IN CONVERSATION WITH SERGE NOUKOUE
Serge Noukoue was born in Paris, France to Beninois parents and spent most of his childhood travelling to and living in various countries throughout west and central Africa. He holds a Masters degree in Cultural Projects Management and has worked in the arena in France, Brazil, South Africa and Ivory Coast. Trilingual Noukoue speaks English, French and Portuguese. He is also very versatile, having led acquisitions of film and TV content and organized various types of workshops and conferences dealing with the African media landscape. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of NollywoodWeekParis, a Nigerian film festival, which takes place annually in Paris, showcasing the best of Nollywood around the world. Serge is also a columnist for Le Monde Afrique, a major publication in France and in Francophone Africa.
You have held four successful editions of the NollywoodWeekParis. What inspired you to found this festival dedicated to Nollywood?
Nollywood inspired me…
Before launching the festival in 2013, I had spent about 10 years observing the industry. I have always been impressed by the determination, ingenuity and the do or die spirit of some of the filmmakers from that industry. I also love that Nollywood has given a voice to people who didn’t have one before, though I kept wondering about what needed to happen for Nollywood to reach the next level. How can the quality significantly improve? How can it reach more people, for example, those who don’t necessarily have ties with Nigeria? All of those questions led me to one very simple answer; access. Access had to be created for Nollywood movies to become more widely available. That is how NollywoodWeek came about. I have put everything I have including contacts, experience and money into this project with one main goal to create a larger audience for the industry, which in turn can contribute to its growth and development. This festival is an effort to one day, make Nollywood mainstream. However, things don’t happen overnight, so we still have a lot of work to do!
How did you select the films that were screened at the inaugural edition?
The concept of the festival was clearly defined from the inception.
Every year, we would bring to Paris a certain number of Nollywood films that were considered the top of the industry from the previous year and had the potential to attract a global audience. It is important to note that when we say a ‘film with global appeal’, it does not mean an Americanized story. We find that the more authentic Nigerian stories work best in a global market. However, to give it international appeal, other requirements must be met such as good sound quality, colour grading and attention to detail in set design. For the inaugural edition of the festival, we took a selection of films ranging in storylines that marked the concept of “New Nollywood” that was starting to emerge for the Parisian audience to get a sense of the improved quality of films coming out of Nigeria.
From the onset, you created the Audience Choice Award. How did this come about, will there be other award categories in the coming years, and are there monetary rewards for winners?
The idea behind the Audience Choice Award is to empower the audience.
It is regular people that made Nollywood popular. So even if we are bringing it to a different location and the films are in a different language it is good to keep the essential fact that they are made for people, and therefore they should be the ones who decide which film is the best. It also allows us to better understand our audience. This is helpful when selecting films for subsequent editions. In addition, it helps professional distributors see the possibility of interest in these films as well.
In terms of rewards, the winner of the Public Choice Awards earns the opportunity to shoot for free their next film with high quality optic lenses from our partners Angenieux. Winning NollywoodWeek becomes very interesting for Nigerian filmmakers as it adds value to their future works. The winning film also gets to show at other festivals in Europe and beyond. We always ensure that it gets wide circulation through the few festivals we partner with. In future, we may add other prizes or a jury as we are constantly growing the festival.
In the 2016 edition, there were several Nigerian actors facilitating workshops. Is this going to be a permanent fixture and did the participants benefit?
This was the first time we had the Actors’ Studio and the Monologue Slam, which was hosted by Nigerian actors and attended by both Nigerian and French actors. I cannot say just yet if these are going to be permanent fixtures but as the festival grows, we like to try out new things. They make it a more complete experience for our audience. Regarding the benefit, it is all about networking, which is important in this industry. Our participants and audience come from around the world and our event enables them to create synergies with like-minded people and organizations.
Do you also invite film technicians like the cinematographers, costumiers and film composers who worked on the selected movies?
At this point, we only invite the directors and actors to the festival.
Our budget does not allow us to invite the other people involved in making the film however, they come at their own expense because they realize that this festival is important to their career. They also enjoy seeing the reaction of a non-Anglophone audience to their films and usually our audience does not disappoint.
Angélique Kidjo was made the Mother of the Festival for the 2016 edition which is new. What role did she play and are you going to continue this tradition?
We started this “tradition” from the second edition in 2014 when veteran filmmaker Mahmood Ali-Balogun was named the Ambassador of the Festival, then in 2015 we had Jimmy Jean-Louis play that role and this year we were pleased that Angélique Kidjo accepted this position. We have realized with time, that it is important to have someone who can represent the festival beyond the organizers themselves.
To announce the festival, there was a cocktail event in Lagos. Can you tell us about the festival process?
We have a call for entries that typically runs from November til January or February. We have a viewing committee made up of the festival co-founders, Nadira Shakur and I, as well as some French-based film critics, directors, professionals (which changes each year). Once the final selection is made, it is announced at a cocktail held in Lagos in March that is attended by industry professionals and the press. It is also important to mention that filmmakers are usually able to do business at the festival which happens in June. Some find distributors for their films, while others get endorsement deals, like Kunle Afolayan who met Air France at the festival in 2015 and became their Brand Ambassador a few weeks later.
This year saw an introduction of short films. Why did you include this category and will there be others like animation and documentaries?
Definitely! We would love for our festival to fully represent the film industry in Nigeria as a whole. More sponsorship will allow for more films to screen at the festival.
You have partners and sponsors. How do they support the festival since tickets are sold for the movies?
The festival could not be viable with tickets sales only. Each film added to the line-up adds an additional cost: we pay for the translation and subtitling of each film in French, we host the directors and actors in France, and covering their flights and hotel accommodation, and we must also cover the charges to rent out a major movie theatre in Paris. In addition, Paris is a bustling city with events happening everywhere, so communication and marketing is important.
To balance all these expenses, we need support and have been fortunate enough to find companies and organizations that understand and believe in our vision. A company like Total has been with us from the beginning, then Air France also got on board. In addition, we have also had the support of the French Embassy in Nigeria and the Nigerian Delegation at UNESCO. We are hoping to get more support for the upcoming editions. I think more Nigerian companies can benefit from the type of exposure that Nigeria receives in Paris in the weeks leading to the event, during it and even after.
For the 5th edition, do you plan to increase the number of days, and make it a more encompassing festival by showing other aspects of Nigerian culture like the visual arts, fashion and music?
Although our focus will always be on the films, we do wish to grow the festival with more side events and so on, but again this can only happen with continued and increased support from sponsors.
Have you been able to achieve your goals and objectives for the festivals and do you have participants who return yearly?
My partner and I are perfectionists, so we will constantly be working towards improving and building up the festival. I believe we are on the right track as we have been able to establish NollywoodWeek as the reference point when it comes to presenting Nollywood to audiences outside of Nigeria.
What plans are in place to sustain NollywoodWeekParis, given the fact that some festivals have a short life span?
That’s what I think about everyday!
We constantly have to innovate, in the way we are funded and in the experience we offer the spectators. It is important not to feel like we have arrived and can sit back and relax. We have to stay relevant. Nollywood is constantly evolving and our festival has to reflect that.
What is your favourite holiday destination and how do you relax?
I don’t think I have a favourite holiday location just yet. However, I love discovering new places and travelling. My goal is to fully explore the African continent because I believe there are so many wonders in Africa. I have had a chance to travel to several countries in Africa but there are still many I haven’t visited yet. Hopefully, while doing that, I might discover my favourite spot but I must say, since launching the festival, there hasn’t been that much downtime for me. It has been quite busy, which is normal for a venture that is still in its early stage.
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