This is an essential book on one of the most explosive film movements in recent memory, rivalling the prodigious output of Iranian films in the 1990s; the Nigerian feature film industry, which, working almost entirely in video (both digital and analogue) has racked up an astounding 9,000 full-length feature productions between 1992 and 2007. In 2006 alone, Nollywood (the nickname for the Nigerian film industry) produced roughly 1,600 feature-length productions, all shot rapidly on three- to ten-day shooting schedules, at minimal cost. In fact, the entire cost of these 1,600 films is less than US$60 million; or, as Barrot points out, roughly the cost of one medium budget Hollywood movie, minus prints and advertising (p. xi).
Nollywood films are cheaply made, but they give a voice to African filmmakers that traditional film production often denied them. Much of the book, indeed, points out the difficulty and expense of working in 16mm or 35mm film, as opposed to digital video, and makes a persuasive case that, as in other countries, film is rapidly being phased out as the preferred medium. It’s easy to see why: video is cheap, easily edited, offers speed and portability, and doesn’t require processing. Once completed, the films are immediately distributed to recoup their meagre investment, and remakes and outright imitations proliferate. As Barrot notes, many of these films are of poor quality, lacking in both artistic ambition and technical polish, but even the weaker films in the Nollywood movement offer escapism, as well as political and social engagement, for audiences throughout Africa.
As Barrot makes clear, this volume is not a comprehensive study of the movement, which would be nearly impossible, given the vast number of features produced, as well as the more than 200,000 people who work to make these films. I’ll call them “films” in this review, as Barrot does in his book, because they conform to what audiences have come to expect from a feature film; they’re narrative films, they run from 70 minutes to 2 hours in length; there is a Nollywood star system which has many devoted followers; and for the most part, they are designed to please certain target audiences, depending upon the genre (action films, romance films, dramas and the like). But in Nollywood’s frank commercialism, and its embrace of video, it becomes a vanguard film movement for other developing nations to follow. Film is no longer a practical tool for the 21st-century cinema, and for a new generation of directors. Digital video is widely used in Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, and with the proper technical care, the results are remarkable, and easily equal the quality of 35mm film.
As I have been arguing for more than a decade in both lectures and in published papers, in particular my essay “Vanishing Point: The Last Days of Film”, which appeared in Senses of Cinema 43 (2007), this shift to digital is not only inevitable from a financial standpoint; it also represents the next shift to a new platform that offers superior image capture quality, and greater access to tools for filmmakers, no matter what their budget limitations. Nollywood has simply grabbed video filmmaking with a ferocious intensity, and created a national cinema that allows Nigerian viewers to see themselves on the screen, rather than being colonised exclusively by Hollywood imports. American films are still big box office in Nigeria, but mostly on DVDs, many of which, frankly, are pirated; but for the nation to have such a lively and progressive cinema culture of its own is a testament to the vision and artistry of its many indigenous practitioners.
Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria is structured in a series of brief chapters that highlight the production, distribution and exhibition of Nollywood films, interspersed with overviews of some of the key Nollywood films of the past ten years. Pierre Barrot, the volume’s editor, who works in the Department for Cultural Co-operation and Action at the French Embassy in Algiers, and was formerly the Regional Audio-Visual Attaché at the French Embassy in Lagos, also contributes much of the text of the book, in a lively and accessible style that makes the films come alive for the reader. The book opens with an account of a theatrical screening of Jean Rouch’s classic ethnographic short film Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), which took place in Ghana in March 2004, shortly after Rouch’s death. As Barrot writes,
after a few minutes, the film came off its tracks, the old 16mm film having strayed off its sprockets. The reel jammed and with an inexperienced, or absent, projectionist the film was destroyed in a slow inexorable dissolving on the screen as the celluloid burned. (p. 4)
Rouch himself had noted, in his final years, “that video is the AIDS of the film industry” (p. 3), a quote that Barrot finds puzzling and open to multiple interpretations;
was he warning about the viral nature of piracy, which is frequently associated with video, or making a point about the rapid proliferation of video-players? Or perhaps he was warning of the dangers of this equipment, since video, as a tool designed for mass consumption, was beginning to replace film, previously the preserve of a small group of specialists? (p. 3, my emphasis)
Whatever his precise meaning, as Barrot notes, “if video is a kind of virus, then its victims seemed to be embracing it.” (p. 4) Rouch, one of the last of the colonialist documentaries (and the subject of a fascinating video documentary by African cinema specialist Manthia Diawara, Rouch in Reverse , in which Diawara examines Rouch’s daily life in France with the same cold, clinical, somewhat condescending gaze that Rouch used in his own films on African culture), was on to something; video production has taken precedence over film production, and almost wiped it out, but in the process video has given a voice to millions who, up until now, had been denied access to the basic tools of visual communication.
