Friday, March 3, 2017

African Films: From Hollywood to Nollywood (and Ghallywood and Lolliwood)

Films made in Africa used to be made almost exclusively by Hollywood studios. Not any more.

A fascinating report in Britain’s Economist magazine describes the recent explosion of popular African film-making, chiefly centred in Nigeria. Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is referred to, is suddenly big business. Film makers are turning out around 50 full-length feature films each week in a new industry which is focusing on quantity rather than quality. Only India’s Bollywood produces more films each year than Nigeria.

No wonder there’s a buzz about Nollywood – Nigerian film-making is generating employment and dollars. The Economist reports that Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, is perpetually thronging with camera crews, actors and actresses shooting on location. The films go – deliberately – straight to DVD to be watched in homes across Africa. African audiences don’t have the money to travel to cinemas or buy cinema tickets whereas they can buy the new films for a dollar. Market traders sell (and often produce) Nollywood’s films and sales of each title can reach a million. The Nollywood film industry, street- and market-based, is strictly no frills. It has no studios, no lots and no luxury trailers for the stars. Scenes are shot on location, on tight budgets. The finance comes mainly from traders in the Lagos market, Idumota.

Nollywood films are shot on digital videocameras and it’s the new camera technology which has allowed the industry to take off. Camera work and film editing are rough and ready. Scripts and dialogue are improvised. The lack of professionalism doesn’t stop Nigerians, and Africans elsewhere, buying the output of the new industry though. Poor state-run television programmes, slow internet connections (and poor access to the web anyway) leave millions of Africans with limited options for entertainment.

If customers are queuing up across the African continent to buy Nollywood films it’s partly because the film makers are choosing popular themes. One God One Nation recounts the story of a Muslim man and a Christian woman who long to marry. Caught in the Act is a drama in which a woman is falsely accused of kidnapping a child. Nollywood films relate to their African audiences, depicting ordinary Africans who struggle to make their way in the world. The stories are about hope, despair, trust and betrayal.

The history of cinema in Africa was obviously, until recently, European and American. European rulers imported films for entertainment and later Hollywood arrived on location to make films like The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. During the struggle for independence many of those Hollywood films came to be seen by Africans as racist or simply irrelevant. African audiences now watch far more Nollywood films than either American or European films. As the Economist reports: “The overarching theme of Nollywood films is Africa’s troubled journey to modernity. Because Hollywood films tend to show people at the other end of that journey, they fail to resonate.”

While Nigeria’s film makers and customers are happy about Nollywood’s success, there are many critics within the continent. The intellectual elite in Africa condemn the films as badly made and full of superstitious nonsense and sorcery. Outside Nigeria, there are fears that the films will project Nigerian culture at the expense of other national cultures. Some fear Nollywood is leading to the ‘Nigerianisation’ of Africa.

Nollywood’s new film moguls are perfectly blithe about the criticism. Ernest Obi, who is head of the Lagos actors’ guild, retorts: “We give Africa development and knowledge. We teach people things. If they call us colonial masters – too bad.”

In amongst the criticism there is of course some jealousy on the part of other African countries. Nigeria’s success in film-making has inevitably prompted its African neighbours to get into the film business too. South Africa, Tanzania and Cameroon are already turning out hundreds of films each year and some Kenyan films have lifted trophies at Nigeria’s awards ceremonies. Ghana and Liberia are touting the creation of film industries in their countries too: “Ghallywood” and “Lolliwood” are in production!

There is another interesting aspect to the African film industry – a linguistic one. I’ve travelled and worked in African countries in the past and I remember more than one heated debate, at the Zimbabwe Book Fair in Harare, about African publishing. The debate was whether or not books should be published in the old colonial languages – principally English and French. The problem for those Africans who preferred local languages was that it was thoroughly uneconomic. Nigeria, for example, has over 520 languages. Imagine the translation costs and the different – tiny – print runs. The same applies to film. Since so many Africans speak English, and African film makers want large audiences, films are being made in English rather than in local languages. Nollywood – and Ghallywood and Lolliwood and the other African film industries – are spreading the English language ever more widely.


Labels: African Films: From Hollywood to Nollywood (and Ghallywood and Lolliwood)

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