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The Myth of Nollywood and the Rise of Nigerian Cinema

The Myth of Nollywood and the Rise of Nigerian Cinema

By Rob Aft, Guest Blogger

Rob H. Aft is President of Compliance Consulting, an LA-based firm specialized in international film finance, banking and distribution management. He works closely with the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization and has spoken at conferences for them in Nigeria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand and Mexico.

Nigeria should be proud of the quality of their new crop of theatrical filmmakers. I have visited Nigeria as a guest of their film community several times and maintain close contact with many of the practitioners there. The Nigerian film industry is moving past Nollywood. Nigerian filmmakers are currently producing a limited but growing number of high quality films for theatrical audiences. Directors like Kunle Afolayan (The Figurine), Jeta Amata (the musical Inale)Caroline Chikeze, star of Inale Chineze Anyaene (Ije), Izu Ojukwu (The Child), Jeta Amata (Black Gold)…

and others are making films with budgets between $250,000 and $750,000, often with international casts and locations. It is predicted that at some point in 2011 a Nigerian film will be budgeted at over $1,000,000. In 2010 there were perhaps only 5-6 films made in this range but that number is growing along with the screen count.

The number of screens in Nigeria is increasing at an incredible rate (by some reports it is doubling every year though there are still fewer than fifty high quality screens in about ten venues in Lagos, Abuja and a few other cities), and Nigerians are filling cinemas at $6-10 a ticket to watch home-grown films.

Nigerians have proven their leadership in writing (Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinke and internationally acclaimed novelist, Chinua Achebe), music (Fela, , King Sunny Ade) and the visual arts (from Benin Bronzes to Ben Enwonwu and a thriving contemporary art scene) and now they are proving their potential in film.

Much has been written over the past several years of the status of “Nollywood” (Nigeria’s direct-to-video industry) as the #2 film producer in the world based on a very flawed UNESCO report comparing the number of extreme low budget films produced by Nigeria’s producer/director/star/marketers to the films theatrically released in the U.S., U.K. and other countries. This has done a disservice to the emerging theatrical Nigerian film industry by emphasizing quantity over quality.

I was prompted to write this piece because of a recent article in The Economist, “Lights, Camera, Africa”, December 10, 2010 ( again citing this production figure with no thought to whether it even made sense that Nigeria produced more films than the U.S. or letting readers know that the figure dates from 2006. As this excerpt makes clear, the report is clearly flawed in comparing major films to direct-to-video films:

According to the [2006] survey, Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films in 2006 compared to 872 productions (in video format) from Nigeria’s film industry, which is commonly referred to as Nollywood. In contrast, the United States produced 485 major films.

To cite such a report in late 2010 is ridiculous, particularly since my sources in Nigeria tell me that the number of films produced peaked in 2008 and has been in steep decline ever since due to piracy and changing consumer tastes. The article presents a neo-colonial vision of African film (damning with faint praise) that does not do justice to what is really happening in Nigeria any more than analyzing straight-to-DVD features in the U.S. would tell you anything about the quality of U.S. films.

I hope this is the last article focusing on how many low-budget films were produced in 2006 and that serious magazines like “The Economist” will start to recognize the emerging, high-quality theatrical film industry quickly growing there. The theatrical filmmakers owe a debt to their Nollywood forefathers but the future of Nigeria’s film industry is clearly in their hands.

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Carmen – fabulous response! Especially in regards to pointing out the neocolonial indications in the quantity vs quality of film production.

Carmen McCain

While I appreciate questioning of UNESCO’s problematic comparison of the number of straight-to-dvd films in the Nigeria to the number of cinematic productions in India or the U.S. and while I also appreciate your highlighting of the exciting “new Nollywood” cinema, your sources in Nigeria are most likely referring to the decline of ENGLISH-language films being made in Nigeria,

Nigerian National Film and Video Censor’s board statistics (see the 3 volume NFVCB Film and Video Directories) show a total of 3113 Nigerian films from the period of 1994-2001 being censored with the board (this does not count every film in the country, especially at the very beginning), beginning with 3 films in 1994, and ending with 1,030 films in 2001. Of those 3113 films, 1,179 of them were in English, 1,189 of them were in Yoruba, 616 of them were in Hausa, 44 of them were in Igbo and on down the line.

By 2004/2005, in two years alone, there were a total of 2194 films approved (2495 were registered with the board), with 1094 films in 2004 and 1100 films in 2005. (I’m not sure where UNESCO got their 872 number for 2005–could it be that they are only counting English-language films?) The breakdown reads 1240 in English, 535 in Yoruba, 368 in Hausa, 42 in Bini, 3 in Eson, 2 in Igbo and so on. Here, there are 61 more English films in just two years than there was in the 7 years between 1994-2001. In the 2004-2005 period there was a decline in the percentage of Yoruba and Hausa films in relation to the English films, and a rise of lesser spoken languages like Bini and Eson.

By 2010, the NFVCB statistics, show that 1,612 Nigerian films were submitted to the NFVCB in 2010 alone, although only 1,114 were approved. Film production has not, in fact, gone down from the years in which UNESCO made its report. In fact, it has slightly grown. Why then is there the popular perception that “Nollywood” is dying among “Nollywood” practitioners? Perhaps it has something to do with the language issue. The statistics show that of the 1,114 films approved for release only 133 were in English, making it only 11% of the films, a dramatic drop from 2004/2005, while 582 (54%) were in Yoruba, 349 (29%) were in Hausa, 44 or 3.5% were in Bini, and so on. In fact, these numbers are slightly off, because the coordinator for the northwestern zonal office of the NFVCB gave me a report (which listed films by name) which showed that 420 Hausa films were verified from his office, which would increase the percentage to over 30%.

What these numbers illustrate is the political perceptions of language in defining Nollywood, as opposed to what Nigerians are apparently producing and consuming, a debate which layers onto much older debates about the language of African literature that have been going on since at least the 1960s. I find it ironic that while you claim that the Economist presents a “neo-colonial vision of African film (damning with faint praise)” picture of Nigerian film production, you do much the same thing by dismissing out of hand the “quantity” of the films consumed by the gigantic Nigerian public over the “quality” of the New Nollywood cinema films which are available only to a wealthy mostly-English speaking elite in Lagos and Abuja and abroad, who can, as you note, afford to spend $6-10 on a ticket at Silverbird cinema. Of course, we’re all proud of the new cinema films (some of which are actually filmed, as with the Figurine, in Nigerian languages), but we ultimately do not need the approval of the West for validation of a film industry which has been doing very well on its own for the past thirty-five years (I’m counting the popular Yoruba cinema in my calculations of how long the film industry has been going….).

And, no, I don’t think it is any more condescending to celebrate the independent, low budget, and prolific nature of the Nigerian film industry than it is to celebrate the increasingly more polished aesthetics of the films this industry is producing. After all, Hollywood wouldn’t be where it was today without all of its ‘trash’, which it still produces cheerfully in great quantity.

Carmen McCain, Coordinator, Hausa Home Video Resource Centre, Department of Mass Communications, Bayero University
PhD Candidate, Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Wisconsin, Madison

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