Imperfect Cinemas

Imperfect Cinemas

Post-independence cinema in Nigeria has been swept aside by Nollywood, a video CD industry with a cable-access aesthetic and a penchant for stories about violence and corruption.


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."


I watched the beginning of The President Must Not Die on YouTube. I think my favorite scene is one when, after the president’s kidnapping, the vice president calls a cabinet meeting. Various ministers and members of the armed forces sit in white leather chairs in a war room with a gold pendulum clock, paisley drapes and a soccer game on television in the corner. As the vice president loudly berates them for having lost their boss, they frown at one another sadly in close-ups. Suddenly one of them is pulled aside by an aide. They engage in a tense whispered conference. The official nods and stands up.

"I have just been informed of a possible clue. I have to leave now, sir," he says, clearly relieved to have an excuse to escape from the meeting.

"That’s OK," says the vice president, sighing with resignation.

The official waves cheerily to his colleagues and walks out, only narrowly avoiding bumping into an incoming secretary. The meeting continues, and the remaining representatives of the Nigerian armed forces seem far more frightened by the sudden appearance of an extremely irate first lady than by the prospect of a leaderless country.

The scene’s awkward pacing is the kind of flaw that most critical writing about the Nigerian movie industry—Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria included—likes to highlight and dissect. Given the pace, the low cost and the technical means available, it should not be surprising that most Nigerian movies are bad. Then again, what does "bad" mean in a global film economy when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—in which various main characters function as product placement for General Motors—can pull millions of moviegoers from the deepest recesses of their couches? In the case of Nollywood, "bad" means, on the technical side, a home video aesthetic, poor sound mixing, blinking special effects in primary colors, jarring lapses in continuity and boom microphones sinking into the frame. In the realm of the artistic, "bad" means wooden acting, excess melodrama, displays of consumerism that make Imelda Marcos look like Mother Teresa, baroque screenplays that don’t always cohere into a narrative whole, failure to suspend disbelief (indeed, an active effort to encourage it), wailing, catfights and evil mothers-in-law.

A lot of criticism about Nollywood, therefore, concerns itself with resolving the fundamental question of why these usually not-very-good movies (judged, perhaps harshly, according to the above criteria during a few Saturday afternoons spent on YouTube) are so very popular. Their home-video aesthetic isn’t just tolerated but relished by viewers, and there is evidently some consternation in certain circles that the postcolonial African tradition of lush, 35-millimeter, French Embassy–funded allegorical films and centralized-government-sponsored Marxist epics has been eclipsed by films like Baby Police, a popular franchise starring a dwarf who harasses unsuspecting citizens at roadblocks (think Gary Coleman as a Nigerian police officer who occasionally leads Bollywood-style group dance numbers). The recurring gag: "Look here, small boy! You are meant to be in a classroom studying!" Or take Beyonce & Rihanna, in which a singer named Bernice battles it out with a rival performer named Rhyme for the affections of a producer named Jay. Bernice even has a sidekick, Saphire (imagine, if you can, a Nigerian Shakira). There are girl fights, stinging insults ("Who are you, a glorified handbag?"), luxury SUVs and McMansions that evoke suburban Atlanta more than Lagos, all shot in a low-budget style. Beyonce & Rihanna can make for a painful viewing experience, and it can’t be what the socialists had in mind when they called for an "imperfect cinema."

Zina Saro-Wiwa is tired of manifestos about guerrilla filmmaking and assertions of "African" identity. She is tired of claims that Nollywood, with its consumerism and fetishism of global pop culture, is somehow undermining an authentic Nigerian culture. More than anything, Saro-Wiwa, a filmmaker and the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian human rights activist and writer executed by the regime of Sani Abacha in 1995, is tired of the puritanical notion of African identity that she says has been imposed from abroad. "For all its failings," she writes in her contribution to the introduction of Nollywood, a book of Nollywood-inspired photographs by Pieter Hugo, "this industry provides a vision of Nigeria and Africa that has been wrested from the ideologies of foreign bodies and distributors that want to impose their own vision of Africa. And this is a wonderful and long-overdue turn of events. For the first time and in the purest, rawest form, Africa is representing and interpreting Africa."

