
Iyan Tama agrees with the authorities’ view that most Kannywood films are just scenes of singing and dancing edited together and have little plot or character development. But unlike the board he says that in his films it is necessary to give the audience a little of what they want to capture them and deliver the message in his films. “Bollywood films came here and are immensely popular, there is much that Indian culture has in common with Hausa culture, but it can’t all be dancing. In my films I try and add suspense. Unless you have suspense, people will not be really entertained. You should not be able to miss a scene in a film because then you will not know what happens in the story.” He says that the authorities are wrong when they say people are angry at filmmakers, and that the A Daidaita Sahu have a confused idea of people's relationship with the film industry.
He says that the new rules will punish him and other good Hausa filmmakers unfairly. “If someone else committed an offence, then why are people who did not commit the offence being punished?”
Abubakar Rabo says the suspension of filming will be only temporary. Approved filmmakers will be allowed to continue in February. The board will investigate all actors and filmmakers in order to assess their suitability as teachers of public morality before allowing them to continue. The board will enquire about their backgrounds and judge their reputations. Already 17 actors have been banned from making movies and a director jailed for six months for producing a film that showed belly dancing.
The boards investigations will not be done through a court of law, and their decision making process is confidential, Mr Rabo said.
Baballe Hyatu (pictured above left), the male lead in Tsintsiya is concerned that his profession will suffer. He has incurred the wrath of clerics before, after he played a man who used prostitutes and beat his wife. In that film he has an epiphany and changes his life. “Many people came up to me or contacted me and said they were touched by that film," he said. "They said it inspired them to change their own ways.” But clerics burned copies of the film in public.
Francisca Isaac (pictured right) who plays Helena in Tsintsiya said she felt vulnerable as a female actor in the industry. “I am all for decency. Look at the way I am dressed,”she says “but they are not really concerned with decency. They go to the media and make the masses believe we dress indecently and we are involved in drug abuse and fornication. I am for decency, but they could engineer it so people believe I am not. It is all about what they want and right now they don’t want acting.”
Iyan Tama says that his film is the sort of production the state should be encouraging because the central message is one of unity between ethnicities and religions. He says: “The film starts with a scene of three boys fighting over a broom. The string holding it together breaks and the reeds scatter, it is useless.” He says the laws will not prevent him from producing in the future, whatever the board does. “I have bigger aspirations than the Kano market anyway, I want a world audience to see my films.”