Nollywood: Inside West African Filmmaking


There was a dim flicker and then the small room was thrust into blackness. Then, the cries of frustration.

“Oh!”

“Light off!”

“Cut! That’s it for the day—we have to rewrite this scene.”

Someone cracks the door, hot mid-day light pours in, and the film crew shuffles out.

The power went out. In Lagos, Nigeria, where rolling blackouts are commonplace, hurdles like this are to be expected. The fuse box did not blow. We didn’t overload the circuit. There simply was no more power being supplied until the government decided to turn it back on. Members of the Nigerian crew slapped me on my back.

“I bet you’ve never seen that on a set in the US.”

I hadn’t. I was in Nigeria, and subsequently Ghana, producing and shooting a movie called Pastor Paul. It is about an American tourist who travels to Ghana to study African drumming and finds himself cast in a Nollywood film, and then becomes possessed. We were on the set of an actual Nollywood film shooting scenes that would then be cut into our film.

International recognition of Nigerian filmmaking prompted the nickname “Nollywood,” which is usually credited to a 2002 New York Times article. Incidents like this, as well as budgetary restrictions, have influenced Nollywood filmmakers to get creative. They employ a run-and-gun guerilla style of shooting, drawing from a wide array of at times hokey special effects and loosey-goosey theories of film coverage. Some scenes are reused in edits, some scenes clearly don’t have matching shots, and some scenes don’t make any sense at all. But they get shot. Nollywood filmmakers were also amongst the first to shoot feature length movies on video, a practice that is almost the norm now. Full films are hammered out—from start to finish—in a matter of weeks. These films are then released on video CDs and distributed to a wide array of movie stores and street-side hawkers. Some Nollywood filmmakers, like Lancelot Imaseum, have been able to complete upwards of 200 films in their continuing careers.

While originally referring to Nigeria, the style has spread across Western Africa, with a particular popularity in Ghana, and to other parts of the continent such as Uganda. In the 2000s, Western countries noticed, and documentaries chronicling the industry such as Nollywood Babylon were released. But even though the numbers show that more Nollywood films are being made than American ones, it still seems as if they are not being given the credit they deserve. The “phenomenon,” as it is so often referred to, is usually mentioned in financial or comical terms. But there is much more to it than that. While many films employ the sometimes-laughable production techniques I mentioned, many of them are also exploring meaningful personal narratives about people’s place in the world, or more specifically, the postcolonial world.

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West Africans are telling self-determined stories of their lives and struggles by exploring themes such as personal identity and your place in the world, city life versus the village life, God versus money, and Witchcraft versus Christianity. Nollywood films give a voice to artists and people of West Africa in this postcolonial world. These are truly African stories, but can are universally relatable. There is a lot to be gained in the viewing of Nollywood films as legitimate stories as opposed to conduits for silly filmmaking practices. On the whole, Nollywood filmmakers do not have the money and access that many other filmmakers have. They are using their own techniques to tell their own stories on their own dime that portray their own quintessentially African world. In a rapidly globalizing society, that is very important.

The cinematic landscape of the world we live in is changing as fast globalization occurs. For those looking to expand their understanding of what a filmic African narrative in a postcolonial world might look like there are a couple of good places to start. You can watch documentaries Nollywood Babylon or the Nigerian produced This is Nollywood, which do a good job at overviewing the industry. If those pique your interest, check out Irokotv.com, a streaming web platform that provides on-demand Nollywood films in the Netflix style. Film has a special ability to make things that are new and different extremely relatable and now more than ever has a unique ability to lead the way. Give Nollywood a shot and see what I mean.

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