Filmmaking has a cultural vocabulary. American action movies, Bollywood musicals, French art cinema -- all are immediately identifiable, not just by the actors or language, but by the cinematography, the pace, and simply by how the story is told. The rapidly-growing film industry in Africa, centered in Nigeria, is developing its own voice and style, but one that seems to generate quite a bit of ambivalence among those who follow Naija movies -- more familiarly referred to as "Nollywood" -- most closely.
The rise of Nigerian films and "Nollywood" was among the earliest topics on WorldChanging, and it remains a frequent touchstone. Nollywood's growing success is a testament to the importance of inexpensive, high-quality hardware and robust global distribution; the movies are arguably as important (if not moreso) to the African diaspora as they are at home. For now, Nollywood isn't nearly as visible outside of the global African community as, say, Bollywood, but that's gradually changing. As this post's title suggests, Hollywood heavyweights like Wesley Snipes are starting to poke around the Naija film world to see what they can use.
But the growth of Nollywood is prompting a not-entirely-positive reaction among those who follow it closely, in large part because of how the movies represent Nigerian society. Sokari Ekine at Black Looks ("Musings and Rants of an African Fem") posted today about this phenomenon, linking to several provocative essays and stories about the evolution of Naija films.
The initial catalyst for Ms. Ekine's post is an article in the December 20 Christian Science Monitor entitled "Africans, camera, action: 'Nollywood' catches world's eye" (I have to say, "Lights, Camera, Africa" would have been better). The article introduces Nollywood to the Western reader, and describes some of its dilemmas: rampant piracy, to the point where some filmmakers with incredibly popular movies see almost no return on their work; a local backlash among Nigeria's neighbors over the popularity of Naija films, evoking similar reactions to American 'cultural imperialism' in Canada or Europe; and the overwhelming popularity of movie plots that are simplistic and reinforce a strict traditional morality.
Nollywood's stories are "very black and white" compared with Hollywood, Ms. Silva says - and that explains their appeal across Africa, where religion-based moralistic strains are popular. A "Hallelujah" sub-genre even involves timely interventions by Jesus Christ in daily affairs. [...]
And there's the recent "Women's Cot," starring Ms. Silva, which centers on a cultural practice whereby a man's family grabs all his property when he dies, leaving his widow destitute. Silva's character and other widows form a powerful group to prevent the practice. But they become corrupt.
The message: Traditional norms may be flawed, "but be wary of women if they get too much power," Silva says. It's part of Nigeria's national debate over tradition versus modernity, which resonates across Africa.
Sokari Ekine has a distinct ambivalence about the way that Nollywood presents Nigeria, and she's not alone. In a post from 2004, she calls out the Nollywood treatment of Nigerian women as either good wives willing to overlook their husbands' misdeeds, or "whores." Similarly, Dianam Dakolo, at the Nigerian Times website, says that "Nollywood is the story of Nigeria," but tells that story in problematic ways, as they portray and celebrate in plot and technique the most superficial aspects of Nigerian society:
Nigeria is Nollywood and Nollywood is Nigeria! It is the story of a people who dream dreams shaped by material reality elsewhere - in fancied societies. They identify and lift (for adoption) features of better organized and sophisticated societies, but stop short of the effort to make those things real in their own societies.
The irony here is that we hear very similar accusations leveled against Hollywood films, claims of casual misogyny and the celebration of the superficial. What makes the situation different is that Nollywood, and the African filmmaking community at large, hasn't necessarily institutionalized these practices. There's still an opportunity for independent filmmakers across Nigeria and across Africa -- and, for now, the vast majority are effectively independent -- to shape the emergence of the Nollywood voice. As the demand for traditional morality plays saturates, directors and writers seeking to tell different stories in different ways will find a willing audience. In short, this tension is very much a sign of creative growth.
Although Nollywood doesn't yet have the online or media presence of Bollywood, there are still numerous sources for information and discussion available. Nollywood.net is a good source for thoughtful essays, observations and analysis of the regional industry, with a focus on production and market more than on celebrities. Naijarules.com, conversely, is very much a Nollywood fan site -- current forum discussions include "stars you would love to meet," "hottest bodies in Nollywood," and "when stars fake their accents...". Movie World Nigeria has a polished look, with a focus on both issues and upcoming movies. And, of course, Black Looks is always worth reading, and has a favored spot in my RSS list.