Rethinking Nollywood in the Nigerian project

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THERE is no doubt that today, Nollywood has become a national brand. It has become the foremost signifier of our cinematic energy as a creative people. Nollywood began small, but today it has become a huge contributor to the national economy. In the recent GDP rebasing exercise, Nollywood contributed 1.2 per cent to the national economy. If that appears little, then you have no knowledge of where and how Nollywood began.
Its beginning is founded on a shoestring budget and a creative ingenuity of a few entrepreneurs who had to face commercial risk and cinematic scorn to achieve their objectives. If you want an exact date for the beginning of Nollywood, scholars point at Kenneth Nnebue’s 1992 movie, Living in Bondage.
Today, Nollywood has achieved global reckoning by its sheer capacity to proliferate beyond all its economic, political and social limitations. Nollywood is second only to Hollywood in global entertainment ranking; Bollywood, the Indian film industry, has since been displaced to third place.
On another significant level, Nollywood can rightly be considered as the sole heir of the tradition of African cinema pioneered by the likes of Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cisse, Haile Gerima, and others. In spite of being founded on the format of the home video, Nollywood has captured the imagination of Africa in its attempt at a cinematic representation of African, and Nigerian, cultural themes, values, conflicts and challenges.
It is, therefore, possible for some to think that Nollywood cinematically represents Nigeria and its cultural and historical complexities. It shouldn’t even be far-fetched to consider Nollywood as Nigeria’s national cinema, especially with its many attempts at exhibiting issues that speak to our collective predicament as a people.
In spite of these adulations, there are so much that are still wrong with this film industry. And my point of interrogation is its capacity to not only adequately reflect and recreate, but also to challenge the national project in Nigeria. Nigeria is a plural society, divided along religious, linguistic, cultural and ethnic lines.
This is the first fact that precipitates the need for national integration of all the diverse groups and nationalities forcefully amalgamated into the Nigerian state. Nollywood, therefore, already has its work cut out for it: it is to cinematically map the terrain of failures, successes, and possibilities of this project in a manner that challenges all of us, government and the governed, to pause and rethink our collective existence as Nigerians. It isn’t enough to cinematically re-present what is wrong with us, and to do it badly. We don’t need a national cinema that is merely exhibitionist.
‘Movies for me,’ says Steven Spielberg, ‘are a heightened reality.’ This is critical: the cinema acts as a mirror which is deployed to re-examine our collective experience. And the more traumatic the experience, the more disturbing the movies should be. The cinema, therefore, ought to be able to tell the Nigerian and non-Nigerian audiences something; it should, for instance, reveal to them how the Nigerian project is faring. My worry, however, is whether Nollywood, as presently constituted, will be able to do this adequately.
A normal Nollywood movie is predictable and boring; you sit for hours through mostly ordinary depictions of city and rural life that you are already familiar with. You are also treated to a rehash of historical moments not properly researched. When the movie finally ends, you get up and you are not the wiser for it.
You sure would find many actors to praise for sterling performances, and on top of my head are actors like Pete Edochie, Olu and Joke Jacobs, Gabriel Afolayan, Genevieve Nnaji, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Ramsey Nouah, Funke Akindele, Odunlade Adekola, to name just a very few. You even get to laugh too watching movies like Osuofia in London and Jenifa.
But then, it isn’t just the stars that make for compelling movies that speak to our collective conditions as Nigerians. There should be more that Nollywood can do beyond its stars, and comedy and bland storylines. I am talking about aesthetic sophistication, technical quality and convincing plot and storyline with historical and philosophical weight.
It is in this sense that I find the newest volume on Nollywood a commendable and compelling redirection for rethinking and rescuing the Nollywood phenomenon. Auteuring Nollywood (edited by Dr. Adeshina Afolayan, of the Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan) is a work that captures the several worries of Nigerian about the Nollywood phenomenon, and the question of whether or not it has the capacity to do more in terms of contributing to the transformation of Nigeria and our assessment of who we are and what we can hope to be.
To achieve this critical contribution, Nollywood must first transform itself through several internal adjustments and rehabilitations. It doesn’t matter if Nollywood drops behind Hollywood and Bollywood in term of the quantity of films it injects into the market; that would seem a fair price to pay for the need to produce qualitative films that matters.
The various contributors to Auteuring Nollywood were united in their recognition of the urgency of a revolution of the aesthetic and technical forms of the movies in terms of good storyline, coherent plots and reasonable casting. The book particularly asked for an auteur; a director that stands at the forefront of the cinematic revolution with a vision.
I am particularly thrilled by the assessment of one of the contributors as to the possibility of Nollywood assuming its role as a national cinema. This comes with a lot of responsibility. Most importantly, such a national cinema must learn to tell the Nigerian story with all its challenges, possibilities and failures.
That trajectory of telling our story has already been championed by the prolific Tunde Kelani who not only interrogates the Yoruba cultural heritage, but also projects the twists and turns of the Nigerian projects. Many people will not forget Saworoide and Agogo Eewo, two critical movies that constitute a parable on our nation-building efforts. When such efforts are complemented by other films like The Figurine and October 1 (Kunle Afolayan), Half of a Yellow Sun (directed by Biyi Bandele, and adapted from a Chimamanda Adichie’s novel of the same title), and many others, we can begin to motivate Nollywood towards a cinematic dynamics that could carry the burden of cultural and national trauma and possibilities.
The evolution of Nollywood as an industry benefitted from the Nigerian socio-economic situation. Nollywood came into existence in the throes of the economic troubles confronting most African countries in the 80s. It, therefore, owes a moral debt to respond critically and creatively to the situation that brought it to life.
Nollywood stands at a critical juncture in Nigeria’s current effort at undermining and transcending its national predicament. What we need are no longer several cameras wrongly placed for commercial purposes. Rather, what ought to proliferate are visionary auteurs who can challenge us at every turn in our national existence.
The Nollywood director is no less a patriot than the political leadership in the country; s/he has a responsibility to project our collective experiences in a manner that antagonises and disturbs and forces us to think about the past, the present and the future.
The Nollywood of the future is a cinematic industry that would begin to take Nigeria seriously. Thus, for the Nigerian Nollywood director, there is only one commandment: imaginatively recreate Nigeria!
Dr. Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, Abuja.

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