Since its inception, Nollywood has made films that appeal to broad audiences. Many people trace the industry’s origins to the 1992 video blockbuster Living in Bondage, a film about a man who ritually sacrifices his wife to attain wealth. At the time, the media was awash with similarly gruesome tales of greed and the film became an instant hit, selling 750,000 copies. Living in Bondage’s success inspired other Nigerian filmmakers, who went on to make countless more popular stories of good triumphing over evil.
Nollywood has continued to follow a similar pattern ever since, of commercial successes setting the tone for the next generation of films. Just as the 1990s was dominated by horror films about money rituals, the 2000s saw the rise of the love stories set in university campuses, often against the backdrop of cult clashes. More recently, Nollywood has become obsessed with slapstick comedies and romantic dramas after 2016’s The Wedding Party grossed almost N500 million ($1.2 million), making it Nigeria’s highest-grossing film of the decade.
The popularity of these films has brought Nollywood some prestige. The film industry has become the second largest on the globe, and the two largest streaming companies in the world – Netflix and Amazon Prime – have recently set up bases in the country to hustle for Nigerian content.
This is quite some feat – especially given Nollywood films’ reputation for mediocrity. As the award-winning filmmaker Amaka Igwe conceded, Nigeria’s film industry has largely been built on pursuing the broadest possible commercial viability rather than artistic expression and integrity. “We ceased to develop our art because we were busy making money,” said the director of Nollywood classics Rattlesnake and Violated in 2013.
In recent years, Nigerian filmmakers have made significant advancements in terms of production values. Scenes are now captured on Panavision lenses rather than VHS cameras. But the storytelling remains as unambitious and unoriginal as ever, especially in mainstream Nollywood. When films are not about a business on the brink of failure, they are about troubled relationships or the splashy parties of the wealthy. Often, they are light comedies.
These films, of course, can serve a purpose for a grateful audience. Watching something just for laughs is good. Escapism is important. But cinema is also an art form that can do more than just entertain. Films can inform, interrogate our lives, and even inspire social and political change.
Nigeria has always had some filmmakers who see cinema this way. In the 1990s, Tunde Kelani made allegories that cast a critical light on the political class, and Igwe made pioneering socially conscious films. More recently, we’ve had Mildred Okwo’s political satire The Meeting, Izu Ojukwu’s historical film 76, and Kemi Adetiba’s political thriller King of Boys.
There has always also been a market for these more sophisticated offerings. Although crowd-pleasers make up the bulk of Nollywood highest-grossing films, for instance, the thought-provoking King of Boys comes in at sixth. Furthermore, some Nigerian audiences are tiring of what they see as poorly made films. When Chief Daddy 2 debuted on Netflix on 1 January, for example, viewers and critics logged on to social media to complain about its basic incoherence.
Cultivating a cinema culture
Nigeria has the appetite and talent for more challenging films. But creating the environment in which these can develop and thrive is not straightforward.
To begin with, filmmaking is as much a business as it is about art. And while Igwe lamented the quality of Nollywood films, she also objected to critics who disparaged Nigerian films without recognising the challenges that come from working in a severely underfunded industry. Money is crucial element in the world of cinema, and more sustainable funding is essential to enabling filmmakers to take risks rather than just repeat tied and tested formulae in a bid to secure a return on investment. It would give them the freedom to put in the time and training to develop their craft and produce more original and ambitious works.
There are many similar structural changes that are necessary to encourage the artistic development of Nollywood. But one factor that is also perhaps less obvious and less immediate – but no less crucial – is the cultivation of a homegrown cinema culture.
Despite hosting the second biggest film industry in the world, Nigeria is short of credible film schools or film education. In Kenya, teaching about cinema begins at primary school, and festivals such as the annual Lola Kenya Children’s Screen provide forums for children to learn about production, screenwriting, and cinematography.
Nigeria should emulate this. To grow and to explore diverse new stories and genres, Nollywood needs more than just critics. It needs a bigger and more engaged audience that recognises the potential of cinema, starting from children and young adults. In the same way that kids learn to read and write at the same time, young students can learn to watch and make films at the same time – a pastime made much more feasible and accessible by the advent of phone cameras.
To accompany this, Nigeria also needs spaces for critique and discussion. Here, critics can emulate Ogova Ondego, the facilitator of the Lola Kenya Children’s Screen, by opening film clubs or collaborating with film festivals to provide a platform for viewers to critically assess films, learn about and attempt filmmaking. (Film critic and founder of the blog What Kept Me Up Ikeade Oriade is already setting down this path with a summer internship programme for undergraduates interested in film.)
Nollywood already has a dedicated audience that it knows how to entertain. It has built up a huge following and churned out a colossal number of films based on copying what has worked before. For the industry to now develop, however, and embrace cinema as an art form for expression, critique and creativity – to make more, better films – it needs to invest in both its future filmmakers and its future film-watchers. – African Arguments
Dika Ofoma is a writer based in Enugu, Nigeria.