Q: Where did the Nigerian film industry come from?
There has been an African cinema since 1965, and it grew to pretty good proportions in the 1980s and early 1990s. When former Francophone colonies became independent, they maintained a base for cinephilia — movie theaters, film clubs, festivals, and the means for filmmakers to get support from France to make films. Nigeria is a former colony of England and England, aside from a great tradition in documentary filmmaking, has notoriously had very little interest in serious cinema. So, despite the size of the country, Nigeria wasn’t a player.
In the early 1990s, I began to hear about grassroots folk cinema in Nigeria. It stems from the Yoruba traveling theater tradition. The Yoruba, an important but not dominant ethnic group in Nigeria, have a vibrant tradition of theater that performs from village to village. The plays began to be put on VHS tape. By the mid-’90s, it was a robust, seat-of-the-pants industry, and people were actually making livings turning old plays into movies and concocting new stories. The Igbo group, which is larger and more urban, began to follow suit. Living in Bondage, an Igbo language film from 1992 is often pointed to as the start of Nollywood. When the movies spread out from the Yoruba into the larger population, in a country of 150 million people, it became enormous. So we began to hear about 200 video films a year, and then 700, and now it's in excess of 1,500 films a year being made direct to video — that is, they've never been put onto 35mm film or screened in a movie theater.
Movie theaters closed for the most part in Nigeria because armed robbers would come in and fleece people. But in villages people show films on televisions in living rooms with those watching paying to defray the cost of buying the video and of running the generator.
Q: What sorts of stories are told in the movies?
They show a mixture of melodrama often with middle class and upper class people, but with a high infusion of animist and magical culture providing solutions to problems that wouldn't crop up in a Hollywood drama. Corruption and people strong-arming other people are frequent dramatic motifs. The films draw on traditional characters and situations as well as television serials imported from places like Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Korea — countries that produce large numbers of TV soap operas.
Q: Are the movies seen outside of Nigeria?
Increasingly, wherever there is a diaspora community — New York, London, Toronto — you can find them. And in fact you can see them here in New Haven playing in the African American hair salons on Whalley Avenue.
But generally, there's a real contempt among the Francophone film community for the images that come out of Nigeria. That’s because on the whole they have had miserable production values — bad lighting, bad sound, no attention to anything like poetic devices, or even what we would call good acting. The films have television esthetics, which are harsher with many more close-ups because the screen is small. They are made quickly, with typical budgets in the range of $15,000 to $40,000.
But people have a taste for them likely because they're seeing their own circumstances, their social problems, and their mythological references. I know scholars who formerly taught French-African films and loved the beauty and intelligence and social critique that's involved in them, who have moved over to Nigerian films because it is an actual, grassroots, profit-making industry, one of the few that has come up on its own, without any state aid. Though some directors have training in British and American film schools, these films are really made for the people in the culture. We don't see them, and they don't need us.
Q: How has globalization played into the development of this film industry in Nigeria?
I would say that this is an example of anti-globalization, which I like to point out, because in cinema these days globalization comes up constantly and, in a way, tiresomely, because movies are made to be seen everywhere. I teach Francophone-African cinema as part of the global system because the money and the films come from everywhere and go everywhere, even though they are talking about important African issues. Whereas Nigerian film, I teach almost as a kind of anthropology, a kind of graffiti that's made in the country that's not really meant to be visible elsewhere. That may be changing. FESPACO [the French acronym for the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou], the continent’s largest film festival, a biennial event in Burkina Faso awarded its top prize to a Nigerian film in 2007, Newton Aduaka’s Ezra, which in fact had some French financing behind it and was a much higher budget film. I saw it in Paris and it played in New York.
Nigerian cinema may be ready to present itself at several levels, including an export wing that does address compelling social issues with a critical eye. The sheer number of video-films will certainly insure that some producers and directors will aim to distinguish themselves if only to achieve wider distribution in Africa and beyond. Thus, Nigeria may enter world cinema in the near future. This would be a wonderful narrative if it comes about, a narrative not so different from that of the history of any national cinema, such as Japan’s or our own. Hollywood began in the same way, producing hundreds of crowd-pleasing genre films. The masterpieces we continue to watch from its early days bubbled up from this cauldron of activity. Well, that cauldron is brewing in Nigeria today.
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan.
Q: Where did the Nigerian film industry come from?