Nwabuikwu Onoshe

I’d originally planned for a very light Easter read for my wonderful AIRTIMERS. What I was going for was to make us laugh. Today being Easter Sunday and all. But other things got in the way. In the process of looking for some other old piece, I stumbled on this article ‘Understanding Nollywood’, originally published in AIRTIME in 2006! Now, I don’t know for sure that I can now say I ‘understand’ Nollywood. But what I can say of Nollywood at this point (regardless of what I say about some of its products) is that I accept Nollywood. Call it New Nollywood. Oyibonise it to Neo-Nollywood. Add other ‘woods, and I’ll still be okay. What’s in a name anyway?
This may not have been my idea of an Easter read, but then again, on the day Christ rose from the dead, some illumination (and bringing a ten year old article back to life) cannot be all that bad? Enjoy. And a very Happy Easter!

“Tihis is an ongoing story. At some point last year, it was conceived under the title: ‘Nollywood- Next Level’. I’d wanted to raise the level of discourse by speaking with different Nollywood stakeholders. I still might do that. More recently, the issue resurfaced in discussions and workshops as: ‘Why Nollywood is successful’. I know at this point you’re about to ask: ‘Who says Nollywood is successful?’ Don’t be in such a rush. The reason for this background is because my headline is a little misleading. There’s the impression that I have the key to understanding Nollywood when some aren’t even agreed that’s the right name. If you’re one of such people, I think this is a good point to stop reading, no offence intended.

As I was saying, when I talk about understanding Nollywood, it’s not that I have the magic wand. Or that I plan to write a Guide to Nollywood book called ‘Nollywood for Dummies’. I write as one who is sometimes in awe of this ‘phenomenon’ called Nollywood. These last few weeks I’ve had a running discussion with mostly young people, which I must confess I sometimes hijack by turning into a lecture from me to whoever is unfortunate to be held hostage. It usually begins innocently enough.

The other day we were watching a film on the Africa Magic channel (a useful channel for all those people who used to say with pride: ‘I don’t watch Nigerian films’). And there were the usual comments about the film’s believability or the lack thereof. Then a young man said: “Is it not a Nollywood film, what do you expect?” “What do you mean?” I asked him. He said: “Nigerian films are bad. They are not well made. The acting is not real. They are not like Hollywood films…” So I asked if his own area of expertise-pharmacy- could be compared to that of America. Can our country Nigeria, great though it is worth being the giant of Africa and all, be compared to America? What would be the yardstick?

I have come to realise we are unduly hard on Nollywood for reasons that are not so clear. There are those who condemn it because they consider themselves the forerunners of the industry and can’t stand the fact that some people they consider illiterates and upstarts are basking in the limelight. There’s also the tribal and ethnic factor. You should hear the scorn with which words like ‘Idumagbo traders’ are uttered. Or how ‘Upper Iweka, Onitsha filmmakers’ is derisively flung into a conversation. These people are seen more or less as criminals or as impostors and as people who overthrew an existing power bloc.

I think there’s also the not so flattering reason of small-mindedness. In fact, small-minded is too big. Some actors claim now not to belong to Nollywood because Nollywood now belongs to Igbo traders. Such people have my sympathy because talk like that shows ignorance of the highest order. The sort of ignorance that’s both impoverishing and debilitating. Now, some out of favour actors, some who can’t be hired to play even ‘gateman’ are complaining of discrimination. I can’t hold brief for anyone but the ongoing media campaign where people deliberately spread false stories and fan embers of ethnic hatred is sad. Is there any industry in this country now that’s not dominated by people from a particular tribe? How many times have we heard that banking for instance has been overtaken by a section of the country? Or that Supreme Court considers people from only one section of the country supreme?

This is not to say that any filmmaker or director who discriminates against an actor because of his tribe is right. But then are we going to legislate the federal character system into filmmaking? Would filmmakers be required now to make sure every tribe is represented in one film all in a bid to paint the picture that ‘it belongs to all of us’? Who would be supplying the money for this sort of film anyhow?

The point is we have to try to understand Nollywood. That’s where the question of why it is successful comes useful. There are plenty gaps, yes. Even the blind can see that. There’s poor quality, in the stories, in the thinness of the plots and even technically. I could write a book about that. But why is it successful? And don’t tell me it is not successful. I know Nigerians get ambushed with questions anytime they’re outside the country. They are asked if all Nigerians are like the films portray them? And this can become embarrassing. But how many times do Americans get asked if all the shooting we see in their films is real? What about the wanton destruction of lives and values? How has that stopped almost everyone from trying to run to the US?

I’m concerned when people who should know say these things. We should stop going about being defensive. How many of those who castigate Nollywood buy the films anyway? Ordinary people have made it successful. Nollywood is for the mass market and everywhere in the world, mass does not always translate to quality. There are badly made films even in America. What they have and which we should adapt is categories. All films are not equal. When you buy a B-graded film for instance, you would not demand from it standards of an Oscar-winning film. It’s just that here all films are put out on the same level.

Hopefully, we’ll get to the stage those who want to watch serious films know where to go. Which is not to say there’s no need for improvement. Nollywood needs to improve not only so outsiders can think better of us but because we have and must take it to the next level. Nollywood outside of crude oil is one of the few assets we have. There’s no need to throw it away or, for that matter, rest on our achievements.

How then can we understand Nollywood? We can begin by trying to understand why it’s successful. Why is it that people all over Africa find it wonderful? I don’t have all the answers but my guess is that Nollywood is successful, in spite of everything we know is wrong, because it tells our stories; in all our strengths and weaknesses. Nollywood is successful because it’s essentially Nigerian. It’s like no other model and it’s for that reason we shouldn’t condemn it just because it’s not like Hollywood. Nollywood’s chief strength is that it’s not like Hollywood. Who needs another Hollywood anyway?”