Nollywood as a Pan-African cultural phenomenon

Adekeye Adebajo

The Star, 25 May 2017

THE phenomenon of Nigeria’s prolific film industry – Nollywood – has attracted the most recent positive international attention to Africa’s most populous country. Nollywood is the second largest film producer in the world behind India’s Bollywood, and ahead of America’s Hollywood. This $11 million industry employs an estimated one million people, making it the second-largest employer in Nigeria. The movies started rolling off the shelves in 1992 with the blockbuster “Living in Bondage”, about a man who gains wealth and power by killing his wife and repenting after her ghost haunts him. The theme of ritual murder and redemption, human desires, breaking social taboos, and the evil quest for wealth and luxury run through many of these movies which have spread like wildfire across Africa and its Diaspora, from Kinshasa to Kingston.

Nollywood films have mostly been shot in the Nigerian megapolis of Lagos, a city of entrepreneurial spirit and indefatigable endeavour. They are widely available to both rich and poor across the continent and the African Diaspora in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America. Nollywood has also massively increased the role and visibility of women in African cinema. As veteran producer, Tunde Kelani, noted: “…our movies are definitely African. Their popularity shows that Africans have a lot in common socially, culturally, and politically.”

Nollywood films have, however, also sparked demonstrations in Ghana and Tanzania against crass materialism and “voodoo-mongering.” Even the National Film Video Censors Board of Nigeria criticised the “repellent subjects”, “fetishism”, “ritualistic killings”, “devilish Spiritism” and “homosexuality” of Nollywood films. Critics of Nollywood have also described the movies as reinforcing Western strereotypes of African “primitivism,” and complained about what they regard as the poor quality of the films, as well as their constantly revisiting the same themes. But the market will surely weed out poor films, while consumers will ultimately decide which films are commercially viable. Budgets for the increasingly more sophisticated “New Nollywood” movies now average between $250,000 and $750,000. Kemi Adetiba’s recent romantic comedy, The Wedding Party, raked in $1.3 million, making it the largest grossing Nigerian movie of all time. The charge that the Nollywood factory is mass-producing culture based on a repetitive formula is also common to Hollywood with its sequels and formulaic scripts. As for negative cultural stereotyping, this criticism may reflect the prejudices of a westernised African urban elite, since the films merely reflect what 70 percent of Africans see as the daily reality of money, marabouts, and  magic.

Nollywood deals with relevant contemporary issues of proselytising, polygamy, and prostitution; military brasshats and mysterious ritual murders; drugs and dodgy politicians; gangsters and godfathers; AIDS and adultery. They thus hold up a mirror to society which may be uncomfortable for corrupt elites to view. Nollywood may, in fact, be leading the way to the first authentic Pan-African cinema.  As  Nigerian writer, Odia Ofeimum, noted, Nollywood is “a representation of ourselves by ourselves!…..it is sometimes better to tell your story even incompetently and badly than for it to be mis-told by others.”

Unlike the French-funded FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de Télévision de Ouagadougou) which is based on a spirit of French benevolent neo-colonialism, Nollywood has been more self-funded, more commercial, and more unabashedly authentic. It has also been more flexible in overcoming challenges of funding and ownership with which FESPACO still struggles after five decades. Respected Malian cultural theorist, Manthia Diawara – a self-described “avid consumer of Nollywood videos” – has urged francophone filmmakers to learn from Nigeria’s film industry about how to use stars and distributors to create a popular cinema. Instead, snooty largely Western-funded filmmakers in festivals in Ouagadougou, Carthage, Durban, and Zanzibar have barred Nollywood movies from participating in these events.

The most important aspect of Nollywood for Nigeria’s “soft power” involves the impact that these films have had across Africa and its Diaspora. As Matthias Krings and Onookome Okome (whose 2013 edited book, Global Nollywood, has greatly informed my research) noted: “Nollywood…has become the most visible form of cultural machine on the African continent…Nigerian video films travel the length and breadth of the continent connecting Africa…to its diverse and far-flung diasporas elsewhere.” Nollywood speaks to the lives of ordinary Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora in ways in which they can relate. The industry deals with the diverse and complex mosaic of modern African urban and rural lives. Nollywood has inspired film production in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. In Tanzania, local griots provide simultaneous interpretation to audiences in Kiswahili. Lingala-speaking Congolese “dubbers” do the same in Kinshasa. In Togo, interpretation is provided by local pastors in Ewe. The films have influenced the dress of Kenyan politicians; Congolese tailors, pastors, and architecture; and the accents of South African students. But there have also been complaints of Nollywood harming local film production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ghana, and Tanzania.

DSTV, with its 11 million subscribers across Africa, is one of the most effective mediums of beaming Nollywood across the continent, with three 24-hour channels devoted to these movies. Nollywood DVDs have also been widely sold across the globe. Southern African audiences have noted how the films promote African values of respect for elders and the importance of family, and produce a nostalgic longing for rural life. Nollywood has also had a massive impact in the Congo’s bustling capital of Kinshasa, where Pentecostal pastors have incorporated  messages of the triumph of good over evil into their religious repertoire. Many Congolese also praise Nollywood’s “Africanity” in providing an authentic medium for resisting Western cultural imperialism.

Tanzania’s film industry has further been influenced by Nollywood, particularly in making horror movies. For example, the Tanzanian Shumileta was greatly influenced by Nollywood’s Karishika; and like Nollywood, the Tanzanian films aim to be didactic, urging audiences to abandon sorcery for Islam or Christianity. Nollywood’s cultural reach has also expanded as far as Barbados where the movies are widely seen as authentic in presenting genuine African lifestyles with which many of the island’s Hollywood-obsessed audiences had not previously been familiar. Many Caribbeans further relate to the Pentecostal religion depicted in Nollywood, and are attracted by the fact that several of the glamorous actresses have figures of ample proportion which challenge Western notions of beauty.

Nollywood has also gone global in another sense: many of its films are made in the European and American Diaspora by Nigerian directors based there. African-American actors have starred in some of these movies which have dealt with such varied subjects as the tense relations between Nigerian immigrants and African Americans; African Americans seeking their African roots; Nigerian prostitutes in Italy; cultural clashes of Nigerians visiting the West; and African migrants embarking on harrowing voyages across the Sahara desert through the Maghreb in a bid to reach Europe.

Even when shot abroad, Nollywood movies are almost always uncompromising in having Nigerian locations at the core of the action. The world is thus consistently viewed from an African perspective, with the continent never a marginal, but a central focus. Nollywood has unquestioningly become one of the few true representations of “Global Africa”.