Spotlight: The Critics
Nine years ago, a group of young cousins met for the very first time at a family event, in Kaduna, Nigeria. They discovered a shared common interest: a love of hi-tech science fiction movies – and a certain distain for the ‘horrible romantic stuff about rich people’ emerging from Nollywood, the country’s film industry, at the time.
The cousins (now young men aged 16-20) – Richard Yusuff, Victor Josiah, Ronald Yusuff, Raymond J Yusuff and Godwin Gaza Josiah – remained in contact, meeting regularly to discuss sci-fi releases they had seen, particularly the special effects. They referred to themselves as ‘The Critics’.
‘Things started to come together when my father got a new mobile phone eight years ago,’ laughs Raymond. ‘Whenever dad would send us on an errand to charge up his precious new phone at my aunt’s house, using her generator… we would take our time, messing around with the camera and watching film tutorials on YouTube.’
Godwin chips in: ‘Every Nigerian parent wants their son to be a doctor, so we had to be sneaky about our filmmaking at first. We found some old wood and built a tripod, we made a wind machine out of a hairdryer and started creating short sci-fi films and sketches for social media, using the skills we had learned on the internet. When we went viral in 2019, music producer and artiste Southboy Curtis noticed our struggles with the wobbly wooden tripod and crafted a new one out of a discarded mic stand. We Africans invented upcycling!’
Spurred on by the enthusiastic reaction to their special effects creations, they got business-like and formed ‘The Critics Company’.
‘As an industry, Film and Television here is like Politics: only the richest people can afford to be involved,’ says Raymond. The price for an essential piece of kit, a ‘green screen’ – a backdrop on which to impose computerized special effects behind the actor – was well beyond their budget.
‘We are used to improvising and figured out that we could use green cotton instead,’ says Ronald. ‘We pooled together our school lunch money, birthday money, and any extra allowances from our parents, to gather 1,000 naira [about $2.40], which would allow us to buy a few yards of green fabric from the market. When we finally got that material, it was the most beautiful moment.’
‘Oh man, we got so much use out of that sheeting!’ laughs Victor.
‘But do you remember,’ interjects Godwin, ‘the day we realized we had all grown taller and needed a bigger green screen? When we returned to the market, they didn’t have that same shade of green and the prices had gone up so mad!’
They ended up buying a few yards of another green material and sewing both fabrics together. ‘It worked fine,’ says Godwin, ‘but if you look closely, you can see a seam running through the middle!’
Since then, The Critics have worked with global brands and established names. They created visual effects for Nigeria’s first Netflix Original series, King of Boys: Return of the King. And they have been selected for the #YouTubeBlack Voices Creator Class of 2022.
Their creative evolution is more remarkable considering the context. ‘The police, politicians, central government, none of them have any respect for our youth, none of them nurture talent or future aspirations,’ says Godwin. ‘They stop us from telling our stories. Speak out and you risk your life. Look what happened during the End SARS movement.’
Godwin is referring to what started off as a Twitter campaign in 2017, against Nigeria’s brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), using the hashtag #EndSARS. In October 2020, a video showing the alleged killing of a young Nigerian by SARS went viral. Young people took to the streets en masse demanding the Squad’s abolition. During two weeks of protests, there were 28 million tweets bearing the hashtag. The demonstrations came to a sudden, violent end when armed forces opened fire on protestors in the Lekki suburb of Lagos. Amnesty International confirms at least 56 people were killed. Many others went missing without a trace. Public outrage led to the dismantling of SARS, but similar units have since been established and there is a general feeling among Nigeria’s youth that nothing has changed.
For The Critics it is paramount to remain focussed on developing their craft. ‘None of us has ever travelled outside of Nigeria before, and we are self-taught,’ says Raymond. ‘We very much hope that one day we will be able to visit other parts of the world and learn about special effects in other countries. That is our dream.’