African Cinema: Nigeria in the Lens

Emem Ema/Femi Odugbemi

The Nigerian film industry has been in existence since the 30s and experienced vibrancy and wide appeal especially in the 70s which had film makers like the Late Herbert Ogunde and Ade 'Love' Afolayan produce films on 35mm. The resurgence of movies led to the growth of community cinema settings all over Nigeria with people thronging into large halls in every major city on weekends or most evenings to see what was new in the cinema, an avenue to get away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The late 70s and the 80s witnessed the boom of television, where all men were permitted to have their own personal sets at home and then video. It was a thing of pride and most people preferred watching movies on TV either at their neighbors or theirs as opposed to making a pilgrimage to the grim cinemas. They could now watch their favorite soaps and programmes on TV. In Northern Nigeria, they were introduced to Bollywood were films like the "Burning train" was a hit. In the south of Nigeria, all believed they could fly thanks to Bruce Lee, films like "Snake in the monkey's shadow" and the list goes on. The rise of television led to a dearth in the film industry, yes people still made movies but the public hardly saw them, most people focused on television as the government stations provided the necessary screen entertainment.

The mid 90s changed the status quo of visual entertainment and in the most absurd way! A spare parts merchant all of a sudden found that he had 10,000 blank VHS tapes and nothing to do with them. Like a proper businessman, saw a need and filled it. This action led to what is now known as "Nollywood" and the biggest straight to video market in the world! Cramping what can be termed as the day to day life issues an average Nigerian (though sometimes grossly exaggerated) into a 180min tape seemed the way to go as less and less Nigerians had time to catch up on the TV programmes. All of a sudden housewives, children and eventually the whole family had something to bond over "Home videos!" as they are called.

Let me share an article one of Nigeria's foremost film makers and my mentor presented at a forum



Motion picture production started effectively in Nigeria on the standard format of celluloid films produced for the big screen, with the production of Nigeria's first independent film, Kongi's Harvest in 1971. Within that decade, over 20 Nigerian films, including Amadi, Bisi daughter of the river and The Mask were released locally; all produced in the standard 35mm gauge.

Then enter the folklorists, the Yoruba traveling theatre practitioners, who largely through the works of Ola Balogun and Bankole Bello, made the transition from the stage via the television to the film. With Aiye, Taxi-Driver, Mosebolatan and Omo Orukan, among several others, another thriving cinema culture was born. It was the producers of these same films, after the biting economic realities of the 1980s, occasioned by the Structural Adjustment Programme that smoothly made the transition from celluloid to reversal films, in a bid to keep the cinema culture alive.

Same people were to pioneer the video film productions for home consumption in the late 80s and early 90s. But this changed in 1992 with the advent of a commercially successful film, Living in Bondage by NEK Videos. Ever since then Nigeria has been taken over by the onslaught of home-video productions, mostly lacking in quality.

The stark reality, therefore, is that in spite of the fact that Nigeria supposedly ranks as one of the largest producers of 'film' in the world, courtesy of about 20 home videos it produces every week, the industry is yet to take a proper shape or accorded any serious respect internationally. The reason is simple - only the small screen, as represented by home video, is being promoted while the big screen is left virtually untouched.

The inability to recoup investment due to difficult marketing conditions was the main factor that drove nearly all the filmmakers into home video production. But since the cost of producing on video has escalated and has become comparable with film, the reason why most are still stuck with video only confirms that there is inadequate knowledge on the technicalities of film and its attendant benefits, for without it a film industry could hardly claim to be functioning.


It is imperative that at this time in its socio-political history, Nigeria ought to stand up and be counted among the real filmmaking countries, not only in Africa but also in the entire world. The major ways to do this, definitely, will be to revive the cinema culture by producing enough celluloid films both for local and international consumption, while the low budget videos made for small screen consumption are left alone to cater for the additional needs of the local markets. The example of countries like South Africa, Burkina Faso and many of the North African countries should serve as inspiration in this regard.

South Africa is reaping the huge sums and many years it had invested in training and production of films by the quality of internationally acclaimed films it is giving to the whole world. Its annual Sithengi Film Market, among others like the Durban and Cape Town film festivals, has firmly placed the country on the world map of filmmaking. The strategy, all too obvious, is heavy funding from the government through the South African Film Foundation, and the establishment of good distribution networks for their films.

