Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nollywood Rising: Time for Africa?

It may indeed come as a surprise but the world's second largest film industry is not in Europe, Asia or the Americas but in Africa. The Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is worth more than $250 million and employs over half a million people. And with more than 200 movie releases per month, Nollywood produces more movies than even the mighty Hollywood!


Quality, not quantity? Well it is true most Nollywood movies are small-budget ventures shot on digital video formats and not intended to be screened at cinemas (there are not that many in Africa!) but are sold through DVDs that cost less than two dollars each. Yet, the issues like urbanization and coexistence of the traditional and the modern that the movies deal with have much resonance in a country and a continent that are fast changing. In less than two decades since its emergence, Nollywood has spread its tentacles across Africa and is increasingly being recognized and celebrated outside the continent, such as at Film Africa festival in London this month.

Nollywood's ascent in Africa has been facilitated by using widely-spoken English as the language of films and tackling subjects, including some contentious ones like witchcraft, with pan-African appeal. But there is also a desire by Africans to watch movies made by other Africans that do not represent their continent and their issues through the Western lens. The Economist article, Lights, Camera, Africa, quotes a leading Nigerian director, Lancelot Idowu, as saying “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN.” 

But it is a voice that, as it becomes more audible, is also causing some unease in Africa. As the Economist article explains, in the wake of Nollywood's growing popularity, some have expressed fears of "Nigerianisation” of Africa-- a development that interestingly echos the largely unfounded concerns of some cultural critics about "Americanization" of the world thanks to the world-wide popularity of Hollywood movies. Not surprisingly, some governments have resorted to protectionist measures to try to prevent Nollywood from making further inroads into their countries; the Democratic Republic of Congo, in fact, even tried to completely ban Nigerian films!

Yet, resistance to what some critics and governments may see as a Nollywood invasion is not so bad after all. In order to appeal to African public in the face of opposition from powers that be, Nigerian directors and producers constantly have to get their act together and strive to improve their movies rather than becoming complacent. And, in part to counter Nollywood's influence, movie industries across Africa in countries like Tanzania, Cameroon, and Ghana are taking root and, in many cases, flourishing.

As some of the better work of these emerging film industries find an audience outside Africa, the new audiences will be able to more than just appreciate pieces of art; they will also be able to appreciate narratives on Africa from the prisms of Africans themselves.