Meet The Critics, the young Nigerian filmmakers who seduced Morgan Freeman

They caught Hollywood’s attention with their futuristic short films before evolving towards a more social cinema where they show the drama of displaced populations and denounce the colonial plunder of African art

The Critics
The current members of the Nigerian filmmaking group The Critics: Godwin Josiah, Raymond, Ronald and Richard Yusuff and Victor Josiah.Cedido por The Critics

The boys from The Critics hit the growth spurt in 2019. At the beginning of that year, they were a group of teenagers who made short science fiction films with their phones; by the end, Revelations Entertainment (Morgan Freeman’s production company) wanted to produce a movie for them and they were waiting for some professional filming equipment that JJ Abrams, director of the Lost series and several installments of the Star Wars saga, had decided to send them as a gift.

The huge package of brand-new gadgets arrived in August 2020 in Kaduna, a city with a population of one million in dusty northern Nigeria where The Critics still live and work. The group filmed the event with a nod to their distinguishing mark: special effects with a homemade taste. In the video, a girl exercises her superpowers to levitate the heavy wooden box. The Critics had grown up and could finally be a group of young filmmakers free of technical hardships.

Their journey started in 2016, when a group of friends and relatives decided to take advantage of the visual potential of their smartphones. “It was just to have fun while we created something cool,” says Raymond Yusuff, one of the five members who today make up The Critics, via video conference. They completed their first equipment with an old laptop and a green cloth that cost them their savings and which for years they used as a chroma key. Since attending a film school was out of the question, they applied the Gen Z method of learning things: spending countless hours online, devouring YouTube tutorials and downloading free access programs.

The Hollywood lever was activated with Chase, a short film with a frenetic plot and an amazing execution that went viral online, reaching all the way to the front door of the American film industry. Some acquaintances of Freeman and Abrams told them about the over-talented, under-resourced Nigerian boys. “We were lucky to reach the right people at the right time,” explains Yusuff.

That connection between Los Angeles and Kaduna was an alignment of stars in the age of cyberspace vertigo. “Their case shows the extent to which technology has been democratized,” says Cameroonian Olivier Tchouaffe, author of African Cinema, Neoliberal Narratives and the Right of Necessity. “They understood the idea of virality very well and are leading the way by communicating their art with a 21st century language. The enthusiasm they have generated is immense,” he adds.

After the peak they reached in 2019 and 2020, the collective immersed itself into a long reflection regarding the path they wanted to follow. “The more we talked, the more we came to the conclusion that the project was not just about us, about being very famous or making a lot of money; it was about making changes in our community, our country, perhaps the whole world,” says Yusuff. Gradually, that “art without much sense, inspired by a child’s imagination, with characters that throw fire with their hands and things like that” became a thing of the past. After endless talks, a more genuine vision crystallized by consensus. This brought new goals for the team: to launch underlying messages that impact the public, creating films that address important issues in their context.

Their last two projects are good proof of this thematic and aesthetic shift. A Tomb for the Abandoned addresses the drama of populations displaced by environmental catastrophes or by fear of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, which focuses its activities in Northern Nigeria. The images advance slowly, linked by poetic reveries, always with a backdrop of hunger and despair. One Can Only Hope and Wonder uses experimental codes, close to video art, to denounce the plundering of African art by the colonial powers. This work was financed by the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art.

‘Democratic and wild’

To illustrate the evolution of the group, Yusuff mentions the case of Ogun Ola, the short film that Freeman produced, which was released in 2022. In less than 20 minutes, the movie tells the story of a boy who discovers that he possesses the superhuman strength of Ogun, the god of iron and war in the mythology of Nigeria and other West African countries. There are alley fights and eyes that turn fluorescent. Freeman contributed his powerful voice to the trailer. Yusuff explains that there has been talk of making a longer version, but they do not think that would be possible. “It would be very strange. We’ve changed so much that it no longer suits us,” he says.

The social calling of the group has also translated into an educational side: free courses and workshops where the young people of Kaduna can exploit their creative vein. It is a sort of informal film school where The Critics share their knowledge and, in the process, return to their origins. “We almost don’t use cell phones to make videos anymore, but when we teach kids, we like to look into their tremendous possibilities,” says Victor Josiah, sitting to the left of Yusuff during the interview.

Devoted as a collective to exploration and altruism, The Critics focus their business side on their production company, Clan Yujo, which makes commissioned fiction, commercials and videos. They also participate in major Nollywood projects (Nigeria’s film industry) such as the King of Boys saga, a story of crimes and political corruption. For operational reasons, the production company has a hierarchy, but a cooperative spirit continues to reign among The Critics: “We are as democratic and wild as ever,” states Yusuff.

Do they consider themselves a part of Nollywood? Josiah and Yusuff break into a laugh with a hint of weariness. “We live in Nigeria, and we make movies; that is clear. But we don’t like the narrow-mindedness and the greed that prevail there,” says Josiah. Will they continue to do Afrofuturism? “Let’s just say futurism. We don’t see the need to add ‘afro’ just because we’re Black. That being said, we are not closed to anything. We love to imagine possible realities,” says Yusuff.

When they started, The Critics came from consuming an abundance of superhero and dystopian movies. Today, their references are very different. In the conversation, there is mention of figures of contemporary cinema such as Christopher Nolan (they like his moderation in the use of special effects) and David Fincher, whom Josiah considers a master in combining “philosophical depth and raw emotion.” They also talk about lesser-known directors, such as Ari Aster (“capable of creating random images that in the end make sense,” explains Josiah) or the Frenchman Romain Gavras, especially his film Athena.

Seven years ago, some youngsters from northern Nigeria decided to call themselves The Critics. They chose that name as an inside joke, a sort of wisecrack to ironically denounce the parental style of their country, which they considered too severe. Today, it remains as a self-imposed quality standard: “Could we be The Critics without making good movies?” Yusuff ponders, and smiles.

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