Hooked on Nollywood

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.

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