A new book, with photographs by Iké Udé, celebrates Nollywood through an intimate portrayal of its leading lights. Reviewed by Dele Meiji Fatunla and Parselelo Kantai.
In the early 1990s, Kenneth Nnebue, an electronics dealer in Idumota Market, found himself saddled with a consignment of Betamax video cassettes that he could not sell. The technology had changed, while Nnebue’s consignment was on the high seas – Betamax had been replaced by VHS cassettes. Desperate to recoup his losses, Nnebue agreed to finance a film project of a script written by a young writer, Oke Okunjofo.
Public-service TV had suddenly dropped a number of popular indigenous soap operas in favour of cheaper Mexican dramas. Actors, writers and directors from those soaps, all of whom had become household names, were now out of
work. Seizing on the popularity of the defunct soaps, Nnebue hired one of the directors and many of the actors for the new project. The resultant film was called Living in Bondage. It sold about 50,000 copies and spawned an industry.
The video film market, later christened as Nollywood by the Washington Post, was churning out between 30 and 40 productions a week.
That story, apocryphal as it may be in the annals of the world’s third biggest film industry, marked the beginning of Nollywood. Perhaps no other medium has done more to transform the perception of Africa than film. Since the 1990s, Nollywood has evolved through a singularly idiosyncratic aesthetic, and a method of production that was rooted in the creative tensions between the electronics dealers of Idumota Market, Iweka Road and Pound Road in Lagos and the producers, directors and actors spawned from the 1980s Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation productions and the vibrant theatre scene of that period. The video film market, later christened as Nollywood by the Washington Post, was churning out between 30 and 40 productions a week. Made on shoestring budgets, these Nollywood films have Nigerians, and other Africans giving a visual representation of their realities and fantasies at a time when representations of Africans constructed from the “Western gaze” were deeply negative.
A new book by acclaimed Nigerian-American photographer, Iké Udé celebrates the unique glamour of the industry in a series of portraits of Nollywood’s movers and shakers. Those in Udé’s book have made their mark in the world of Nollywood, their status established by prodigious staying power and ubiquity.
Now in its third decade, Nollywood is the repository of the biggest archive of African images, projecting the fantasies, vanities and aspirations of an entire continent, which people are now accustomed to being recreated daily – in a Nigerian image.
As Udé says in a recent interview: “Because of Nollywood, all over Africa, people are picking up and speaking in Nigerian accents; are dressing in Nigerian fashion styles; are giving their children Nigerian names – the list goes on.”
But the industry, rooted in local experiences, also wants to have the same global power as its famous Western cousin. In terms of sheer influence, it probably already does. But having become the second largest employer in Nigeria, the ambitions of the industry do not end there. Nigerians, and perhaps Nollywood fans beyond, are waiting for the film that will break out of the Nigerian millieu and engender global appeal.
A few years back, the bet was on Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, based on Chimamanda Adichie’s epic novel of the same name chronicling the experience of a couple during Nigeria’s civil war. Yet despite starring the actress who has come to epitomise Nollywood glamour more than any other, Genevieve Nnaji, it flopped spectacularly.
Similar hopes were pinned on the production, Fifty, produced by Mo Abudu, another key player in the Nigerian media industry, and once again directed by Bandele, but it has also garnered few plaudits outside of Nigeria, though it become one of the first Nigerian films to appear on the digital platform, Netflix.
Nollywood’s magic and glamour is not easily bottled for an outside audience.
That these films have failed to succeed, with the shininess of their budgets and all-star casts, suggests that Nollywood’s magic and glamour is not easily bottled for an outside audience. Some argue that anything overly sophisticated cannot, at the moment, appeal to the Nigerian palate, where audiences are seeking escapism in stories that reflect their lives but show them in exaggerated humour or tragedy.
For many professional filmmakers in Nigeria, either trained in the West or invested in being part of a “serious” filmmaking tradition, it can be more than frustrating. But the Nollywood aesthetic – something between the everyman rural-urban fantasies of the Idumota market trader/financier and the creative angsts of the “I-Just-Got-Back” professional filmmakers – seems set to remain dominant, even as budgets get bigger and productions sharper.
The recent runaway success of The Wedding Party, made on a budget of 60 million naira (about $190,000 at official exchange rates), is a case in point. Since its release it has grossed over 400 million naira, from cinema release alone. Critics complain huffily that it doesn’t have the strongest plot, and some of the acting is overblown, but in terms of where it counts, it has been a hit, putting bottoms on theatre seats.
More importantly, there’s a power to these stories where Nigerians and black people in general, get a chance to see themselves. And perhaps that’s the secret to Nollywood glamour: it may all be make-believe, but finally it is Africans looking into the mirror and doing the dreaming.