At this point in its evolution, the Nollywood aesthetic is pretty much defined. Extremely low budgets and limited technical know-how meld to present sets that are claustrophobic, scenes that are heavy on dialogue, overly histrionic actors and films that mostly go straight to video.
In spite of these limitations, Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry has come to be known globally, is incredibly popular. Depending on who you are quoting, Nollywood, which only really kicked off circa 1992 with the Kenneth Nnebue Igbo language film, Living in Bondage, is the world’s second or third largest film industry in terms of output.
Nollywood’s influence extends far beyond Nigerian shores, to east and southern Africa, the Caribbean, as well as far flung corners of Europe and the Americas where viewers seeking some form of representation or identification can be identified.
In the past decade, buoyed by the increasing availability of local cinemas, there have been attempts by a new breed of filmmakers to align the Nollywood project with the standards of cinema as obtained everywhere else.
Inspired by the financial success of game changing works from new wave directors like Kunle Afolayan at the box office, there has been an increased focus on taking movies to the big screen. Budgets have gotten bigger, the technical expertise has improved dramatically and a lot more attention to detail is being recorded. But the films remain driven purely by commercial instincts and are influenced by the great Hollywood hype machine, leaving little room for experimentations with form, style or structure.
But a sub culture has been quietly evolving.
As film distribution becomes democratized, thanks to the power of the Internet, a new generation of filmmakers have found themselves testing the waters and putting out stylistic forms of entertainment that may not particularly make sense to local distributors with profit signs on their mind.
These new wave of filmmakers are to be found both in Nigeria and in the diaspora. They may have studied filmmaking or related courses and are likely to have been influenced by Kurosawa, Godard, and the European style of art house filmmakers. They are likely to be found on internet chat groups dedicated to film, in YouTube channels, WhatsApp groups and on the film festival circuit, where expressions like theirs can be encouraged.
Impressed by this scene, Nadia Denton, a British curator, author and audience development expert, who has over ten years’ experience working in film in various capacities, put together a special program tagged Beyond Nollywood.
Beyond Nollywood, an offshoot of Denton’s second book, titled The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood, is a concept Denton came up with to capture obscure but viable areas of Nigerian filmmaking- which includes indie, animation, experimental, documentary films and even music videos- and project them to the international community. ‘’I find a certain level of quality and standard present in these works and I think that if packaged properly, they stand the most chance of crossing over,’’ she tells me in January, at the 47th International Film Festival in Rotterdam.
Denton is in Rotterdam to curate Beyond Nollywood, a pivotal part of the festival’s well received Pan-African Cinema Today (PACT) section which celebrates African- and its diaspora- cinema via film screenings, talks, workshops and VR. Talks began to bring Beyond Nollywood to Rotterdam after Denton met with PACT programmer, Tessa Boerman at a prior presentation at the BFI Southbank in London.
Michael Omonua, a young filmmaker who studied film production in the United Kingdom and is resident in Nigeria, has two of his short films, Brood and Born, playing in the Beyond Nollywood program at Rotterdam. He sees a lot of value in the work that Denton is doing and tells me as much, ‘’Beyond Nollywood focuses on people who are trying to bring more artistic values to the table. I don’t think my work is so esoteric or experimental, however, I do think I bring some artistic flair because that is what I like watching myself.’’
Born, an 8 minute short which Omonua shot in Lagos and had previously screened at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) as part of the anthology, Visions, tells a relatable story. A young, unmarried, working class lady has to deal with the consequences of a drunken night of passion. What begins as a strait laced drama soon evolves into a psychological chamber piece that leaves its ending open for various interpretations, as observed at a post-screening question and answer for Born. Omonua’s second entry, Brood, which also stars the actress Valerie Dish is more linear, as it detachedly observes a frustrated young man as he struggles, to no avail, to break up with his girlfriend.
Omonua is one third of the Surreal 16 Collective (others are Abba T. Makama and CJ Obasi), an alternative initiative, inspired by the Danish Dogme 95 movement, which seeks to chart a new course for Nigerian cinema by rewriting the rules of engagement.
