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#YNaijaEssays: A written history of Nigeria’s great film epochs

Film

If we’re being factually accurate, then Nigeria’s first contact with film was in 1903 when Herbert Macaulay invited Balboa and Company who was then doing an exhibition tour of silent films on the West African Coast to Nigeria. The films were shown at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos in August of that year. The success of the Balboa showcase paved the way for an incursion of European film exhibitors to Nigeria (Ekwuasi, 1984).

Ekwuasi included that film production; distribution and exhibition were restricted to Lagos, however, this moved to towns in the immediate neighbourhood of Lagos and beyond.

In 1979, the Nigerian Film Corporation was established to provide an operational backbone for the development of the industry in terms of manpower training, marketing assistance and infrastructure. A declaration validating its reality was released by the military government in power at the time and a facility was allotted to it in Jos, Plateau.

Film “grew out of benign bootlegging of music videos in a cassette culture…cannibalising the idioms of the soap opera, Yoruba travelling theatre, and remnants from the golden era of the Nigerian cinema.” (Adesokan, Nollywood.net, 2005)

By the end of the 1980s, films had turned into the most grounded innovative medium of pop culture and entertainment. First to understand its immense social and financial possibilities were the popular musicians, then some television stations followed suit realising how popular the drama series they sponsored had become, they transferred them to video. (Jonathan Haynes, 1990).

Prominent among these kinds of adaptations is “Things Fall Apart” directed by David Orere and broadcast on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) starting in 1987. A novel by Chinua Achebe – published in 1958 – which follows the life of Okonkwo, split into three parts – his family, personal history, the customs/society of the Igbo people; British colonialism; and the influence of ‘imported religion’ on the Igbo community. The miniseries starred veteran actors Pete Edochie, Sam Loco Efe, Nkem Owoh, and others.

These were the faces most homes wanted to see on Nigerian television screens. They gave Nigerians a first tenuous taste of what it means to see your own stories and faces represented in a foreign medium and laid the foundation for what we call Nollywood today.

Between 1970 and 1990, NTA created and broadcast a long list of compelling television shows including The Village Headmaster, Cock Crow at Dawn, Checkmate, Ripples and some others but it stopped broadcasting in 1990 and, therefore, released its audiences to other operators. Until that point home video systems were ridiculously expensive and mass producing came with astronomical costs, both here and abroad. And the technology that came to disrupt the system at the time, technology is pertinent to the story of the evolution of Nollywood was the DIY recorder. This is the reason we cannot rule that mighty machine that sparked a revolution in our use of media – the Sony Betamax video cassette recorder from 1975 – an analogue machine used to record television shows. But Betamax levelled the playing field, but didn’t evolve quick enough to remain a major player after the late 80’s. It  was simply not good enough.

At this point, Nigeria, with its long known conventional film-making had been exposed to VHS (Video Home System). And so, to meet the demands of Nigerians hungry for new entertainment, Kenneth Nnebue combined the expertise he had gained from working on the NTA’s as well as poaching its acting and directing talent (who had now been released from their contractual obligations but had benefited from state-sponsored training) with VHS and the result was the straight-to-video release of “Living in Bondage”. You can say that this film launched Nollywood, as many other films were released in that format, and the economic success of Living in Bondage provided the framework on which to market films in Nigeria.

Living in Bondage provided a somewhat graphic representation of the widely believed urban belief: the use of human beings for sacrifices to acquire riches.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Wale Adenuga, a former cartoonist and publisher, felt the economic slump of Nigerian publications and decided to move to electronic.

Adenuga said, I could say what inspired the leap from prints as Ikebe Super magazine, Super Story magazine to Papa Ajasco in television was 50 percent inspiration, 50 percent necessity. We were enjoying publishing, our readership was enjoying what we were publishing until the economy took a very deep slump. Naira was devalued, everything shot up, cost of production went haywire and it affected publishing more than it did to the electronic so we swerved from publishing to television.

Wale Adenuga Productions Ltd. was established 27 years ago but he (Adenuga) had released the first English comedy (the film industry in Nigeria was dominated by Yoruba productions) and celluloid film “Papa Ajasco” in 1983 that was aired on Nigerian television; when it was adapted as a television series to very good reviews. This is when we saw the return of old characters and a new character, Pa James.

