I will discuss Nigerian cinema with a focus on respected director Tunde Kelani, the low budget videos that make up the vast majority of movies in Nigeria, and aspects of Nigerian cinema at a national level.
I will discuss Nigerian fiction with a focus on novelist Myne Whitman, renowned literature, and contemporary writing.
This is a discussion of a range of aspects of cinema and fiction in Nigeria and is not intended as a comprehensive overview characterising the whole of Nigerian cinema and fiction.
I will finish with some thoughts on the future of cinema and fiction in Nigeria and Africa.
A special thanks to Tunde Kelani, Myne Whitman, Deji Komolafe, Adegboyega Kehinde, and Ajao Moti-deade Adewunmi for your assistance in preparing this article.
Tunde Kelani is widely respected in Nigeria and looked up to by many young Nigerian filmmakers for the quality of his movies. He has shot movies on both 35mm film and on digital video, whereas Nigerian movies are almost all shot on video. Kelani is at the upper end of Nigerian cinema in terms of finances and production ability. Many consider him to be the best Nigerian director (and cinematographer). Details of his movies – including a several paragraph synopsis of each - are available on the website of his company, Mainframe Productions, at www.mainframemovies.tv.
I was recently in contact with Tunde Kelani and he told me: “The biggest opportunities of making films in Nigeria is primarily a big population of about 150 million people, a potential huge market, a rich culture, vast literary resources and landscapes from Sahara desert, savannah, forest areas and terminating at the Atlantic ocean. The biggest challenges at the moment are lack of necessary infrastructure like electricity, running water, lack of good roads, railway service, petrol shortage and security.”
Access to digital video-cameras has allowed a huge increase in the quantity of films being made in Nigeria in recent decades, particularly since the early 90s. “It is very easy for people to make films in Nigeria” said Kelani “because at the moment, there is no regulation and everybody seems to be just doing it. Anyone with access to a camcorder and a laptop is a potential film company.”
I asked Kelani what he thinks makes a film good, and he said that “a good film should find its audience. Entertainment aside, it should serve a useful purpose in stimulating the audience towards positive development in their society.”
A Nigerian university student doing a final year project on Kelani has highlighted to me four areas in which he believes Kelani excels:
1) The genuineness of his works and how he has celebrated Africa rather than trying to imitate “Western” ways
2) His use of language; the ways he has used words and idioms of the Yoruba people
3) His cinematography
4) Character interpretation in his movies; the collaboration between Kelani and his actors in creating detailed characters and performances.
Low Budget Videos
The vast majority of Nigeria’s movies are videoed on a low budget and distributed on DVD or VCD through shops and markets. The following videos provide a detailed insight into many aspects of filmmaking in Nigeria:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo9fv8L7aRA 11:24 minutes
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpPXgStqjfs&NR=1&feature=fvwp 27:23 minutes
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWzAZ6E2sFw&feature=related 13:59 minutes
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLjzh5ADLXc&feature=related 10:00 minutes (partly in Dutch – subtitled in English - and partly in English)
The videos above give some indication of how a large number of Nigerian filmmakers have managed to make movies inventively on low budgets, despite the difficulties faced making movies in Nigeria, and have competed successfully alongside international movies.
Nigerian cinema is often now discussed using the collective term Nollywood; like the term Bollywood (for Indian cinema) or Ozzywood/Aussiewood (for Australian cinema), is derivative of the term Hollywood. I’m personally not a fan of these terms being used to stereotype the cinema of whole countries, including in the case of the United States. I’m also not a fan of people making a default comparison of cinema made in various places around the world with (often a stereotype of) Hollywood/American cinema. I have no issue with these terms being used referentially without any attached judgment. As has been pointed out by director Teco Benson in a nigeriafilms.com article, whether a comparison between Nollywood and Hollywood is useful or accurate depends on the context of the comparison. In the article, Benson pointed out that “if you begin to compare Nollywood and Hollywood, I will tell you it’s not a fair comparison because Hollywood started in 1896 and the same thing that is happening today in Nollywood happened in America. They went through this stage that we are in. […] If I go to the US and make a film, you will see the difference because all the manpower and all the things are there for me.” I think that Benson has a good point that while there is still a strong demand to be filled for cheap Nigerian movies filmmakers can benefit from supplying these cheap movies and building up resources and skilled people as they go. This will enable them to step up to more sophisticated filmmaking as their capabilities grow and audience tastes become more refined. An additional benefit is that, a very large number of people are willing to watch films that can be made with equipment that is affordable to many Nigerians, which makes it easier than in some other countries for new filmmakers to enter the industry and be competitive. The Nigerians I spoke to during my research for this article were all passionate about putting quality over quantity. What the American studios did when faced with a similar problem may be a viable solution, where Nigerian production companies make a large number of low budget movies with low but dependable financial returns as well as fewer higher budget more sophisticated movies with the potential to generate much larger financial returns (but are riskier if they don’t work out well). However, Nigerian filmmakers also face a major problem with movie piracy – a problem that American filmmakers did not face when establishing a film industry in the United States because it was not technologically feasible for people to make their own copies and sell or distribute them for free in competition with the filmmakers.
