A house divided and standing
Nigerian directors are ditching their trademark genre in favour of a grittier filmmaking style
Auniformed man exits a van parked on the hard shoulder of the Magodo expressway in Lagos. He is the actor Wale Ojo, a face familiar to many Nollywood fans. He walks a few metres towards a group of men engaged in a scuffle as cars speed past oblivious. It is another day in mainland Lagos and a film crew attracts no more attention from the traffic than the dust left in its wake. A boom microphone hovers above them and a stout man in a jersey demands another take. The fight is reenacted with three men arguing noisily as Ojo returns, the scene ending with him scampering past his van in elaborate alarm. A crew member laughs: “Wale is having too much fun!” Now out of frame, the actor cackles to himself. His laughter doesn’t spread to the stout man, director Akin Kongi, who tells the crew to pack up as there is a scene to be shot at a branch of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) office, a few kilometres away. Since the shift to showing films at cineplexes about a decade ago, Nigerian cinema has benefited from an influx of talent in acting, directing and production. Mostly foreign-trained, these new entrants, aware of the reputation of Nollywood away from home, push against it as representative of Nigerian cinema. “Nollywood is a genre and it has a huge following,” says Kongi, who trained at the New York Film Academy, a popular choice for new Nigerian filmmakers. “But I went to film school to be a little more creative in the way I make film. I am not Nollywood. I am an independent filmmaker.” Independent filmmaking is a bit of a misnomer in Nollywood. Established commercially in 1992 when businessman Kenneth Nnebue funded
For more than 20 years Nigerian film has been limited to the ‘Nollywood’ brand, but now a growing number of filmmakers are shaking off the tag
Living in Bondage, at a time when the only alternatives were imported Indian and Chinese pictures, Nollywood never evolved a studio system. Rather, it became a collection of loosely linked businesses where individual marketers provided funds and were mostly responsible for assembling a crew – inclusive of directors, screenwriters and actors. Cinemas having collapsed and the economy in poor shape, their product went to VCRS around the country and much later video CD players. In 2004 the first modern cinema was erected in Victoria Island. Seeing the country’s expanding middle-class flock to watch Hollywood blockbusters, local filmmakers wanted a piece of the action. But initial forays were doomed. Early Nollywood pictures were shot on VHS cameras and edited in television studios. Projected on the big screen, they were drained of colour and in some cases short of the screen’s margins. Nigerian cinema-goers, already accustomed to American fare, shunned those early efforts. Box office supervisor Jide Oyalowo says that when Nollywood first hit the cinemas people were not interested. “But now a good Nollywood film will trash Hollywood,” he adds.
Yet the regular films at the cinemas are American features. Nollywood receives an average of four films monthly, placed by local distributors keen to avoid competition with other local feature films. The success of one Nollywood film is another’s demise. When the hit comedy 30 Days in Atlanta played for about six months last year – a run truncated only by the onslaught of piracy – it was on its way to becoming the highest-grossing Nigerian film ever. Other films suffered. The audience may want Nollywood but, as Oyalowo puts it, “It can’t be the only thing they come to see.” Hollywood films typically receive better scheduling and upwards of 10 new releases each month. There have been instances where whole programmes are changed in Nigerian cinemas to accommodate the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The current situation is not ideal for local filmmakers, but is a vast improvement on Nollywood’s beginnings. The watershed moment came in 2011 when Tango with Me, directed by Mahmood Ali-balogun – the first film shot wholly in Nigeria that found a significant audience – was released. A flurry of films began to show in the cinemas with lavish and glamorous Hollywood-style premieres. With Nollywood’s traditional marketers unable to cope with the new system and aware that a large section of the population are unable to afford tickets selling for N1,000-1,500 ($5-7), the industry split along class lines.
LACK OF INFRASTRUCTURE
Still, division isn’t necessarily progress. While production costs may have increased, many remain unconvinced by the change. “The new Nigerian cinema is already dead,” says critic and filmmaker Didi Cheeka. “A lot of our new filmmakers believe showing films at the cinema makes them different. But it is larger than this.” Cheeka argues that film practitioners still have a way to go to improve the standard of acting, writing and direction. Kongi resumes shooting some 30 minutes later at the FRSC office.
