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Nollywood: What Is In A Name?

by Jonathan Haynes

It appears “Nollywood” as the name for the Nigerian video film industry is here to stay.  The word seems a bit silly to me, but then names are often silly or strange.  I’m an American, and my continent is named after Amerigo Vespucci, a fifteenth-century Italian of no particular importance.  He bumped into Brazil and then probably lied about when he did it.

Perhaps some of the objections one hears to the term “Nollywood” are less important than they may seem.  One is that it was invented by a foreigner–it apparently first appeared in an article by Norimitsu Onishi in the New York Times in 2002—and that it continues to be imposed by foreigners.  This situation resembles the coining of the name “Nigeria” by Lord Lugard’s girlfriend, which is still resented in some quarters, though for most Nigerians of the last couple of generations its origin has ceased to matter and the name functions the way the name of a country should.  If one studied the usage of the term “Nollywood,” doubtless it would turn out that it is overwhelmingly Nigerians who use the word.

Another objection is that it implies that Nollywood is an imitation of Hollywood and Bollywood rather than something in itself, something original and uniquely African.  But we don’t have to take the name as meaning that Nollywood is in third place; it points rather to the fact that we live in a multipolar world where the old patterns of cultural imperialism have changed and viewers have a much greater choice in the media they consume.  This does not mean, however, that cultural imperialism and the patterns of media ownership and control are not still enormously important.

Names conceal as well as reveal, and “Nollywood” covers up the diversity of Nigerian video film production in the same way that “Bollywood” covers up the production of Indian films in Tamil, Bengali, Telegu, and other languages besides Hindi in other parts of that huge country.  In Ghana and other places that have been flooded by “Nollywood” films, people have no idea that Nigerians make films in Yoruba and Hausa and Igbo as well as in English.  The terms “Kanywood” and “Kallywood” are floating around in Kano, evidence of the deliberate difference and separateness of the Hausa film industry.

“Nollywood” is here to stay because the term is irresistible to journalists and, more importantly, because it neatly expresses powerful aspirations by people in the video film industry and by their fans to have a big, glamorous entertainment industry that can take its place on the world scene and appeal to international audiences.  The export of Nigerian films has been remarkable, even if most of the profits do not end up in the right hands.  They are what is on television in Namibia and on sale on the streets in Kenya.  In Congo, they are broadcast with the soundtrack turned down while an interpreter tells the story in Lingala or other languages.  In New York, their biggest consumers are now immigrants from the Caribbean and African Americans, not Africans, and Chinese people are buying them too.  In Holland, Nollywood stars are recognized on the streets by people from Suriname, and in London they are hailed by Jamaicans.

Nollywood’s ambassador plenipotentiary to the world is Zack Orji.  His is perhaps the most recognizable face in Nollywood, as he has appeared in more than 150 films.  Born in Gabon and partly raised in Cameroon, he is bilingual in French and English and an internationalist in outlook.  He has been in many Nigerian-Ghanaian co-productions, including his directorial debut, The Web, made with the collaboration of Ghanaians, South Africans, a Sierra Leonean, and an Australian.  When I caught up with him in Los Angeles in 2005, he was fresh from shooting a film in Cameroon with Dakore Egbusan, and his next stops were Côte d’Ivoire and then Gabon for other film projects.  There was talk of his returning to Congo, where he’d spent a month in 2002, to make a film there.  My interview with him was delayed while he visited the costuming department of the Twentieth Century Fox studio in preparation for shooting the first Hollywood-Nollywood coproduction.  He was working with the noted Hollywood director of photography Bruce Dickson, who visited Nigeria to make a documentary and fell in love with the place and its screen culture.

Orji explained that he gets invitations from people in so many African countries because they want to launch their own video film industry and they want not only to profit from the experience of a veteran professional but also to gain the credibility with their own national audiences that would come from the participation of a recognized Nigerian star.

