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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 October 2007, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Taking on Nigeria's Islamic censors
Filming Tsintsiya

By Andrew Walker

A filmmaker in northern Nigeria has defied a ban on filming brought in by Islamic authorities after a popular actress was caught up in a sex scandal.

The Kano State authorities suspended all filming in August for six months after a video clip of popular actress Maryam Hiyana having sex with a married man spread through Kano, the largest city in the mainly Muslim north.

An enterprising street trader had burned it on to a DVD and was selling copies for $40 each.

Officials then acted, saying that in future, singing and dancing will be banned in movies, actors and directors will need a licence to make films and production companies will have to meet strict criteria before they will be allowed to do business.

The confidence of the general public must be restored. Their religion, their culture is at stake
Abubakar Rabo
Kano State Censorship Board

Seventeen actors have already received bans for "immoral conduct" such as drinking off set and another director was jailed for making a film showing belly-dancing women.

The state's Islamic authorities say singing and dancing are gratuitous sexual titillation banned by the Koran, and the new regulations are necessary to protect public decency.

They fear the culture of the Hausa-Fulani, the dominant ethnic group in the north, is in danger from outside influences.

Bollywood culture

But producer Hamisu Lamido Iyan Tama says he has found a loophole in the state's harsh censorship powers.

Actress Francisca Isaac
They are not really concerned with decency. They make the masses believe we dress indecently and we are involved in drug abuse and fornication
Actress Francisca Isaac

His film, a Nigerian version of West Side Story, is funded by the US embassy as part of "heart and minds" anti-violence campaign and is therefore out of reach of the state censor's knife.

Kano has been the flashpoint for violence between Christians and Muslims, only last year at least 16 people were killed in protests about the Danish cartoons that satirised the Prophet Muhammad.

Kano is among 12 northern states that began enforcing Islamic Sharia, which bans indecent conduct, drinking and gambling, in 2000, although the Christian minority, usually southern Igbo and Yoruba traders, are exempt from the laws.

The conflicts are often driven by the large number of illiterate, jobless youths, who are easily provoked - sometimes by political leaders known as "Godfathers".

Mr Iyan Tama's film, Tsintsiya (The Broom in Hausa), is about a young couple who find love across ethnic boundaries during bloody riots that rocked the state in 2004.

A still from Tsintsiya showing the riots in 2004
The censors say the film will not be shown in Kano

Filming began before the ban was introduced but was completed last month.

A Muslim from Kano State, Mr Iyan Tama says his message of unity is too important to be stopped, and to convey his message he must make films entertaining.

In "Kannywood", as the Kano movie industry is known, this means scenes of singing and dancing.

"The Hausa market is very similar to the Indian film industry. There are many similarities between Indian culture and Hausa culture," he says.


But Abubakar Rabo, head of the Kano State Censorship Board and a former deputy chief of the religious Hisbah police, disagrees - saying the ban was needed to prevent the religious public attacking filmmakers.

On set during filming

And while the loophole allowed the filming of Tsintsiya to be completed, it will not be sold in Kano without Mr Rabo's approval.

"The confidence of the general public must be restored. Their religion, their culture is at stake. We know what the public wants," he says.

In future, actors and filmmakers will be vetted. The censors' investigations will not be done through the courts and the decision making process is confidential.

He also criticised Mr Iyan Tama for going to the Americans for money.

"This approach to things is myopic and narrow minded. If you cannot go to the local authority to regulate you, you undermine your operation," he says.

Mr Iyan Tama says he does not care if his film is banned in Kano, and hopes his latest offering will be seen and accepted by a world audience.

"We are being punished because of what other people have done. Maryam was a victim. She was not from Kano, and the act was not filmed in Kano but we will be punished," he says.

"The boyfriend - the one who filmed it - is in the foreign exchange business, but no-one is saying that his industry should be affected.

'Moral messages'

The US embassy said it did not want to come into conflict with the authorities and had funded the film for its peaceful message and the jobs it created for young people.

Francisca Isaac and Baballe Hyatu as the star-crossed lovers Sani and Helena
The film is a love story set during the bloody riots of 2004

"As we understand it Iyan Tama has a letter that exempts him form the ban," spokesman Sani Mohammed said.

Francisca Isaac, Tsintsiya's lead actress, said the state is maligning actors who are trying hard to produce films with moral messages.

"They are not really concerned with decency. They go to the media and make the masses believe we dress indecently and we are involved in drug abuse and fornication," she says.

"I am for decency, but they could engineer it so people believe I am not. It is all about what they want and right now they don't want acting."

Her male co-star Baballe Hayatu is also no stranger to controversy.

Islamic clerics burned copies of an earlier film of his when he portrayed a man who beat his wife and used prostitutes, before changing his ways.

"They are using this as an excuse because they are selfish, and want to control things," he said about the ban.

"It's just in their heads, they accuse us but it is just their selfishness."

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