My advice to people outside of Nigeria who would like to find out more about Nigerian filmmaking is to seek primary sources, rather than rely on secondary ones such as news stories or reports and books drawing on ‘statistical findings or trends.’ An example of the pitfalls of trusting the authority of commentators and analysts is that of an UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) report on their International Survey of Feature Film Statistics. In the report, it was discussed that 872 feature videos had been produced in Nigeria in 2005 (according to a questionnaire filled out by ‘the Nigerian government’) while 485 feature films shot on 35mm film and distributed in cinemas had been produced in the United States in 2005 (according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)). Based on this report, the UN News Centre put a story titled “Nigeria surpasses Hollywood as world’s second largest film producer – the UN” on their website. Based on the figures used in the UIS survey, there is no reason to claim that this is the case and it is almost certainly not the case at all. According to the UIS report, the figure for the United States only includes 35mm films with a cinema release; that is, it does not include direct-to-DVD releases, direct-to-TV releases, movies shot on digital video, potentially animations that are made with computers rather than 35mm film (by 2005, this was almost all of them) – though if they are transferred to 35mm film for their cinema screenings they probably count, films shot on non-35mm film stock such as 70mm (IMAX films) and 16mm, and possibly 35mm films shown in cinemas that have not been recorded by the MPAA. Despite this, it has now been widely reported, as in this CNN report, that Nigeria has the second largest film industry in the world. Some journalists mention a distinction between video and film and some don’t. The UIS report can be found on this UNESCO blog (the report itself is an analysis of survey results that are not provided in full, but a range of limitations arising from the methods used are explained).
In the past month I also spoke with author Myne Whitman, who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Seattle. You can check out her website at www.mynewhitman.com and read her blog at www.mynewhitmanwrites.com.
She told me of her early interest in writing while growing up in Nigeria: “I loved reading and was the bookworm of the house. It wasn’t long before the left over notebooks in the house began serving as jotters for my notes and short stories. […] The earliest novel I recall writing was of children’s adventure while I was in secondary school. It was a mixture of the sort of stories I read from Enid Blyton and my own experiences travelling to my hometown for the Christmas breaks with my family. I had a very active imagination but I was not a big talker and so it went into my writing. I wrote of the sort of scrapes and adventures I got into and I felt my siblings and friends would enjoy reading about.”
Whereas Tunde Kelani’s filmmaking is very much focused on Yoruba people and in Yoruba language (with subtitles available), Myne Whitman’s writing is in English and could be described as being very accessible to a broad international audience.
“I write to cheer myself and others” Whitman told me. “I write to join in the conversation on various topics going on around me. I chose the romance vehicle because it makes me happy, I know many people read romance novels and there is also a dearth of such writings in Nigeria currently.”
There are also Nigerian novels that are considered classics and are extremely popular in Nigeria, in Africa, and around the world. The most prominent is probably Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which is often praised for Achebe’s treatment of the people and land of Nigeria as well as his exploration of intellectual and religious understanding and misunderstanding. One aspect that stands out to me is Achebe’s treatment of characters that each hold different intellectual and religious ideas and his ability to use these characters to explore the shared aspects between these ideas and how these characters can come to understand one another or fail to understand one another.
Other prominent figures in Nigerian literature include novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a detailed website about her is at http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnabio.html) and playwright Wole Soyinka (a study guide to several of Soyinka’s plays by Paul Brians of Washington State University is available at http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/anglophone/soyinka.html).
While it can be quite easy for people to characterise writing from a particular place as consistent with a few established renowned writers, I think it’s important to have a wider understanding. In the case of Nigeria, this could be through reading the work of newly established novelists such as Myne Whitman as well as the longer-established and well known writers, and writing (and interviews etc.) on sites such as www.africanwriter.com which features writing from across Africa, with a lot from Nigeria.
The Future of Nigerian and African Cinema and Fiction
I will conclude with Myne Whitman and Tunde Kelani’s hopes for the future for Nigerian and African cinema and fiction.
Myne Whitman: I would like to see more writers and more books, and in more diverse genres. Right now, most of the authors are of mainstream fiction but I want to see fantasy, romance, mystery, sci-fi and so on.
Tunde Kelani: I would like to see the revival of a cinema culture and a chain of about 4,000 cinemas throughout Africa. I envisage that the cinemas will programme mostly African films and not Hollywood films like 2012. When I was young, I did not discover the make believe element in cinema. I thought the actors were truly killed and dead after a shootout in the Westerns. Imagine suggesting that the world will come to an end in 2012, then why bother to start a process of development? It’d hardly be worthwhile. African cinema needs to be more purposeful, more thoughtful but very entertaining.
Here is an interesting dissertation on aesthetics in Nigerian cinema.
Tunde Kelani has made several of his films available on his YouTube channel.
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