In the early 1990s, the resourceful Nigerian entrepreneur Ken Nnebue sponsored the production of Living in Bondage, a video movie in Igbo, a major Nigerian language – with English subtitles. That movie, shot with rudimentary equipment, turned out to be phenomenally popular in Nigeria. Thus was born Nollywood, the Nigerian video movie industry which describes itself as the third most vibrant film industry in the world, after California’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.
Living in Bondage was a morality tale about evil people scheming to deny the son of a polygamous chief his inheritance by means which included resort to ‘black magic’. At the end of the day, evil is defeated and the forces of good triumph. Before Living in Bondage, a number of Nigerian television comedies and soap operas had enjoyed a lot of popularity. But Living in Bondage broke all previous records.
Several thousand movies later, Nollywood is now asking itself: what next?
The television dramas that preceded Living in Bondage had mostly been rather polite, rather middle class. Where such dramas treated sexual relations or the resort to supernatural forces, they did so coyly. In contrast, Living in Bondage was bold, even lurid, especially in the portrayal of the practices of ‘witchdoctors’ and the desperation of their clients. The suggestion in the movie that a lot of the wealth of Nigeria’s new rich came from diabolical practices resonated widely in a society of incredible inequality.
The successful formula of Living in Bondage – bold storytelling, a good dose of ‘black magic’, and quick and easy distribution by video – has given birth to thousands of Nigerian video movies. The industry has produced its seasoned directors and star actors and actresses, complete with cult following. And Nollywood’s films have spread far beyond Nigeria and spawned similar industries across Africa.
Several thousand movies later, Nollywood is now asking itself: what next? This soul-searching is prompted in part by the criticisms the industry has attracted. One of the most common charges is that its focus on ‘black magic’ is detrimental to the image of Nigeria. The argument goes that at a time when we are striving to attract foreign investment, movies which depict Nigerians as attached to supernatural forces will give foreigners the idea that we are a backward people. This argument, which you encounter mostly among middle class Nigerians, smacks of hypocrisy (never mind whether our first priority should be to attract foreign investment or to encourage local creativity, which our movie industry shows is quite abundant). The reverence for diverse supernatural forces is widespread in Nigeria as it is all over Africa, in spite of centuries of Islamic and Christian penetration. That is why the ‘black magic’ movies have proved so popular. To try to hide the hold such beliefs have on the imagination of our people is silly.
A weightier charge is that in emphasizing the allegedly diabolical aspects of our traditional religious practices, some home movies distort these practices and their underlying philosophies. The goddess of the river or of the forest in many a home movie is a fearsome agency of death for adulterers or people who have acquired ill-gotten wealth and so on. But the investing of rivers, forests, the natural elements and so on with religious significance arose from an appreciation by many African communities of how essential certain objects and phenomena are to the very survival of humankind. Our ancestors made goddesses out of rivers from a deep connection to and reverence for nature, and not to kill adulterers – as some of our video movies appear to suggest.
At the end of the day, evil is defeated and the forces of good triumph
Nollywood has also been criticized for shoddy production and disjointed storylines. The typical video movie is shot in a week or two from a hurriedly written script, usually a rehash of the last successful movie. Because movie producers are in too much of a hurry to hit the market, there is hardly any effort to seek and develop new talent. Instead, the demand for our handful of popular actors and actresses is so heavy that they virtually walk from movie set to movie set all year round – which is reflected in the uneven quality of their work.
Tawdry sex scenes have been a favourite selling point. For a few weeks recently, a poster for a new movie showing a plump woman with enormous breasts wearing only a net top was pasted on nearly every billboard in Lagos. And there is a constant battle over movie ratings between the censor, a civil servant in the Federal Ministry of Culture, and movie makers, who are always seeking new ways to stay ahead of the competition.
Nollywood acknowledges its problems, but points out that it is learning all the time. Its products have included not only the ‘black magic’ films, but also many thoughtful stories about love, loss and tragedy, and several films which fully reflect the Nigerian gift for laughter. Its most amazing contribution might be the films in Nigeria’s indigenous languages which do justice to the depth and dynamism of those languages and reach the millions of our citizens who do not understand English. Some of its producers and directors like Tunde Kelani, Charles Novia, Ebereonwu and Tade Ogidan have displayed sensitivity and/or ambition and some of its actors like Ramsey Noah and Omotola Ekeinde have more than earned their great fame. For Nollywood, the future looks very bright indeed.