"The future is so bright that people need to wear dark glasses,” declared Nigerian movie director Ruke Amata last November when he was asked what’s in store for his nation’s film industry. It wasn’t really an answer, but no matter. “Forget the fact that we have all these mistakes and criticisms. The way you know you are going somewhere is when people start talking about you.” Amata concluded that the future of the Nigerian film industry would dictate the future of the entire Nigerian economy.
I know next to nothing about the Nigerian economy, but I’m inclined to agree with Amata. The country’s film industry—or Nollywood, as it’s been dubbed by the media—is the third most prolific in the world, behind the United States’ Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. For a nation seven years into democracy, recovering from corrupt military rule and a ruined, oil-intensive economy, being third-most anything is not trivial. Since its rebirth in the early nineties, the industry has generated us$200 million in revenue. At peak production times it has put out more than fifty new movies a week; thousands continue to emerge every year. Today, with 350,000 people employed, it remains the most job-generating industry in all of Nigeria—and possibly all of Africa.
But what’s really remarkable is that, until Nollywood, African filmmaking had been an overwhelmingly colonial enterprise, practised by artists trained in Europe and subsidized by European capital to make sophisticated films, on celluloid, aimed at non-African audiences. (Even the so-called father of African cinema, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, served in the French army in Europe and studied film in Moscow.) By sharp contrast, Nollywood movies are usually made by Nigerians who have little training, with minuscule budgets; they’re shot on, and go directly to, video; and their stories consist entirely of homegrown pop-culture pulp. The mere enormity of the Nollywood phenomenon rattles our know-it-all pronouncements about cultural imperialism: Are we to congratulate or rue its market-driven ascendancy? Are we to consider it the truest index of contemporary Nigerian culture?
Better minds than mine can figure all of that out. While they do, I’ll be busy with tonight’s triple feature: He Goat, Smile of Destruction and Not with My Daughter.
The Nollywood phenomenon is something of a Horatio Alger story—and not just because it ascended through sheer force of will from poverty to wealth, but because it keeps telling the same stories over and over again. Relentlessly.
The industry sprouted in an era of severe economic depression, with no help from the corrupt syndicates that controlled the nation’s few movie houses, nor from the oppressively stingy Nigerian Television Authority. It emerged “at a time when Nigeria had given up on [broadcast] television,” Moradewun Adejunmobi, a Nigerian-born professor at UC Davis, told me. “Some people came from that industry, in which they felt like they weren’t properly paid.” From there, it was home video and direct marketing to the rescue. “It’s always been a very short market presence right up front, then they disappear,” Adejunmobi explained. “You record your movie and try and release it with a bang. And there’s very little enforcement of copyright. So once it’s in the market, you’ve lost it.”
Market presence, of course, is a way of life in North America. Tony Abulu established the Filmmakers’ Association of Nigeria (FAN) two years ago because the profits of Nigerian films shown in the US and Canada were not going to the Nigerian filmmakers. “We wanted to create an atmosphere where the producers could actually benefit from the sales of their film,” said Abulu, himself a Nigerian filmmaker. He now lives and works in New York City, where he held the first FAN film festival—a wild success—last year. “We brought fifty [filmmakers] to the US,” he told me. “It was just chaotic. They had to call the cops just to get people to leave [the theatre].” Now Abulu is trying to parlay that spirit into profit by negotiating a Nollywood distribution deal with Blockbuster USA. “Ultimately,” he continued, “Nollywood, if well co-ordinated, will be seen as the missing link between traditional and contemporary African culture.”
One problem with a lot of Nollywood movies—and regardless of whose numbers you go by, there are a lot of Nollywood movies—is how frequently they suck. It doesn’t take a film critic to recognize this. Many people liken them to B movies, but some could count as unqualified Cs and Ds. Because they are entirely without government support, Nollywood budgets stay low; US$15,000 is about average, and it shows. Bad acting and bad sound often render the dialogue unintelligible (which may not be worth understanding anyway). Directing tends to consist of making sure the camera is on. Dramatization is poor and the subtext non-existent. Sets look conspicuously bare and poorly lit. Nothing makes much sense.
The reason I can render such sweeping judgements about Nollywood movies is that I can’t stop watching them. The industry can go right ahead and produce fifty a week, because, if I’m not careful, I can watch fifty a week. For dedicated procrastination, even pointless websites have nothing on Nollywood. What the films lack in artistry and production values, they make up for in shrugging disregard for artistry and production values.
Nollywood characters don’t develop so much as stay bluntly who they are, railing against their soapy cliff-hanger scandals. Consider the teaser for Onye Eze: “He killed his brother and blamed it on a chimpanzee. Why? Greed and avarice.” Or for Play Boy: “He is handsome and rich. Girls mean nothing to him. But he met his match and experienced love. Love really hurts.” So it does.