From Papa Ajasco, he moved on to Binta – renamed ‘Binta My Daughter’ – which was released in 1995. As mentioned earlier, he said the necessity; the hunger for more entertainment pushed his dreams a bit further from ideas and therefore, he opened the Pencil Film and Television Institute (PEFTI) in 2004.

With the release of television series as Super Story, This Life, My Daughter, and some others, he raised the bar on film productions in Nigeria.

“There have been so much criticisms about most productions being churned out by some producers. We cannot continue to fold our arms and watch. That is why some of us have to step in to correct this,”he said.

Nollywood was built on the backs of The Yoruba Travelling Theatre Group of the 60s and 70s and like-minded veterans who took their performance skills beyond the stage and onto celluloid, packaging their productions for cinemas and exhibition centres. It is fitting, therefore to pay homage to Ola Balogun, Eddie Ugbomah, late Hubert Ogunde, late Adeyemi Afolayan a.k.a Ade Love (father of Kunle Afolayan of the Irapada fame), Ladi Ladebo, Moses Olaiya Adejumo, Adebayo Salami and Afolabi Adesanya, founding fathers of filmmaking who despite financial constraints and steep competition with preferred cinema offerings of the day – Indian and western movies as opposed to indigenous Nigerian films – kept churning out respectable film productions until the introduction of “home video”.

Some of these films include Kongi Harvest (1971), Alpha (1972), Bull Frog in the Sun (1974), Amadi (1975), Ajani Ogun (1975), Muzik Man (1976), Bisi, Daughter of the River (1977), Ija Ominira (1978), Aiye (1979), Kadara (1980), Jaiyesimi (1980) Efunsetan Aniwura (1981), Cry Freedom (1981), Ija Orogun (1982).

There is something of a controversy over who owns the credit for making the first movie for commercial purposes. That honour has been bestowed on Kenneth Nnebue for his movie Living in Bondage, although it has been argued that Mr Nnebue is not deserving of it, because 40 odd Yoruba movies including Ina Ote, Aje, N’iyami, were released before his. For instance, Tunde Alabi-Hundeyin‘s “Iyawo Alhaji” is officially on record as the first commercial (direct to exhibition hall) video film to be censored and classified by the NFVCB in 1994 at the National Theatre, (Cinema Hall) Iganmu. Also, save for the fact that Eddie Ugbomah‘s movie “The Great Attempt” (1989) was never released, no thanks to the defunct Federal Board of Film Censors (FBFC) censorship of the movie as “unsuitable for public viewing, he was in line to receive the honour of 1st Nigerian cine movie in the videotape format.

Tade Ogidan, Amaka Igwe, Opa Williams carried the torch of film making from their forebears, producing cult classics like Diamond Ring, Out of Bounds, Rattle Snake, Glamour Girls, Violated, that make up Nollywood’s hall of fame. These movies were layered and textured, emotionally complex and unforgettable, exploring contemporary themes like cultism, prostitution, divorce and marriage, the very real problems of the adult population at the time. The acting too was rich, intense, and full of depth. These were the days of Liz Benson, Sola Sobowale, Ayo Adesanya, Rita Nwosu, Gloria Young, Eucharia Anunobi, Richard Mofe Damijo, Bimbo Akintola. Tade Ogidan cut his teeth on NTA series productions such as The New Village Headmaster, Tele Theatre, The Reign of Abiku, Blinking Hope before making his way to movie production. Tade Ogidan is every inch an actor’s director, possessing the ability to tell exquisite stories and coax depth and range out of his actors.

Amaka Igwe was cut from the same cloth. In an era of fewer resources and the absence of technological advancements in filmmaking, she raised the bar for Nigerian movies. Rattle Snake and Violated were viral movies, as were Checkmate and Fuji House of Commotion, her TV series.

Before long, the market was flooded with Nollywood movies; at a point the production times for the average Nollywood film dropped to three weeks, a week for film, two weeks for post production. But what spurred this explosion of content and how did it thrive?

At the end of the military era in the late 90s, there was a greater expansion in the industry in two ways – the barriers to entry was significantly lessened by cheaper technology and there was more spending power from consumers. It meant that more production houses were created, which also resulted in more actors operating in the industry.

Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Ramsey Nouah, Rita DominicMercy Johnson, Stephanie Okereke LinusUche Jombo, Desmond Elliot, Emeka Ike, Jim Iyke, etc. all got their big break from the proliferation of movies in Nollywood. Suddenly, Nollywood movies became Nigeria’s biggest cultural export – stories of it being an addiction for Arab women was early industry gossip. In 1996, Zeb Ejiro produced while Andy Amenechi directed Mortal Inheritance – the movie that brought Omotola to the limelight.

