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: