#YNaijaEssays: The Future of Film in Nigeria is female

It was obvious from the very first promo images that the Wedding Party was going to be big. Everything about the film seemed big, from the extravagant bejewelled crown a keening Adesua Etomi wore in the promo pictures, to the outsize fame of Banky W finally making the jump from music to film. The Wedding Party’s cast was big too, Richard Mofe Damijo coming out of a pseudo-retirement to face off with Iretiola Doyle who has pretty much cornered the market for Nollywood’s stoic Iron Lady. Sola Sobowale, at one time Nigeria’s most famous actress was also returning to english speaking Nollywood. Add to that list all the promising actors on the scene and a proper film budget and anyone can see The Wedding Party was going to make a splash no matter who directed it. But Kemi Adetiba was satisfied with making a splash, she wanted to recreate Nollywood in her own image. And she did.

Timelessness cannot be extracted from the art of great storytelling and Nigeria’s film director and producer, Kemi Adetiba who had worked on a couple of short films and experimental music videos before The Wedding Party was ready for the challenge. She knew she had a lot to prove. Pulling out of the space that empowers men and places women at a socially-defined disadvantage, Adetiba has always challenged the status quo. That creativity led her to a successful career in radio and television. The urge to do more – to diversify her talents was the next thing she decided.

The 38-year-old now filmmaker decided, in 2007, to study film at the New York Film Academy and transitioned to life behind the camera. Upon her return to Nigeria she began directing music videos and without delay, became an expert in her field.

Ten years after, she produced “The Wedding Party” which hit the screens and became a defining moment for Nigerian cinema. Precisely, it was the first movie to surpass the $1.3 million mark at the Nigerian box office and the Wedding Party sequel (directed by Niyi Akinmolayan after a rumoured breakdown of relationship between the director and the studio) is currently the highest grossing film in Nigerian history.

But the Wedding Party wouldn’t have happened without the groundbreaking work of another innovator, Mo Abudu. Referred by some as Africa’s ‘Oprah Winfrey, Mosunmola Abudu first came into our collective Nigerian consciousness as the host of her daytime television show ‘Moments with Mo’, the first product of her newly incorporated media company Ebony Life. She’d just left a decade-long career in private corporate management and consulting and started from scratch. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Capitalising on the unprecedented success of the show (it scored the rare interview with Hillary Clinton, who was at the time in 2009, US Secretary of State), Mo moved the show to the DSTV cable network and worked out syndication deals across Africa.

Piggybacking off this continent-wide fame, and a distinct lack of contemporary television content aimed at Nigerians, she founded Ebony Life TV in 2013, a global platform targeted at the youth, with a vision to empower and showcase their talents to the world.

Mo said, in an interview that, “This kind of afro-pessimism simply fuelled a burning, deep-seated desire in my subconscious to one day help to rewrite the African story; to get people to talk about the issues that affect our society and to tell the African narrative in a contemporary and interesting way; to change the perception the world had of us; to let the world know that in spite of our challenges as a developing continent, Africans are not a bunch of savages but mostly a breed of gifted and remarkable people.”

To emphasise that passion has been the key driver in both Adetiba and Abudu’s success might not be necessary.

Most Nigerians sit in between the space of love or hate for Nollywood. Yet, we must not throw-off the fact that Nollywood has a considerable influence on religion, culture; even in the outside world. Nollywood is probably influential because of the way it portrays wealth, which many poverty-stricken people aspire to; in the same way, reflecting the realities and challenges of ordinary people.

However, while many criticise the recurrence of ‘witchcraft’ in Nollywood stories, there’s a lot less criticism on how women are portrayed in these movies. When a topic on these women come up, it is always about how they dress and behave – how much bad influence they are on women.

It is the belief that film/movies are a reflection of the society, however, what we see in Nollywood movies, in comparison to what Nigerians think, is somewhat different. Nollywood movies are often a vehicle for the wildly misogynist film producers and directors to express their contempt for women. In movies such as Blackberry Babes, Girls Cot, women are boxed into restrictive and sometimes downright dangerous gender tropes, always in search of a rich man or sugar daddy – which, in turn, presents men as seemingly oppressed by women. We do not even want to start a conversation on stories told of women who fall in love with their oppressors or worse, their rapists, the actions of said oppressors whitewashed with the varnish of concern.

Nollywood has been especially harmful in perpetuating stereotypes and bigotry around women’s sexual health. This is especially true when we consider how traditionally Nollywood has portrayed women who have unplanned pregnancies. Whether the characters portrayed in these films choose to keep or abort their pregnancies, they are still vilified, suggesting quite clearly that the real sin is fertility. The Wedding Party was refereshing because while its women often came off as kitschy, they also had a lot of agency and their stories were given some heft and complexity.

While we wait for Nollywood story-tellers to get it right when it comes to women, we can continue to support the likes of Mo Abudu, Omoni Oboli, Kemi Adetiba where the story has begun to change.

