There was once a time when an entire generation of Nigerian youths who happened to be movie lovers would put on a Nollywood film to have a good laugh. Hollywood and Bollywood were there for more serious and respectable fare, but Nollywood remained a playful segue from standard, mainstream film-going.
The irony about Nollywood is that, although it represents the cinematic culture of an entire sub-region, it is nearly anything but cinematic. To start with, the home video industry that became Nollywood ensured the death of a once-thriving cinema culture Nigerians had in the 70s and 80s. By the early 90s, night-life had been severely hampered by crime, and television became an important replacement for the entertainment-starved audiences. However, it was Nollywood, which began quite by accident as a way for a video cassette importer to dispose of his surplus stock that nailed the coffin shut.
Suddenly, Nigerians were treated to home-grown content that showcased and exaggerated the most scandalous and diabolic aspects of Nigerian life in the comfort of their living rooms, all at their beck and call.
Witchcraft, hyper-melodramas, and sentimental romances were particular favourites. This graduated eventually to thrillers and action films, at which point laughter had become inevitable. Attempts at explosions, gunshots and high-stakes car chases were blatant and shameless in their mediocrity. And as laughable as it all seemed, the fact remained that it was an industry in chrysalis that would soon become a global phenomenon, and there is an emotional dimension to this phenomenon that cannot be ignored.
When you lose your voice and another person insists on telling your own story, when he tries to interpret your history and experience through his own understanding, when he subjugates your identity and imposes on you a new one, you will be forced to use your voice to tell your own story no matter how damaged or ugly it is. Nollywood is the voice of the Nigerian – and to a large degree, African – psyche. It may be one-dimensional and distorted, even imperialist (Nollywood in truth represents a smaller region within Nigeria just as Bollywood represents a section of the Indian film industry) but it remains a voice nonetheless.
Therefore, it serves an important, necessary purpose. And if Nollywood is accused of doing damage to the Nigerian identity that it represents, at least it is not somebody else doing it. Which brings up the need for introspection and self-improvement in a sense, this is what the New Nollywood represents: an attempt at introspection and self-improvement.
The self-styled New Nollywood arose in the mid-2000s as a response to the mediocrity and disrepute of Nollywood. It was encouraged by the first of major Nigerian distributors, Silverbird, which set in place a quality control mechanism that ensured films made for theatrical distribution met certain standards. The resulting productions had better production values and bigger budgets compared to their predecessors. They also boasted a higher level of professionalism in their various departments, with particular emphasis on camera and lighting. The crown jewel of this period would become the local blockbuster, The Figurine, directed by Kunle Afolayan who, along with a select few filmmakers, has become the poster child of the New Nollywood. However, where technical quality went up (the sound department remains an oft neglected aspect of Nigerian film-making), storytelling craft did not necessarily improve, which goes to show that better-looking films do not necessarily translate into better films.
The New Nollywood is often characterized by glossy picture quality and hammy acting with a penchant for verbosity. But perhaps the most tragic aspect of the soul of the New Nollywood is that it has its eyes set on Hollywood as the custodian of exceptional film making, which is anything but the case.
Hollywood has demonstrated that even television can offer richer and more artistically satisfying fare. With an entrenched practice of recycling the same story in different guises and creating sequel after sequel of blockbuster firmly in place, films that are able to offer something deeper, truer and, consequently, more human, are few and far between (2012 and 2013 have both turned out to be great years for movies in America, however). When some of the best minds in American film-making have to wait long and hard between films to find funding for their next project, it is clear that something has gone wrong.
Asian and South American cinemas have more exciting content to offer to the world than Hollywood as a collective, and the members of the New Nollywood would do well to understand this. Great films aren’t only made in Hollywood (Hollywood has its share of bad films). France is an obvious first stop. Sweden. Norway. Turkey. Thailand. China. New Zealand. You can circumnavigate the globe and never be in want of quality cinema at any given point.
The emphasis here isn’t on cinema made by or for Caucasian whites, it is on world cinema, and that is where Nigerian filmmakers need to set their sights. If a Mexican (Alfonso Cuaron) or Iranian (Abbas Kiarostami) or Indian (Satyajit Ray) filmmaker can create a body of work that is universally loved and respected around the world, why not a Nigerian?
The talking heads will continue to talk. They will analyze and postulate about the industry needing more investment and infrastructure; about how a limited access to funds is severely affecting the quality of our cinematic storytelling; about how a simple baptism in the premiere film school of the country will transform one into a maverick filmmaker; and so on. All these things are true. But they aren’t absolutes. I have seen the most powerful cinema emerge from a landscape ravaged by poverty and beset by a lack of formal training.
Nollywood, with all its ramifications, remains in a constant double-state of being and becoming. It is a child with a strong pride in its identity that is nevertheless in search of itself, hence the New Nollywood. This discovery of self, this maturation into full adulthood, will ultimately depend not on some concerted government or formal intervention, but on the individual filmmaker. After all, we are speaking about the ability of the human soul to communicate the intangible aspects of human experience through the ancient power of story. It must begin as a spark within the individual, as a desire for personal and truthful expression. It must begin with each filmmaker living in and dealing with the context of his or her culture. Loathe as I am to prescribe supreme solutions, it is in my humble opinion that this is the single, most important ingredient for quality cinema. As for the questions that this brings up, well, that is a matter for an entirely different forum.