She’s right, of course, and her sentiments are echoed by Chris Abani, who contributes another of the volume’s introductory texts. Abani is sarcastic, quoting an unnamed Nigerian director he heard say at a panel, "The last Francophone ‘art’ film I saw showed a ten-minute shot of a camel standing in a desert doing nothing, not even shitting. I may not know what art is, but this is not it." (The moderator apparently responded, "Gentlemen, please.")

Given the strength of Saro-Wiwa’s argument, the images following the text are jarring and unfortunate. Hugo, a 33-year-old white South African, has produced a collection of photographs that feels decisively retrograde. The photos are inspired in large part by the demons and zombies of Nollywood’s horror genre. The so-called juju movies often feature witchcraft, the undead, ritual sacrifice or, as in one movie I found on YouTube, called Night of Vultures, an indeterminate diplomat from the spirit world with a latex vulture claw. The claw could have been the lingering effect of some ill-advised hex but seems more likely to have been conjured up from a post-Halloween bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Vulture man roams a fluorescent-lit hotel with his stiff Frankenstein gait, disappearing and reappearing on its linoleum floors, slinking up to bedsides in his colorful agbada robe and strangling shrieking residents with his vulture claw. It’s positively Lugosian, if Dracula had been shot on video in a cheap hotel. And, as Saro-Wiwa says of the conventions of Nollywood horror movies, "Despite the amateur dramatics approach to costuming, the aesthetic visualisation of the occult in action draws on science-fiction: knives fly magically through the air and evil spirits fire killer laser beams from bright green eyes. Spirits appear and disappear using basic camera techniques of stopping the camera." Overall it’s pretty campy, good-humored stuff. If there’s going to be bloodshed, I certainly prefer watching a live goat sacrifice to the latest installment of the Saw franchise.

Hugo’s photographs, however, are discomfiting. The work is not documentarian; Hugo does not act as a roving eye on the set of a Nollywood shoot. Rather, he re-creates scenes from Nollywood juju movies in an exaggerated manner; his subjects bear closer resemblance to the zombies in Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" video or the infected of 28 Days Later than to the goofily attired monsters of the Nollywood movies. His collection of portraits features glassy-eyed Nigerian actors wielding machetes or AK-47s, blood dripping from their fangs. One shows a disembodied hand stuffed in a woman’s mouth. In another, three women are photographed with their stomachs exposed, draped in chains. As Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria explains, even if Nollywood films are not reluctant to showcase violence, they are notoriously prudish when it comes to sex and nudity, thanks to the limitations imposed by government censorship boards and the tastes of an often-religiously conservative audience. In this light, Hugo’s photograph of a naked man in a Darth Vader mask or of a bare-breasted woman with a dagger through her torso seems particularly farfetched.


The photographs are unsettling not only because they evoke some of the symbols of nineteenth-century colonial racism (the "horrid faces" and "grotesque masks" of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness come to mind). They also seem to gather and exaggerate other leitmotifs of darkest Africa common to contemporary European and American news coverage of the continent: a chaos of rape, violence, child soldiers and plague, heightened through the editorial fondness for "local color." Here’s Jeffrey Gettleman, the chief of the New York Times‘s East Africa bureau, reporting on rape in Congo in 2008: the country is "a place riven by civil war and haunted by warlords and drug-crazed child soldiers." This sensational imagery—"haunted" and "drug-crazed," in particular—is laden with a certain ghoulish mysticism. Perhaps intended to subvert such typecasting, Hugo’s photographs might end up reinforcing it.