Immediately, the industry’s lack of infrastructure becomes apparent as sounds from passing vehicles overwhelm the voices of the actors, and officers from the commission keep getting in the frame. Kongi goes in to speak with the office, and another take is arranged with the boom mic lowered. “Remember,” Kongi calls out to his actors, “Project!”
Asked what his film, Ogere, is about, Kongi describes it as an adventure comedy about two friends on a road trip to Ibadan for a job. “This isn’t Nollywood,” he insists. “I am trying to form another genre of film [mixing] suspense, drama, and then we try to pick your brain a little.” The director laughs and pauses. New Nollywood, Off-nollywood, and New Nigerian Cinema are some of the names being bandied about for the emerging new order. Kongi’s “Independent Cinema” is yet to catch on. Yet, beyond a separatist impulse driven by a creator’s ego, a legitimate concern about the name Nollywood has always existed because of its origins. “It is a term coined by a white man derogatorily to describe low-budget home videos,” says Kongi, referring to the New York Times reporter who used the word in an article back in 2002. His view is echoed by Cheeka. “The name Nollywood puts us in Nigeria,” he says, then narrates an episode where he submitted a script to a foreign cultural attaché. “Without looking at the script the man told me: ‘I don’t want part 1 and part 2’” –a reference to Nollywood’s penchant for sequels. The project never took off. “It looks like a frivolous debate over names,” continues Cheeka. “But it is a search for an audience. What does the audience want? This is what it is about. Why do we fight over names? The important thing is, are you going to come and see my film?” It is a fair question. Still, New Nollywood wants more. The directors and actors crave acclaim for artistry. “We want to show at festivals,” says Wale Ojo. In pursuance of this aim, newer directors are expanding Nollywood’s traditional narratives. Three recent lauded releases, Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa, Eric Aghimien’s A Mile from Home and Daniel Oriahi’s Misfit, deal with nihilism, youth unrest and psychological anguish – a far cry from the domestic melodrama and garish mysticism of old. But while offer- ings from less popular film industries on the continent routinely get official selection spots at the big European and American festivals (Kenya’s Stories of Our Lives won an audience award at the 2015 Berlinale, Rwanda’s Things of the Aimless Wanderer opened at Sundance and later played at the 2015 International Film Festival Rotterdam), Nollywood – in its old or its new incarnation – doesn’t. It is doubly troubling for newer filmmakers because more artistic features do not have a budget for publicity and so don’t fare well at the box office. The box office returns on the three films mentioned above have been negligible. A Mile from Home and Misfit never played in Lagos before their DVD releases. Confusion Na Wa had a brief, less-thanstellar run at the box office. Spending an average of a mostly self-generated $25,000 for shooting, the leaders of the new epoch are stranded at home where they exist in a limbo between commercial indifference and the snobbery of festivals. Before this year’s election, many high-profile Nollywood directors and actors were very visibly behind outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, who they said was a strong supporter
Recent releases are a far cry from the domestic melodrama and garish mysticism of old
of the industry. But the end of Jonathan does not spell the end of Nollywood, says Cheeka, who thinks that given the industry’s potential, a lot more can be done. “A few of the programmes by the past government weren’t delivered properly,” he says. “The new government should look into why this happened. It is only fair that an industry that has contributed enormously to the GDP should be encouraged to move forward so that some of us can still be filmmakers.” Kunle Afolayan, perhaps the most successful of the new filmmakers, has lamented his inability to make back the $2m spent on his latest feature, October 1. However, for all of its shortcomings, Nollywood knew how to make a rapid turnover with a fraction of the budgets used for Hollywood and Bollywood films. “The so-called old Nollywood made a name and made money,” says Aghimien. “They may not have made great films but I respect them. It is time for us new directors to raise the standard.”
Directors and actors are expanding Nollywood’s traditional narratives, craving acclaim for artistry
left: Na Wa Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion had an all-too-brief run at the box office right: Shooting for Akin Kongi’s Ogere bottom: The latest feature film by Kunle Afolayan