This is our first visit to Nigeria and we’re filming our new fall TV season. The best briefing material or conversation with individuals can in no way prepare you for the massive number of people and the incredible intellectual and human capital that exist in this land of plenty. Given that our media business syndicates programming around the globe we are most impressed with the Nigerian film and entertainment industry.
The opening scenes in the Hollywood epic “There Will Be Blood” feature a grainy video shot in soundless shadow. Without a doubt it is one of the most beautiful big screen scenes in modern memory. But in fact the scene itself, and the ultimately the movie as whole, takes the viewer back to a rougher period in early American history—before the country was connected by railroad, telegraph, and highway. Similarly, Nigeria’s nascent movies industry operates in a land without robust national infrastructure. The fact that it the industry exists at all, without cinemas, studios, cable television, or even a national electric grid speaks to its amazing resiliency.
More than any other industry, Nigeria’s film industry reflects the messy, ambivalent process of nation building currently taking place in the country. Men and women with few resources, but a boundless ingenuity have taken matters into their own hands and crafted not only an industry, but in fact an art form that is quickly evolving into a national cultural movement. While in monetary terms, the Nigerian film industry (I resist using the term “Nollywood”) pales in comparison to that of the United States, it is undeniably the most vibrant expression of talent and ingenuity in the country.
Not only does the industry employ over 1 million people—making it the largest employer outside of agriculture—it has exerted considerable cultural influence both within Nigeria and throughout the African continent. In fact the cultural genre, generally featuring modern themes interspersed with native cultural symbols, represents a new cinematic art form in its nascent stages. Its ability to capture the energy and ambition of Nigeria’s youth is nothing short of startling. The film production industry has given them jobs, hope and ultimately valuable skills.
In recent years, political and business leaders have taken notice of the industry and attempted to capitalize on its vitality. The political leadership wishes to use cinema as a marketing tool to burnish Nigeria’s image abroad. The mainstream business community wants to harness Nigerian cinema’s economic potential. However, at this point, efforts to corral growth—whether by censorship or government investment on one hand; or by strictly enforcing intellectual property rules on the other—threatens the industry with extinction.
In the United States, wild cat oilmen found small wells and drilled them. In the course of their expansion, railroads, banks, and towns arose in their midst. As the movie “There Will Be Blood depicts,” the process was fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was messy. There was fraud and corruption, intrigue and violence. But out of that dynamic process, a vast energy industry emerged which ended up fueling America’s industrial growth. My point here is not that the Nigerian film industry to should be allowed to grow unaided or unregulated—but that at this stage in development, the creativity, drive, and passion that exist within the industry should be allowed to flourish more freely.
Some point to the fact that the content and quality of today’s Nigerian films leaves much to be desired. So what? The early days of American cinema featured less advanced technology than currently employed in the lowest budget Nigerian film. Films were often grainy, choppy, and lacking in sound. But they succeeded in gaining an audience, and, more importantly, setting the ground for the cultural aesthetic the world currently knows as Hollywood. Just as a man cannot become an adult before he is a child, so the Nigerian cinema arts industry must be allowed it period of infancy on its way to a more mature reflection of the lives, stories and values of the Nigerian people.
The youth of Nigeria are its most important resource. Developing their character and talents is more important and vastly more valuable than all of the oil wealth in the world. As the largest employer of Nigeria’s youth, the film industry is helping to give them a purpose that is largely lacking in other sectors of the society. Of course much of today’s films express the exuberance and immaturity that come with being young. But it also contains the energy, passion and brilliance that our youth are yearning to reveal to themselves, the country, and the world as a whole.
As the American oil industry grew, its supporting infrastructure began to form the backbone of the nation—whether in term of railroads, telegraphs, industrial equipment, or oil pipeline. In fact today’s largest telecommunications companies such as Quest Communications use rights of way that were originally owned by the small wildcat drillers. Similarly, as Nigerian cinema continues to grow, both as an art form and an industry, related infrastructure will naturally evolve as a result. Whether it takes the shape of a village cinema, production studio or distribution shop, ultimately the means of distribution will form the basis for a more robust Nigerian infrastructure. And infrastructure, as we all know, is the backbone of any nation.
Cutting Edge conservative columnist Armstrong Williams and author of Reawakening Virtues can be heard on Sirius/XM Power 128