Kenneth Nnebue had a problem. It was 1992, and the Lagos businessman needed to unload a shipment of videotapes. He thought they might sell faster if he recorded some kind of entertainment on them, so drawing on his first moviemaking experiment, a Yoruba-language home video called My Mother Is a Witch, he quickly wrote a screenplay for a low-budget movie that would be performed in Igbo with a subtitled version in English. In it, a man named Andy, frustrated with a string of failed entrepreneurial endeavors and acting under the influence of a highly persuasive cult, ritually sacrifices his wife in return for riches. The opulence he acquires after gulping down a chalice of her blood, however, is spoiled when her ghost begins haunting him incessantly. First he goes mad and loses everything; then he goes to church and finds redemption.
That, at least, is the origin myth of Nnebue's Living in Bondage. Despite its sketchy production values and melodramatic acting, the film struck a note with the Nigerian public, selling somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 copies. Nnebue maximized his earnings by selling the movie in two parts. In the process, he spawned an industry specializing in stories of betrayal, witchcraft and redemption.
The speed with which Nollywood has grown since 1992 has bewildered many outside observers. So has its spread beyond Nigeria's borders into the continent at large and its success at challenging the Latin American telenovela as the dominant form of popular entertainment in Africa. Exact figures are impossible to compile, but Nollywood's audience is presumed to be in the millions. Crammed seven or eight to a video CD, sold in markets alongside bootlegs of the worst that Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong can churn out, the 1,500-plus movies birthed by Nigeria's video movie industry in a typical year dominate the television screens of sub-Saharan Africa, even in non-Anglophone countries like Cameroon and Niger. An entire satellite channel, Africa Magic, was created by the South African subscription network M-Net in 2003 to beam Nollywood offerings from Cape Town to Nairobi. Yoruba- and Hausa-language versions of the channel were added in Nigeria this year. An estimated 600,000 video CDs are printed each day in Lagos alone.
In 1993 another iconic African film, Guelwaar, was released by the late Ousmane Sembène. The "father of African cinema," Sembène was an auteur, poet and intellectual who briefly left his native Senegal after independence in 1960 to study filmmaking in the Soviet Union. Guelwaar is the story of a Christian man whose body is accidentally buried in a Muslim cemetery, and Sembène uses the tale to explore interreligious strife, government corruption and dependence on foreign aid in Senegal. As in his other films, the overt politics of Guelwaar exemplify the goals of a postindependence cinematic movement, when nationalized film schools in countries like Mozambique and Guinea and groups like the Francophone Federation of African Filmmakers promoted the ideal of an anti-imperialist African cinema. Often assisted or funded by sympathetic leftist intellectuals from Europe and the Americas, the filmmakers of Sembène's generation studied Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Godard; they read Fanon, Camus, Marx and Amílcar Cabral. They exemplified an African cinema that, in the words of Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, paid "equal attention to both the principle of instruction and that of pleasure" and envisioned filmmaking as a process of guerrilla cultural reclamation and political consciousness-raising. As Kenneth Harrow explains in Postcolonial African Cinema, first-wave African cinema had an agenda, which he identifies as the following:
1. African film is important in the communication of history, in the correction of past misrepresentation of history.
2. African film is important in writing back to Hollywood and back to misrepresentations of Africa in the mainstream media.
3. African film represents African society, African people, African culture.
4. African film should be the site for truth.
5. African film is African.
African film, in other words, was burdened with ideology. It also tended to attract a lot more viewers abroad than at home. This disparity was often attributed to monopolistic channels of distribution that privileged secondhand prints of American and Indian movies, the public's annoying preference for escapist entertainment or plain old capitalist rapaciousness. Only rarely was the occasionally puritanical didacticism of the films considered to be a source of their lack of appeal.
Guelwaar was screened in New York City. Living in Bondage was not. The New York Times celebrated Guelwaar's depiction of "the ways in which ceremonious rural manners have been changed by modern life," noting in particular that the characters wore "Western felt hats" with their traditional garb. Living in Bondage's Andy wears acid-washed jeans. In his moment of ill-begotten wealth he drives a Nissan Pathfinder. The producer of Living in Bondage was out to make a buck; the director of Guelwaar wanted to make a statement. Living in Bondage changed African moviemaking forever; Guelwaar, despite its beauty, did not.
Academics and critics have scrambled to explain how a profitable indigenous movie industry mushroomed organically in Nigeria, just like that, and became wildly popular despite a cable-access aesthetic and interminably repetitious plots. A recent attempt to figure out exactly what happened is Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria, a collection of essays edited by Pierre Barrot, a cultural attaché with the French Embassy in Algiers. (Most of the essays not written by Barrot were contributed by Nigerians working in Nollywood and West African journalists.) The book compiles, if in a somewhat disorganized and slipshod fashion, an overview of an industry whose defining characteristic is the absence of any centralized infrastructure. Just as many Africans have spurned the electricity grid, the land line and the corporation for the solar panel, the cellphone and the individual entrepreneur, Nollywood has eschewed the studio system and formal distribution networks for a DIY ethos. The movies are produced on a small scale and often shot in houses and on side streets. They can cost as little as $10,000 to make. Shooting is completed in as few as five days, and footage is typically edited on home computers with Adobe Premier or other amateur editing programs. The channels of distribution are those of piracy: video CDs and VHS tapes are copied and distributed through kiosks, booths and sellers on motorbike or foot. Speed in distribution is imperative; plagiarism is so commonplace, and the pace of production and distribution so fast, that a popular movie will face competition from knockoffs, frequently starring the same actors, within weeks of its release. Except for informal venues where proprietors charge a small fee to watch a video on a television, public screenings are nonexistent, and the bulk of the movies are viewed at home.
Nollywood has little patience for auteurs or originality. Barrot's book describes a mechanized chain of production that doesn't indulge anything so arcane as the creative whimsy of a particular director. Barrot has compiled fourteen "film profiles"—brief summaries of a few of the thousands of films Nollywood has produced in recent years—that provide a handy overview of the industry's stock plots. The profiles suggest that Nollywood is cinema only in the sense that genre fiction is literature—the movies are intriguing less as discrete works than for their ability to depict themes of contemporary Nigerian life en masse. In their variations on the political thriller, the tragic romance and the horror film, they employ regional nuances to explore pressing issues: sexual politics, violence, corruption, immigration to the United States and Europe, and the divide between urban and rural life in Nigeria.
The President Must Not Die is a leaden thriller in which the president of Nigeria is kidnapped for a ransom of $60 million. As Barrot notes, the president is "finally released, at the end of a desperate fight, by a group of young, sexy, woman warriors, who use their skills and grace in karate to great effect (their small feet are used on several occasions to crack the vertebrae of the villains as they lie on the floor)." The movie was originally called The President Must Die, but according to Barrot the government censorship board deemed the title to be politically incorrect "in a country where about half of the heads of state since independence had died with different degrees of violence, before the end of their term of office."