Secrets of the Nollywood Success From the stalls of Brooklyn’s Odyssey African market in New York to its European headquarters in Peckham, London to the streets of Accra, Ghana, Nollywood’s dominance and growth beyond the shores of Nigeria has no boundaries. The question is has its emergence silenced other West African film industries?

The themes of corruption, police brutality, rags-to-riches tales, witchcraft and the continuous fight between Christianity and the powers of darkness is one factor that has succeeded in captivating the attention of Nollywood’s audience. Its popularity goes across the board, from West African, countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, to the African Diaspora in Europe and America.

It is the focus of countless Facebook appreciation groups dedicated to promoting its stars. Described as a rare instance of self-representation in Africa, Nollywood producers over the years have said their foremost aim is to tell their own stories. Stella Damasus is one of Nollywood’s biggest female stars. She has worked in the industry for more than 13 years and starred in over 30 films. She says Nollywood is “One way Nigerians in the Diaspora have been able to connect with home, even as far as learning languages, nuances and general lifestyle practices.”

Attracting others

Nollywood seems to place no limits on itself, attracting actors across the ocean to appear in some of its productions. Chet Bashari Anekwe, a Nigerian-born actor who grew up in Brooklyn and has worked extensively as a theatre actor in New York, made his first Nollywod feature film, ‘30 Days’ in 2005. It is an experience he describes as a homecoming because it was totally different to what he was used to. Anekwe says he was attracted to Nollywood because it is an industry that “Celebrates the culture of Nigeria and African heritage.” Anekwe and Damasus believe this is why it has appealed to the broader West African community, due to the similarities in culture and social backgrounds. According to Anekwe, “Nollywood shows a different side of West Africa contrary to what the world media shows.”

Nollywood is Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry, and is just over 15 years-old. Behind Hollywood and Bollywood, it is the third largest film industry in the world. Over 2000 films are made each year, meaning an average of 50 films are churned out each week and distributed widely in Lagos and Onitsha, two of Nigeria’s most commercialised cities. The industry is estimated to be worth more than $250 million dollars and contributes to Nigeria’s annual GDP.

The proliferation and success of Nollywood films in West Africa is due to a number of factors, according to Jonathan Haynes. A Professor of English at New York’s Long Island University, Haynes has written extensively about Nollywood and the Ghanaian film industry. He says that both industries started at the same time and have been quite parallel. However, “The difference is that the Nigerian industry is much larger simply because Nigeria is a large country of 130 million people in comparison to Ghana’s 20 million.” He also highlights the fact that Nollywood producers seized the opportunity of using digital technology rather than Celluloid to make films. This gave them the opportunity to make films straight to DVD and VCD discs, making them readily available to the masses. In comparison to films made by other parts of West Africa, such as the ones shown at FESPACO, which are made on Celluloid films, with foreign sponsorship and go to foreign festivals. Hence, they become elite forms of filmmaking and do not reach the masses. Haynes said, “What’s interesting about the video films is that they are much closer to the grassroots audience as an expression of popular imagination.”

Attention from the West

A cultural phenomenon which has caught the attention of the West, Nollywood is the basis of three documentaries in recent years: “Welcome to Nollywood” by Jamie Meltzer, “This is Nollywood” by Franco Sacchi, and “Nollywood Babylon” by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, which premiered at the Sundance festival in January.

Sacchi, who directed “This is Nollywood”, is a Zambian-born Italian film maker based in Boston. He says one of the fundamental factors which have contributed to Nollywood’s success is that “Nollywood has also created a star system which is really the foundation for a movie industry in any country. Where you have recognisable lead actors the audience can identity with and it is nice to see a brother.” He adds that though Nollywood films are popular with Africans in the Diaspora and Caribbeans, he thinks it is yet to get the full recognition it deserves from the West.

Chris Obirapu is regarded as the godfather of Nollywood because of his pioneering contributions to the industry. “Living In Bondage,” his ground-breaking 1992 blockbuster movie is credited for revolutionising today’s booming industry. He believes Nollywood’s biggest success was its ability “to break the stranglehold of Hollywood and Bollywood influence in Nigeria.” He says these industries can no longer compete in Nigeria and across West African countries.

Can other industries thrive?

Asked if Nollywood had silenced other film industries in West Africa, Obirapu says, “Yes, for sure yes. The Ghanaians are trying to come up but they cannot meet up with the numbers being produced by Nollywood.” He cites the emergence of cable television like Africa Magic, which shows Nollywood movies 24 hours a day and is carried on the South African owned MultiChoice DSTV. A multi-channel satellite television service in many parts of Africa, this means the West African film industry market is indeed crowded with Nollywood movies. However, he points out that this is because Nollywood producers have taken advantage of a vacuum that had been created due to the lack of a home-grown film industry for many years.

Anekwe, who also adds that the presence of Nollywood spread so fast, taking a lot of people unawares, says it is yet to fully tell the stories of Nigerians and West Africans the way it should be told. “I think we are really lacking in the areas of telling historical stories. There are some really great, rich and deep historical and traditional stories akin to Roots and Braveheart that are yet to be told.

“There are deep intricate things that go on from the political, cultural and social side that we are yet to hear. The deep background stories, is what Nollywood should be telling next.”

There is life beyond Nollywood in West African cinema and the floor is open to all. In the meantime, Nollywood producers have the uphill task of making films that are of international standards and can confidently compete with its Hollywood and Bollywood counterparts in order to attract a bigger market and audience share outside Nigeria, West Africa and the African Diaspora.


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