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Poor and uneducated: is it everything Africa represents?

Poor and uneducated: is it everything Africa represents? 

Valentina Couciero – How is filmmaking possible in a country where many people are living on one dollar per day? All with a “make a plan” mindset.

“..for these western Africans, telling stories is like riding bikes for Dutch people..”

Nollywood. What is this? It sounds like a third version of Hollywood and Bollywood mixed together. Likewise, it represents one of the biggest film-making industries. Yet, it is completely different because it is Nigerian. Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, the Nigerians succeeded to make their industry the second in the world “out of nothing”. This is why it is called Nollywood (‘NothingWood’). Their industry is behind Bollywood but in front of Hollywood!

The question is: how? How is filmmaking possible in a country where many people are living on one dollar a day?

To begin with, in the 1990s, the means of production evolved greatly which allowed the industry to sell their movies onto Video Cassette Tapes or Video Compact Discs (VCDs). These cassettes created this famous Nigerian ‘home cinema’, a cultural hybrid between cinema and television. Also, video-production equipment became much cheaper and available. While cinemas were very scarce, Nigerians could afford to watch their movies at home. In 2007, VCDs cost 1.50$ to make and were sold to consumers for 3$ or less. Today, they are still very present in society, but Nigeria is becoming a breeding ground for other technologies such as Iroko. It is a web platform similar to Netflix but with Nigerian movies. These new technologies make the Nigerian movies more accessible in the whole of Africa and internationally.  This adaptation to this peculiar technology demonstrates the mentality of the Nigerian producers.

Nigerians have the African “make a plan” mentality. This means that even with a 10000 $ budget, they are able to make a fair movie. Indeed, they can double props without any costs.  For instance, when actors don’t have various shirts, they turn it aside and double their props. However, the industry ameliorated and a few movies have now won international awards. October 1 released in 2014 with a budget of 1.3 billion $ is one of them. Therefore, the quality was much better than the first Nigerian blockbusters such as Living in Bondage (1992) with budgets which were around 12,000$ (N118,920 at the 1992 exchange rate).

This was also possible because producers put their lives in the movies they offer. While in the USA, in San Diego you just have to apply for a permit and pay the taxes to shoot a movie legally, in Nigeria you have to know the right people and be at the right place. In other words, you have to become some sort of diplomat to enter the Nollywood business. Neither the state nor the international community believed in this industry and now it is the second biggest employer after agriculture in Nigeria. The producers used the money from their own pocket most of the time to make it work. They cannot even afford to stop producing movies. In 2007, 30 movies were produced per week. The Nigerian state is today subsidizing the industry and trying to control piracy, but it is usually not enough to make the producers’ lives a long quiet river. According to Chico, one of the biggest movie producers: ‘making films in Africa is like a jungle’. 

Yet, this is not only it, because Nigerians did not jump on the bandwagon. Indeed, what makes their industry so special and successful is their differentiation from the Western industries. Most Nigerians tend to say that they ‘have the stories.’ These stories are usually inspired from the traditional folk tales. They really keep the public in suspense. 

Their stories also represent worldwide issues such as corruption, crime, family conflict, religion etc. The difference is they are told from an African perspective. This makes the movies a lot more relatable to Africans than the Hollywood movies. In fact, most Nigerians rather prefer Nollywood movies. For instance, Nigerian movies are subtitled in English but still use the various Nigerian languages. Unlike the Hollywood movies, they actually show the polyglot African society. I believe these are the kind of details that makes the movies a lot more relatable. 

Additionally, for these western Africans, telling stories is like riding bikes for Dutch people. Culturally, they know how to tell stories since they are born. One of the very famous producers of Nollywood, Don Pedro Obaseki even said “every Nigerian or every African is a storyteller, you can call a five-year-old girl or boy and say, “tell me a story”, he will tell you a story and embellish it with such visuals. It’s part of the way of life here”. The Wedding Party is one of the films which epitomizes well this concept. The movie is full of twists and dramatic situations. Moreover, it portrays the importance of weddings in Nigeria; the different social classes, family and friends’ relationships in Lagos. The important director Kunle Afolayan even believes that in the next ten years Hollywood will move to Nigeria because they “have the stories and the market”. 

The Nigerian industry does not produce the best quality movies and still goes through difficulties that Hollywood was going through in the 1920s and 1930s. In that sense, the economic situation is still very insecure which compels producers to show specific genres of movies.  For instance, it is difficult to show movies on historical events such as the war in Liberia in the 1990s. Izu, a Nigerian producer shot the film Laviva, which explains this situation, but it was extremely difficult to feed and pay the actors during the shooting. Besides, similarly to 1930s Hollywood movies, Nigerian movies have sometimes to be shortened.  However, there are more and more Nigerian high quality productions, and this is really hopeful for the Nigerian film industry.

I did not write this article to pinpoint a problem that should be solved. I wrote this article to acknowledge the results and the progress the Nigerians achieved in these very special circumstances. The film industry generated 3 billion dollars in 2015 for the Nigerian economy and is currently the second largest employer in the country. This allowed their GDP to rise, to create jobs, to educate people. This eventually created better living conditions. Along with this, it empowered women, because most of the richest producers in Nigeria today are women. 

Moreover, it favored the recreation of their culture after the decolonization. It gave a new identity to Nigeria but also to Africa. Hence, it unites people. Also, it allowed the rest of the world to discover Nigeria under another perspective and might then attract investors to Nigeria. It killed the “danger of the single story” that the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes. For her, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I hope that after reading this article you have another perspective on Nigeria and its customs. I believe we have to diversify our knowledge to see the bigger picture.

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