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For the last two decades, almost everything about Nollywood has evolved from interest and passion. It has gained a considerable following locally and globally. As everyone watches the industry formidably take on the world, passion, and interest – for good or bad – are no longer enough: skill acquisition, international collaboration and sufficient funding are essential assets for this new mission.

A lot of research has been done about how the home video business became a multi-billion naira venture in the absence of any seeming support from government or any structure regulating production and practice in the Nigerian film industry. With its huge fan base across Africa and its Diaspora, Nollywood as Nigeria’s film industry is commonly known, has found itself exposed to critical and comparative analysis from every possible angle.

In the face of new approaches to the overall aspects of Nigerian film production, the era of slapdash, substandard filmmaking is gradually fading away. A new crop of filmmakers – telling new stories in innovative ways and making the most of the technological advancements and collaborations available in the film world – is set to take over; either by breathing new life into the populist, pedestrian Nollywood or embracing a different label altogether.

Content

There was a time when the ‘perfect’ Nollywood flick was a melodramatic farce with some slapstick comic relief. All that has changed though as better-imagined stories emerge daily. Much of this change has evolved from the indigenous language sectors, which largely refuse to align themselves with the English-speaking film industry, which wholly embodies the name ‘Nollywood.’

A scene from Kunle Afolaya’s The Figurine (Araromire)

Filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, and Kunle Afolayan and their Kannywood counterparts have upped the plot ante, breaking away from the syrupy, unsubstantial fare that was the order of the day in Anglophone Nollywood. Over the years, Kelani’s collaboration with Nigeria’s finest authors like Akinwumi Isola, Afolabi Olabimtan and Femi Osofisan has placed his stories among the industry’s best.

Afolayan’s work with professional screenwriter Kemi Adesoye on his Figurine and the recent blockbuster Phone Swap continue to show that there is little space for watery plots in what some have referred to as the new Nollywood. Mak Kusare’s Champions of Our Time, though bearing some similarities to Hollywood’s Akeelah and the Bee also shows a new approach to Nollywood storytelling.

Films like Chineze Anyaene’s Ije and Obi Emelonye’s Mirror Boy also prove that the filmmakers from the Diaspora or with influence from abroad now have an active role to play in how Nollywood and her stories will unfurl.

In the heydays of poor Nollywood scripting, many analysts felt there was no better time for filmmakers to turn to the richness of Nigerian literature for shooting films with solid storylines. Taking into cognisance however that at this time Nollywood films were made in less than four days, a screen adaptation of a Nigerian literary classic seemed highly implausible. For instance, the film adaptation of Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine remains unseen by the larger public.

As mentioned earlier, Kelani has adapted many literary works for his films like Oleku, Saworoide and Maami, to name a few. Carmen McCain, who has researched Kannywood, the Hausa language industry, revealed that many Hausa productions – past and present – were adaptations of Hausa literary classics.

“The Yoruba and Hausa film industries have had quite a few novel adaptations–something the English film industry has done much less of. One of my recent favourites was Zarar Bunu, directed by Falalu Dorayi, based on a novel Linzamin Shaidan by Nazir Adam Salih, who also wrote the screen play,” she said. “It’s a beautiful film and because it was based on a novel, it feels like it has a lot of substance to it.” Many Hausa novelists doubled as screenwriters in Kannywood, a concept entirely rare to the English-speaking sector, added McCain.

As the industry marches on, the idea of screen adaptations seems to be gaining ground even in the English language sector. Wale Adenuga Productions’ The Perfect Church is adapted from Ebi Akpeti’s novel of the same name. The film’s theme and plot are not the regular Nollywood type, but deal with homosexuality. It is slightly more detailed in its approach to the intricacies that show this perfect church was not perfect after all.

One adaptation that has been in the news for a while now is Biyi Bandele’s take on Chimamanda Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning novel Half Of A Yellow Sun. The film, which is currently in production stars Hollywood top brass like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji. Bandele is a writer himself and his World War II-themed novel Burma Boy has been described as cinema-friendly.

