The video-film industry of Nigeria has been described as one of the greatest explosions of popular culture that Africa has ever seen. It is the first economically self-sustainable film industry in Africa. Initially through the use of video technology, and now affordable digital technology, Nigeria produces more than 2000 films per year. The industry, popularly called Nollywood, is currently ranked as the second-largest in the world in terms of output after India’s Bollywood.
Nollywood’s popularity has spread across the African continent, to the African diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. It has even gone as far as the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
The first seeds for the emergence of the industry were planted in the late 1980s. Nigeria was experiencing difficulties as a result of political unrest and measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
This economic climate made film-making on celluloid prohibitively expensive and created a fertile ground for other, more affordable methods to develop. Nigerian businessman Kenneth Nnebue is generally credited with producing the first major Nollywood film, Living in Bondage (1992).
The film follows the tale of a man who joins a secret cult and murders his wife in a ritual sacrifice to gain wealth. It is set within the thematic and stylistic characteristics of superstition, witchcraft, religion, the quest for upward mobility and melodrama in Lagos’s urban landscape.
It explores corruption, love triangles and domestic disputes – all themes that have since been replicated in many Nollywood narratives.
From VHS to digital
Since the VHS industry of the 1990s, Nollywood has embraced digital technology. The industry captures the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigeria through the use of affordable and accessible technology. These are small-scale digital cameras, desktop editing software, and distribution primarily on DVD and video compact discs. These sell for around $2 per copy in Nigeria and are watched at home, on street corners, in cine clubs or video parlours.
While the term Nollywood is generally used to refer to the entire industry, it is important to note that it is not unified. There is a great deal of diversity and many different variations. Different genres exist, including horror, melodrama, comedy and action, as well as language divisions. It also includes films in English, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. Even Netflix has acquired several Nigerian films, indicative of the platform’s realisation of Nollywood’s popularity and commercial potential across the world.
The appeal of homegrown stories and characters and a need for Change in Scripts
But it is in Africa that Nollywood has had the greatest impact. For African audiences who have for decades been fed imported films, the development of a local, homegrown film industry is hugely significant.
The most obvious explanation is that the films display familiar and recognisable cultural beliefs, lifestyles, traditions, societal and sociocultural structures, histories, settings and locations. Their themes and narratives tap into the fears, dreams and aspirations of audiences.
Nollywood seems set to expand, grow and diversify along with audience tastes, viewing habits and the industry’s technological advancements. This is evident in the hugely popular Tanzanian video-film industry, Bongowood. Tanzanian audiences initially watched imported Nollywood films, but from the early 2000s aspiring local filmmakers started to produce their video films. The popularity of local Bongo films now outweighs Nollywood films in the country.
There is the need for Nigerian filmmakers and Producers to change the concept of their movies from rich quick content to something that preaches hard work, resilience, contentment, and other content that preach against social vices thereby redeeming the attitudes and characters of viewers’ home and abroad.