The unlikely rise of Nollywood

Is Nigeria’s booming film industry pioneering an Afrocentric cinema or just grinding out third-rate pulp?

Jonathan Kiefer| October 2006 issue
Nigeria’s film industry—or Nollywood, as it’s been dubbed by the media—is the third largest in the world, behind the United States’ Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. For a nation seven years into democracy, recovering from corrupt military rule and a ruined economy, being third in anything is not trivial. Since its birth in the early ’90s, the film industry has grown to generate some $200 million U.S. (155 million euros) a year in revenue. At peak production, it puts out more than 50 new movies a week.
But what’s remarkable is that until Nollywood, African filmmaking had been an overwhelmingly colonial enterprise, practised by artists trained in Europe and subsidized by European capital to make sophisticated films, on celluloid, aimed at non-African audiences.
In sharp contrast, Nollywood movies are usually made by Nigerians who have little training, with minuscule budgets. They’re shot on video and there they stay. The stories consist entirely of homegrown pop-culture pulp. The enormity of the Nollywood phenomenon rattles our know-it-all pronouncements about cultural imperialism: Are we to celebrate or rue its market-driven ascendancy? Are we to consider it a loyal representation of contemporary Nigerian culture or just plain old schlock?
One problem with Nollywood movies is how frequently they suck. It doesn’t take a film critic to recognize this. Many people liken them to B movies, but some could count as unqualified Cs and Ds. Because they are made entirely without government support, Nollywood budgets stay low—$15,000 U.S. (11,600 euros) is about average—and it shows. Bad acting and bad sound often render the dialogue unintelligible. Directing tends to consist of making sure the camera is on. Dramatization is poor and subtext non-existent. Sets look conspicuously bare and poorly lit. Nothing makes much sense. Nollywood characters don’t develop, but stay bluntly who they are, railing against their soap opera-like cliffhanger scandals. Consider the teaser for the movie Onye-Eze: “He killed his brother and blamed it on a chimpanzee. Why? Greed and avarice.”
The reason I can render such sweeping judgments about Nollywood movies is that I can’t stop watching them. The industry can go right ahead and produce 50 a week, because if I’m not careful I can watch 50 a week. The truth is, you needn’t only appreciate Nollywood movies ironically; the films invite a surrender that can be strangely liberating. We will forgive these movies for their preposterous falsities because we’re refreshed by the truth of their preposterousness, because we can sense something happening and we want to be its witness. Nollywood movies may often be terrible, but they seem wonderfully aloof to whether or not Western viewers care. They make zero effort to ape Hollywood or put on airs, preferring to devote all their raucous energy to the sensational stories at hand.
“It’s the only film industry in the world that’s completely controlled by black people,” says Sylvester Ogbechie, co-founder and vice-president of the California-based Nollywood Foundation, which facilitates connections between Nigerian and North American filmmakers and investors. “And it is a clear example of inventing something out of nothing.”
Jonathan Kiefer is a freelance film critic. He is currently writing a book about San Francisco’s film culture.
Taken with kind permission from Maisonneuve (June 2006), an arts and culture magazine published in Montreal, Canada (

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