Women of Kannywood: An All-Woman Film Crew Dares to Dream Big

August 13, 2022

A group of actresses, media professionals and students is determined to put women behind the camera in Kannywood, Nigeria’s northern challenger to Nollywood.

By Yakubu Liman, bird story agency

It is noon in the congested city of Kano and Aisha Abubakar Usman is standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the right moment to cross busy Zoo Road. 

The street, which by all rights should be named Kannywood Road, is home to almost all the city’s Hausa indigenous-language film production offices.

Commonly understood to mean the Hausa language film industry, Kannywood derives its name from the city at the epicentre of filming activities in northern Nigeria — Kano.

Having reached her destination, Abubakar sinks into a chair with a sigh of relief. Tired and thirsty, the actress and production manager has just returned from a location recce. She spent the morning with a team of fellow women producers doing site inspections for an upcoming film shoot.

Abubakar and 29 other women — mostly Kannywood actresses, professionals from the media, students and members of women organisations – were selected to undergo intensive production training which exposed them to the mechanics of film-making, providing them with the means to take films from concept to screen.

The women’s ambition is not only to take Kannywood by storm but also to break with the stereotypes and barriers that prevent women like themselves from making it in Nigeria’s main Nollywood film production market, which has seen a recent spike in interest, thanks to the arrival of streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Showmax in the market.

That afternoon, Abubakar attends a pre-production meeting with teammates; Binta Usman Abdullahi, Ummusalma Isa, Maryam Abubakar Ruffy, and Fatima Danjuma to discuss another location visit.

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Abubakar has been involved in the Hausa language film industry as an actress for five years and has featured in films, TV shows, and recently, a web series. But like all the women in her team, this is the first time she is working “behind the camera”, thanks to specialised training on technical filmmaking skills. 

The opportunity is a life-changing experience — and she has plunged into her role as a production manager with all the energy, passion, time, and other resources she has been able to muster.

“This is my first time handling and knowing how a camera, a microphone, and other pieces of equipment work… and actually holding it in my hands and using it yourself,” Abubakar says, beaming.

“This is quite unlike when you are on a film set, and you are just given a script and sit before the camera, and that is it.”

Seated at a round table and looking very confident, the women in the group take turns to enthusiastically talk about their newfound joy.

The all-women crew is working on a film about women that they want to use to break the stereotypical boy-meets-girl theme of many Kannywood films. 

“It is about education. A simple story of a girl who wants to go to school to fulfill her career dream, but she is stopped by many hurdles hurled by circumstances in her path,” explains Bilkisu Yusif Ali, lead writer of the story for the project.

“And it’s all in English,” she adds.

“The training was intensive and practical. I really learned a lot. Besides, it actually gave me the opportunity and the chance to improve myself,” says Usman.

Like Abubakar, Usman has been involved in Kannywood for five years as an actress and had never been behind a camera in her filming career. After the training, Usman emerged as the set designer for the proposed film.

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 “I didn’t know anything about set design before the training. Now I know what it is, and with this film, I am confident I can rub shoulders with my male counterparts,” she says, smiling confidently.

Isa is from a different background. She is a law student nominated by her association, but she is happy that she attended the training.

“I have always been fascinated by movies, and this gives me the chance to see how they are made, and I love it,” says the student who is now the assistant producer in charge of management in the project film. 

With a gleam in her eyes, Isa talks excitedly about having second thoughts regarding her law career, in the face of her found love behind the screen.

“I don’t know if I will combine both, but I will probably leave one for the other,” she adds.

Their compatriot,  Maryam Abubakar Ruffy, who is a Kannywood , doubles up in this project as actress and sound engineer.

“This training is an eye-opener to opportunities in the film industry that were no-go areas for women. It also gives us a chance to grow,” she explains.

Ruffy’s passion is clear as she speaks about her new role in the film industry.

“Now I know what sound is, and I can do it effectively… that is a plus for me,” she continues.

The training workshop and the accompanying short film project are the initiatives of the Girds Nation and the Women’s International Film Festival Nigeria (WIFFEN), with the support of the Embassy of France In Nigeria under the Innovative Projects from Civil Societies and Coalitions of Actors (PISCCA) project.

As part of the training, the 30 selected women will produce a 30-minute short film which is to be screened at an international film festival to showcase the talent of the women and their skills. 

“This project is giving back to the society at the same time unearthing the abundant talent of the northern women who have for long been relegated to the background within and outside the film industry,” says
the film’s producer (and one of the 30 trainees) Halima Ben Umar,  

For her, this is a unique opportunity—a woman’s only crew working to provide an alternative narrative to Nollywood. 
Ben Umar, or ‘Mama’ as she is fondly called by the team, is older than the other team members. She also runs an NGO called Women in Media Initiative and her offices serve as the heaquarters for the project. Though also new to working behind the camera, she is determined and eager to make a mark as a producer.

While Kannywood is used to feature-length films and the task of writing a short film in English could be daunting, Yusif is confident that the team members’ experience will shine through.

“I have been in Kannywood for over ten years writing scripts, and I also wrote for radio. I also have many novellas in Hausa to credit,” she says. 

“So with the training, everything comes easy. It is just about focusing and finding a story with universal appeal, a theme that everyone can resonate with. And we have successfully come up with a good one that satisfies this criterion we set for ourselves,” Yusif says with pride.

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