Arts & Entertainments

Kannywood: Censorship, Religious Resistance and the Battle for the Soul of Cinema in Northern Nigeria

Since the industrialization of filmmaking in Northern Nigeria in the 90s, Kannywood, the region’s answer to the southern Nollywood has been faced with more challenges than one. Sitting atop the heap is its constant conflict with censorship laws, Islamic promulgations and Hausa culture which in itself is heavily influenced by Islam.

The three entities ably represented by censor board, clerics and filmmakers on each side of the divide have over the years been engaged in perpetual bickering bothering primarily on censorship and morality or the lack of it. Many a time, this conflict escalates to arrest, prosecution, detentions, destruction of properties, accusations and counter-accusations. Supposed contravention of cultural values is one of the most common allegations usually levelled against Northern filmmakers but nothing threatens their very existence as much as their perceived infringements on Islamic rules.

So, when Isma’el Muhammad Na’Abba’s description of the task of the Kano State Censorship Board (KSCB) in 2016 stopped at ‘preserving Hausa culture’, it was glad tidings for Kannywood filmmakers who have been trapped in a decade-long religion-induced censorship fiasco with the censor board, in years before Na’Abba as an executive secretary of the Board.

This inclination towards cultural censorship is mind-boggling itself when you consider its specifics but Kannywood which according to the National Film and Video Censors Board makes up over 30% of the Nigerian film industry, have had it worse at a time when religious tinges rule supreme in the censorship guidelines of the Board.

It was in December 2000, during the first term of ex-governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso as the governor of Kano State that the first ban on Hausa films was announced. Under the ban, the production, sale and exhibition of films in Kano state became punishable. The ban was imminent the moment the state introduced Sharia Law a year earlier in an attempt to preserve its conservatism. Kannywood became embroiled in a tussle of fitting in, in this conservative ecosystem. This is because the entire concept of role-playing upon which filmmaking is founded, male-female interaction and manners of dressing and particularly ladies acting in ‘unruly’ female roles among other thing does not have a place in Sharia Laws.
Faced with an inherent strain on their livelihood, the filmmaking society under the aegis of Motion Pictures Producers Association of Nigeria (MOPPAN) had to fight back. According to the pioneer president of the association, Alhaji Abdulkareem Mohammad, “we had to assemble industry operators in associations like the Kano State Filmmakers association, Kano state artist’s guilds, the musicians and the cinema theatre owners, cassette sellers association to petition the government to either allow us continue making films or provide us with new livelihoods.”

It was the filmmakers themselves who suggested a local state censorship board which would enable them to continue their works while also allowing oversight to ensure that their films do not violate the Sharia Law active in the state. The pristine intent was for the censorship board to serve as a protection for filmmakers but little did they know at the time that they were only creating a monstrous government agency that will come to bully them in years to come.
One of the first films which ran into huge troubles with the board was Aminu Bala’s 2004 film, Bakar Ashana. It was a movie which explored the moral complexities of the world of prostitution. However, most Kannywood filmmakers did not seem to have a major problem with the Board until August of 2007 when Kannywood set against a backdrop of esteemed cultural values and religious beliefs witnessed its first major sex scandal.

It all started when a privately made video which had an actress known as Maryam Hiyana and her lover, Usman Bobo performing sexual activity was leaked into public domain and attained the status of one of the most downloaded video from the internet in the North. In fact, it was so popular that it became referred to as the ‘first Hausa blue film’.

This private affair between a non-film industry man and an actress out of the more than 2,000 actresses working in Kannywood according to current MOPPAN President, Mallam Ahmad Sarari, was all the censor board needed to launch a string of clampdown on the regional film industry. Critics including religious leaders called for an absolute ban on the industry citing the potential of the filmmakers and their films to morally corrupt their impressionable young kids as a reason. For several months, production, distribution, sales and exhibition of Kannywood films was stalled.

In response, the government under ex-governor Ibrahim Shekarau appointed a more exacting official as the head of the Kano State Censorship Board. His name is Abubakar Abdulkarim Rabo and he was considered by Kannywood filmmakers as a religious hardliner. Under him, a raft of guidelines to further put Kannywood in check was revealed. He mandated that each film practitioner in the industry has to register individually with the board. All forms of audio-visual content from Kannywood had to be vetted by the board before being released into public domain and defaulters were severely dealt with.

Take actor and musician, Adam Zango for example. Rabo through the board had him arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment for releasing a video to songs in his album, Bahaushiya, straight to the internet without prior authorization from the board. This bizarre censorship mesh set the tone for the travails of the film industry in the hands of the Board. Under Rabo, Zango was the first in a long list of Kannywood filmmakers to spent time in prison for producing, exhibiting or selling motion pictures believed by the Board to have trampled upon Hausa cultural values and Islamic religious beliefs.