But you needn’t only appreciate Nollywood movies ironically; the films invite a surrender that can be strangely liberating. As the agitated narrator in the Unfortunate Hero trailer put it, “Life is blur [sic] when the unexpected becomes the result of expectations.” You can’t argue with that. Nollywood movies may often be terrible, but they seem wonderfully aloof to whether or not Western viewers would even care how good they are. They make zero effort to ape Hollywood or put on airs, preferring to devote all their raucous energy to the sensational stories at hand.
Despite Nollywood fixations like mine, the North American audience for these films is mostly comprised of African immigrants and their descendents. “They’re the first movies speaking about Africa but not about famine or AIDS or tribal warfare,” Adejunmobi pointed out. “For an American who’s grown up on a diet of ‘African cinema,’ Nollywood seems inauthentic because it’s so commercial. It’s very disorienting, and it’s politically all wrong. For the most part it’s not at all socially critical. It could be highly troubling to people with a social conscience. But it’s for that reason that it will remain distinct.” More often than not, the characters in Nollywood movies live quite high on the hog—but within cookie-cutter storylines and shoddy productions that belie their true, impoverished origins. But that doesn’t keep the industry from being some sort of cultural bellwether.
“It’s the only film industry in the world that’s completely controlled by black people,” said Sylvester Ogbechie, who co-ordinated a Nollywood Rising symposium in Los Angeles last summer. “And it is a clear example of inventing something out of nothing, as has been done time and time again in that country. Whole numbers of people have been able to lift themselves out of poverty.” Ogbechie is the co-founder and director of the Washington DC–based Nollywood Foundation, which facilitates connections between Nigerians and North American filmmakers and investors. He had some advice for young African-American filmmakers: “Take two million dollars and go to Nigeria and make five movies. Get some experience.”
“I don’t want to make movies or sell movies. What I want to do is provide a community service,” Ogbechie went on. “It’s going to be resisted. The Nigerian attitude is going to be, ‘Who appointed you?’” That has not deterred him. “The only ex-colonial countries that have done well are those that have been incorporated into the Western sphere of influence…We want to be able to advise people, so if a company says to us, ‘We want to do business with Nollywood,’ we help them filter out businesses that will rip them off.”
This is a sensitive issue for Ogbechie; he described his first partner as a barefaced 419er—the number 419 refers to the section for fraud in Nigeria’s criminal code—who stiffed him with a us$50,000 tab. “For me, to get defrauded by a Nigerian, I was completely blown away,” he recalled. The plague of the 419ers, he added, “has become a classic Nigerian malaise.” No wonder Don Okolo’s 419: The Stalk Exchange came so highly recommended.
Many weeks ago, I ordered some Nollywood movies on the Web. They have yet to arrive, and I’m concerned. The site was suggested by an anthropologist, but that’s no voucher for its security. Somebody out there has my credit-card number, but I still don’t have my DVDs of Games Women Play, Kiss My Pains, Living in Tears and Insatiable Quest.
Adejunmobi had explained to me, sagely, “Wherever there are West Africans selling things, you’re going to find Nigerian films,” and she recommended such an outpost: a modest purveyor of African foods in the remote outskirts of Sacramento, California. I found it in the corner of an enormous warehouse, alone in a sea of concrete and asphalt. It was the only place open for half a mile in any direction. It amounted to a tiny, tousled office, manned by a couple of bored but friendly kids who said their father had stepped out for a while.
They had just finished a McDonald’s brunch and were listening to American rap. The older kid surfed the Web while the younger busied himself with a lollipop. Whether the tattered crib and baby carriage in the middle of the floor were for their family’s use or for sale wasn’t clear, but I got the sense that everything in the room was for sale if a buyer showed interest. Cardboard boxes and bags full of DVDs lay strewn on the floor. They also filled a shelf along one wall. The organizational scheme made used-record-store discount racks look like the Library of Congress. I grabbed a handful of discs. Big Man, Big Trouble; Commanding Wife; Danger Signal; Save the Baby; Deadly Decision; At Loose Ends; Height of Indecision 2; Occultic Battle 3; Blood Billionaires; Daddy Must Obey. In their slapdash packaging, they all looked like bootlegs.
“Yeah, we sell a lot of those,” the older kid said. “People just keep buying them.” He sounded almost incredulous. Then he took my money. There was no cash register.
I didn’t figure this place for the front line of a revolution in world cinema. I was just glad to have somewhere to go for my Nollywood fix. And I can imagine other places like it sprouting up all over the continent, other increasingly compulsive new fans becoming regular patrons.
We will forgive these movies for their preposterous falsities because we’re refreshed by the truth of their preposterousness, because we can sense something happening and we want to be its witness. Of course, we shouldn’t expect Nollywood to show us what life in Nigeria is really like (apparently it’s like life inside a perpetual-motion movie-studio madhouse), but that shouldn’t keep us from enjoying the show. If Ruke Amata couldn’t really tell what was next for Nollywood, it’s probably because he, like everybody else, never really saw Nollywood coming in the first place. The real fun will be to watch where it goes.