Nigeria's film industry, or Nollywood, as it's been dubbed, 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 economy, being third at most anything is not trivial. Since its rebirth in the early 1990s, the industry has generated $200 million in revenue, and, with 350,000 people employed, it generates more jobs than any other industry in Nigeria-and possibly all of Africa.
But what's really remarkable is that, until Nollywood, African filmmaking had been an overwhelmingly colonial enterprise, practiced by artists trained in Europe and subsidized by European capital to make sophisticated films, on celluloid, aimed at non-African audiences. By contrast, many Nollywood movies are made by Nigerians who have little formal training, with small budgets; they're shot on, and often go directly to, video; and their stories typically consist of homegrown pop-culture pulp. The 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 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 stingy Nigerian Television Authority. It emerged 'at a time when Nigeria had given up on [broadcast] television,' says Moradewun Adejunmobi, a Nigerian American and a professor at the University of California in Davis. '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.
One problem with 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 C's and D's. Bad acting and bad sound often render the dialogue unintelligible. Directing tends to consist of making sure the camera is on. Dramatization is poor and the subtext nonexistent. Sets look conspicuously bare and poorly lit. Nothing makes much sense.
The reason I can render such sweeping judgments about Nollywood movies is that I can't stop watching them. The industry can go right ahead and produce 50 a week, because, if I'm not careful, I can watch 50 a week. For dedicated procrastination, even pointless websites have nothing on 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 appreciate Nollywood movies only ironically; the films invite a surrender that can be strangely liberating. They 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 composed of African immigrants and their descendants. 'They're the first movies speaking about Africa but not about famine or AIDS or tribal warfare,' Adejunmobi points 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.' But that doesn't keep the industry from being a cultural bellwether.
'It's the only film industry in the world that's completely controlled by black people,' says Sylvester Ogbechie, the vice president of the Nollywood Foundation and coordinator of a Nollywood Rising symposium in Los Angeles in 2005. '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.'
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. We shouldn't expect Nollywood to show us what life in Nigeria is really like-but that shouldn't keep us from enjoying the show.
Jonathan Kiefer is associate arts editor of the Sacramento News & Review and a contributing editor of Maisonneuve. His book about cinema of the San Francisco Bay Area is forthcoming from City Lights. Excerpted from Maisonneuve (Summer 2006), a Montreal-based magazine of eclectic curiosity. Subscriptions: $36/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3468, Champlain, NY 12919; www.maisonneuve.org.