Battling Its Baggage

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The story of what is today known as Nollywood had its roots in the early 1990s when Kenneth Nebo's NEK Video Link came up with Living in Bondage. Scripted in Igbo and sub-titled in English, Living in Bondage was a smash because of its plot and novel presentation. Before then, the late Hubert Ogunde and Eddie Ugbomah had pioneered movie-making on celluloid, attaining the highest of standards. But their efforts yielded little commercial gains.

The success of Living in Bondage changed all and inspired similar flicks like Circle of Doom, Ikuku, Nneka The Pretty Serpent, Rattlesnake and Evil Men. These threw up recognisable stars. These include Kanayo O. Kanayo, Paul Obazele, Ndidi Obi, Kenneth Okonkwo, Ernest Obi, Rita Nzelu and Bob-Manuel Udokwu among others. The emergence of these bankable faces attracted a flood of cash, providing incentives for actors and filmmakers. Finally, Nigerian actors, who had lived in squalor, started getting value for their talents. Soon, drama and music teachers in the universities joined the fray, both as actors and directors. Sola Fosudo, Head, Department of Theatre Arts and Music, Lagos State University, is the most prolific of all the academics in Nollywood. Fosudo has featured in over 200 films, both in English and Yoruba.

Another notable university teacher in Nollywood is Ayo Akinwale, who heads the Department of Performing Arts, University of Ilorin. Akinwale, whose face is familiar in major Yoruba movies, has also featured prominently in a handful of English works. For Laz Ekwueme, professor of musicology, who for many years taught Creative Arts and Music at the University of Lagos, even the inhibition of 'royalty' could not stop him from playing a major role in Nollywood. Ekwueme, who is currently the Igwe of Oko in Anambra State, has featured in more than a dozen flicks. Also not left out is Emeka Nwabueze, a professor of drama at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “I am particularly interested in this enterprise because that is the gospel I have been trying to preach for some time now. It is a gospel that has taken me to different kinds of places and caused me to undertake different kinds of activities, including acting in home video,” said Nwabueze.

But not everything about Nollywood smells nice. With an estimated production of 3,000 films a year, the Nigerian film industry claims to be the third biggest in the world, next only to America's Hollywood and India's Bollywood. But in terms of quality, Nollywood is far behind these two. Problems of poor picture quality, pedestrian plots, miscasting and typecasting as well as inadequate budget, among others, have stunted its growth. Producers have also been accused of insensitivity in the use of religious and cultural images in their flicks. At a point, producers revelled in the use of ritualistic themes, prompting many to allege that Nollywood flicks are synonymous with rituals. “In my house, I have stopped my children from watching Nigerian movies.

They have nothing to teach the kids apart from ritual and black magic. If they are not talking about witchcraft, then the story must be on blood money,” said Richard Williams, a Warri-based businessman. Also, David Chukwuji, a Nollywood script writer with more than a dozen flicks to his credit, has a dim view of the Nigerian film scene. “Nollywood has not changed much in the last few years. Agreed, production has improved somehow. However, the story lines and acting style remain basically stagnant. And this is largely because Nollywood bigwigs would not venture out of their comfort zones to try new things. As long as they keep making money, they will continue to do the same thing over and over again,” reckoned Chukwuji.

The script writer added that though he has very high hopes for Nollywood, they do not blind him to that fact that Nollywood is still where it was when Living in Bondage debuted about 15 years ago. “Until the mercantile tradition in Nollywood is dismantled, Nollywood will remain behind in the world movie arena. For now, Nollywood is dancing on a spot,” he concluded. But Nwabueze has a slightly different view. Speaking at the third edition of the National Theatre/National Troupe Public Lecture entitled: Intercultural Performance and Contemporary Nigeria Theatre, the Nwabueze called for a fusion of inter-cultural performance and contemporary Nigerian drama.

Nwabueze posited that the way out of the Nollywood's “ritual saga” is to distinguish between the truth of art and the truth of life, “and consciously remember that art is not life and that literature (movie) should merely serve as a raw material that would aid the actor in communicating to his audience.” While Nollywood and its practitioners continue to battle with teething problems, there is no doubt that the industry has developed a life of its own..