Sunday, July 4, 2010

Nigerian Movies Are Products Not Art

Abena P.A. Busia has a speech at a forum on the representation of Nigerian women in the Nigerian film industry that's worth a read. This, on the Nigerian film industry in general, caught my eye.

The Nollywood film industry, willingly or unwittingly, carries on its shoulders the hopes and expectations of a people. Perhaps the situation can be compared to the burdens placed on the shoulders of African-American writers in the middle of the twentieth century who had to grapple with the interface between artistic freedom and social expectations. Was Richard Wright justified in creating a monster like Bigger Thomas to prove his ideological point that desperate social circumstances beyond one’s control produce desperate people, or did he merely validate the negative stereotype that all young Black men are brutes and rapists? A generation later when Alice Walker gave us Celie in The Color Purple was she showing how no matter what the degradations, women’s sisterhood and solidarity could lead to personal emancipation, or was she, justly accused of merely adding further fuel to the fire engulfing the besieged masculinity of Black men.

It is not insignificant that the furor over the Color Purple blazed more furiously, leading to demonstrations against the actors and the picketing of the Oscars, when it was turned into a successful film by Steven Spielberg. It is not necessary to say, especially in a forum such as this, that in terms of contemporary entertainment, film is arguably the most popular art form of narrative communication around the world today. Something that causes a spark when published in print can turn into a forest fire when presented on the screen. Controversial as the novel The Last Temptation of Christ was when published in 1960 by Nikolas Kazantzakis, that uproar paled when compared to the fury unleashed when it was made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese which reached a much wider general audience in 1988. It can also work the other way; I am sure J.K. Rowling the writer of the Harry Potter series of children’s books today goes to the bank quite happy that she need never write another word in life if she doesn’t choose to!

Nollywood faces the same agonies and choices as all the other ‘woods’ have faced. The point I am emphasizing is that the question of the responsibility for images is not peculiar to Nigeria or to film-makers, but is the concern of all artists; however that responsibility becomes magnified when the medium is an influential and popular one, such as film is.

I almost spat out my mint tea when she started talking about Bigger Thomas in "Black Boy" and "The Color Purple". However badly done, I think you can argue that Nigerian films do not ignore the social context in which they exist. Film after film talks about gold-digger wives, gold-digger families, single women who are sworn to never find a man until they cover up their boobs and find Jesus, university "Bigs Girls" with their rich husbands,etc. She's obviously more concerned about the quality of the product than the content of the product itself. She is right that the quality of the work is a problem, but I'm not really sure that Nigerian film industry players understand their responsibilities as anything other than to entertain.

Industry players are business-minded, and business-minded people are inherently risk averse. When you've got something that works, why on earth would you branch out and try out a model that may or may not work? People like Usofia and the twins and the Iya Rainbow type characters. Give them what they want and you'll continue to make money. And that's the purpose, by the way. To make money.

Chris Abani once said that "If there's nothing at stake, it cannot be called art". He's right. And there is nothing at stake here in Nigerian film, not because people just don't care a damn, but because, well, the art doesn't make money. Pouring tons of money into a production, taking care of it like a new-born child, ensuring the acting isn't below par, tightening that cinematography, putting in excellent directors that bring out the best in their actors, putting in actors that may be unknown but are truly mind-blowing..... that's investment in art. Investment that a risk-averse businessman would prefer to minimize so as to maximize profit. An investment a businessman need not make at this point in the film industry because, seriously, no one expects Nigerian movies to be as good as the best Indian or Italian or American movies. We have low standards for Nollywood, so they will continue to be met. And it's just as well, too, so the businessman doesn't have to raise the bar and he can laugh to the bank. The object of Nigeria's film industry is not to create art, but to create a product that will sell.

And you know what? I don't even knock the hustle. Just don't expect me to go out of my way to watch.


  1. Hi Saratu,

    I liked this post. I think you're right that Nollywood is more interested in movie-making as business than movie-making as art. Still, I don't think this is much different from Hollywood, Bollywood, or most other big national industries.

    These days, it seems that the many of the thoughtful, critical, artistically-minded filmmakers are working outside national industries like Hollywood. I suspect this is the case in Nigeria as well.

    Do you know the website They have an option where you can search by filmmakers country of origin. There are many Nigerians there. I don't know that all are doing good work, but I suspect what their films are at least technically a cut above your average Nollywood feature (for one thing, I assume most of the films are shot on celluloid rather than video).

