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Nollywood: Piracy, Post-Colonialism, and Pan-Africanism in Nigeria’s Film Industry

At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, cinephiles and entertainment reporters are abuzz with excitement, the latter framing out the headlines of what has quickly become one of the premier events of the year for film screenings, celebrities, and industry gossip. Many of the top stories come from the usual stars: Chloë Grace Moretz shines in her new film, Brain on Fire; the success of the Rob Reiner-directed biopic, LBJ, affirms the rom-com icon’s successful transition to more serious material, and designer-turned-director Tom Ford unveils the first trailer for his stylish, sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals.

Behind all the usual Hollywood headlines, however, lies a storyline unknown to the average American, but one that could mean a world of change for an entire continent. As part of the TIFF’s “City to City” program, highlighted are the films of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and the center of its prolific and controversial film industry, Nollywood. For Nollywood, an industry barely twenty-five years old that has become the second largest producer of feature films in the world (right in front of Hollywood, and behind India’s colossal Bollywood), recognition from one of the world’s largest film festivals means hope for the international acceptance of African cinema.

And perhaps, Lagos’s participation at TIFF means a rebranding of what a Nollywood film is; most Americans, who have most likely never encountered Nollywood, would probably be shocked by the contrast in aesthetics from American films. Nearly all of the films produced by Nollywood are made on stringent budgets of around $12,000 USD each and are typically made on VHS camcorders or video cassette recorders. Only recently and for the highest budgeted films do Nollywood directors use modern digital cameras and production equipment.  In a Nollywood film,  advertisements for local goods or other films by the director are often randomly superimposed upon the image. Breakups of audio-visual cohesion are frequent. The stories are frenzied and frantic, showing melodramatic family drama or tribal farce reminiscent of early American slapstick.

“Some Nigerian people love Nollywood, but some Nigerian people hate it because Nollywood highlights and exaggerates stereotypes” says Osariemen Ogbemudia, President of Yale Students of Nigeria.

Understanding Nollywood is impossible without first understanding how different film culture is in Nigeria. In America, people are led to the theatres after first seeing advertisements on TV or reading reviews in the papers; in Nigeria, the process is entirely different. The normal Nollywood experience is this: at a marketplace or street vendor, cassette, VHS or CD versions of Nollywood films are sold for cheap, around $1 or $2. After purchasing a few of the best looking titles, families and communities gather around wherever the best VHS or CD player resides and watch the films together. Movie theatre culture is virtually non-existent (in a country of over 170 million people, there are only around 130 screens); in many parts of Nigeria with limited government crackdown on banditry and crime, gathering a large number of people together in a movie house would be too dangerous.

Film culture in America is accompanied by a complex and well-organized system of film criticism. The American film industry requires experts to select movies to be shown in theatres, shown on TV, or even at the lowest level, to be produced in the first place. In Nollywood, films are so randomly and frequently produced that there exists no way to filter out good and bad content.

Dr. Dudley Andrew, Yale’s R. Selden Rose Professor of Film, explains, “The scary thing is if…three films, four films a day are coming out of Nigeria, who can watch them and say which ones are worth watching, which ones are going to remain?”

And yet, while the international film community may be uncomfortable with Nollywood’s lack of expert criticism, this unregulated industry is liberating for Nigerian artists. American filmmakers are beholden to large production companies and critical norms whereas in Nigeria, anyone can participate.

Kezie Nwachukwu, ES ‘20, notes that, “Nigerians are overall very entrepreneurially minded and the self-determination that goes into making Nollywood films is evident, though some might see it as (resulting in) a lower quality.” The independent spirit of which Nwachukwu speaks fits perfectly within democratic Nollywood- all an aspiring artist needs is the drive and an idea warranting a few thousand dollars from the innumerable production groups in the country.


Piracy and Progress

Even considering the sui generis culture of Nollywood, the rise of Nollywood’s film output to beyond Hollywood’s in less than three decades seems unfathomable. As if the story of Nollywood could get more bizarre, the greatest catalyst for the rise of Nollywood was not any sudden influx of government support for the entertainment industry  (more frequently today, the entertainment industry’s strength provides a lifeline for the Nigerian economy), but rather something behind the curtain: piracy. For the second half of the twentieth century, Nigeria, especially the northern region surrounding the city of Kano, was the center of the international media piracy industry.  American or European films would arrive in Kano to be copied en masse and receive Hindi or Arabic titles, then sent off to India or Saudi Arabia or wherever they might land—the process is quick, efficient and extremely lucrative. To facilitate an illegal industry of this scale, an incredible infrastructure of audio-visual production equipment found its way into Nigeria. It is this same equipment that nurtured the burgeoning Nollywood, but also what gives its films their atypical aesthetics.

Film scholar Brian Larkin notes that “Piracy imposes particular conditions on the recording, transmission and retrieval of data. Constant copying erodes data storage, degrading image and sound, overwhelming the signal of media content with the noise produced by the means of production. Pirate videos are marked by blurred images and distorted sound.” Since Nollywood uses much of the same infrastructure, its film production is bound to a core principle of its pirate predecessor: quantity over technical quality.


A Break from the West

The development of a film industry in Nigeria was incredibly late in comparison to its neighboring countries: Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire all had vibrant industries by the early 1960s, nearly thirty years before Nollywood was formally established. This progression should seem out of place- Nigeria has always been a much larger state in terms of population, economy and urban development. But the one factor that makes Nigeria’s relationship with film different than these other states is something essential to the history of many African countries: colonialism. Burkina Faso, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are all former French colonies. The French have had a rich film culture since the earliest days of moving pictures, from the poetic realist directors of the 1930s to the French New Wave that effectively modernized international cinema. The French passed on this culture to their colonies; even post-independence, the French aided in the development of film industries in their former colonies. Still today, many films coming out of Francophone West Africa are still co-produced by France, or use French capital or technology.  Nigeria is a former colony of Great Britain, a nation whose film culture nears irrelevancy when compared with France. After independence, British support for film in Nigeria was nearly non-existent.

While lack of foreign intervention delayed the development of Nollywood, the industry, as a result, is wholly unique. In postcolonial Africa, many states have struggled to reclaim African identity. Nollywood, perhaps, is the only film industry on the continent able to call itself a truly African cinema- and probably, a lot of the distaste for Nollywood in the international film community can be attributed to this independence. The critics of the West are quick to deem Nollywood an inferior art form, with too many technical failings to warrant serious attention- yet they fail to recognize the magnitude of the feat of Nollywood. From a continent stricken for nearly a century and a half with unwanted foreign influence and control, Nigeria has managed to build an industry commercially on par with the rest of the world, and that acts as a source of cultural pride.

Ogbemudia notes, “Sometimes, particularly in Western media it is easy to feel like only white people can be involved with art…my relationship with Nollywood is one of affirmation…In Nollywood, actresses are dark-skinned, look African and are considered beautiful.”  Nollywood has succeeded in telling Nigerian stories from Nigerian perspectives, not from the view of the white savior figure so often used in Western films set in Africa (see Blood Diamond or Machine Gun Preacher).

For this industry born of piracy, bolstered by a strong domestic audience and undeterred by foreign negativity, the future looks bright- beyond the success of their turn at the TIFF, Nollywood has begun to attract international stars to their sets: Danny Glover, who is of Nigerian descent, stars in one of Lagos’s films at the festival, an Ebola docudrama titled 93 Days. British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, known for his star making turn in 2015’s Selma, told reporters at TIFF that he would be making Nollywood films in the very immediate future. In the meantime, with a hopeful glint in the eyes of her people, Nigeria watches, and waits.

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