Defining and Celebrating the Past and Future of Nigerian Cinema
A walk down many a Brooklyn street and the noises of the city are accompanied by the blaring noises of storefronts. Bootleg movies blare from wall-mounted televisions, and Carribbean and American passerby stop in to buy films flown over from the Motherland. Mostly Nigerian films, these stories give an insight into the African continent that this audience would not otherwise have.
“You’re Nigerian? I love Nigerian movies.”
In a country like the US where the dearth of Black cinema leaves much to be desired, Nigerian films were welcomed with open arms. Blacks living in the States thrive on seeing images of people who look like them. Instead of the images of brown-skinned people committing crimes, serving “fairer” masters, living in poverty, near-naked dancing on poles in music videos; American consumers of Nigerian films view Black Africans with mansions, their own house help, their own businesses, drivers and extended family units. They see the urbanization of Lagos and other African cities, while also being transported into the hinterlands with more traditional stories.
The fact that these consumers have spent millions on Nigerian films in the last 10 years—in spite of language barriers (the accent-peppered English can be an acquired taste for the average American), poor writing and lower production quality than what they are accustomed to—shows that they value the experience of traversal to West Africa more than they worry about film quality. After all, these films present to such consumers the rare opportunity to see reflections of themselves in a relatively positive light.
How old is Nollywood?
Last Spring, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan acknowledged the 20th anniversary of the inception of “Nollywood” as we know it with a government-sponsored celebration. This on the heels of UNESCO’s declaration that Nollywood, the world’s second-largest film industry and Nigeria’s second-largest employer, required more support. Some tastemakers and contributors to Nigerian cinema were rubbed the wrong way by the celebration. The $200 billion loan fund and ₦3 billion grant fund recently instituted by Jonathan for development of the film industry is suspected to be targeted only to chosen facets of the industry—the same facets who claim that Nollywood was born in 1993 with Kenneth Nnebue’s film Living in Bondage.
In actuality, Herbert Ogunde and Ola Balogun produced Nigerian films as early as the 1960s. However, earlier films were not mass distributed in the way that Nollywood films have come to be. Nnebue’s distribution model set the stage for the straight-to-home-video, cheaply-mass-produced nature for which Nollywood has come to be known.
Perhaps it is this image of Nigerian cinema that keeps Africans in the Diaspora viewing these films with less fanfare than other Americans. Fifty-somethings are more likely to be caught watching Nigerian films than twenty-somethings. Why is this? The younger generation, Western-raised on immaculate cinema and television content, is often more distracted by poor production quality than their say, Caribbean-raised counterparts.
There is also an element of shame at the high incidence of voodoo rituals used for evil, and the repetition of stories that are core to the most popular films. It seems that you can always expect an evil mother-in-law, sister or “frenemy” to solve a problem or nine with the help of a voodoo priest. It seems often that life’s problems are explained by someone’s use of a catastrophic spell years and years ago.
While this very well may be the reality for a certain portion of the Nigerian / West African population; while marriage, infidelity, backstabbing, murder may be the central themes in the lives of many a Nollywood contributor; the younger generation seems to thirst for stories that enrich, that edify and that reflect a much broader sense of African-ness. The newer films, focused on a very Western aesthetic and storyline, may be relatively easier for the younger group to swallow, but also have lost a great deal of what made them African in the first place. The most unforgettable African films are those whose fully-developed, intelligent African storylines and characters speak to the humanity of the viewers.
Re-writing the Script
Osuofia in London, arguably the most internationally known Nollywood film, was produced with superior digital quality, with a story themed on culture-clash, familial loyalty, and unusual perseverance. Directors like Tunde Kelani still produce films for theatre, films that instruct viewers in the culture of his homeland, advancing the mother tongue. Tony Abulu has more than once bridged the gap from the Diaspora to the homeland through film. Andrew Dosunmu has produced two “visually-stunning” films to sold-out US theatres, with Mother of George also providing cultural education. Most of these would never be considered “Nollywood” films. Granted, there are a whole host of films produced and/or directed by Nigerians and other Africans, telling African stories with Sundance class. But is the new government funding interest focused on these? Or on the mother seeking a Babalawo’s help to restore her prostituting daughter who became mentally ill because of a twenty-year-old curse?
This debate is what spurned the creation of the Nollywood Diaspora Film Series, a series of film screenings and panel discussions highlighting the best of Nigerian Cinema. Using West African media content as the platform on which to dissect larger issues plaguing Africa, the Nollywood Diaspora Film Series is encouraging a new infusion of interest in Nigerian cinema. At the first events this winter at Studio Museum Harlem and NYU, moviegoers joined the conversation with writers and producers who believe in the power of film to drastically affect a generation for the better. Thus giving those city-dwelling film-lovers better buying options in their storefronts, and supporting the notion that Nigerians have largely struggled to accept: that of quality over quantity.