Nollywood: Nigeria’s Own Industrial Boom
For many African native actors, getting to work in Europe or North America is a pipe dream. Only a select few make the successful jump over to where the pot of gold in acting comes from. For African-produced stories, because it is a Third World continent, it does not have the same output as it would be in any First World nation. Most African countries have low output and not much of a thriving base. Except here. In Nigeria. The most populous country in Africa, the home to 250 ethnic groups. Welcome to Nollywood.
In the early 1900s, the first motion pictures arrived and were exhibited in Nigeria. Herbert Macaulay, a native politician who became the founder of Nigerian nationalism, invited over a Spanish film company who toured Western Africa showing the new medium to African natives. It quickly became popular and more European exhibitors came. The British Government used movies to raise money during the First World War, as well as espouse their culture to assimilate Nigerians. Regardless, people came to fill the halls every time a movie was playing.
In 1926, the first Nigerian film was released. Palaver was about a love triangle between an English nurse, a British officer on duty, and a local tin miner. While it is noted that locals were cast in the film, Palaver was also a movie that portrayed Africans as cannibals and savages who needed to be controlled because they were not civilized. A film that was successful and set in Nigeria was 1935’s Sanders of the River starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, and Nigerian native Orlando Martins, an actor who did make the move to London. Robeson, an American living in London at the time, was tricked into believing the film would show Blacks as normal people but disowned it when the final cut showed them, including his character, as childish and abusive.
In the 1940s, the establishment of big commercial cinema houses… In 1954, as the push for independence grew, the Nigerian Film Unit was recognized as an essential entity, playing movies to 44 established cinemas that were free for the audience. The first copyrighted movies made by them was 1957’s Fincho, which was also the first Nigerian film that was shot in color. With non-professional actors, the story followed the titular character who struggles with industrialization and the threat to traditional jobs caused by it. By this point, the colonial era was about to end.
The Golden Age
After winning independence in 1960, Nigerian cinema expanded quickly as well as the import of numerous American, Indian, and Japanese films into the country. The growth was pushed by many stage actors and directors who came over to movies and TV, which were supported by the government. However, foreign control on movie theaters and continuous imports from abroad threatened the Nigerian market, so in 1972, President Yakubu Gowon signed the indigenization decree that declared several sectors of the Nigerian economy would keep out all foreign investment. This meant Nigerians would be in the key roles in the industry. Some of the names that would be in the center of this include Ole Balogun, Hubert Ogunde, Moses Olaiya, and Wole Soyinka, the latter of whom won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Also in the 70s was an economic boom in the country because of the high sales of petroleum that came after the global oil glut. More money meant the middle class grew by buying TVs and visiting the cinemas a lot more and some economic incentives for foreign productions to come over. In 1979, the government recognized Nigeria’s cinema industry as permanent to the country’s cultural identity and formed the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) to regulate all showing of films. The Golden Age would slow down throughout the 1980s before it nearly collapsed in the 90s.
New Nigerian Cinema – aka “Nollywood”
The decline of the country’s movie industry was caused by a sharp economic downturn, government instability, and the rise of VHS where movies were made inexpensively and went straight-to-video for instant consumption. By 2000, with the film industry going bankrupt, many sought to bring back to glory years and help revamp the falling of old cinemas in the country. This included upgrading and building new movie theaters and getting new investment in productions that would raise the quality of their films where people would be encouraged to go to the theatre to see them.
In 2006, an initiative called “Project Nollywood” was started by the Nigerian Government and provided over ₦100 million (or $781,000) to filmmakers to produce the films they want, distribute them, and provide formal training for future directors. The sobriquet Nollywood was first used in 2002, although where it came from isn’t known. But to Nigeria, it became a word of pride to describe their industry as these new movies brought critical and commercial acclaim to a global audience. Films such as Amazing Grace (2006), Through The Glass (2008), The Figurine (2009), Ije (2010), and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) raised the profile of Nollywood throughout Africa and the world. By 2014, the industry was worth an estimated USD$5.1 billion, third behind India and The United States.
One of the reasons Nollywood is massive is because it represents a continent where the stories are similar to many in other countries. Actors from all over fly to Nigeria for work and have caught the attention of Africans who have moved to Europe. Small groups of Nollywood fans are even in the United States and Canada. Nigeria has its own Actors Guild and Directors Guild, and besides the Nolly Awards (their version of the Oscars), the Africa Movie Academy Awards were established as a celebration to all African film industries. But it wouldn’t be until 2019 would they submit a film, Lionheart, to the Academy for consideration as Best International Feature. The film was disqualified because most of the dialogue was in English but is such an unfair punishment because English is their main language. Hollywood needs to open up to Nollywood and so do us, the cinephile because there’s a fountain of films that have to be openly tapped.
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