In a series of compelling and authoritative essays, Barrot documents the rise and takeover of Nollywood cinema, starting with his meditation on Rouch’s legacy, titled after Rouch’s quote, “Video Is the AIDS of the Film Industry”, then moves on to discuss the wide proliferation of artists and directors at work in Nollywood in “The Italians of Africa”, a reference to the bustling Italian film industry centered in Cinecittà in the 1960s, which ground out an amazing number of films in a wide variety of genres with remarkable speed and economy. “Selling Like Hot Cake: Box Office and Statistics” offers an overview of the financial underpinnings of the industry, and gives us a glimpse of the staggering number of practitioners competing against each other for a share of their audience; while “Audacity, Scandal, and Censorship” examines exactly what one can and can’t get away with in depicting life on the screen in Nollywood cinema. The answer to this question, by the way, seems to be that you can pretty much get away with anything, just so long as there is no nudity of any kind. Violence and more violence is a staple of many of the films discussed in Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria, but any bodily display at all, even a glimpse of a nipple, is apparently enough to bring down the wrath of the censors.
In a group of additional essays (“Jumping on the Bandwagon” by Tunde Oladunjoye; “Nigerian Video as a Child of Television” by Don Pedro Obaseki; “Hausa Video and Sharia Law” by Frederic Noy; and “Spielberg and I: The Digital Revolution” by Tunde Kelani) in the volume, the authors contemplate the various additional realities and ramifications of using video as a means of cinematic discourse, and the links between video production and television programming and distribution. Kelani’s essay is particularly enlightening, as the author recounts his first exposure to digital video, and his amazement at the ease and efficiency of working within the medium, as well as the quality of the results.
The final chapters in the volume examine the large number of romance films being made as part of the Nollywood movement; as well as the distribution of Nollywood videos in neighbouring African nations, which embrace Nollywood films as a model for feature video productions in their own countries. Finally, in “Is the Nigerian Model Fit for Export?” Olivier Barlet asks whether or not Nollywood films have an international future; can they be exported to countries outside of Africa, and perhaps even to the United States? My answer is “of course they can, and should be, and already are”, on DVDs both legal and pirated, and available from a number of suppliers and distributors whose names and contact information are given at the back of the book in an essential appendix to the work.
There is also a complete list of films cited, an extensive and up-to-date bibliography, and a list of periodicals and websites for Nollywood stars and directors, making the volume an essential text for programmers interested in Nollywood cinema, which has much to teach us about not only Nigerian culture, but also about the hegemonising gaze of the Hollywood cinema. Barrot’s volume, ably translated by Lynn Taylor from original French texts, is thus a book that belongs in all film libraries, both personal and institutional, and gives the reader the best available examination of Nollywood cinema to date. The Nollywood cinema is a people’s cinema, unmediated by government agencies or corporate purse strings; no matter how stark and Spartan the production methods are, Nollywood’s productions mirror the birth of cinema in any country where the fever for self-representation first takes hold. In Nollywood, Nigeria has found its image, an image that it continually builds on and refines. It will be fascinating to watch as Nollywood’s industrious model spreads throughout the rest of the continent.
Nollywood: The Video Phenomenon in Nigeria, edited by Pierre Barrot, translated by Lynn Taylor, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2009.
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