Place is the Space: Nollywood and World Cinema

     |    Friday February 21st, 2014

Jahman Anikulapo at Think:Film No. 2. Photo (c)

“What Do We Know When We Know Where Something Is?“ This question about the role of place and space was posed by the Think:Film No. 2 conference during the recent Berlin International Film Festival. Organized by Forum Expanded, the festival section devoted to exploring the aesthetic and boundaries of cinema, the conference broadened the discussion of locality to include geographical aspects – cinema practices beyond Hollywood, Europe and the southern and eastern Asian giants.

At least in terms of output figures, the audiovisual industry based in Lagos, Nigeria, given the label “Nollywood”, ranks in the top three worldwide along with the United States and India with approx. 1,000 films produced annually. Nigerian journalist and cultural activist Jahman Anikulapo (who attended German screenings of Dorothee Wenner’s documentary DramaConsult about Nigerian-German business relations and himself has worked as an actor in Nigerian cinema) held a lively presentation at Think:Film No. 2 about “known knowns and unknowns” regarding Nollywood and added some “unknown unknowns” for consideration.

When we think of Nollywood, cheaply and quickly (but nonetheless competently) shot genre pics distributed on video (usually as what we consider pirated VCDs) come to mind. Generally, people weren’t aware of Nigerian cinema prior to Nollywood. Anikulapo counters this with a succinct historical overview. Already in the 1950s, TV films were produced in Nigeria, and cinema production at least for domestic audiences flourished during the oil boom of the 1970s, as the import of foreign audiovisual product was restricted by law. The mid-1980s saw a rupture, largely due to production restrictions when the military government cut film funding in the wake of IMF loan austerity measures. But concurrently, the emergence of video as a professional production format and the increasing involvement of churches as alternative sources of production financing and exhibition (along with other private financiers) led to the emergence of the popular video productions we know as Nollywood in the early 1990s.

Here is a clip from “Living In Bondage” (1992, dir: Chris Obi Rapu), widely considered one of Nollywood’s inaugural films.

These films (although Anikulapo is reluctant to call them as such, as they were largely produced then on analogue video, now digitally and distributed outside traditional cinema exhibition for communal home video viewing) became huge hits at home and abroad in countries with large Nigerian and African diaspora communities such as Britain. Nollywood is a major economic factor – over 300,000 temporary and permanent jobs – especially for young people – have been created through video production. And, Nollywood is Nigeria’s most culturally significant export, promoting an image of empowerment and modernity to counter (neo-)colonial stereotypes and boosting Nigeria and ‘Africa’ as a whole. “The empire speaks back,” as Anikulapo says.

Trailer of the 2003 film “Osuofia in London” (dir: Kingsley Ogoro), across-cultural fish out of water comedy that became one of Nollywood’s biggest box office hits.

Anikulapo went on to explain that while Nollywood may be the most well-known film school or style, there are plenty of other films being made in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with over 170 million inhabitants, over 250 ethnic groups and 400 languages or dialects spoken. Nollywood is essentially English-language, based in Southern Nigeria (Lagos metro area), Christian and focusing on themes of the Yoruba and Igbo groups. Further north, in the state of Kano, there is another strong center of film production where the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group and Islamic values are featured. Nollywood represents the dominant culture, ‘Kannywood’ a large minority subculture.

As Nollywood enters its third decade, it is characterized by these interdependent developments: 1. internationalization through co-productions with other African countries, Europe, India, China and the U.S. 2. increased professionalization through better, also government funded training and industry organizations 3. bigger budgets, higher production values (shooting on HD video or even once again on 35mm) aiming for exhibition on the big screen 4. stronger visibility at festivals worldwide.

Trailers of African Movie Academy Award Winner “The Figurine” (2009, dir: Kunle Afolayan) and star-studded international co-production “Black November“, formerly known as “Black Gold” (2012, dir: Jeta Amata).

As the spatial dispositif of ‘cinema’ expands to include not just film theaters but also informal public screening venues, the white cube, the comfort of private homes and the internet with all its stationary and mobile devices, this will create spaces for works that are both locally rooted and transcend or hybridize national and cultural origins.