240: Nollywood

Archival Spaces 240        


Uploaded April 10, 2020

For years I was planning a Nollywood film series at UCLA, but the difficulty of researching and finding films in what was a very informal video-based industry proved insurmountable. Nollywood refers of course to the cinema of Nigeria, which only came to prominence in the 1980s and is now the largest film industry in Africa and the third largest in the world after the United States and India. It was the invention of VHS tape that catalyzed a boom in the Nigerian video film market. Jimi Odumosu’s Evil Encounter (1980), a horror film released directly to video was the first major hit, although pirated copies far outsold legitimate ones, and the market’s lack of regulation has continued to be a problem. The actual boom really kicked off with Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage (1992), a film about a Satanic cult that promises wealth to its followers. Suddenly, Nigerian film actors become household names across the African continent. By 2013, Nollywood revenue reached $11 billion, contributing 1.4% to Nigeria’s economy. While the first generation of Nollywood films was extremely low budget and poorly made, higher budgets and digital production in the last ten years have dramatically increased salability abroad, although copyright and distribution issues still pose major challenges. Apart from the domestic audience, Nollywood films are seen throughout Africa and in the Nigerian diaspora. Today, Nollywood subscription services for online streaming, as well as YouTube, have increased visibility even more; Netflix has more than three dozen films available. In preparation for my class on Hollywood’s international relations, I recently viewed a number of them and still want to see more.

The Figurine (2009, Kunle Afolayan), starring the director, Ramseay Nouah and Omoni Oboli, opened at the Rotterdam Film Festival and other international festivals, broke all box office records in Nigeria, and is considered the first critical success of the present Nollywood wave. It was also one of the first films to use various social media outlets to spread word of mouth, now an absolute necessity for online delivery. While attending a national youth camp, two friends find an ancient fetish in a shrine, Araromire, which, according to legend (explicated in an opening black and white scene), brings seven years good luck, then bad. The young men are rivals for the same girl, who chooses one of them, but both become hugely successful before the curse kicks in. Interestingly, the film oscillates between tribal superstition and modern crime, its “horror” elements downplayed in favor of very real human envy, jealousy, adultery, and murder. As in the case of Living in Bondage, material wealth is the great motivator in a society that is characterized by economic disparity.  

The Figurine (2009, Kunle Afolayan)

Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (2015, Daniel Oriahi), starring Femi Jacobs and Ijeoma Grace Aku, is a film noir, but also a comedy. Registering the highest opening weekend gross for any Nigerian film at the time, it was shot mostly on the nighttime streets of Lagos, in high contrast digital. Color. The film opens with a young man from the countryside arriving in Lagos by bus, where he inherits a taxi from his late father. Naive and gullible, Adigun is plunged into a nether world of Yoruba gangsters who control the livery business, and the women of the night who are his primary customers, guided by the friend of his late father who turns out to be an evil opportunist. Somehow, he survives all of it and even falls in love, giving this noir a happy end. While some critics considered its ending over-determined and confusing, it is also a closely observed, socially critical tale of the brutal life of Nigeria’s urban poor who struggle daily without success.    

Lionheart (2018) stars Genevieve Nnaji, whose debut as director this was, as an upper-class businesswoman, who must take over from her aging father, Chief Ernest Obiagu, an ailing bus transportation company, the Lionheart of the title. The film takes place in Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria, home of the Igbo people (formerly the capital of Biafra). Battling sexism in a male-dominated industry, and some duplicitous colleagues, the heroine must also negotiate the sensitive politics of family relations, because her father has named his brother and her uncle to head the firm when he has a heart attack. Opening at the Toronto Film Festival, Lionheart became the first Nigerian film acquired as an original by Netflix. The film was also the first to be nominated by Nigeria for a Foreign Language Academy Award but was ultimately disqualified, because much of the film is in English with only some Igbo, as are most Nigerian films playing in the upper classes.

Lionheart (2018, Genevieve Nnaji)

Also situated among Nigeria’s upper classes, but in the capital of Lagos, The Wedding Party (2016, Kemi Adetiba) offers a comedic look at an ostentatious wedding, in the vein of Crazy Rich Asians. Starring Adesua Etomi and Banky Wellington, as the bride and groom, whose parents are separated by tribal and cultural differences, the groom’s mother is particularly aggressive in her opposition, because she believes her son is marrying beneath his station. Then there are the groom’s ex-girlfriends who want to upend the betrothal, and his father’s significantly younger mistress trying to crash the party, as do the poor relatives of the bride. The comedy is particularly revealing in presenting differing social mores in Nigerian society, codified in religion, fashion, and food, but ultimately everyone comes together. Opening to an enthusiastic audience at the Toronto Film Festival, it is small wonder the film was the commercially most successful ever made in Nigeria, supplanted only a year later by The Wedding Party II (2017).

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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