Nollywood rises: Africa’s maverick cinema

Jane Bryce

While lacking the big budgets and high production values associated with its US and Indian counterparts, Nigeria’s digital film industry brings traditional drama into a modern setting and has caught the imagination of Africa and the diaspora.

Nollywood – the popular label for Nigeria’s digital film industry – has taken the world by storm. In two decades, it has grown from a maverick marketing activity to the most significant cultural development in 21st-century Africa. It has its roots in the performance tradition and films made in the 1980s by the Yoruba travelling theatre companies, as well as the popular soaps made for national television by a cadre of well-trained cameramen and creative writers. 

By the end of the 1980s, both the fledgling 35mm cinema industry and television production in Nigeria were struggling, and when, in 1992, an Igbo trader, Kenneth Nnebue, found himself with a stack of empty video cassettes and conceived the idea of adding value by filling them with stories, a new cultural form was born. It was the latest manifestation of that capacity for reinvention and for making something out of nothing for which Nigerians are famous. Living in Bondage, the Igbo-language film Nnebue produced, was the acknowledged progenitor of a multi-million-naira industry, with a global reach by way of the African diaspora. 

Last year alone, more than 1,100 films were submitted to the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board. In numbers, this puts it far ahead of Hollywood or Bollywood, although the production values scarcely match up, as producers look for the quickest possible return on their investment. 

The films are made in the three main languages of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, and in Bini and Efik, as well as English. Shot rapidly in improvised locations, the films often have unlikely plots, doubtful continuity and poor sound, but they are extraordinarily popular as a ‘home video’ phenomenon across West Africa and the wider continent, and as far afield as Brixton, Brooklyn and Barbados.

Scholarly research suggests that Nollywood is a mirror in which ordinary people may view themselves and their society with all their spectacular contradictions. With the average age of Nigerians now well below 30, a generation of poorly educated, underemployed urban youth has turned to Nollywood for entertainment and instruction. The films present Nigerian as it is today, shaped equally by local traditions – such as family structures and social hierarchies – and global trends like hip-hop. 

Nollywood stories embody and dramatise people’s fears and desires by revealing the wickedness and corruption of those in power and delivering them a just reward. Films produced in the south also enact the occult battle between fundamentalist Christianity and traditional religion, now rendered as ‘devil worship’ and a sign of backwardness. In the north, where there is an equally vibrant industry based in Kano and known as ‘Kanywood’, orthodox Islam struggles to regulate the youthful appetite for Bollywood-influenced song and dance. 

A major problem for the producers who fund the films and the directors who make them is controlling distribution. The moment a film is out on VCD (the technology of choice), it is pirated, reproduced and sold with no way of recouping the profits. Tension has also grown up between producers (traditionally the marketers themselves) and directors, who increasingly aspire to greater control of their own artistic product. 

Nollywood viewers, from the Caribbean to South Africa, follow their favourite stars, imitate their dress style and use Nigerian speech mannerisms. This maverick industry has changed the face of African cinema forever.

About the author:

Jane Bryce teaches African literature and cinema at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados


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