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 Chuks Iloegbunam argues that the early years of Nollywood has something to offer

This book’s title includes the word unusual. I am doing this review in an unusual manner. I am simply telling a story based on the book and its author. Providence decreed Chika Christian Onu and I as roommates at the Fagunwa Post Graduate Hall, University of Lagos, in 1982. After Unilag, we went pursuing our careers in different trajectories. Even while doing his Masters’ programme, he was already into filmmaking. As an employee of the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), he was actively involved in the production of the station’s then trending Cock Crow At Dawn, often directing, sometimes acting in episodes.

I remember that one Saturday afternoon, as I sat with family and friends in my living room in Festac Town, Lagos, there was uproar downstairs. Rushing to my corridor, I looked down to discern what the noise was about. What did I find? It was Chika Onu being mobbed by children who had recognised him as a Cock Crow At Dawn actor! He was paying me a surprise visit. He was all laughter as the children milled around him, screaming in joy.

Chika continued with film production. To underline his pedigree, let it be mentioned that he has directed more than a hundred Nollywood movies, including chartbusters like Living In Bondage 2Glamour GirlsKarishika and Ukwa. But he returned to school and earned a PhD, following which he joined the Ivory Tower and taught students from both the academic and experiential points of view as a filmmaker. Now retired, he is back in the streets, doing what he knows best how to do – privately teaching screen writing, and producing and directing films. It is from the vortex of this time consuming preoccupation that he has put together a contemporaneous history of the early years of Nollywood.

An empiricist, what Dr. Onu has done is this: get across to known and not-so-known players of Nollywood and interview them on various aspects of the topic. It is their views that he has seamlessly packaged in a whole strung together by his commentaries and observations. To underscore the authenticity of this 135-page book, those he interviewed are worthy of mention here. They include Alhaji Wasiu Afolayan, Andy Ameneche, Amayo Uzo-Philips, Barbara Odoh, Bobmanuel Udokwu, Bolaji Dawoodu, Chiweta Agu, Chris Obi-Rapu and Emmanuel Adejumo.

Others are: Francis Duru, Fred Amata, Fred Mayford, Gloria Anozie Young, Ifeanyi Ikpoenyi, Jide Kosoko, Joe Dundun, Jolayemi Oluwafemi Afolayan, Kabat Esosa, Kalu Anya, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ken Nnebue and Kenneth Okonkwo.

There are more. Like Kingsley Oguejiofor, Matthias Obahiagbon, Moses Ebere, Nkem Owoh, Ngozi Ezeonu, Ngozi Nwaneto, Ngozi Nwosu, Nnenna Nwabueze Okonta, Obi Okoli, Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, and Osita Okeke.

To end the long list, there also are Patience Uzokwor, Pete Edochie, Professor Abdullah U. Adamu, Professor Barclays Ayokoroma, Professor Femi Shaka, Ruth Osu, Sani Muazu, Sanusi Shehu Deneji, Shaibu Hussieni, Teco Benson, Victor Emeghara, Zach Orji and Zeb Ejiro.

A book that holds views on Nollywood of 45 notable men and women of the movie industry sure has something to offer. The list also demonstrates the extra care taken by the author to go every necessary distance to create something tangible for those who would read. What was the aggregate of the views of theses interviewees? What is the summation of the author? Of course, people will have to read the book to glean the individual opinions of the interviewees. But, in summary, their views are thus: in the country, there is a filmic dichotomy of Nollywood (an industry centred around the commercial city of Onitsha but not necessarily originating therefrom) and Kannywood that started from the northern commercial city of Kano, which remains its pivot. Kannywood – Shehu Daneji, the producer of an entertainment magazine known as Tauraruwa, claims the coinage of the word – is indexed in the Hausa language and the Islamic religion. They may not screen scenes of kissing and necking; they may not introduce vistas of drunkenness and other such taboos. As Professor Abdullah Uba Adamu told the author, “Kannywood is the Hausa Islamic video film industry of Northern Nigeria. The words ‘Hausa’ and ‘Islamic’ are the two parameters that must be included in any definition of Kannywood. It has nothing to do with Nollywood. It does not share the same mind set as Nollywood.”

