It’s no surprise that Hollywood and Bollywood are the leading national movie industries in terms of box office. But if one looks at output, the actual numbers of titles emerging from each nation, Nollywood surpasses both. Franco Sacchi’s documentary This Is Nollywood (2007) suggests over 2,000 films are produced per year, while Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal claim closer to 2,500 a year in their documentary Nollywood Bablyon (2008). Impressive, particularly if you consider the discrepancy may indicate growth of the industry in just one year.
Nollywood films, though primarily produced and consumed in Nigeria and Ghana, have quickly become the standard choice amongst viewers throughout the rest of English-speaking Africa and the Caribbean, while also finding popularity with African ex-pats around the world. (Philip Cartelli reveals in Film International that the most prominent DVD bootlegs in Castries, St Lucia, are not Hollywood’s but Nollywood’s.) Nollywood has even found fans through translation in the French-speaking nations of Africa.
Nollywood is so DIY that it makes any Western indie filmmaker look like a fully trust-fund pampered prince.
The fact that these are videos and not works on film that require projection is one key to Nollywood’s diasporic success. They can be made cheaply and rapidly through video cameras rather than with expensive and time-consuming celluloid. VCRs filled the lacunae of entertainment in the 1980s as street violence in Nigeria kept many from venturing into theaters after dark. Videos could be displayed in the privacy and security of the home. And whereas a theater can easily be shut down by censors, video films were more difficult to restrict since the network of viewers was spread out more widely. As Frances Harding notes in the same Film International issue, which devotes itself wholly to a focus on video in Africa, “Central to its growth is the fact that it is outside of state control— not censored, not funded, not broadcast by the state.”
Video films are instead primarily funded by the entrepreneurs of the electronic markets in Lagos, Onitsha, and Kano. They are the closest thing to a people’s cinema in that they are extremely topical, taking their plots straight from scandal sheets and the rumor mill as much as from the rituals and practices of indigenous culture and Christian folklore. They are extremely popular amongst the ‘market’ crowd, unlike African cinematic that only find audiences at international festivals and art houses often run by former colonizers. As Hope Eghagha summarizes in her contribution to that Film International issue, “Power therefore in Nollywood is indigenous, not imperialistic, and not foreign.”
It is important to note that Nollywood has non-English counterparts within Nigeria, particularly the Hausa language video films of northern Nigeria, video films strongly influenced by Bollywood and Islam. In fact, the film that is credited with launching Nollywood wasn’t an English language video film but Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage (1992), which was actually performed in the Igbo language. The first English language Nollywood video film was Nnebue’s Glamour Girls (1994). As Jonathan Haynes notes, again in Film International, Living in Bondage and Glamour Girls laid the groundwork for Nollywood video films, including the essential themes of “the corruption, moral turbulence and pervasive anxiety of the post-oil-boom era; the garish glamour of Lagos; titillating and dangerous sexuality; melodramatic domestic conflicts; and imminent supernatural forces including both dark cultic practices and Pentecostal Christianity.”
Nollywood Babylon touches on these essential themes in yet another exemplary product from that productive bureaucracy that is the National Film Board of Canada. Images of our collective future in mega-cities like Lagos, long floating shots of slums, and crowded, slow-moving, inefficient freeway systems accompany the explanatory narration. Nollywood Babylon is the best cinematic introduction to the historical and political context for both Nollywood’s genesis and its future.
Jonathan Haynes notes themes including ‘the corruption, moral turbulence and pervasive anxiety of the post-oil-boom era; the garish glamour of Lagos; titillating and dangerous sexuality; melodramatic domestic conflicts; and imminent supernatural forces including both dark cultic practices and Pentecostal Christianity.’
Interspersed throughout Nollywood Babylon is the making of the video film Bent Arrows (2010) directed by Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, his 157th video film. (He appears in This Is Nollywood as well with his last name spelled differently.) The documentary begins with Iwasuen leading his crew in Christian song and prayer. Later in the documentary, the influence of Pentecostal religion will be critically investigated by Nigerian poet and writer Odia Ofeimun, who comments on how the churches have taken over closed factory buildings while their congregations are filled with those who have lost their paying jobs in the very factories within which they now worship and tithe. Addelman and Mallil complement Ofeimun’s critique with images of the donations being tossed into baskets and hauled away in trucks to who knows where.
The churches strongly encourage their congregants to “pick up” video films to apparently further the morals of the congregants while these same congregants further tithe the church through their video film purchases. The church leaders hope that more than one video film is picked up to pass on to future congregants with future donations. Ofeimun’s critique of the economics of the prosperity gospel is insightful and necessary, though the film still leaves me wondering how much the churches are fueling the economy by fueling Nollywood through their religious passion. Many in their flock may find employment in the industry or through the spillover economy of catering, location, transportation, and other services.
Despite its impressive overview, there are some aspects of Nigerian video-filmmaking that Nollywood Babylon leaves for the another project, which thankfully, has been made. Franco Sacchi’s This Is Nollywood (2007) keeps its focus solely on the making of one video film, Check Point, by Bond Emeruwa. Sacchi underscores the trickle-down economic impact of the industry in the jobs and side-markets. In addition, actress Toyin Alauss’ commentary about the agency Nollywood affords actresses like her complements Haynes’ analysis of the signature Nollywood video film Glamour Girls.
They are extremely popular amongst the ‘market’ crowd, unlike the kind of African cinema that only finds audiences at international festivals and art houses often run by former colonizers.
“Throughout [Glamour Girls],” Haynes writes, “women may be forced to accommodate themselves to a brutal world but they are presented as players in that world, not as victims of it. [The characters] Jane and Sandra surely make catastrophic mistakes by not lapsing into lives as pampered wives, but the film never shows women submitting to subordination to men.” Although misogyny can be found in Nollywood video films just as it can in the whole forest of other national cinemas from Hollywood to Bollywood, there is an agency available for the actress in Nollywood she might not find in other areas of Nigerian society. As Alauss proclaims, “In Nollywood, women can be virtually anything.”
Nollywood is so DIY that it makes any Western indie-filmaker look like a fully trust-fund pampered prince. This Is Nollywood shows how this industry’s makers deal with barriers to production from the natural (rain and heat) to the unnatural (generators breaking down) to the cultural (negotiating around Muslim calls to prayer or a jeep used for a shoot being taken away by the owner to attend a wedding). Any entrepreneur struggling to get their project off the ground can learn from the philosophy of director Emeruwa: “In Nollywood, we don’t count walls. We have learnt ways to climb them.” Just as many urbanists have been arguing that mega-cities like Lagos are our future, perhaps an industry that spawned from the compact energy of that city’s markets will be the future of Hollywood as well.