As Nollywood scriptwriters and her filmmakers become much more adventurous in terms of casting and budget, it will be to the industry’s own benefit to approach more experimental forms of storytelling. Nigerian writers have shown by their imagination that nothing is impossible, but is the Nigerian film industry ready to catch up?

Animation and computer-generated images (CGI) will no doubt bring stories like D.O Fagunwa’s five-book fantasy series to life in a way that books like Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings and Chronicles of Narnia have grossly benefited from.

But will Nigerian filmmakers embrace more experimental modes of film? Kenya and South Africa already boast 3D films and experimental productions. One Nigerian producer’s attempt at this has failed, but many hail Emelonye’s use of special effects in his latest work Last Flight to Abuja. Although one critic, said the effects were not particularly “special.”

Michaela Moye, a writer and film enthusiast “felt rather dismayed that the creative juices seemed confined to music videos; almost like there is an inability to extend three minutes of near-perfection to say, the ninety minutes a ‘Part I’ would last.”

Speaking further on the disconnect between story and sound in Nollywood, the need to incorporate original soundtracks in the entire film package becomes of utmost importance. Worthy of note in this regard, are films like Ali-Balogun’s Tango With Me and Afolayan’s Phone Swap, which are both accompanied by a CD of their original soundtracks (OSTs). With the talent that abounds in the Nigerian music scene, the mostly incongruous use or abuse of music (and the complete absence of specially-composed film scores) becomes highly obvious.

What then appears to be an important part of improving the overall content of Nigerian film is a synthesis of the creative industries i.e writers, filmmakers and musicians coming together to create an excellent visual product.

Production and Distribution

In Nollywood’s earlier days, it was easy for anyone with stable financial backing but little understanding of the creative process to order a director on set, cast his roles, offer him a script and request that a feature film be ready in a week and have it on the streets in a day.

These days, cinema chains, corporate funding, cable channels, critical and international exposure have ensured most of the illiterate marketers/financiers are gradually sidelined.

Day by day, more distribution companies emerge and multiple channels of accessing content are widely available. The presence of a number of cinema chains has also made the allure of a red carpet premiere irresistible for the filmmakers. Speaking at a film-related forum, prolific female director Emem Isong revealed that she had also caught on to the glitz of the red carpet and was no longer just interested in making films straight to DVD and making her returns from DVD sales.

There is no end to the number of Nigerian films, made both at home and in Diaspora premiering or screening every film week at cinemas across the country and even abroad. Presently, at least one Nigerian production is showing at the cinemas, a great leap from the early days of the re-emergence of the cinema culture when Hollywood and Bollywood productions held sway.

The fact that many Nigerian films like Phone Swap, Ije, Maami, and Funke Akindele’s The Return of Jenifa – the latter two shot wholly in Yoruba – beat Hollywood films at the cinemas is a pointer to the industry’s bright future.

Details of sales and box office returns are now better kept. Previously, many producers were left to the mercy of industry sharks and pirates who profited from their creativity. Emelonye, in a previous interview with this writer, said, “You don’t throw a film into all that madness. It’s difficult when you make that kind of effort to just make it disappear into one mob of useless films.”

This new trend has also made it easy for the audience to discern what films to hit or miss. Increase in bandwidth, and mobile access to films via subscriptions to mobile and online content providers is fast catching on. With low access rates, global audiences of Nollywood fans can access related content on platforms like AfricaFilms.TV, irokoTV and Afrinolly.

Overall, embracing the many ways of distributing their content has been largely profitable for Nigerian producers and filmmakers, but as Alessandro Jedlowski, a Nollywood researcher points out, all these will directly affect the physical sales of individual DVDs and may alienate Nollywood from its original home-based audience.

