Singing the Praises of Nollywood

Some words by Tsari Paxton

Unbeknownst to most cinema lovers, there is a film revolution currently going on in Africa. 'Nollywood' is the umbrella term for the explosion of video-films from Nigeria and Ghana over the past fifteen years. Rather than using traditional celluloid film which is infeasibly expensive for African film-makers, Nollywood directors shoot directly onto video. What began with a few experimental videographers making quick, cheap video-films and selling them at markets has become a popular entertainment industry that has reshaped the way Africans watch movies. Although the existence of a grass-roots film industry in the poorest continent is a remarkable achievement in itself, Nollywood has been criticised by many. The videographers have been called enemies of progress by cinema establishments, and others have expressed concern that video is purely electronic medium which cannot transmit the same visual poetry as celluloid cinema.

The late 1980s were difficult years to be making films in sub-Saharan Africa. The flood of oil wealth that had spilled into Nigeria and Ghana in the 1970s had been eaten away by rampant corporate corruption, leaving their economies in tatters. Inflation caused the cost of 35mm celluloid film to rise astronomically, and there were no film processing labs so film-makers were forces to travel overseas in order to complete post-production.

The few patrons who had enough money to attend the cinema preferred to watch pirated foreign films in the safety of their own homes because the economic downturn had produced a rise in violent crime. By the 1990s, individuals desperate to forge a place in the region's non-existent entertainment industry, such as projectionist-come-film-maker Willy Afukko and struggling director Kenneth Nnuebue, began to make movies with video cameras, utilizing the face that the region's recent prosperity had left behind a wide distribution of now outdated VCRs. Pioneers of the video-film industry worked with what they had, and their appropriation of video-cassette technology is innovation at its best.

Over the past fifteen years, the Nollywood videographers established a thriving and commercially viable film industry now worth approximately $US 130 million a year. Although it is impossible to determine how many video-films are made a year, some estimates accredit the industry with as many as 1,500 releases. This figure dwarfs that of Hollywood or Bollywood, and means that Nollywood is (debatably) the most prolific film industry in the world.

Before the video-boom, local film fans watched Hollywood or Bollywood videos which were recopied and sold by stall-owners at market places across Nigeria. As the popularity of Nollywood films grew, many of these market traders turned their attention solely to locally produced video-boom as they recognised the video-films as a dynamic new way of making money. The production of a Nollywood film is funded by one of the market-place businessmen, and after production the director returns the original cassettes to the businessman, who will mass-dub and sell them at his market stand. Both receive a cut of the profit.

The private funding of Nollywood videos means that films are produced on the basis of what the public want to see, as this is what will reap the most revenue. Therefore, unlike Hollywood's often political agenda, the video-films address issues that are relevant to the African masses. Common plot lines involve individuals climbing the social ladder through whatever means possible (often deception, corruption or witchcraft), reflecting the ambitions of the poverty-stricken public.

The first time I came across a Nollywood film was at my African hairdresser's shop. What struck me first were its shortcomings: terrible acting, shaky camera work, unplanned shots and sound that jumped between inaudible dialogue and distorted, overblown yelling. There were moments when the video would blur or colours would run into one another, the unavoidable deterioration of image from the recopying of the same video onto blank cassettes. But as I waited for trim, I began to enjoy the video-film. The narratives are fast-paced and melodramatic, and there is a raw energy about the videos which buzzes with excitement to express an image of post-colonial Africa. I borrowed a few cassettes from my hairdresser and after watching one, I felt inspired by the film's gusto,and also felt a slight ringing in my ears.

The video-films are screened on African home televisions, in video parlours, and there is even a service which travels to remote villages in West Africa with video-films, televisions, VCRs and generators to include rural communities in the thrill of Nollywood. The video-films have travelled from Cape Town to Cairo, and beyond, to the African Diaspora. The videographers' intention is not to create an art cinema, but rather a people's cinema, and they reshaped the the film culture of Africa by creating a cinema by Africans for Africans.

Rather than criticise Nollywood for failing to match the quality of well-established cinema industries, we should celebrate the fact that it is one of the few examples of African self-definition through media. The video-film industry is the most accessible form of popular culture to come out of Africa, and the industry has come to define what it means to be an African in post-colonial modernity. Nollywood stands as a powerful defiance to the structure of global media: a vibrant, grass-roots film industry that has been shaped by the factors which could have potentially held it back.