Nope, not the name (that is another story), but the industry. Nollywood movies are very, very popular. This has made the top Nollywood actors international superstars anywhere black people live. From the West Indies to Haiti to all regions of Africa, Nollywood stars are much beloved. However, if you have ever watched a Nollywood movie, you must the asking WHY? I have seen how y’all enjoy trashing Nollywood as an industry on this site, and the question must have occurred to you: Why are these movies so loved? Despite being a huge fan of the industry, I have to admit what anybody with half an eye can see: the average Nolly movie is not that good. If you pick up a movie at random, you are likely to be subjected to clichéd story telling, poor editing, bad sound, amateur special effects, and over dramatic, over the top acting. I can only compare the way many people feel about Nollywood’s puzzling popularity to the bewilderment in the US at the popularity of Tyler Perry movies, or even the new teen fad: the Twilight series. What kind of emotional connection do people have to these products that make them ignore good writing and acting? What is the attraction? I am not a screaming blushing teen, so I cannot explain the Twilight phenomenon. However, I suspect that Tyler Perry and his crazy dramatic movies have a lot in common with Nollywood in many ways.
When we think about African film, you would expect that South African movies would dominate. Two of their movies have been nominated for Oscars two years in a row, with Tsotsi winning the academy award for best foreign language movie in 2006. Yet, I would bet my last penny that if you asked the average African who the stars of Yesterday and Tsotsi were; your answer would be a puzzled blank look. And if you checked out this year’sAfrican movie awards (AMAA), you would see that the Kenyans carted away most of the prizes. Yet, if we ask our average African who the stars of Kenyan film are – another blank stare! However, ask of Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jolade Ekeinde , Stella Damasus, or Ramsey Nouah on the streets of London (in the black community), or Haiti, or Uganda. Instant recognition. Why is this?
I was interested in getting a more rigorous answer than “people like what they like”, so I decided to do some research. I chose to watch the South African films I could lay my hands on, namely the aforementioned Yesterday and Tsotsi so that I could compare them to Nigerian film in order to begin to figure out this mystery. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the best of Kenyan cinema (if you can help a sista out, it would be much appreciated). As you see from the reviews, I really enjoyed both movies. I found them to be more technically advanced than ALL Nollywood products at the moment, in addition to being very touching and emotional. It was interesting to see that both movies were directed by white South Africans Darrell James Roodt and Gavin Hood respectively. Even though both movies were populated by African actors, the pace was very European – majestic shots, slow, almost languid pace – everything very measured. I watched Yesterday twice (yes, the things I have to do!) the second time with the director’s commentary on. I learned a lot about filmmaking in general, and about the making of this movie in particular. The director said something very interesting – about how apartheid had really separated the Afrikaners from the black Africans, such that the different cultures were just even now starting to learn about each other. And there were many things about life in the village that surprised him. My conclusion was that he was basically making a movie about a culture that was pretty alien to him, the same way Hollywood has always made movies about Africa. What we thus got from those two movies was a vision of African life from an outsider’s perspective. In other words, while the packaging was nice, the story was touching and interesting, they were lacking the one ingredient that Nollywood has in spades – authenticity!
You see, I have been attending a majority white church for a long time, and every Sunday, I am really struck by how different we are culturally from people of European descent. They are a very structured, and in the case of the church I attend, very socially conservative people. Every movement, every action is measured, planned in advance, and continually examined. It’s also a very emotionally reserved culture – it’s clear in the way they worship in church, and in the way they make their film. I enjoy watching the crime series on primetime – my favorites are CSI New York and the original CSI (Vegas). Whenever they tell the family of a victim that they have lost someone, it always strikes me as very interesting the way the survivors mourn (in general). They dab their eye delicately, sob quietly and are almost always ready to answer questions concerning the crime in a clear, lucid and logical fashion.
How many of our own people can identify with that? Who cries like that back home? We all know the wailing and acrobatics that we associate with grief. But because the “oyinbo” way of doing things has dominated the airwaves for so long, we have all been trained to think of it as the “right way” of making film. Hence the overdramatic accusations that beset Nollywood! But that is why Nollywood movies are so loved. Seriously!! We are a loud, dramatic, emotional, outwardly expressive, in your face, no concept of personal space people. Under the overly sanitized concept of movie making, people like Patience Ozokwor, Nkem Owoh (welcome home from kidnap! LOL), or Sola Sobowale would not make it to the screen. But they made it, and they are superstars in their respective genres today. Tyler Perry has made millions (hundreds of millions actually), by recognizing authenticity and tapping into it (Fine, Madea is over the top, but you know what I mean!). I just recently watched “Madea goes to Jail”, and I can easily name 10 Nigerian movies that are much better than that movie in terms of dialogue and content (not technical proficiency of course), and yet it was a number 1 movie. Why? Because it struck a chord among a long ignored demographic. It’s not done by someone talking down at them, or somebody pretending to be them, but by someone who was (he’s rich now) one of them and speaks their language.
