Nollywood has told and retold the story of Nigerians over many years and has gained worldwide recognition for it. It’s a $3bn industry, which surpassed Hollywood as the world’s second largest movie industry by volume, right behind India’s Bollywood, in 2009. But in terms of quality its staple worldview of runs girls and fetish wives and its ritualistic rhetoric has increasingly alienated modern audiences, especially the young, through its myopic and repetitive style and content.
The world has moved on since the direct-to-video release of Chris Obi Rapu’s movie ‘Living in Bondage (1992)’ set the template for what is widely known as ‘Nollywood’ today. While Living in Bondage was innovative the sensationalist and highly moralistic thrillers that have followed at a pace of around 500 a year leave a lot to be desired.
But of course Nigeria is much more than this and has a film industry that pre-dates the pop culture of Nollywood and is growing from strength to strength.
This was evident at Beyond Nollywood, a three-day film festival at the British Film Institute curated by Nadia Denton, the champion of new Nigerian cinema with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry.
Beyond Nollywood delivered raw exposure, stories that illuminate what it means to be Nigerian without pretence or a premeditated end. These narratives explored the complex layers of its characters, baring themes that are all too familiar. They told a universally human story of survival, hope, perseverance, morality and loss that even without an understanding of the cultural or social context, still succeeded in emotionally engaging the multi-cultural audience.
The thrill of relatable characters, the beaming smiles and loud applause that Beyond Nollywood elicited shows the injustice Nollywood has levied on its audiences by its two-dimensional portrayal of Nigerians and that there is indeed a market and yearning for these works. The festival was the perfect antidote, addressing contemporary issues to the most engaging a compelling way.
Three films screened over the weekend highlighted this. The weekend opened on November 18 with a gala premiere of Green White Green. This comical satire tells the story of four youths from different ethnic groups, their journey to achievement and their enduring friendship against all odds.
This film cleverly explored how inter-tribal relations differs between young people and the older generation.
The following day, ‘Henna’ told the story of a brave girl as she fights against the cultural and religious burden in a patriarchal society that seeks to turn her in to a child bride at the expense of her education. The protagonist valiantly asked her arranged husband-to-be “But I have a choice, right?”
Boko Haram’s torment of Nigerian society, especially in the North, was laid bare in the introspective narrative of ‘No Good Turn’. It explored grief and moral conscience; will you kill the terrorist who killed your family while he is sedated and defenceless in hospital bed? If the police inspector whose station he blew doesn’t kill him, will the doctor whose wife he killed?
While these stories laid bare the trials and tribulations in Nigeria, I was comfortable to see them played out on screen to an international audience. The characters were familiar and there was intelligence and thoughtfulness in the narratives. Alongside the ills were the good, through economic frustration we saw perseverance, a balance that made the characters human.
These stories held a mirror to the Nigerian society; exploring themes like tribal tensions, economic frustration, depression, religious and cultural oppression, especially of women and girls in the North, ripping open the inhibitive boxes in which Nollywood has placed Nigerians.
While Nollywood often uses the language of extremities – bad or good, industrious or lazy – Beyond Nollywood captured the nuances, economic, social, religious and cultural subjugation, in a way that Nigerians and even non-Nigerians alike can identify with the humanity and resilience of the characters
Nigeria, a multifaceted country boasting of over 250 tribes and languages, a country that ranges from the bubbling city of Lagos to the villages; from the overtly rich to the extremely poor, the story of its people cannot be told through a single lens by an industry that commands so much views as the second largest film industry in the world.
Though time is required to undo the harm and regain the trust of many who have given up on the Nigerian film industry, Beyond Nollywood is proof that it can be done with the right support.