The Burkina Faso example is of equal importance. As small as the country is, it is regarded as the most serious filmmaking country in Black Africa. Its biannual FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou has become the most important film festival in West Africa because of the strategic recognition and funding from both the French government and the La Francophonie.
A thriving cinema culture also exists in the country through government's establishment of small movie theatres in major cities there. The belief is that once demand is stimulated, supply of good films will naturally follow.

A celluloid film made for exhibition in a theatre is the first natural order in filmmaking and distribution all over the world. The home video comes last in the distribution channel of a film and not the first as it has been done in Nigeria.

We believe that in spite of regular participations at the festival, Nigerian films have consistently lost out in the top honours there because our entries have mostly been in the video format. The deluge of home video productions, events have since been showing, is to the detriment of the filmmakers and marketers, and consequently the industry at large, because the frenetic pace of production sub-sector alone are far in excess of activities in both of the twin-sectors of the distribution and exhibition. The vital question is – how many hard copies of videotapes can viewers buy in a week or even a year? This is why 'Nollywood' as the industry been lately dubbed, been constantly over heating, looking for new 'buyers' but ignoring proper channel of film distribution.

No film industry survives on direct production of video for home consumption alone. It does not work that way! Filmmakers are not trained that way either. And that is why in spite of the seeming attention from abroad, Nollywood has failed to be adopted as a viable model for those who have bothered to critically examine it. To the outside world, Nollywood is a novelty that intrigues for a few moments but is incapable of being either considered as sustainable nor acceptable on the international scale.

The Yoruba film producers and a few English ones seem to recognize the inevitability of the big screen, hence their penchant for showing their films at the National Theatre in Lagos first before they release on home video. But good as the method might appear, they lack the proper product meant for this exercise. The quality of what they take to the National Theatre's big screen, which was designed for 35mm films, is ridiculously poor to the extent that viewers are often 'insulted' by the visuals and sound quality of such works.

With a considerable number of celluloid films, as it used to be in the 1970s and 80s, and cinemas across the country where such films could be shown on a regular basis, these producers would have been given the biggest gifts of their lives.

But we recognize that in spite of the high rate of debutants, many of which are not far from being charlatans, there are still quite a good number of well-trained, talented and serious filmmakers in Nigeria who are willing and ready to reclaim the lost glory for the film industry. Their problems have been mainly lack of funds and infrastructure support to produce world standard feature and documentary films. Many of such have stayed away from the deluge of home videos, which are mainly of low quality, and those who are willing to come back are afraid of the huge cost involved in making celluloid films or where to distribute them.

Emem Ema is a qualified lawyer, musican and cinephile. She has been involved in the entertainment industry as an artist and entrepreneur. She is also founding charter member of the pioneering and internationally lauded indigenous inspirational musical quartet KUSH. She was the first British Council’s International Young Music Entrepreneur of the Year (Nigeria).

Femi Odugbemi is an award winning writer/filmmaker/producer and photographer who has produced several critically acclaimed entertainment programmes for television and radio. He is also the former President of The Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria(ITPAN).

According to Hala Gorani and Jeff Koinange formerly of CNN, Nigeria has a US$250 million movie industry, churning out some 200 home videos every month to become the third-largest in the world after the United States and India. In just 13 years, however, Nollywood has grown from nothing into an industry that employs thousands of people.

source- wikipedia
pic- queer cinema of south africa.


supriasuri said…
The article on Nollywood came as a surprise.

Even we Indians faced the same problem where we found viewers and the directors shifting over to television, but fortunately celluloid and theatres did gain momentum ultimately.

Thank you so much for providing us with this wite up and a brief history. It traversed my thoughts to think beyond the popular western cinema.
nitesh said…
I agree with supriya regarding the article. It's a huge surprise to know about the Industry especially the fact that it's producing some of the highest number of films in the world on video. And that there is a local audience for the same, which is a good thing because the ‘national cinema’ of many nations suffers as the audience prefer watching Hollywood films. However, I do believe and as Kshitiz had talked about in the last article that there is a rise of mediocrity all around the world when video has allowed everyone to become filmmakers. Here atleast even the physical aspect of learning the craft that could separate video from a film is completely not required- in a way it could be a liberation, but majority of the filmmakers are not able to exploit the attributes of video instead the video happens to be a stepping stones of working on films.
Anonymous said…
I believe the piece shows that the straight to video industry, arose out of a need. I think they should be applauded for their innovative thinking and the willingness to take it to the next level.

Let us look at the possibility of integrating markets...

Anonymous said…
Thanks alot for the great post
Lurrenzinc is the fastest growing African social network to find news about Nollywood

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