Saturday, February 12, 2011

What's the Point of Nollywood?

The other day, I was watching an episode of a show on the Yoruba movie cable channel (with that, you should already know there would be no embed link to this – sorry!) where Yoruba filmmaker and actor extraordinaire Saidi Balogun was saying how the purpose of his movies is to spread wisdom to Nigerians on how to behave to each other and spread love to their fellow man and roll around in meadows and have flower parties with dolphins and puppies. Or something.

Yes, I know.

It has to be said, hearing a Nigerian filmmaker tout usefulness and wisdom as the point of his movies cannot be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a Nigerian film. This isn't a direct hit at Saidi Balogun. If anything, I'm actually a big fan of his specifically, and of Yoruba movies in general. Where I find the sanctimony of their storylines to be quite grating and the often-poor quality of the production to be, well, poor, one can easily see the great quality of the acting and a real sense the filmmakers are speaking of a people they know well. Where English actors tend to be stilted, Yoruba actors are fluent, not just in the language, but in the tradition of those who they seek to depict, and this gives their films a sense of ease and color. I would argue that Yoruba filmmakers know Yoruba people in a way that English filmmakers, in the broadness of their intended audience and their lack of mastery even of the language of their art, do not their intended audience. What I'm wondering about is this notion that art must serve some utilitarian end.

Generally speaking, one of the saddest things to me about African artistic expression has always been this need to be 'useful'. Forget the obvious examples of the gorgeous printed design that gets used for clothing and stories in folklore used to spread wisdom. Take literature. Writers in French and English in the independence movements across Africa used their stories and poems to raise consciousness about freedom and political struggle. Then came women like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, and Ama Ata Aidoo, who used their work to talk about women's experiences. This is not just in Africa, of course; James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston's works, for example, were not exactly P.G. Wodehouse-style fiction, after all. The thing is, I love all these writers. Their work was deep and heart-wrenching and difficult. Above all, their work was necessary.

But is this kind of work still necessary?

It is as though, having seen no knowable, physical enemy against which to write our movies, like there was for writers in new pre- and immediate post-independence literature, we have chosen some abstract monster of depravity and corruption and dressed them up like ourselves. I join in the chorus of complaint too often to say that Nigeria isn't that bad, but I think I can say that Nigeria is not all bad. We are a complex lot, and we all know that. And if we are so complex, and fimmakers seek to capture us on-screen, are we not worthy of that complexity by those who seek to depict us?

And if “mega-church Christianity meets Yoruba proverb” morality is really all we can hope for, then it cannot be too much to ask to get some simplicity. Just once, it would be wonderful if someone wasn't trying to preach to me and instead just told me a story about a man who wanted to get a girl and did all sorts of wacky things to make her go out on a date with him. That's it. No juju, nobody giving their lives to Christ at the end of the movie, no Ifa priest and prayer beads, no sudden coming of age. Just so – well-acted, maybe even funny, with characters more fleshed-out than clapboards.

The more I think about it, I wonder if the magic of Hollywood for so many of us non-Americans is this ease to create such movies as they do, movies that do not reach any further than the world that they are seen to create. While I love ambition in any artwork, there is something to the simple romantic story, the action movie with nothing beyond its gunshots and gore, the comedy that seeks nothing but your laughter, that speaks to a level of comfort in one's skin. There is nothing to parse in Titanic and Iron Man for knowledge. It just is. For reasons beyond my ken, the single-mindedness to make such films comes with a certain kind of cultural ease by people no longer driven with a need to ask questions of themselves. For now this is a privilege that it seems Nigeria cannot yet afford, and I hope that one day we can.


  1. I will be thrilled when the day comes that Nollywood can make movies like Iron Man or Titanic. But you know what the funny thing is? Movies like Iron Man, no matter how subtle they seem to be, still have this underlying gravitational pull towards the knowledge of "right & wrong." They just don't spell it out.

    The kind of books I like to read for instance are books that don't spell it all out, but rather leave things to the reader's imaginations. I hope Nollywood can take the cue someday.