    My take is that Nollywood is business and Hollywood is business... but both the US and Naija have talented, artistic filmmakers working independently. It's only too bad their work isn't more widely accessible... and that art and business don't have more influence on one another.


  2. Hi there,

    I don't dispute that the US film industry, etc, have their mediocre tendencies -- I've seen far too many romantic comedies to say that! -- but I was talking about Nigeria specifically, and responding to the talk that the lady gave. I thought of adding something that speaks to that, but I didn't because a) I wasn't talking about Hollywood, therefore, b) I didn't want to just add something criticizing Hollywood for some artificial attempt at fair-mindedness.

    I've said in conversations with friends that I want more Almodovars and less Tyler Perrys in the Nigerian film industry. Sadly, it's the Perry's that make money, but we do need some people with artistic courage to tell stories that bite.

    There's absolutely lots of filmmakers outside Hollywood worth mentioning. My favorite movie is probably 'The Lives of Others' (German) and 'The Conformist' (Italian) comes close to the top ten, neither of which are American. I just saw 'I Am Love' (Italian) yesterday, and I simply fell in love with how beautiful the movie was, from the carefully put together story to the breathtaking cinematography. You could almost see the director and DOP caressing the script and carefully putting each scene together almost reverentially.

    I just hope you're right that there are many Nigerian filmmakers currently waiting in the wings abroad and honing their craft :-)

  3. Thanks for your response :)

    Re-reading my comment, I realized I maybe wasn't as clear as I could have been. I didn't mean to confuse things by bringing in Hollywood, but rather to make the point that in countries that have big commercial movie industries, like the US and Nigeria, often one has to look to independent film to find artistically-minded cinema. That is, that for great American film one doesn't necessarily go to Hollywood, but to independent filmmakers like Lynch, Soderbergh, Linklater, etc. I suspect the same thing is happening in Nigeria -- serious independent directors get overlooked because of all the buzz around Nollywood.

    Personally I'd love to see more... I don't know what you'd call it... indy-industry hybrid productions. Serious movies that still have commercial appeal. Like a Nigerian Tsotsi, for example.

    Anyway, sorry if I muddied the waters! Just wanted to give props to the Nigerian filmmakers out there doing serious work.

    I've never seen “I am love” – I'll have to check it out!

  4. I would quibble with you on one thing: Even though movies (I'm looking squarely at those damn romantic comedies here!) are often based on certain archetypes and spin-offs of familiar strains of story, one can safely say that they are quality movies in style and presentation. The audience has come to expect a certain level of quality from their filmmakers, so even the base expectations are suitably high for mass-produced films, lest they go straight to DVD.

    I agree, though, that in general, one would find better quality movies in Sundance, art-house type productions, and they're more likely to be daring and refreshing in their approach. But the fact that major film houses like 20th Century Fox et al finance some of these films is a subtle acknowledgment to that fact. I'm concerned that Nollywood has not even acknowledged that, and, more worryingly for me, that the audience for Nigerian films do not seem to demand it. Many people just say, "It's Nigeria, they tried," and do not make more exacting demands on our films, which, by the way, hold up a mirror to our society. My general rule is that I would read Adichie as I would read Zadie Smith, no exceptions. We must demand more of those that claim to represent us.

  5. The response that I put up here to you earlier never did show up. Oh well. Here goes an abridged version of what I said :-)

    I hear you on that you would have to look to independent cinema to find something refreshing and daring. Still, I would say that even movies with mass appeal fulfill base expectations on films by an audience with suitably high standards on what they will watch. Romantic comedies (You can tell how much I love those, huh?) may be typical in approach and style from movie to movie, but one cannot say 500 Days of Summer and even She's All That are actually bad movies. Typical, yes. Make you feel like you've seen them before, yes. But they're well-packaged and well-put-together, in line with the least that an audience for their films will expect.

    Still, you're right in general that you're more likely to see "better" movies in story and style, in indy cinema, but the fact that 20th Century Fox et al have independent film arms that finance such film projects suggests a subtle acknowledgment of that fact.

    Much more concerning than lack of interest from major film executive producers in Nigeria in "serious cinema" is the seeming lack of demand for it from the audience that watches Nigerian cinema. People are more likely to say "it's Nigeria, they tried" than to make more exacting demands on what they will and will not watch, what mono-dimensional crap they are willing to abide, what quality they are willing to accept.

