In 1992, after years of watching only imported American, Indian or Chinese films, Nigeria’s local film industry had its first real hit.
“Living in Bondage,” a straight-to-video dramatic thriller, followed a man who sacrificed his wife to a satanic cult and afterwards was haunted by her ghost.
Many mark the film as the unofficial start of Nigeria’s home-grown film industry, dubbed “Nollywood,” which produces an incredible 1,500 or more movies a year — vastly more than Hollywood, and second in number only to India’s film industry, Bollywood.
Today, Nollywood films are available globally on cellphones, Netflix and YouTube, and on streets across Africa.
In her new book “Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire,” journalist Emily Witt argues that Nollywood is positioned to become a global brand much like the films of Bollywood or kung fu movies. This despite the many obstacles filmmakers might face: electricity cuts, fuel scarcity, political instability and more.
“There were a lot of films in Nigeria through the years, but none spoke our voice.”
The book’s introduction, as relayed to Witt by Nigerian documentary filmmaker Femi Odugbemi, describes how cinema and other culture in Nigeria was dominated for decades by the narratives of the colonialists.
(Nigeria was under British rule from 1901 to 1960, when an independence movement led to self-government.) But then, Odugbemi told Witt, “People who were the consumers began to become the storytellers…
There were a lot of films in Nigeria through the years, but none spoke our voice. None recognized our existence as a distinct culture, as a distinct civilization, a distinct aspiration. ”
For the first time, movies in Nigeria showed not “poverty porn” about the country, Odugbemi said, but also that there were people who had eight cars and big houses.
It showed people faithful to their wives and people who cheated, just as happened in the West. And it fixated on some of the country’s particular interests, in mythology, in spirituality, in the environment.
Just a decade after “Living in Bondage,” Nollywood films, made in some 300 languages, were being watched in both urban and rural areas, distributed on both the streets and online, and finding their way into international festivals.
And since the 2000s, Nollywood films have only continue to proliferate and spread. We recently spoke to Witt about the cultural phenomenon, how it’s spread, and how Nollywood films today are both distinctively Nigerian and globally influenced.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Why did you want to write about Nollywood?
EMILY WITT: Columbia Global Reports asked me to do it, but I had done a Fulbright in Mozambique, and had written about cinema there. I had encountered Nollywood movies for sale.
I watched a few of the movies, and they were unlike anything I had seen before. There were elements of a soap opera but they were much crazier than that, the production values were often very poor, and yet they were very popular.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Nollywood is now the world’s second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced. How did this happen, and in such a short period of time?
EMILY WITT: The industry came out of an extremely difficult time in Nigeria where all the movie theaters closed, state television networks couldn’t pay anybody and the currency had tanked so they couldn’t import movies anymore.
Out of that they started shooting movies on VHS and copying and distributing them on the street because the hunger for local entertainment was so strong.
There’s also a strong tradition of theater and storytelling in Nigeria — it’s a literary powerhouse. And there’s something unique about Nigeria in the sense that it has a really strong sense of cultural pride.
Nigerians just like Nigerian stuff better than from other places. It’s true for the fashion, the music, the language, as compared to other countries in Africa. Nigerians also saw an opportunity to create content that has black people in it, instead of [those colonialist narratives].