National Cinema in Africa: Nollywood

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National cinema is one of most influential ways of portraying and engaging with national identity and culture. As described by Andrew Higson in The concept of National cinema, “National cinema is often used to describe simply the films’s produced within a particular nation state…”. Using the Nigerian film industry, also known as Nollywood as an example, this case study will be focusing on how the culture is portrayed and relates back to the nation’s traditional identity, religious aspects and Nigerian film history and how it has managed to shape the film industry to date.

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Beginning at the start of cinema within Africa, more specifically looking at Nigeria, cinema was introduced by colonialists in the year 1903. When it was introduced it was actually in hopes to continue their political agendas and colonial advocacy seeing as this was just before Nigeria was an independent country just like many countries in Africa. Films at this time were predominantly focused on the documentary genre with topics such as health, education, agriculture, welfare and income. This was so because it was part of the colonialists’ way of ensuring their campaigns would be viewed. Now due to lack of advancement in technology back then and half the population having have been based in remote rural areas with no access to cinemas/theaters, in hopes of the colonialists to reach most of Nigerian’s population they would use travelling cinema vans which was a system that was adopted by the early Nigerian film associations well after they gained independence.

In Africa today, Nollywood has come to be probably the most famous if not the biggest cinema. Although due to the huge decline in the African net worth as a whole continent, Hollywood does not posses a strong name hold amongst some other National cinemas such as Hollywood or Bollywood that bring in a lot of money. “On average, producing a movie in Nigeria costs between $25,000 and $70,000 says the British Broadcasting Corporation” reports Rebecca Moudio, a fact that is linked to the reasoning in why there are only roughly about 1000 films produced in one year.

Just like any other example that can be thought of in terms of National cinema, you will always hear of influencers and innovators of the industry and in the case of the Nigerian cinema industry, a house held name is Ola Balogun. This man was a filmmaker and screenwriter who directed approximately 22 films and roughly 11 short documentaries. He along many more innovators such as Hubert Ogunde, was involved in the creation of the industry in Nigeria that is known as Nollywood today having had begun after the decolonization of the country in 1960s all the way throughout to 1970s. During this time, because now the people of Nigeria were beginning to claim their voice in choice, Balogun made films that were mainly focused on the corruption within politics and culture that was so filled with poverty, his most famous piece of work being the 1978 film “Black Goddess”:

In 18th century Yorubaland in Nigeria, Prince Oluyole is taken prisoner in the course of internecine warfare fanned by overseas slave traders. He is sold into slavery in Brazil. Flash forward to the 1970’s in Lagos, capital of Nigeria. A dying man bequeaths a sacred carving of Yemoja to his son Babatunde, to whom he entrusts the task of travelling to Brazil to retrieve the duplicate of the carving.

The carving that Babatunde is to seek out is supposedly held in trust by members of a branch of their family who remained behind in Brazil when Babatunde’s forefathers returned to Nigeria after slavery was abolished in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. In Brazil, Babatunde meets unexpected assistance in his quest from a young female devotee of the cult of Yemoja, who falls into a trance in his presence during a religious ceremony in one of modern Brazil’s African religious temples known as candomble.

At Yemoja’s prompting, the young woman undertakes to guide Babatunde to a deserted village in a remote part of Brazil, where they encounter the same mysterious woman to whom Prince Oluyole owed his survival two centuries earlier. As the interaction between Yemoja, Babatunde and his guide deepens, the adventure evolves into a fresh blossoming of the tragic love affair between Prince Oluyole and Amanda which was cut short by her premature death two centuries earlier.

From this film synopsis alone, Balogun clearly had begun to demonstrate some of the cultural heritage and educating the viewers on the cultural connections, especially the in the aspect of the cause of contributions to the mix of culture which has proven in the film to be slavery.

Hubert Ogunde being another innovator as mentioned earlier, was a theater director who actually had the first contemporary professional company in Nigeria on record, which was a theater group called Ogunde Theatre. Touching on traditional customs and culture, Ogunde’s theatre was and still is considered the ‘dawn of traditional Nigerian drama’ that people see being used and represented all throughout Nigerian films. His plays however, due to the time they were written like Balogun, they were based on political and social topics, his most popular piece of work being Yoruba Ranu which in translation to English is Yoruba Think and Yoruba being one of the tribes in Nigeria. This piece was an ironic narration of the hostility that was common with the yorubas’ in the 1960’s.

“Nollywood emerged as a result of several factors, one being economics”.