POM VS. QUACKS, a witty political satire is a typical example of what the Surreal 16 seeks to achieve. Written, produced and directed by Abba T. Makama- who was selected for this year’s Berlinale Talents- POM VS. QUACKS employs a snappy, narrative documentary style to take direct shots at both the African political class and the complacency of the masses who bear the brunt of bad leadership.
Nollywood has always been influenced by the shiny gloss of Hollywood and this explains Udoka Oyeka’s color chromed, violence themed revenge fantasy, titled Las Gidi Vice, an obvious homage to the television series, Miami Vice. Kanso Ogbolu’s Freak the Fxxk Out is an animated series in the mold of Tales from the Crypt. In Oyeka’s hedonistic world, one which he sets up with a sly wink at the audience, life is a party and a come-hither gaze from a vixen can either lead to a sexual awakening, or a terrifying comeuppance.
At least three of the films make use of animation and stop motion capture to explore organic African experiences that are also universal. Got Flowers Today is a painful adaptation of the 1992 poem by Paulette Kelly, about a woman’s life with an abusive husband. From Ghana, Comfort Arthur’s Black Barbie, narrated by award winning actress, Ama K. Abebrese follows the heroine’s personal journey as she learns to accept herself unconditionally and question society’s set ideals of beauty.
These questions of identity and representation are also reflected in Victoria Thomases’ I Believe in Pink, which briefly explores issues surrounding masculine values of beauty and the need to seek affirmation in lightened body parts. And in 1745, Gordon Napier’s involving tale of twin sisters snatched as kids from their home in Nigeria and sold into slavery in the Scottish highlands, half a world away.
Sade Adeniran, an author and filmmaker based in the United Kingdom, whose short animation, My Mother’s Stew deals with the diaspora experience, believes in telling these diverse stories as part of the Nigerian experience. ‘’When I think about Nigeria ten years ago and now, people are being open to talk about their feelings. We have to improve on the storytelling because film is so important. It frames the way that society thinks. We need to have more faith in our stories and in our films. That is the only way we can reframe the narrative of Africa that is currently being peddled.’’
Such efforts are already ongoing, albeit in unlikely places.
A well-received highlight of the Beyond Nollywood segment was the hour long special selection of music videos directed by the always in demand Clarence Peters.
The brains behind some of the most iconic Nigerian pop music videos, Peters has directed hundreds of music videos in his two decade career and has worked with every single Nigerian superstar. The one-off programme, curated by Denton, gave an entirely new angle to Peters’ work by magnifying some of his most popular videos- Runtown’s Mad over you, Davido’s Fia – on the big screen for an audience not familiar with his work. To sit through the experience is to be proud of being Nigerian.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. ‘’I loved the fashion and the creative use of colors. Especially the one with the strong women shinning and taking charge’’ Anne Kervers, a Dutch industry delegate observed, referring to the visuals for Mountain, a feel good, empowerment anthem by big voiced singer Waje and South African diva, Lira.
Denton remains focused on taking Beyond Nollywood and other carefully curated Nollywood content to major festivals around the world. Tessa Boerman, co-programmer of the PACT section at Rotterdam is of the opinion that Denton’s work should be supported. She tells me, ‘’Beyond Nollywood is a very important development to keep an eye on because I can imagine that this will grow. It is quite interesting because it shows such a wide spectrum of films and artistic impressions, genres, styles, different voices that speak about what issues are relevant and what stories are being told through these films. I hope festivals around the globe would key into this.’’
A City to City spotlight on Lagos in 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival took Nollywood films to perhaps their biggest audience yet but the eight films selected were mostly commercial feature lengths. Getting Beyond Nollywood to new markets will require a sustained interest from festival programmers and a willingness on their part to dive into cultures that may be out of their expertise.
In any case, the stories coming out of Nollywood are relatable and can certainly play anywhere in the world. ‘’I think that the ideas and the stories aren’t so dissimilar. I do think there is a market for my work, maybe not the mainstream one but you know what, you never know unless it is pushed and marketed properly. There is definitely a need for more engagement.’’ Omonua says.
It would be interesting to see what form this engagement takes.