But we cannot discuss the changes that have come into Nollywood and how the women in the industry are changing it from the inside out without discussing Nollywood’s first and second Golden Ages for women. The first Golden Age for Nollywood started in the late 90’s with landmark films for actresses like Omotola Jolade Ekeinde, Kate Henshaw, Genevieve Nnaji and Rita Dominic and Stella Damasus. These actresses were actually a second wave of Nigerian female A-listers, the first generation comprising of actresses like Rita Nzelu, Sandra Achums, Gloria Anozie Young, Hilda Dokubo Mbrakapor and Liz Benson. Those actresses had filled early Nollywood predilections for films that explored the complex inner lives of middle-aged women trapped in loveless marriages and desperate for children. However, by the late 90’s a younger audience had emerged and to serve that audience filmmakers and distributors switched from middle-aged opulence and squalor to the eternal fount of University campus drama. By the early 2000’s, the second wave of Nollywood actresses had clear front-runners, Genevieve Nnaji was Nollywood’s sweetheart, Omotola Jolade Ekeinde was the complex sex symbol and Stella Damasus was the method actress with a checkered personal past. We lived off their every word and demanded to see more of them. It was normal at that time for marketers and film producers to pay retainer fees into the accounts of these women before even approaching them with a script.

However, Nollywood at this time was cleanly divided into factions. There were the film marketers of 51 Iweka road, semi-literate businessmen who had first supported the industry in its infancy and as such had built its informal distribution system. Prioritising profit over anything else, they waded into film directing and producing themselves and cashed out on the industry by making stars and milking them dry. In the other corner of the ring were the independent producers and directors, many of whom were repatriates who had returned to Nigeria with big ideas and meagre wallets, drawn by the incredulous success Nollywood was amassing globally. Actors and actresses, unsure of their future and eager to capitalise on their current success, would often prioritise the much larger salaries from marketers over the smaller budgets of independent producers. Actors and actresses at the time often fell into the habit of taking more work than they could possibly manage to honour, forcing many producers and directors who had built their scripts around these A-listers incredible financial and moral losses.

But this tussle between market distributors and independent film studios began to affect everyone, even the big wigs, and in response, the entire industry banded together and took a decision, drastic even for an industry as unregulated as Nollywood in 2004. They banned the 8 biggest actors at the time for a year, forbidding any filmmaker to use them in their productions.

The ban wasn’t all that surprising, what did surprise was just how many people in the industry adhered to the ban. Ignoring the outrage of Nollywood fans in Nigeria and the diaspora who couldn’t believe the industry would put their ‘selfish’ interests over the demands of the consumer, and uncaring for the economic losses they would incur, the producers went out in search of new talent to fill the void. Into this new space came actresses like Mercy Johnson, Tonto Dikeh, Oge Okoye, Queen Nwokoye and Ebube Nwagbo. Even Ghanaian imports like Nadia Buari, Juliet Ibrahim and Jackie Appiah began to gain ground in Nollywood as the banned actors moved to Ghana to get work and the marketers brought in ‘foreign’ talent as an added incentive to get adherents back into the video rental shops. By the end of the year’s ban, Omotola and Genevieve had launched middling music careers, a new crop of actresses had risen up to temporarily fill the void the Big 8 left and they made a triumphant return to the fold. However, the ban taught everyone involved a huge lesson. That the future of the film industry in Nigeria is all about who controls what is made. And it inspired the decisions of Omotola, Genevive and co to begin to actively push for government sponsorship and censorship in Nollywood. One by one, these actresses began to hone their skills through professional courses and physical trainings and they all began to eye the director’s chair.

The ban also had an inadvertent consequence for marketers. Instead of punishing these actors, it forced them first of all to diversify their portfolios and explore other revenue sources, and second, it taught them that scarcity ramps up value. Their year away from Nollywood had tested the resolve and adoration of their fanbases and they had endured. Genevieve, Omotola, Stephanie Linus, Rita Dominic and the other women who had risen to fame in their era began to take less work, choosing instead to wait for roles that allowed them enter for local and international prizes and increase their global profile. That and shrewd stewardship saw Genevieve demand million naira fees for roles and saw Omotola rise to such prominence, she was honoured as one of Time’s 100 most influential persons in 2013.

While the industry was growing and creating new opportunities for women filmmakers, it was clear that true progress wasn’t going to come from women unless funding to make the kind of films that centred around women were provided. It is to Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s credit, that he chose to actively listen to the concerns of Nollywood and saw the true value of the industry in influencing perceptions (and perhaps winning elections). As part of his infrastructural development drive, he introduced the “Project Act Nollywood’’, with three primary components aimed at developing the movie making value chain. The programme was aimed at improving the distribution network of Nigerian Audio-Visual content, providing much-needed funding for independent filmmakers looking to enter the industry and eradicating piracy through the establishment of a proper film distribution network. The government disbursed N1.8 billion to the film industry.