“Producers and directors have to remember the importance that straight-to-video circulation has had for the emergence and for the consolidation of the video phenomenon,” he said. “The industry needs the support of its local audience in order to mature and flourish. Too much focus on the formalisation of the industry’s economy risks taking the industry’s practitioners away from their audiences’ main concern, that is, videos’ accessibility. No “Global Nollywood” can be built if Nollywood does not manage to keep its primarily “Nigerian” identity, that is, the identity of a film industry that does well in its own market and that is able to demonstrate its success through a truly wide popular support. ”

Audience and Reception

As the Nigerian film industry evolves so has its audience. Because many appreciate the fact that this phenomenon was borne out of nothing, it was natural to sympathise with whatever the industry offered. As Nollywood’s influence grew across Nigerian shores and critical attention fell on its overly commercial, nonchalant attitude to skilled creativity, a more informed audience decided it was time for change. Among this aggrieved sector were filmmakers, who appreciated the need for training locally and internationally towards improving their art.

The critical analysis continues as bloggers, journalists and academics regularly review almost every new Nigerian release. The Lagos-based Pan African University’s School of Media and Communications has also established a Nollywood Studies Centre. While much of film reporting is still biased towards the celebrity glitz and industry showbiz, a number of informed critics regularly share their opinion online and in print. But has talk ever been enough to improve anything?

Interventions

“The biggest challenge facing Nollywood today is wrapped in one word: change! Nollywood as an interesting curiosity in the wider world of cinema is no longer enough,” observed documentary filmmaker Femi Odugbemi in an article he is inspired to write after I ask him what prospects he envisions for the industry.

His recommendations for change are four-fold: improving the film language vis-à-vis plot and craftsmanship; professional skill acquisition; embracing emerging technologies to creativity, and emphasising Nollywood’s role as documentary.

Skill acquisition appears most important but there is a dearth of wholly-dedicated film studies programmes in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Students in the few available programmes complain of inadequate equipment and resource materials. As Nollywood prepares for its next 20 years, this is one important area it must look into for the massive production of locally-grown talent.

“The political power of images as a cultural postmark in a globalised world is an awareness that I believe makes documentary a sub-conscious canvass for Nollywood’s dramatic explications.” Odugbemi enthused.

In a similar vein, Jedlowski believes that indigenous language films hold the key to best capturing the local narratives that are mostly true and easily accepted by the film industry’s Nigerian viewership. Both he and McCain believe that as time passes, indigenous productions (which according to statistics from the Censors Board are on an upward incline) will maintain their “grassroots support” while the English-speaking section cultivates an international audience.

This influx of local language films (from the Bini, Tiv, Ibibio, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo) apart from being in parallel competition with the English movies have also stemmed the frenetic release of films in the latter sector.

Another apparent counter-movement to what is widely defined as Nollywood is the emergence of Wale Ojo’s New Nigerian Cinema. The movement was established for displaying the best of Nigerian film of any genre, largely due to piercing criticism from an international audience. The actor and director, who has found renewed fame in Nigeria based on his role in Afolayan’s Phone Swap, is at the vanguard of complete change in the Nollywood status quo.

Since 2010, Ojo has organised a New Nigeria Cinema Day in collaboration with the British Film Institute for the screening of high quality Nigerian movies. Over the years, he has screened Jide Olanrewaju’s NAIJ: A documentary on the history of Nigeria and Afolayan’s Figurine. “It’s been 20 years (of Nollywood), but it’s time to move on now. New Nigerian Cinema is […] about to take (Nigerian film) internationally and around the world,” Ojo said.

While Nollywood continues to survive essentially on private funding, many believe that government support for the industry will greatly improve its outlook, especially regarding opening up the country as a choice location for international filming crews. A case in point is the choice of Nigeria as a location for many Hollywood films; this has yet to happen as even local directors hardly get such support.

All that appears on the verge of changing though, as Calabar has opened its doors to the Half Of A Yellow Sun crew. Known and unknown Hollywood personalities continue to be associated with Nollywood and with more collaborative productions on course, the trend shows no sign of abating. As more cinema houses are built, more awards and festivals organised and with a pool of young creative talent more than ready to upstage the existing practitioners, Nollywood watchers can prepare for the next two decades to be relatively high-octane.

Twenty more years seem too far away for a re-appraisal, as the next decade will most likely prove important for Nollywood and Nigerian film’s indigenous ‘woods.’

Published  as ‘Future Nollywood’ in The African Courier, August/September 2012 edition (pp 42 – 45.)

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