The reel and real women of Nollywood
In the early 90s, when Nollywood was less than a decade old, I had in a three-part study characterised it as “providing instant fame for the girl and boy next door and instant fortune for a hybrid of producers.” Nollywood was a phenomenon which in its development had minimal links; technically, professionally and ethically with the older Nigerian Television and Celluloid-film industries. It set its own standards, which sadly, were based on the business ethics of its principal financiers, electronic equipment traders turned producers/marketers. These basically uncultured traders with limited education shaped and called the shots in Nollywood, driven by the desire for huge profits from little financial, aesthetic and cultural investments.
Women as commodities
They viewed women as 'commodities' and worked on the perception that any pretty face and/or attractive figure (in their eyes) is an automatic actress and star. Naturally, hordes of all manner, shapes and shades of Nigerian girls and women propelled by a mixture of poverty, the need for self-promotion and notoriety as well, flocked to the venues where these producers and their directors hung out.
It is instructive to note that these Nollywood moguls didn't need to go out scouting for actresses. Rather, their hang-outs like Winnie's Hotel in Surulere, became flesh bazaars of aspiring actresses. Skimpily dressed and flaunting their assets they came in droves to attract the attention of producers and directors who practically carried out spontaneous public rehearsals and castings.
Predictably, the Nollywood moguls could bluff, pick and choose whilst the eager potential actresses were literarily ready to do anything for bit-parts. That these star-struck girls and women 'fought' each other to secure parts and, the moguls in turn well aware of the seemingly unending traffic of aspirants, confidently and callously discarded them at will to create a fast turnover, soon became the established rules of the Nollywood casting game!
It was not dignifying or respectful of women. But what was expected of these Nollywood moguls who held the aces, given their socio-cultural background? Nonetheless, the girls and women equally share the blame as they were willing partners in Nollywood's early 'debasement' of Nigerian women which set a trend that has not been completely obliterated. There were noticeable improvements as better-educated (mostly Mass Communication and Theatre Arts graduates) women got into the industry. This raised the social profile of actresses in Nollywood but they were still at the mercy of the scriptwriters and producer-financiers who determined the type of roles they were cast in.
Interestingly, rather than concern themselves about the cinematic image of Nigerian women, Nollywood was consolidating, the actresses seemed more interested in relatively frivolous talk about whether they would kiss in films or act nude. Being celebrities with huge media (particularly print) attention became their sole career goal and fulfilment.
Had Nollywood finally succeeded in producing Nigerian actress-equivalents of Hollywood's dumb blondes? There were other manifestations of early Hollywood, like strong rumours of sex with the producer/director for bit parts and the presence of big-boobs-exposing no-talent equivalents of Hollywood's Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors!
It could be argued that Nollywood finally took the Nigerian woman out of 'her place' in the kitchen, but in return it put her in the bedroom for too long! Given that Nollywood, from the beginning, was trade-driven not creative or talent-driven, is it coincidental that its first huge success was Domitilla? It was a story of Nigerian prostitutes in Italy desperate and depraved to the level of having sex with dogs! A true story and raw slice of life, we are told. A major creative handicap of Nollywood is that themes that are basically documentary-film material are stretched out to become movies.
Nollywood has generally not been kind to Nigerian women. In its quest to create reel chicks, young, hip/modern and city-wise as against real women, Nollywood has sold the impression that glamour, fame, money and the good fast life are all that matter for Nigerian women. So, they have been stereotyped in Nollywood as pretty, seductive, devious, cunning, quarrelsome, money-grabbing gold diggers who will readily use their bodies, juju/charms and love potions to “catch men!” Subliminally portrayed as 'pretty toys' they are also obliquely cast as hard nailed fight-to-finish/death 'demons' in a never-ending and escalating battle of the sexes in Nigeria.
Not all Jagua Nanas
We have culturally unacceptable scenes where women slap men and overdoses of men battering women in horrific scenes of domestic violence. Then there are the gun-totting bad girls to boot. Two decades after Domitilla, we are offered a film in which women fight each other with spiritual, witchcraft and physical weapons in their struggle to “catch” white men in Nigeria. Definitely, Nigerian women are not all Jagua Nanas and Opios as Nollywood would want us to believe.
In a country that has female chief justices, deputy governors, ministers, professors, Pilots and bank chief executives, where are these women featured in Nollywood as nation and home builders? Where are the model roles for mothers, sisters and loving peace-makers? For every wayward undergraduate soft-prostitute there should be a female Deputy Vice Chancellor putting right the savage male cults on campuses.
We acknowledge that Nollywood has produced a number of Nigerian superstar actresses who are rich, internationally famous, brand ambassadors and shinning role models to millions of Nigerian girls and women. Nollywood has also given employment and careers to many thousands of Nigerian women. Nonetheless, a lot more needs to be done content-wise and in the profiling of Nigerian women.
The time has come for another generation of young Nigerian women to come forward and give a better gender balance and meaning to Nollywood. Three years ago I taught a practical documentary filmmaking course at the National Film Institute, Jos, for diploma and degree students. I was amazed at the potential of these students I later dubbed the 'Generation Next of Nigerian Filmmakers.' Amongst them were skilled and confident female scriptwriters, producers, directors, camera(wo)men, sound(wo)men and editors who, given more opportunities and needed encouragement, will match their counterparts anywhere in the world, including Hollywood. Let us not forget that the great film 'Mississippi Masala' was made by a 'Third World' woman!
We must be wary of the new clique of Nigerian women and their white counterpart so-called 'experts' now on a questionable missionary crusade to 'help' the Nigerian film industry. Hollywood and its European counterparts have still to come up with genuine visual proof that they respect and can honour black women and men in their films and TV. We should embrace our Nigerian sisters from Jos; who are well-trained and intentioned to make Nollywood do the right thing on gender issues and cinematic role models for Nigerian women!
The first ever African Women in Film Forum holds at the Colonades Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos on June 16 and 17, 2010.