The spectacular success of the Nigerian video film industry is inspiring imitation all over Africa, but the existence of the Nigerian colossus can be a problem, as the Ghanaian filmmakers will tell you with more than a little bitterness. The Ghanaians actually began video film production a few months before the Nigerians did, in the late 1980s.  In their heyday in the mid-1990s there were about two dozen Ghanaian producers, making about fifty films a year.  But then came the floodtide of Nigerian films: by 2002 there were only about ten active producers left, and their number dwindled even further before rebounding somewhat.

Photo: AfricanMoviesNews
Photo: AMN

What happened?

A number of things happened, and the number illustrates the complexity and fragility of the conditions required for a film industry to flourish, even when it employs the inexpensive, simple, democratic technologies of video.

A major factor was the collapse of the theatrical audience.  Ghana had a system for showing films in government-owned theaters, thereby producing substantial and reliable revenues; in the mid-1990s this system was the envy of the Nigerian producers who knew about it.  But then television stations began broadcasting Ghanaian and Nigerian films in the evenings and so people stopped bothering to go to the theaters.  Aggressive and sometimes sharp dealings by Nigerian businessmen were another factor.  Ghanaian films are almost all in English, so when faced with competing, generally similar Nigerian films, there was nothing like the durable cultural/linguistic loyalty of the Yoruba film audience to fall back on.  Ghanaian films are subjected to censorship while Nigerian films were not (until recently), which, coupled with the racier, more adventurous styles of Nigerian filmmaking, the more astounding displays of glamour and corruption possible in the Nigerian environment, and the general larger-than-life quality of Nigeria in the eyes of Ghanaians, meant that the Ghanaian consumer could get much more sex and violence and general titillation by buying a Nigerian video than a Ghanaian one.

But the most decisive factor, finally, was the same principle that led to the rise of Hollywood after World War I: economies of scale.  Like America, Nigeria has a huge domestic market.  (Nigerian producers complain that their average sales have fallen to 20,000 copies, but Ghanaians sell a quarter as many.)  A relatively large market permits relatively large budgets, which lead to relatively higher production values—better equipment, better acting from more professional actors, fancier sets and special effects, and so on.  Relatively higher production values mean it is easier to export, which leads to more profits and still higher production values, and soon one film industry can afford car chases while the other is stuck with domestic melodramas filmed in modest homes.  What originally was a minor difference in quality becomes an unbridgeable gulf.

So Nollywood burns bright and threatens to use up all the oxygen that the Ghanaians and others across Africa need to sustain their own film cultures.  Once colonized by Hollywood and Bollywood, Nigeria now may seem to others to be a cultural imperial power.  History is full of such ironies and trade-offs.  Hollywood is a monolith; Nollywood has tendencies in that direction.  As in the case of Hollywood, the increasing role of the export market may lead to standardization, cultural simplification, and a tendency towards mass culture, that is to say, products industrially produced for mass consumption, rather than the grassroots popular culture which has been fundamental for Nigerian video films.  I’ve always been interested in the diversity and grassroots character of the Nigerian video phenomenon, but better quality is also an important value, and there has been a substantial improvement in the last few years.  Surely Nigeria is big enough to support a market segmented by more than language: a slick “Nollywood” product as well as filmmaking that aims at serious artistic value, along with all the bubbling kinds of popular culture we are already familiar with.  The problem here, as everyone always says, is the distribution system.

Photo: Glenna Gordon
Photo: Glenna Gordon

Nollywood is an example of Nigeria living up to its potential role as the leader of Africa.  Along with the rise of South Africa as a media power across the continent, we’re seeing, for better or for worse,  the delayed emergence of what I think is and will remain a fundamental historical pattern of dominance: South Africa specializing in the things that require large, rationally-managed capital and technical formations (broadcast media, celluloid film production and distribution, and theater ownership), while Nigeria exploits its restless imagination, cultural depth, and entrepreneurial drive through video.