    My general rule of thumb is that I will read Chimamanda Adichie the same way that I will read Zadie Smith. No exceptions. I understand being wary of painting with a broad brush about seriousness of the part of Nigerian filmmakers, but do you not think that the lack of demand from a large percentage of the audience for Nigerian films speaks to certain lack of regard in things that we produce?

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  7. I see your point. One doesn't want to hold Nigerian products to a lesser standard than European or American ones. Still, I'm not sure that it's fair to compare movies shot on a few thousand dollars to those shot on a few million. Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie both had the benefit of top-notch Western university educations, and, presumably, top-notch book editors. Up until now, at least from what I've seen, most of those working in Nollywood haven't had the benefit of comparable international training.

    A few years ago, I did a project that involved working with several Nollywood actors and filmmakers; without exception they highlighted that what the industry needs is technical training, organization, and some freedom to navigate within what has become a very cutthroat business. My sense is that people working in the industry are very aware of its drawbacks and are working for improvements, but that it's slow work.

    As far as judging Nollywood goes, you pose an interesting question: How does one compare outcomes when the playing field is far from level? It's patronizing lower the bar and point to all the obstacles Nollywood has to deal with, but then it seems blind to ignore them. In the end I agree with you, we should judge with a blind eye. But I would add that perhaps we could also expand what it is we're judging for. That is, I don't think I've ever seen a Nollywood movie that met the technical standards of even a B-Hollywood film. Still, whenever a Nigerian movie comes on, I find myself attracted, I think because, as someone who loves film, it's fascinating to see movies that don't follow all those exhausted norms of how to tell a story (establish conflict at minute ten, a dilemma/ reversal at minute 30, etc).

  8. And one can't get away from the fact that Nollywood movies are immensely popular, often outselling Hollywood and Bollywood in African countries. This for me is the really fascinating thing: If everyone agrees, including the filmmakers themselves, that the movies are sub-standard-- why are they so successful? What criteria are people judging them on? It's clearly different from my criteria for judging movies, and different from the criteria used by Hollywood and more or less all of the film establishment.

    Which makes me wonder if I haven't developed (or rather, been taught) a blinkered way of judging film. I can articulate why “Citizen Kane” is great, and why “Troy” is an expensive mess, and by such a yardstick Nollywood generally rates low. Still, there's something that feels to me uncomfortably hegemonic in always following such standards. I hope to see more films that challenge those standards, rather than blindly aspiring to them. Of course, like everyone, I'd like to see some “world class” Nigerian productions, but nonetheless I see a lot of value in Nollywood as it is.

    Ah! How did that get so long lol?! And I see I've wandered far from the original point. It's been a thought-provoking discussion. Thanks for chatting!

  9. You said:

    "One doesn't want to hold Nigerian products to a lesser standard than European or American ones. Still, I'm not sure that it's fair to compare movies shot on a few thousand dollars to those shot on a few million. "

    Pardon me if I'm just a bit ignorant about how films are made, but what difference does it make how much money it costs to film something? Perhaps it wouldn't be technically sound, but good writing always shines through. And a huge amount of Nigerian movies I've watched (particularly English ones, Yoruba ones I find to be better written if as mono-dimensional) don't even have that!

    You did some work with Nigerian film producers/directors? Cool. Would like to hear more about that. Again, I don't knock the hustle and I'm glad they're making money and creating jobs that would otherwise not exist, but my main gripe is on the artistic side. I guess for me what's disturbing is that the range of characters I've seen in Nigerian life are not represented on screen, thereby making Nigerian films a poor reflection of, well, Nigeria. Nigerian women don't easily fall into Madonna/Whore categories, for example. I would like to watch movies that shows us in all our complexities: the businesswoman who's strong and unyielding in business but is treated with utter disregard by her husband and family; the prostitute who goes to church faithfully and somehow manages to have a distaste for people she deems "loose women"; the driver with a sick son who cheats perpetually on his wife but loves his boss's daughter like his own. Stuff like that. Usually, what a lot of these writers do when presenting contradiction is to poke fun and judge, without trying to understand how people become that way. I believe that we can do much worse than recognize our own complexity, bring it to the fore without judgement, and celebrate it.

    That's my two cents. Thanks for stopping by :-)