As mentioned earlier, the film industry in Africa was not very wealthy due to lack of recourses and funding. Some of the earliest directors and producers had to work with some of the lowest of quality technology as well as budgets. The fact that celluloid was also at a high cost didn’t help circumstances either. The identity of Nollywood films was then in a weird sense formed and these films were seen as the overall African way of storytelling thus the identity which was ‘low quality film making’ began and the link of the two with Nollywood was formed.

After dissecting Nollywood’s movies and ignoring the stigma of how they’re known for using footage with no interest or minimal regard for the quality, it is very evident that the spirit and strength of storytelling is lively. The key to success with the Nigerian film Industry is simply looking to be the moral point which is, as long as the filmmaker gets their message across to the audience, then their job as a filmmaker is for the most part achieved.

Whilst trying to stick to using some of the cinematic techniques and tradition, this industry has remained faithful in its attempt to appeal to the poor communities. This is largely due to the staging of the everyday struggle of men and women alike, trying to make in in society through the everyday struggles in films. “Nigerian videofilms are deeply rooted in Nigerian cultural traditions and social texts that focus on Nigerian community life”. Nollywood continually discloses the cultural heritage of the people and even the people who have left the country that are based all over around the world which enlightens the rest of the world watching about African culture and their way of life along with stories within the Nollywood films that acquire native language of ethnic and tribal groups.

Today Nollywood is actually famous for its combination of western culture with the African culture in most of its storytelling. Nollywood brings the two together by using English and tribal languages in order to create a sense of socialization with the outside world from Nigerian tradition, cultural heritage and social norms. In attempts to help inform and enlighten the multicultural characteristics to Africans who are either born in other countries other than Nigeria and people in the western first worlds, giving an insight and first base knowledge to black people of African decedents whilst also trying to create an understanding and produce a sense of belonging. An example of this is the film mentioned earlier by Ola Balogun, The Goddess.

Multiculturalism that is created in the Hollywood films is usually made in accordance to the African identity to help portray the heritage of Nigerian culture and how its represented. African tradition is largely based on morals and values that send messages through stories which is a key narrative technique used by Hollywood film creators. It allows plots and characters and twists that introduce religion easily as one of the on-screen character’s base fundamental ideals that shape the character. Nigerians are well known for being some of the most religious people in the world and its only natural and expected that this is also portrayed within their films, whether be the way they worship, pray and speak the word of the lord. Some of Nollywood’s examples that involve and depict the religious belief include Evil Doers, End Of the Wicked, The Holocaust etc. and are under the Horror genre. Others include The Figurine and enemy of the kingdom. These few examples from many more other titles implicate on how the traditional African/Nigerian individual is most likely expected to live their life in accordance to following religious beliefs.

Storytelling in Nollywood films tend to show most religious beliefs, moral values and even sometimes using on-screen characters’ as prop like figures dressed in traditional attires which view what one person’s particular tribe could be considering there is approximately 371 tribal groups in Nigeria. Sets and props are also things that are casually considered in the decision making process of creating an African film to convey the cultural stance of Nollywood’s National cinematic view point its setting to the rest of the world. Sets and certain locations act as another form of storytelling due to surroundings for example, the use of village communities in rural areas, which represent the remoteness and isolation to the tech based world that can sometimes occur in the actual everyday lives of Nigerians. The use of smart and intelligent characters full of words of wisdom and African idioms are also thrown in a lot in the Nollywood films which sometimes actually have traditional meanings in a native language or in English along with ceremonies such as Labola; the bridal price ceremony before marriage, festivals, rituals, shrines, sacred places, objects, dance, music.

Another cultural belief that can be and is usually demonstrated in film is the practice of the ritual that requires a widow to undergo ritual trial of sorts to try and prove the innocence that she didn’t have anything to do with her husband’s death. This examples is intact what majority of the women in Hollywood films are usually portrayed which is of evil spirit and always on an agenda that only benefits themselves. Usually these woman have an issue with their mother in law which causes conflict within the family and creates a relationship strain between mother and son.

An identity that most African countries are known for is for its poverty and Nollywood embraces this by using it in their films to portray the difference between the rich and the poor. This aspect of narrative which focuses on the social standing of the Nigerian people is usually used and represented through marriage related issues. For an example and rich girl or boy seeking to marry a poorer partner is usually discouraged if not forbidden by their parents to do as they please. In other films it focuses on tribal issues that are faced on a regular by Africans at times ending with no real possible solution cause these are issues that are happening with no real ending to it.

Other African countries have begun to follow and mimic Nollywood in hopes to build their own industries within their own countries and promoting the African heritage that will attract genuine interest from the international communities from other nations. Overall, In conclusion, the way that Nollywood portrays and engages with national identity as mentioned throughout the case study is through historical figures, beliefs and rituals which go hand in hand with storytelling and social structure.

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