  2. Sure, Iron Man and Titanic -- I'll even throw in Thunderbird and Avatar -- have your basic "good v bad" stuff, but the movies are more about the wonder of the film, than about this good v bad story arc. I think the point of films with huge budgets like that are, in a lot of ways, to show off their big budgets and make you go "aaahhh!". Whatever moral is pretty much "by the way". The point I was trying to make is that the films have no such preoccupation with teaching their audience a moral lesson, a preoccupation that Nigerian films can't seem to help. I think it a certain kind of privilege, not feeling a burden such that you have to say something about the larger society. It can' be healthy for a writer to feel like they have to have all the answers, or at least pretend to.

  3. The truth is that none of us has all the answers at any point in time, and it's a burden for writers/movie directors to feel like they do. I totally understand your views. When I said, "they don't spell it out," I was echoing your sentiments. However, I do think most movies have an underlying lesson and it is NOT just by the way side. But that's an argument that has nothing to do with this post though.

  4. Nollywood has been on my mind for a while now. I find it fascinating that while most of the people in the industry like to talk about how they want their movies to be infused with morals and teach lessons, at the same time they make no bones of stating that what they do is 'business not art'.

    I don't know if Nollywood can make a great change with all these biases. Why not make it about art rather than business and why not forget all the other stuff.

    No juju, nobody giving their lives to Christ at the end of the movie, no Ifa priest and prayer beads, no sudden coming of age.

    I'll be honest, I enjoy seeing Ifa priests in Yoruba movies because I'm tired of the kind of hate our indigenous/traditional religions face. I personally don't mind doing away with every other thing mentioned in the above list.

    Do you watch M-Net series? I particularly enjoy Jacob's Cross, now that is a drama I find compelling. It addresses so many issues and still has time to include a fancy Ifa priest without being pretention and worried about transmitting moral messages onto the audience.

    I recall coming across an article somewhere online about the 'second wave' of Nollywood movies that are well-produced, possess high quality and compelling storyline. The Figurine (a movie I've always wanted to watch) was included among this 'second wave'.

    It is funny how the awesome Nollywood movies are hard to find, isn't it? I've heard Omo Iya Kan was another good one. And there's another movie coming out that fits into Nollywood's 'second wave', Asiri

  5. @Eccentric

    I have to say, I really appreciate the induction into the Good Guys Club that Yoruba traditional religions have in indigenous movies now. I wonder what it says about who we are as Yorubas, this inclusiveness. Perhaps its something to our plurality, the fact we have Muslims, Christians, and traditional followers in our midst. Whatever it is, I do wish our Igbo brethren take a page -- it's a shame how Igbo traditional beliefs are treated in English movies.

    LOL that was to be the subject of a blogpost! Perhaps I'll still write it :)

    No, never seen Jacob's Cross, but I've heard good things. Perhaps I'll try to catch it one day.

    Re:Second Wave Nigerian cinema, I'm a bit ambivalent. All Asiri, Figurine, and Restless City prove is that people suddenly have more money to burn. It's admittedly a bit early to say, but I'm not really interested in watching the same simplistic, moralizing mess in better lighting and decent direction. And as far as I'm concerned, Nollywood doesn't deserve any credit until it can produce a good, well-written story. Period. I'm barely out of Creative Writing courses, and I know I can write better than most of those fools!

    In addition to good Nollywood movies being hard to find, someone starting a new film company just told me that those grand openings for films like Ije, Asiri, Eti Ketta, et al, are often not a symbiotic relationship between, say, Silverbird, and the film producers/distributors. Film producers/distributors often have to pay to have their movies shown. So yea, you'll need a hell of a budget for your film to be able to afford that, and some confidence that it'll yield a profit.

    I have the trailer for Figurine (just scroll up the blog) and it looks like hocus-pocus, but I suspect that'll be hard to get around, even in a genuine wave of new cinema; we are a superstitious lot, aren't we?