Regardless of how one interprets Hugo’s photographs, it would be overgenerous to credit them with an insightful view of Nollywood. If anything, they reveal more about conflicted national identity in South Africa and that country’s relationship with nations north of its border. Indeed, one could go so far as to view Hugo’s photos as manifestations of a strain of postapartheid exoticism. The trend is best typified by another white South African, Brett Bailey, a playwright and director whose mostly black theater troupe, Third World Bunfight, incorporates a miscellany of "ritual" African traditions into parodies of postcolonial African history meant to reject European cultural dominance in favor of a uniquely African theater. Like Hugo’s photographs, however, Bailey’s work veers into the territory of a postcolonial primitivism that seems to solidify rather than subvert stereotypes, and it’s not surprising that his work hasn’t drawn large audiences in black South African communities. According to Yale’s Theater magazine, in Bailey’s play Big Dada the

grotesque climax comes in the stage-image of an enthroned, bull-horned [Idi] Amin gorging himself upon the flesh of the executed narrator, whose body is draped pietà-style across Amin’s lap. As his hold on power evaporates under pressure from Tanzanian military action, Amin—microphone in one hand, bloodied knife in the other—serenades the audience with Paul Anka’s version of "My Way" and dances his exit through the auditorium, evoking the historical Amin’s escape to political asylum in Saudi Arabia.

Bailey seems resigned to his difficulties in attracting black audiences. "I don’t feel like I’m orientating so much towards trying to reach the masses anymore," he says in Theater.

The trend has not gone uncriticized within South Africa, and looking at Hugo’s photographs I couldn’t help but recall the character Simeon Majara in The Exploded View (2004), a parodic novel by South African writer Ivan Vladislavic. Majara is an artist, and among his exhibitions is one on the Rwandan genocide (an event also explored by Pieter Hugo in an earlier collection of photographs). Of Majara’s Rwanda installation, Vladislavic writes, "The opening of the show had been the usual ironic spectacle. One was always aware of the uncomfortable contrasts, the hacked limbs and bleached skulls, the guests with their glasses of wine, the price tags, the little green and red stickers."

In the novel, Majara recalls a series of installations he has made from several crates of "African" curios—masks and carved animals of unknown provenance—that were left over from a side job of his decorating an "African" themed restaurant. The insinuation is that South Africa, with its landscape of malls, shantytowns and faux-Tuscan suburban housing developments, is grasping for the same elusive "real" Africa as the cultural attaché of the French Embassy. Nobody, after all, wants to return from safari with nothing but a pair of Nikes from a mall in Sandton. But it’s precisely this reduction of African identity to safari animals, masks and village life that Nollywood rejects.

"You know what’s amazing?" a friend of Majara’s asks him,

It’s like you’re deconstructing the whole curio thing, which seems pretty obvious. But then you’re saying, yelling actually: Look, I’m deconstructing this curio! So then it’s like you’re deconstructing the deconstruction thing, know what I mean? That’s really amazing.

Majara’s ambivalence is apparent, but he knows that such work will score him gallery shows in Sweden. Nollywood doesn’t care what Sweden thinks.

Fifty years after the first wave of independence, Nollywood might end up killing off a lingering overestimation of independence’s potential to effect lasting social change. Without being nihilistic, Nollywood videos address the experience of globalized, urbanized Africa as it actually exists. As literary critic Neil Lazarus, philosopher Achille Mbembe and others have written, the cultural outpouring of disillusionment over the failure of independence to fulfill its messianic potential has ended, replaced by less ideologically inflected explorations of African identity. What Nollywood movies portray is an Africa that doesn’t celebrate "Africa" through Simeon Majara’s curios. Instead Nollywood favors the expression of an African identity without either the old revolutionary tropes or the themes of nativism that, in negating the colonial denial of history, may have resulted in an equally homogenous and impoverished conception of African selfhood. Nollywood conveys the quotidian texture of Nigerian urban life, and it does not exclude as inauthentic the realities of consumerism, the multinational corporation or multiculturalism, which is why it might hold so much more appeal to Nigerians and people across the continent than auteurist Francophone African cinema. Nollywood’s movies are grounded in the present and are popular because they meld timeless themes with contemporary desires.

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