After the disbursement of the funds, the number of movies produced in the industry skyrocketed, most of which were made by women and featuring women in unconventional roles. Who could forget the star-making turn for Nse Ikpe-Etim in Kunle Afolayan’s Phone Swap; or the stellar work that introduced Omoni Oboli to the Nigerian movie going audience in The Figurine. Both cross-genre films that the grants made possible. It also made possible the arrival of a number of actresses making the jump into directing and producing. Mildred Okwo and Rita Dominic’s Audrey Silva company stands out on this list, one of the first recipients of the grants. Their groundbreaking The Meeting reintroduced us to Rita Dominic as more than just a pretty female lead and expanded the kind of roles that could become star-making turns for Nollywood actresses. Filmmaking in Africa was majorly dominated by men with very few female directors emerging, but that has changed. The likes of Kemi Adetiba who directed the cinema record-breaking ‘The Wedding Party’ has become a force to reckon with in the movie industry.

In 2018, it is almost as common to see women in the producer and director slots for any major Nigerian film in the cinemas as you are to see a man. Some of the producers featuring prominently on this list include Stephanie Linus, Omoni Oboli, Funke Akindele, Toyin Abraham and Genevieve Nnaji. Mo Abudu might be the most instantly recognisable name, but there is also Biola Alabi, who made last year’s Banana Island Ghost, and is set to release Lara and the Beat this year.

There is, of course, serial filmmaker Omoni Oboli, whose films ‘Wives on Strike’, ‘Okafor’s Law’, and ‘Being Mrs Elliot’ all recorded more than modest success in cinemas. It is hard to believe that she only got her break in 2009, and was once attributed as saying “when I got back into the industry in 2009, I am happy people welcomed me with open hands.” Omoni Oboli, another Nigerian actress, scriptwriter, director, producer and an alumnus of the New York Film Academy has a number of screenplays to her credit, including Fatal Imagination, Being Mrs Elliott, The First Lady, Wives on Strike as well as The Rivals, a movie she co-produced with her friend and which won the prize for Best International Drama at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival alongside being the first Nigerian film to be premiered since the festival’s inception.

This new lease on life has also extended to Omotola and Genevieve who had several self-hemmed or co-collaborative films at cinemas in 2016 – 2017. But this success is not even restricted to the high gloss careers of these women; comedic actresses like Funke Akindele and Toyin Abraham have both taken charge on the big and small screens. Akindele actually successfully wrestling for herself a piece of the streaming pie with her Scene One streaming service and Aimahku trying to replicate Akindele’s box office success with Alakada.  

But the films women are making at cinemas now aren’t simply commercial, they are also relevant to our past as a country, our present and future. Stephanie Linus, a Nigerian actress, film director and model upon graduation from the New York Film Academy in 2007 released the movie “Through the Glass”  where she served as director, scriptwriter, producer and actress which contributed to her nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009 and 2010 as well as nomination for Best Screenplay in 2009 at the Africa Movie Academy Award . She went on in 2014 to release another movie, “Dry” where she again served as director, scriptwriter, producer, and actress and won many awards including 12th Africa Movie Academy Awards and 2016 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards overall best movie with the prize of a brand new car.

Dry as a movie dwells on early marriage and its attendant backlash as well as the need for young girls to be allowed to live their lives. It also brought up a lot of the maternal issues present in the country bothering on less privileged women dying during childbirth.

Bolanle Austen-Peters’ ‘93 days’ tells the story of the spread of Ebola to the country in 2014. It told of Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh’s sacrifice and how the country was able to contain and eradicate the disease in a little over three months. It might not have scored the kind of success Austin-Peters might have wanted in the box office, but it is certainly placed as Nigeria’s front-runner for a potential Oscar.

A new generation of filmmakers are already rising, empowered by the achievements of the third wave of actor/directors and embodied by women like Chinney Love Eze. Eze who was originally a mid-level actress has been able to transition successfully into directing and producing. She is shrewd with her casting but willing to explore as her casting choices of Zynell Zuh from Ghana and Michelle Dede as the leads for her films Hire A Man and June show. Hire A Man made N50 million in the box office, an incredible achievement considering the film was built around a relatively unknown (in Nigeria at least) Ghanaian actress and a supporting cast of up and coming actors. Eze’s work is a precarious balance between commercial success and contemporary storytelling, and June is set to become her opus.

The possibilities and opportunities for women in Nollywood have come a long way from its misogynistic and uni-dimensional origins, influenced by the hard decisions some of these A-list actresses had to make to challenge the status quo. They built capacity and improved on their passion by acquiring more knowledge from reputable film academies around the world, and within a short space of time they have successfully deployed such, towards creating nuanced content and changing the narratives around women in the industry.

The risk has borne rewards, the future of Nollywood is decidedly female.

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