Kangsen Feka Wakai (Originally published in Mshale)
According to urban mythology, Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry has been dubbed, owes its birth partly to an excess of blank videotapes that flooded the Lagos streets in 1992. The source: a single businessman. The myth goes on to claim that these tapes, which were likely to be discarded, would become the manger in which the Nollywood was born. This narrative coincides with the release of “Living in Bondage,” Nollywood’s version of Hollywood’s “Birth of a Nation.”
In reality, though, the Nigerian film industry – a $250 million operation that employs thousands – owes its popularity and success to affordable digital technology, an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire of Nigerians to tell their story with a uniquely African flare.
It is that compulsion to tell one’s story that has epitomized Nollywood’s meteoric rise to global notoriety. Following in the storytelling footsteps of the country’s literary giants like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo and Ben Okri, the industry’s producers are currently producing over 500 movies a year, with a uniquely Nigerian touch.
But despite the impressive film output, one scholar argues that Nollywood has not received the attention it deserves. This year at Texas Southern University, Houston’s, 29th annual Intercultural Communications Conference, Nigerian-born C. Chris Ulasi, an associate professor of communication, gave a lecture focused on film production, representation and nation building.
“[My paper] tried to highlight the point that Nigeria has made a significant achievement in the area of cultural production, specifically film, and this happened out the sheer doggedness of the people in the industry at a time when the country was in an economic mess and people were afraid of going out to movies because of crime,” Ulasi said. “The only alternative was to sit at home and watch videocassettes. These young entrepreneurs just like their counterparts in Hollywood at the turn of the century did by exploiting the dime theatres and vaudeville, so they started using digital cameras to produce movies and before you know it their output is in the thousands a year.”
Ulasi illustrated Nollywood’s emergence and vitality as the third biggest player in the global movie business only after India’s Bollywood and Hollywood.
“It is vital because it is a major cultural industry and the debate over a people’s ability to represent their own essentialism, history… [The ability] to tell their own stories is very important,” Ulasi said. “Nollywood seems to have achieved the ability to tell not just the Nigerian or the African story but a story that has reverberated throughout the continent and even beyond to the (African) Diaspora.”
He said that perhaps because Nollywood films do not possess the best technical qualities, especially when compared to Hollywood standards, Nollywood remains an underreported story in a media landscape saturated with negative stories from Africa. The importance of Nollywood, Ulasi said, cannot be overstated.
“[First] on a cultural level, secondly on a economic level and on the level of representation, the images that circulate around the world and circulate the meaning from which we ascribe certain perceptions or ideas about who we are, our place in the world and how other people view us,” Ulasi said.
Today, Nollywood’s popularity and impact in both the digital storytelling world and beyond has other storytellers, armed with microphone and camera, eager to narrate this bourgeoning industry’s story.
“This is Nollywood”is one such attempt by a non-Nigerian filmmaker who embarked on a mission to tell the industry’s story. Directed by Franco Sacchi of the Center of Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University, “This is Nollywood” is an insight into the challenges, complexities and triumph of the industry. The Nigerian movie industry’s evolving story is told vicariously through renowned director, Bond Eneruwa’s attempt to produce a feature film in 9 days with just $20,000. The documentary has already been officially selected for a handful of film festivals including London’s Raindance Film Festival in London and the Rhode Island Film Festival, among others.
When Sacchi first heard of Nigerian directors making feature films with shoestring budgets, he found it irresistible.
“Here was not only a rare positive story about Africa, but one that embodied the egalitarian promise of digital technology—anybody can make a movie. And Nollywood was a virtual unknown,” Sacchi said in his director’s statement.
Sacchi’s “This is Nollywood” recently won the Audience Award at the Abuja International Film Festival.