While this can be recorded as a positive development in the industry, however, with the major win came a major loss. The quality of Nigerian movies took a huge nosedive, it almost seemed like there was no longer any creative thought in Nigerian movies – too many scenes of broken necks and bandages to the leg and hands even for just a slap.

The movies also have become too one-dimensional, Nollywood seemed too fixed on romance and lost an opportunity to spark real social change in Nigeria. Rather the industry mirrored and even  exaggerated the ills in the Nigerian society to hyperbolic proportions. Perhaps the continued portrayal of romance was an appeal to a much younger generation of viewers that the actors at the time represented.

Nonetheless, there was a reflection of the youth culture in Nollywood with the infusion of comedy with shows like ‘Fuji House of Commotion’, drama and lifestyle with ‘Super Story’, and a host of others. The late 90s and the first 10 years of the 21st century was what made Nollywood. It was maybe not the ‘Golden Age’ but it was a renaissance period – one of great growth in the industry.

When the next era of of Nigerian film media came around, it was fueled by a preoccupation with religious-themes. Movies that either praised or denigrated traditional worship practices became the subject of many a movie,  the projection of fetishism as a way to explain away human wickedness and failure.

Movies in this era had plots closely connected with themes such as spirit spouses or largely cases of a young wife in a polygamous arrangement who practices witchcraft or sorcery and is often responsible: when a woman is barren; when a pregnant woman is unable to put to bed; when a woman loses the love of her husband; or even when a promising young man suddenly dies.

She is usually discovered at the end of the movie where having had her plans backfire or her machinations met with some superior spiritual power (a pastor or priest), she is forced to confess all her misdeeds and dies after all, leaving the previously tormented victim or prey of hers to begin a new phase of their lives in peace.

On the other hand, a number of them focused on university life and cultism as seen in movies like Women’s Cot, Girls Cot, Boy’s Cot, Blackberry Babes.

These movies portrayed battles for supremacy in university campuses among rival cult groups (male and female) as a result of a fight between opposing members of both groups in their private affairs, as well as those of campus prostitution popularly called ‘Aristos’ carried out by female undergraduates who for their desire to be among the league of ‘big girls’, become ready agents for sugar daddies who usually are politicians, chief executives who offer them money, cars, phones and the likes in return for sex.

Another prominent feature of movies in this era were those infused with satirical humour, which introduced to its scene, acts like Sam Loco Efe, Nkem Owoh (Osuofia), Victor Osuagwu, John Okafor (Mr. Ibu) as well as Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme of the Aki and Paw Paw fame. This period featured a plethora of now legendary comedic performances, many of whom  eventually crossed over into western media through the millennial concept of memes. Stripped of its cultural context, many of these films were sadly revealed as largely dependent on whimsy, method acting and improvisation from its actors and the complicit refusal to question the plot from the viewers. As such, many of these film have no staying power in their original medium. 

Nollywood seemed to have gotten a huge boost when on March 03, 2013, former president Goodluck Jonathan announced that the Federal Government will be providing a 3 billion naira grant to filmmakers. Jonathan told the entertainers that, “This grant will be managed by the Ministry of Finance under the supervision of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Honourable Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy”.

Few weeks later, Okonjo-Iweala hosted Nollywood practitioners saying the money will be used for film distribution, capacity building and film production.

There has been an upsurge in the picture and distribution quality of Nollywood movies in the last five years. With the cinema culture, many Nigerians now get to see Nollywood films on the big screens. Films like 93 Days, The Wedding Party franchise, Isoken, The Arbitration, Half of a Yellow Sun, Ojukokoro, ’76, Fifty, October 1, 30 Days in Atlanta, had respectable turnout while some were packed for days.

But has there been a massive improvement in storytelling in Nollywood? The answer is obvious. NO.

Scriptwriters need to come to a decision on what stories they intend to tell. The days of regurgitating ideas from Nollywood with little or no modification are over. Nollywood movies are predictable, the stories are drab and there needs to be a renaissance. Movie-goers are itching to see films that tell stories on the Boko Haram war; the political power play in Aso Rock, the Nigerian prostitution ring in Italy, the plight of prisoners, etc.

If Nollywood must take the next step, then the storytelling must improve.

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