The Kannywood director, Hamisu Lamido Iyan-Tama was arrested in May 2008 on his return to Kano from Zuma Film Festival in Abuja. Iyan-Tama was accused of releasing his film, Tsintsiya, an inter-ethnic/religious romance drama made to promote peace – which won the award for the best social issue film at the film festival – in Kano without the approval of the censor board. He was in prison for three months. Comedians Dan Ibro and Lawal Kaura also spent two months in prison after a hasty trial without a lawyer. Their offence was that they ‘owned an unregistered production company’.
In fact, the current President of MOPPAN, Mallam Ahmad Sarari in a chat with Saturday Telegraph revealed that more than a hundred film industry workers from, editors, singers, marketers, choreographers, actors, producers to directors were rounded up in a day and thrown to jail by the board for varying offences.
Most of them spent several nights in jail, paid huge fines, and/or had their equipment seized by enforcers attached to the censor board. It was unclear under what jurisdiction these wanton arrests, detention and confiscation of equipment were being made. It seldom happens that the filmmakers will be accused of artistic or literary goofing.
The public perception was that the board was operating under Sharia Laws. And they could not be blamed because the Director of the Board frequently makes radio appearances through which he reiterates that the essence of the censor board is protecting the religious and cultural mores of the North, tagging the ‘male filmmakers jobless and religious vagabonds’ and the females ‘prostitutes’. Rabo continued to make often seemingly arbitrary pronouncements about what he considered acceptable filmmaking.
The thing is most Kannywood filmmakers do not have issues with the idea of having a censor board assess and vet their production before its release. The problem was with the procedure of the assessment. According to Director Salisu Balarabe, “there was nothing wrong with making the censorship board but those put in charge of directing the board, sometimes put a personal interest into it.” Corroborating this, scriptwriter Nazir Salih acknowledged, “the censor board was much harsher than it needed to be. They put someone in power who didn’t know anything about the film industry, Mallam Abubakar Rabo, who slandered and disrespected us.”

When Saturday Telegraph spoke to one of the founding fathers of Kannywood, Mallam Ilyasu Bilyaminu, he echoed the same sentiment in a more tensed tone. “The board was so disrespectful. They think because we are in the film industry, we are not good Muslims. We were once having a meeting with them and they were spitting on us disgustfully. In Hausa culture, that is the sign of utmost disrespect. I had to leave the meeting”.

However, this impression of having super holding on righteousness by the Board and its Director, Rabo, came crashing down when allegations of bribery and sexual misconducts began to surface against him. Kannywood Director, Falalu Dorayi was among other notable filmmakers who accused Rabo of regularly demanding bribes. “How can the one who collects a bribe say he will reform culture and religion?” he rhetorically questioned.
These allegations against Rabo kept piling until August 2009 when he was arraigned before a Sharia court for making slanderous statements against the film community on Radio. In May 2010, he was again sued for the same offence by Kaduna Filmmakers Association.

In retaliation, he counter-accused twelve filmmakers, several of whom were involved in the lawsuits against him, of sending him death threats by text messages. According to filmmaker Aliyu Mahmud, “policemen from Kano came to Kaduna, arresting the one person on the list they could locate – Aliyu Gora II. He was the editor of Fim Magazine and was held for a week without trial at Goron Dutse Prison in Kano.” Mahmud himself was on that list.

In an even more bizarre twist, in September 2010, Rabo was found in a compromising position with a young girl in his car. Accosted by the police, he had to flee. The police engaged him in a car chase during which he was reportedly involved in a hit and run incident with a motorcyclist. He was eventually arrested by the police but released on the orders of the then Governor, Ibrahim Shekarau. The government promised to open an inquiry into the sexual misconduct and hit-and-run cases against it but nothing was heard of the case afterwards and he continued as the Director of the censor board.

This cesspool of censorship bog was so much an issue that it became enough reason for filmmakers to pull their influence together behind ex-Governor Rabiu Kwankwanso who at the time was seeking a return to office. He promised the film industry a more lenient censor board in exchange for their support for his gubernatorial campaign in the 2011 elections. They did and he returned to power.

