In a 1964 BBC interview, Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock was asked about his style of filmmaking and the introduction of sound (talkies) to the medium and how it had affected the way films were made and his view of “pure cinema.” His response was:
“It’s like a lot of films one sees today, not that I see very many, but to me they are what I call “photographs of people talking.” It bears no relation to the art of the cinema, and the point is that the power of the cinema, in its purest form, is so vast because it can go over the whole world. On a given night, a film can play in Tokyo, West Berlin, London, New York, and the same audience is responding emotionally to the same things.”
Hitchcock like many other great directors believed that cinema is a visual language and most of the story should be told with the visuals. He went further to say that unlike theatre, which has different actors playing the same part and bringing different interpretations to the same character, and even when a film is dubbed to a new language, the new actor won’t make the same choices as the actor on screen, so micro differences will exist. But visual story will remain the same no matter where it’s screened in the world. His advice, “the talk is reduced to a minimum. And, if possible, tell the story visually, and let the talk be part of the atmosphere.”
Hitchcock was not subscribing to the elimination of dialogue but that the director, actor and screenwriter are not reliant on expository dialogue to relay information to the viewer. He believed that the best storytelling is the kind that could still be understood if the sound was switched off; a story a deaf person could watch and follow due to how it visually unfolds.
In the earliest days of cinema, there was no diegetic sound, the technology was still early and voices of actors and sound around them could not be recorded. So, the only way to know what they were saying was to cut to a black card on the screen. Filmmakers like Buster Keaton, realized that this took away from the actual story on screen, so made sure the visuals said as much as possible, to minimize the need for the cards.
The same story can be told on stage and on screen but how it’s experienced differs. Aside the obvious differences of locations, even with a great seat closest to the stage, there is still a distance between the audience and the actor. A film can show a close up of an actor’s face, revealing the dilation of pupils or micro expressions when going through an emotion, and communicate this without dialogue; this can’t be done on stage. A close up or push in of a characters face in a film can replace the need for a thousand words of dialogue if the scene is well interpreted and directed.
Nollywood movies are mostly dialogue driven, partly to do with the TV and theatre background of the earliest founders; and actors improvising from story outline rather than scripted dialogue. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s simply a reflection of a people who love to talk and It can be said that, as an industry which built its self from the ground, Nollywood can form its own film dialect and define its own terms. That’s valid. But we still have many challenges in sound; its recording, limited skilled sound recorders, the environment which has the symphony of traffic, generators increasing the difficulty of getting good, clean audio. Also, considering that we are a nation with over 200 spoken languages and a large demographic who don’t speak English, Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa – the four main languages in which our films are made – could visual filmmaking be beneficial to us?
What about subtitles? Unfortunately subtitles in many cases are poorly transcribed in grammar and context, so a lot gets lost in translation. When we tell stories visually, we make films tell the story in the best way possible, and are able to reach a wider audience, locally and internationally. In 2017, two Nigerian short films showed the power of visual storytelling; “Closed” directed by Tolu Ajayi and “A Hotel Called Memory” directed by Akin Omotoso; neither film had any spoken dialogue but the writing, performance, directing, mis en scene were sufficient to clearly communicate the story.
Decades ago, the world was introduced to and became familiar with Japanese culture and iconography through the films of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu; powerful visual stories which communicated straight to the heart. We can do this too, our culture is visually rich.
Nollywood is the biggest producer of black content in Africa and quite possibly the world; our work needs to travel, and making it more accessible is one of those ways. While dialogue is fantastic and sometimes very necessary, there is something very powerful about an image, searing in your brain and telling you a full story.