The Story of Nollywood

In November 2013, Deptford Film Club’s coordinator ran a Nollywood strand for Film Africa, London’s festival of African cinema. Here he describes what happened when he discovered Nigerian popular cinema, and asks whether Nollywood can reach a mainstream audience in the UK.

Nollywood-for-beginnersI’m nosy. When I moved to Deptford in 2009, I spotted a good number of shops along the high street selling DVDs with alarming-looking covers. The titles – House of Doom, Dangerous Brothers, Stronger Than Pain, Chicken Madness – were panicky and sensational. And the artwork announced high emotions and impending danger. So I ventured into one of the shops, asked the guy to recommend me four or five films, then went home and was amazed.

These movies were different from the ones I was used to. They were all about betrayal, adultery and murder – and they were the lowest-budget films I had ever seen. It was like watching one of those absurd daytime American soaps, but shot on a mobile phone. This, I discovered, was Nollywood.

Unlike Francophone Africa, Nigeria had no government or post-colonial support or investment for its film industry. By the late 1980s the industry was pretty much dead: exchange rates made it impossible to import 35mm film stock and, with growing violence in the cities, cinemas were closing down for lack of audiences.

So in the early 90s, a businessman called Kenneth Nnebue had a warehouse full of VHS cassettes that he couldn’t shift, and he had the bright spark to make a movie, bung it onto the tapes, and sell them direct to customers in the markets of Lagos. The film, Living in Bondage, was a huge success – and suddenly the film industry transferred en masse video technology. It was cheap and readily-available, so pretty much anybody with a few thousand naira could become a film-maker.

Forward fast to now and Nollywood is now the world’s second most prolific film industry, and is Nigeria’s biggest private sector employer after oil. The films are distributed throughout Africa, and have found huge diasporic audiences in Europe and North America.

Nollywood is a big deal. So it seemed a bizarre, back in 2009, that none of my friends and family had even heard of it. I checked with the biggest film-lovers I knew – and they looked blankly at me: Nollywhat? I was outraged – and of course, slightly thrilled that I had stumbled across the global film industry’s biggest secret.

So with a bit of funding from Lewisham Council, I put together a film festival which aimed to introduce Nollywood to a wider audience, and give existing fans the chance to see their films celebrated on the big screen. I sought out the UK’s big Nollywood players – the distributors, film-makers, broadcasters and academics – and together we put together a programme of six films that might begin to tell the story of an industry that produces thousands of films every year.

And the festival was a gorgeous success. Exhausting and maddening behind the scenes, but it sure looked like a success. As well as getting a good 250 people to show up and watch the films, we also managed to get the mainstream national press to start talking about Nollywood, potentially reaching tens of thousands of readers. Fast forward to 2013, and who doesn’t know about Nollywood?

And yet. When was the last Nollywood film you saw on mainstream TV? How many cinemas do you know that screen the latest Funke Akindele or Van Vickers blockbuster? The truth is, in Britain, Nollywood hasn’t broken out of the ghetto. And I’ve a few theories why.

First up, Nollywood is a very young film industry. India’s Bollywood has had a hundred years to establish itself in the British national consciousness – and it’s only really been in the last ten years that the word ‘Bollywood’ has entered most Britons’ vocabularies. But Moses Babatope, a highly-optimistic film distributor I know, reckons that everyone will be talking about Nollywood by 2015.

In the last few years Nollywood has started building an infrastructure that may eventually make it look and act like the other big film-producing nations. But at the moment, production, distribution and exhibition of Nigerian films is pretty chaotic. The industry is currently too dependent on individual entrepreneurs and black market piracy to do business effectively with the UK’s bureaucratic rosta of film studios, investment schemes, distribution companies and government support. And from a festival-producer’s point of view, this is a nightmare. It’s easy enough to read on the internet about a great new Nigerian film. But since there’s so little official, reliable infrastructure in place, it’s almost impossible to licence UK screenings (or indeed, get hold of a decent-quality DVD).

But finally, the biggest reason why Nollywood hasn’t yet crossed over to a mainstream audience? The films themselves.

Many of us grew up with movies from Hollywood and Europe, and we’ve learnt a grammar of enjoying films that involves particular ways of editing, pacing, camera angles and dialogue. Nollywood films, by and large, follow a very different grammar. In Hollywood, a scene showing the protagonist arriving at a house would last no more than two seconds. But in Nollywood, we’d see the arrival in uncut real time, which could last two minutes. And while Western cinema (which began with silent movies) is action-led and highly visual, Nollywood movies (which emerged from Nigerian theatrical and televisual traditions) are dialogue-based, with little in the way of visual pleasure.

And to the average person, this makes Nollywood really annoying. It’s not what the average viewer wants when they choose to watch a film. But we can now see a new kind of Nigerian movie that is informed by the more international film grammars. Pioneers of ‘The New Nigerian Cinema’ are creating glossier, more action-led movies – and slowly beginning to find crossover audiences. For this year’s Film Africa festival, for example, I programmed the musical thriller Hoodrush, the debut film of New York-trained director Dimeji Ajibola. The plot is pure Nollywood: two brothers dreaming about becoming music stars become enmeshed the illegal underground of drug smuggling and prostitution. But the execution is closer to Hollywood. It won awards at this year’s African Movie Academy Awards and Nollywood Movie Awards and, although by no means perfect, offers a vision of how Nollywood may soon capture the imagination of an international audience.

Phoenix Fry’s events at Film Africa 2013 included a rare screening of Living in Bondage (1992), a tenth anniversary screening of Osuofia in London 1 + 2 (2003), and the talk Nollywood for Beginners – all at the South London Gallery. The screening of Hoodrush was cancelled due to problems with the film print.