In 1992, a Nigerian businessman called Kenneth Nnebue imported a stock of blank video tapes. He soon found out that he had ordered too many, however, so he decided to just shoot a movie on them. The result, Living in Bondage, was such an astounding success that many filmmakers would be inspired to take up the camera.
The Nigerian film industry (nicknamed Nollywood) now produces more movies per year than Hollywood does. Only the Indian Bollywood, an enormous network of highly professionalized studios and distributors catering to more than a billion people worldwide, beats the Nollywood numbers. This in spite of the fact that Nigeria has no studio system, barely any professional guilds, and houses no more than 8 cinemas throughout the entire country.
Reading about the modus operandi of Nigerian filmmakers is an experience that veers between bafflement and hilarity. Entire movies are shot in a weekend. Special effects, including those for explosive shoot-outs, are improvised on the fly. Directors sometimes complete ten films per year. Pirated DVDs are the closest thing to a distribution system available. Budgets over $50,000 are considered excessive.
But despite all this, the Nigerian film industry has managed some astounding feats. Nigerian movies absolutely dominate the Sub-Saharan African film culture, to so a degree that industry that politicians from the entire continent have been complaining about what they see as the “Nigerianisation” of African culture. The Democratic Republic of Congo has even tried to flat-out ban movies from the country in the name of protectionism. Nigeria produces so many movies that the film industry is the second largest employer of the country, surpassed only by the government itself. These facts become even more impressive when one considers that the industry as a whole is only twenty years old.
Despite the popularity of these films, they have not found a wide audience outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. Even in Nigeria itself not everyone is positive about the films: many of the elite of the country, who are accustomed to watching the more expensive American import films, deride the films shoestring production values, cliched themes, and terrible scripts, that are often improvised on the spot by untrained actors. Moreover, the films have been criticized for their use of juju as a narrative element. This indigenous Nigerian practice of ‘black magic’, although still widespread amongst the Nigerian population, is seen by many politicians as superstitious hogwash at best and a major roadblock in Nigeria’s modernization at worst.
Even from within the industry, voices of dissent are heard. The barrage of output that made the industry possible in the first place now seem to stand in the way of any development: filmmakers who try to improve the quality of their work by working with bigger budgets or longer production schedules find themselves cornered by the oversaturated market.
But despite all these problems, the Nigerians can still lay claim to something pretty unique: an autonomous film industry that doesn’t aspire to be anything else than it is. All interviews with Nigerian film directors contain a variation on the comment: “We’re not trying to make Hollywood-style movies. We’re making movies that our people want to see”. Even if this means making films that are terrible by Western standards. But you’ve got to have it to the Nollywood directors: whatever you say about them, their movies get seen, and not by a small audience either. That’s something pretty amazing in its own right, and a very possible breeding ground for some unique cinema to evolve from.
Otherwoods: Nolly, Ghally and Bollywood. Saturday, October 27th, 21:00 @ Theater Kikker