When I talked with Zack Orji, we were both attending a convention in Hollywood called “Nollywood Rising,” the first serious attempt to bring together Nollywood and Hollywood.  (The third annual installment of this convention, now under the auspices of the Nollywood Foundation, took place in June 2007).  The delegation from Nollywood included Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Charles Igwe, Patience Fiberesima, Dakore Egbusan, Kate Henshaw-Nuttall, and Neville Ossai.  The convention was hugely successful.  It was one of a number of high-profile international showcases for the Nigerian video industry around that time: others included Documenta 11 in Kassel and the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany, the Pan-African Film Festival of Los Angeles, the African Film Festival of New York, and a major retrospective at the African, Asian, and Latin American Film Festival of Milan in 2005.  There may be less than meets the eye to some of this exposure; the film scholar Onookome Okome denounces Europeans for seeing Nigerian videos as a mere “curiosity,” detecting an underlying lack of respect.  But Nigerian videos are on the African film festival circuit to stay–Mahen Bonetti of the African Film Festival of New York promises to program at least one Nigerian film every year—and the whole phenomenon has simply become too big for the world to ignore.

Of all these events, “Nollywood Rising” promises to have the most impact, as it was designed to forge lasting bonds.  Zack Orji’s coproduction is, we hope, a harbinger of things to come.  There were promises to work collaboratively to improve the sound recording and lighting problems that are the most egregious problems with Nollywood films.  In his closing remarks Charles Igwe appealed for aid with exceptional grace and dignity.  The Nigerian delegation were all in very fine form; when they spoke it was with great force, vividness, and clarity.  I am used to hearing Nigerian filmmakers speak with great force, vividness, and clarity, but what struck me as new was the note of confidence in everyone’s voice.  I have been following the Nigerian video boom since 1992 (or trying to follow it—it often has felt like trying to ride a tiger), and I remember all the abuse the video filmmakers have taken over the years and the insecurity and defensive aggressiveness that those attacks gave rise to.  The Nigerian delegation’s confidence was hard-earned, as they stood facing Hollywood, with the wind of history, several thousand films, and a continental audience at their backs.

This article first appeared in The Guardian (Lagos) July 3, 2005: 56, 58.  Rpt. ITPAN News 2.6 (2005): 11-12, Film International 28 (5.4) (2007): 106-108.

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Jonathan Haynes was educated at McGill University (B.A. with honors, 1974) and Yale (M.A., 1976; Ph.D., 1980). He has taught at the American University in Cairo (Egypt), Tufts University, Albion College, Bennington College, the University of Nigeria-Nsukka, Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Columbia University, New York University and the University of Ibadan (Nigeria). Since 1998 Dr. Haynes has been at Long Island University, first at Southampton College and then, since 2004, in the English Department at the Brooklyn Campus. In 2001-2002 he was director of the Friends World Program’s West African Center in Kumasi, Ghana.

Dr. Haynes has written two books on English Renaissance literature: “The Humanist as Traveler: George Sandys’s Relation of a Journey Begun An. Dom. 1610″ (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press and London: Associated Univ. Presses, 1986) and “The Social Relations of Jonson’s Theater (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992). He is the co-author (with Onookome Okome) of “Cinema and Social Change in West Africa” (Jos, Nigeria: Nigerian Film Corporation, 1995; revised edition, 1997) and the editor of “Nigerian Video Films” (Ibadan: Kraft Books for the Nigerian Film Corporation, 1997; expanded second edition, Ohio University Press, 2000). His articles have appeared in Africa, Africa Today, African Affairs, the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Film International, Research in African Literatures, Postcolonial Text, Africa & Mediterraneo, CinémAction, Jump Cut, Glendora Review, Ase, Alif, Studies in Philology, ELH: English Literary History and Themes in Drama, and in several edited volumes and encyclopedias.

Haynes has twice received Fulbright Senior Scholar fellowships to teach and do research in West Africa and has enjoyed a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy.

Specialties

African Studies; African Film, Video and Literature; English Renaissance Literature

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