The name Nollywood is credited to a journalist from New York named Norimitsu Onishi who visited Nigeria in 2002 and observed films made on shoestring budgets of about $4,000, a sum grossly insufficient even for catering services in a Hollywood production. In his excitement, Mr. Onishi wrote an article entitled Step Aside L. A. Step aside Bombay. Here comes Nollywood. Yet, according to the author on pp. 52/53, “Credit is sometimes given to Matt Steinglass for the coinage of the term Nollywood. Sanusi Daneji’s Kannywood dates back to 1999. Invariably, these two coinages came many years after the advent of Turmin Dayan (1990) and Living In Bondage (1992). With this knowledge, the term Nollywood cannot be representative of our independent years or the colonial past of the sixties. Nollywood remains undefined, as it does not embrace the entire National Cinema. Kannywood is another sector. The divergent views expressed as regards Nollywood and Kannywood are no deterrents towards achieving an effective coexistence of the two modes of culture-based film phenomena. Time is all that is needed to bring these two film cultures together in order to realize a more robust Nigerian film industry devoid of any religious or ethnic sentiments.”

To get to the beginning. It was not the white man that taught us drama. He didn’t teach us theatre. Drama and theatre existed in every society from primeval times because they issued from religion, from culture, from historical circumstances. But it was thanks to colonialism that we got the radio. And the television. Those weren’t African technological innovations. But they got adapted to suit our creative temperaments, our cultural impulses and our religious imperatives. In this book, the author traced the introduction of the rediffusion and the Film Units of various information Ministries. In those days, the films (or more appropriately, documentaries) taught ways of avoiding tuberculosis and other contagious diseases, and they taught civic responsibilities like paying taxes and salaaming the English monarch. And they propagated foreign religions. But it was from all of those that the first Nigerian film makers emerged. In this respect, veterans like Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Eddy Ugboma, Sanya Dosunmu, and Ola Balogun get a mention. It was from these initial filmic forays that the Indigenization Decree came into force in 1972, followed in 1979 by The Nigerian Film Corporation Decree. These decrees gradually eased out the dominance of Lebanese distributors of Indian and Cowboy films and allowed the indigenous film making process to get an airing. 

It is a long, interesting story. The author is celebratory on page 129: “As I lean back and reflect on the glorious years of struggles and outright determination to make an impact on the global scene, I also imagine what our country Nigeria would have been without the advent of this filmic contrivance which has ridden softly and challenged our theatre world. Nollywood as a phenomenal outburst came up and like a roller coaster broke protocols by crushing all opposition on its way and finally asserting her presence in global history. Nollywood overnight became a phenomenon that has overridden the American Hollywood terrain, rivalling the Indian Bollywood to assume a second position in the global annals of film history.”

One can surmise that a buoyant national economy plays to the advantage of a robust film industry, especially as it is self evident that Nollywood and Kannywood are thriving on the crest of two of the most commercial of Nigerian cities. As is to be expected, success and controversy are twins. In Chapter Three entitled The Dawn of Living in Bondage: The Myth! The Reality, the author discusses the phenomenal success of the Bondage films and the controversies they generated. He goes on to discuss the entry of such notable names in the industry as Gabriel Okoye (Gabosky) and Tony Nkiruka, taking the time to comment on films like The Battle of MusangaCircle of DoomSamadora and Blood Money. Mercifully, he backgrounds the curious overhang of ritual and magic in a good many of the films. He also discusses the technical challenges of filmmaking, and the place of audience participation in the industry as a whole.

On the whole, the book is a good read. It’s difficult to imagine a student of filmmaking not getting to read it. Now, the temptation is irresistible to mention one or two areas in which the book could become even better if attended to in subsequent editions. One, a book on films can do with illustrations. The pictures of some of the actors mentioned should be in the book, as well as frames of some the scenes and locations registered in assorted film productions. Also, the inclusion of an index will make references much easier.

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