However, the most intense resentment against filmmaking by far came from Islamic clerics in the North. It was a lot grimier problem because of the influence they wield on an average Northerner. Filmmaker Ilyasu Bilyaminu told Saturday Telegraph, “an average Hausa man is near dogmatic when it comes to his religious leader. He takes everything the cleric says hook, line and sinker. So, we knew we had a huge problem to contend with when they started voicing against the film industry”.
One of the major Islamic organizations championing this call for the proscription of Kannywood is Jama’at Izalat al Bid’a wa Iqamat as Sunnah (Society for the Condemnation of Innovation and Establishment of the Sunna). Commonly referred to as Izala Society, it is one of the largest Salafi societies in Nigeria extending towards Chad, Niger and Cameroon. One of its clerics, Sheikh Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa particularly became the face of the agitation against the film industry.

They often cite gross violation of Islamic Laws including holding of hands, intimate interaction between men and women, kissing, hugging etc as a slur on the Islamic culture in the North. They forbid the purchase of Kannywood films for their members and pronounced the act of watching these films as an affront on Islamic ethics.

Friday sermons by clerics condemning and name-calling the filmmakers became a constant trend. The height of these resentments had to be the intense condemnation of the Federal Government’s plan to construct a film village in Kano in 2016. The government had to rescind the project which was meant to further boost filmmaking endeavors in the North and create jobs for the youthful locals, when Muslim clerics led by Sheik Abdallah Usman Gadan Kanya vehemently opposed the project because it will according to them promote immorality.

According to Mallam Yahya Idrisu, an Islamic cleric in Kaduna, “This is a simple situation. What they do in Kannywood is not acceptable in Islam. Islam does not permit women showing their bodies to any other person asides her husband. These are the things they do in films. Hugging, holding hands and being in cozy situations with people other than their lawful spouses is unacceptable and when you show it in films, it’s like you are telling young people that this is the normal thing to do. So, you’re corrupting their minds”.

This is the frigid relationship which Kannywood has shared over the years with religious leaders in the North and the censor board which more often than not is influenced by Islamic provisos. When Saturday Telegraph spoke to Muhsin Ibrahim, a lecturer at the University of Cologne, Germany and a writer on Kannywood and other socio-cultural issues in Northern Nigeria, he reiterated that, “historically, there has never been total peace between entertainment and religions – not only Islam. The frosty relationship between Islam and film is unarguably worse”. “For example, a character of a prostitute ought to be seen prostituting to make the story more palatable. However, many clerics see that as crossing the Islamic boundary. Unless we reinterpret several religious texts and redefine many other things –which is not possible – the discord goes on ad infinitum,” he explained.
However, this cluster-funk of censorship trellis is like a Northern nesting doll. Outside is the censor board; inside of it are the clerics and at the core is political scheming. Even though, it rarely shines, but political leaning plays a major role in deciding the fate of Kannywood as it battles strict censorship laws and intense clerical resentment.

The very first ban on Kannywood was deemed necessary after agitations from clerics suggesting same. The censor board for a long time was guided by Islamic rules more than filmmaking ethics. The rescindment on the Kano Film Village project was considered after the clerics protested against it. You would wonder why the government which should encourage the promotion of art and culture at all levels had to side or bow to pressure by the clerics rather than the filmmaking community but the answer is simple. The clerics are the most proximate cluster to the people at the grass-root. They also wield huge influences on a lot of choices made by an average Northerner including who they vote for in the elections. So with this electoral clout, they can make the government dance to their tunes.

Ibrahim noted; “our leaders feast on the politics of populism. The case of the aborted Kano Film Village is a typical example…when the hegemonic religious establishment kicked against the project and therefore changed the public perception of the project, the government felt compelled to rescind the idea.”

Stating the imminent repercussion if the government refuses to listen to the clerics, Ahmad Sarari noted, “the clerics will tag the government an un-Islamic government and asked their massive members to not vote for them and they won’t. They’ve done with us when they banned our films from being bought and we witness a drop in sales.”

Considering contemporary trends pervading the Kannywood film industry where up till last year, a movie director, Sunusi Oscar and a musician, Naziru Ahmad were arrested and charged to court over accusations of releasing songs without the permission of the censor board, it is tough to preempt an end to this imbroglio. Filmmakers are not willing to close shops while Censors and Islamic clerics are not willing to back-down on their strict censorship laws and resistance along religious lines.
Meanwhile, the vast potential of the film industry to change narratives, build positive impact, provide employment for young and able-bodied Northerners and become a huge cash-cow for the government is being crushed under this censorship and resistance mire. The industry is the biggest employer of labor in the North after Agriculture but the constant bickering is straining the numbers. As Muhsin Ibrahim puts it, “the fight can never be a win-lose between the warring parties. It’s either a win-win or a lose-lose”.


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