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Review: Emily Witt’s “Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire”

Emily Witt parachuted into Nigeria (never having visited the country previously), stayed a few weeks to research the country’s famous film industry, and then wrote Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire. Normally, I’d be skeptical of such limited research, but the results show Witt’s ability to quickly grasp a diffuse and chaotic subject, a tongue-in-cheek wit, and a colorful understanding of Nigerian culture and sensitivity. Her impressionistic book will not be the final report on the world’s second-largest film industry (1500 films annually), but I suspect that future scholars of the business will draw upon her methods for understanding and analyzing it, particularly her use of plot descriptions of a number of the most successful films released thus far, using them as emblems representative of the films as a whole. Truth to tell, if you’ve never been to Nigeria, Witt’s observations will provide you with plenty of reasons for staying away from the country.

That last remark echoes the late Chinua Achebe’s statement that people do not go to Nigeria for a family vacation, though the country is clearly addictive for others who have spent significant time living and studying the culture. And culture is everything for understanding Nollywood. As Femi Odugbemi writes in his introduction to Witt’s book, “It was from Nollywood you knew about the power structures of our communities, our consideration of spirituality, a very important component of who we are. Respect for our elders. The morality of our environment. How we looked at things like death, things like life. Our respect—all of those things that basically define who we are began to be evinced with those films. So whatever its imperfection, Nollywood in 2000 to 2015, became our voice, and thus our documentary. We did not need you to create a space for us.”

Nigerians have always been good at creating their own space. They have done this multiple times; in the arts this has often been an “answer to colonial narratives.” With film, the audience chose Nollywood over international movies as soon as these films began to appear during the last decade of the twentieth century. Partly this was a matter of security. With the first VHS films, it was safer to stay at home and watch the movies than venture to a public cinema, mostly limited to large cities. Subsequently, it was the DVD that replaced VHS versions, both given to massive pirating. Films were made in a few days for a few thousand dollars and then hurried into availability—namely by releasing thousands of copies, which were sold cheaply, because once they were released anyone could pirate them. The technology, as Witt demonstrates, was always a challenge because of the ease of piracy. Thus, the people who made the film lost most of the potential revenue from their film almost immediately. It was the pirates who profited. More recent attempts at streaming movies have also been disappointing.

Witt talked to directors and actors, screenwriters and producers; she visited a number of on-site locations where movies were being filmed. Although the attraction for many viewers is “the life of urban Nigerians,” there are historical films, and production sites throughout the country (including films that deal with regional issues.) On one occasion when she visited a location in Jos, in northern Nigeria, she—like all of the people involved in the making of the film—had to confront the problems of no toilets (except for the bush), no electricity, and snakes.

Witt’s brief comments on individual films are choice: Living in Bondage (1992) “is the story of a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult in exchange for a lifetime of riches.” About Taxi Driver (2015) a gang boss observes, “In Lagos you need to be smart to survive. Nothing here happens without the knowledge of the underworld.” 30 Days in Atlanta (2015) follows two cousins traveling in the United States and begins when the mother of one of them brings them dried fruit, palm fruit, and “a live goat so the cousins don’t starve to death in the United States.” One of the characters asks, “Who has time to apply for a visa for a goat?”

The publishers’ remarks about Witt’s book describe it as a study of “organized chaos,” which pretty well sums up life in Nigeria. Here, for example, is the jacket copy of a DVD called Affection (no copyright date provided): “A rich man had three sons whom he loved unequaled due to the evil mind of the first son. The first son never love his father but his money so he plot to kill his father with the aid of daughter and only son.” If you can make sense of that gibberish, Nollywood movies may be for you, but my own encounter with them as has been problematic. They are ludicrous; the stories are highly improbable and artless but enormously popular not only with Nigerians within the country but in the diaspora, as well as other Africans across the continent.

And, I have to remember that Nigerian literature—the finest on the continent, south of the Sahara—had its own birthing with the Onitsha pamphleteers writing unsophisticated narratives such as Mabel, the Sweet Honey (circa 1960). Innocent Mabel leaves the bush and seeks success in the big city, only to fall victim to prostitution. The incredible ending—when Mabel is pregnant—describes her death as due to an overdose of contraceptives. But Mabel, and millions of other Nigerians, desired to improve her lot in life and fell victim to the lures of city living. The novella, and others of similar ilk, was reprinted in hundreds of thousands of copies, not as a model for emulation but as a warning for young women. Mabel, the Sweet Honey and other similar narratives served as a lamppost in Nigeria literature: stories about Nigerian characters, set in a recognizable environment, fulfilling the needs of Nigerian readers—in contrast to the earlier colonial stories that were alien and often incomprehensible.

As Emily Witt concludes in her colorful study of the enormously popular Nigerian film industry, “Nollywood marks this phase of self-writing, where the assertion of Nigerian identity is not conducted in opposition to the forces of globalization and multiculturalism, but within them. Nollywood movies not only address the specificities of the Nigerian experience: They project an African identity onward into the globalized flow of popular culture, that transcendent sphere from which a teenager in Atlanta [watching one of the movies] learns Nigerian pidgin slang, or a movie director in Lagos takes a cue from Scorsese.”

Emily Witt: Nollywood: The Making of a Film Industry
Columbia Global Reports, 123 pp., $14.99

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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