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Serendipitously, my article–Nollywood as Popular Art?–has just been published in the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos newsletter one week before the Reading and Producing Nollywood: An International Symposium at the University of Lagos. I have copied and pasted the text and photos below, or you can download the original PDF here (see pg. 11).

Film marketer in Idumota Market. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Nollywood as Popular Art?
Bic Leu

The Nigerian film industry has become one of the principal forces of popular art on the continent. Its commercially accessible format distinguishes it from other African cinema cultures–in particular that of the Francophone countries, where filmmakers produce highly stylized “art films” driven by socio-political messages.  Francophone films are primarily funded (and thus shaped) by the French government and distributed internationally to film festivals and other noncommercial channels. On the other hand, Nollywood films are privately funded, with (until now) little government subsidy or foreign aid. While most of the Francophone products are rarely seen by African audiences, their Nigerian counterparts are characterized by their capacity to transcend local ethnic and national boundaries and be voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across the continent, the Diaspora, as well as everywhere else in between.

Nollywood production is prolific compared to its anemic Francophone equivalent. The Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board received 1,612 local films for censorship registration in 2010, which averages to an astounding 31 new releases per week. The industry’s basis in the informal economy means that this number does not include the countless scores of films released on the black market and thus not accounted for by the Board.

As African anthropologist Karin Barber (1987) observes, popular arts attempt to appeal to as large a market as possible through a system of repetition. In Nollywood films, aspirations for social mobility are addressed through revolving sets in interiors of posh homes with HD television sets and elaborate sound systems, refrigerators, and black SUVs. Urban anxiety is conveyed through stock shots of Lagos streets and skyline, since harassment from “area boys” and authorities demanding bribes make it exceedingly difficult to shoot exterior scenes. Common fears are written and rewritten into narratives revolving around love, betrayal, greed, and the power of religious faith as a panacea for all social ills. From film to film, actors play the same roles and even repeat the same lines, like Ramsey Noah’s “Wakey, wakey, baby”–which awakens sleeping lovers in both Guilty Pleasures (2009) and A Private Storm (2010).   Even the crews remain constant as producers and directors carry them from set to set. As such, Nollywood films communicate with its African audience through a series of endless reflections intended to reinforce the shared conventions and desires of contemporary Nigerian society.

However, Nollywood is starting to defy Barber’s widely-accepted definition of popular art, which states that all commercial popular arts are produced within the African informal sector. Nigerian films are increasingly disseminated through recognized official channels, as exemplified by the box office success of recent cinema-only releases, such as Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009) and Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé (2010). Nigerian films are also screened at the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the high-brow bastion of Francophone African films that had banned Nigerian products from its line-up in the recent past. The industry has also become the subject of countless academic articles and international film festivals; its practitioners are frequently invited to participate in film panels all over the world. Formal institutions are also becoming involved in the development of the industry. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the Bank of Industry would administer the $200 million Special Entertainment Fund (which includes support from the World Bank) as low-interest loans designed to improve training, production, and distribution.

But the embrace of the mainstream often means sacrificing inventiveness to regulation and standardized expectations.  The question remains: as Nollywood begins to interact with the formal economy, will it lose its mobility and accessibility as a popular art form? Or will this new development elevate Nigerian filmmaking to the same status as other established international film cultures, to be no longer derided as a low-cost novelty in guerilla filmmaking?

Bic Leu is a US Fulbright fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.

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