It’s the same thing with African film. No matter how beautiful the movie, no matter how technically proficient, no matter how fantastic the budget, or good the acting, people want to see themselves represented on the screen “as they are”. For too many years, we have had only the Euro-American view of the world on the big screen. They have defined not only how we view them, but also how we view each other. The story of Africa in Hollywood has been what Dambisa Moyo describes as the four horsemen of the apocalypse – war, disease, corruption, poverty. It’s been a very pathetic story. It’s the reason I have refused to watch “Tears of the Sun” up till today. I just got tired of that crap!
But Nollywood and other emerging African movie industries tell a different story. They tell ALL stories. Not just about war, disease, corruption, poverty, but also about love, marriage, loss, desire. Portraying Africans not just as a cause, but AS A PEOPLE. Even better is the way they tell this story: the format is dramatic, raw, bare, unpretentious, in your face; REAL! It may not be real to the average European, but it’s real to me, because I know those people. I recognize them, I connect with them. Every time Patience O plays a problematic mother-in-law, with her over the top antics and sharp tongue, I know which relative of mine she is portraying. And we all love having sex symbols that look like us. Genevieve is dark skinned and sexy! Yet, Rita Dominic is light skinned and the girl is hawt!! Point is, Nollywood connects on a visceral level and embraces all of us, as we are, thick or skinny, tall or short, light or dark, quiet or dramatic - its a broad umbrella. And the authenticity of the industry is most honestly reflected by the grass roots support it garners. When people who have no idea what is involved in moviemaking, who don’t understand movie-speak can look at the screen and say ‘That’s meeee!’, and they say that across a variety of cultures and continents, you know you have a beautiful thing going.
I bet when Nollywood first started getting recognized outside Nigeria, Africa’s NGO filmmakers laughed really hard, as did those in the larger industries – in Europe, in India, and in America – like who is gonna watch this crap? But after seeing the reaction from black people all over the world (and I mean everywhere from the Islands to Haiti), many copycat industries have started to spring forth. Ghana was motivated to resuscitate their movie industry when Nigerian movies flooded their airwaves. Now we have movie industries, based on the Nigerian model springing up in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia – all over Africa. I don’t know much about the movie industry in Haiti, and whether or not it predates Nollywood, but I can say that stars from Nigeria and Ghana are much loved in that country. In fact, Omotola (aka Omosexy) just shot a movie with a whole bunch of Haitian movie stars that is already going the premiere route and will soon be released. And even South Africans are planning to join in the fun with Jollywood.Here is an example of the planned output from this venture. Not sure how far along or successful they are, but Nollywood is setting the pace, and others are following along.
Does Nollywood need to improve? YES!! Please do not misunderstand me. I am a huge fan of the movies, I own a truckload of them, I watch them religiously, but I am not blind, or deaf, or stupid, even though sometimes it seems that our movie makers think the audience is some combination of all three. The industry needs to improve in every aspect – sound, editing (I tried to watch a movie this past weekend where the scenes were apparently recorded in reverse!!) costuming, make up, acting, you name it, we need to fix it! However, Nollywood is on to something very special, and very powerful. As we seek to improve these movies, I need to sound a note of warning to the movie makers – improving them does not mean making them like European and American movies. Please, do not clean up to the point that you suck out all the authenticity. Some of the better producers seem to think that improving a movie means following the “oyinbo formula” If they follow that path, they will lose their audience. Don’t try to follow the ALL the oyinbo rules (you need to follow some though! LOL) of what a movie should be like and how to cry on screen, and what is overacting, and all that good stuff. Improve the movies technically, learn how to decorate a set, get continuity right, don’t use cameras with pink dots, but yes, keep telling OUR stories OUR way.
So, I guess we have figured out why Nollywood and Tyler Perry movies are popular. If anybody can explain the frenzy over the Twilight series to me though, I would be much obliged! Speaking of the multimillionaire Tyler Perry, I actually think somebody needs to hook that dude up with Nollywood. He makes the exact same movies, only with far greater resources, so it would be a natural partnership. I suppose, if Nollywood gets its acts together technically, some of the movies will look like Tyler’s stuff? Is that good or bad, I wonder? LOL!!
Movie Recommendation: So what movie am I recommending this time? I have to go with Izu Ojukwu who is, in my opinion, rapidly emerging as one of Nollywood’s foremost directors. But he has to find the balance between improving his movies (as he is doing) and yet maintaining authenticity. While his style of movie making is right up my alley, I suspect it may not be too attractive to the core audience who love Mama Gee, and Sola Sobowale and Nkem Owoh, and Jenifa and all that kin’ drama. His movies are more thoughtful and introspective, and in my opinion, darned good.. Please check out The distance between, and white waters. I really liked them. I hope you do too.