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Friday, December 23, 2005

African filmmaking: imagining the future of "Nollywood"

I just stumbled across a series of articles in the Christian Science Monitor about filmmaking in Africa, the most recent of which highlights Nigeria's booming film industry.

The article reports that "Nollywood" is third only to Hollywood and Bollywood (India's Bombay, now called Mumbai, - based film industry) in revenues, which, come to think of it, is hardly surprising. When I was in Ghana and Sierra Leone last year, it seemed that nearly every movie, soap opera, or music video was made in Nigeria. With the shear size of its population and its oil wealth, Nigeria dominates the production of popular culture in West Africa in much the same way the United States does in the West.

The Nigerian movie industry presents an exciting opportunity for foreign investors, but like many other industries, is left unexplored. The risks are, of course, high. Movies are very easily pirated (but they are everywhere in the world) and without a cineplex infrastructure, everything is pretty much straight to DVD. But with budgets of 5,000 bucks a pop and 2-week production schedules, the chances for savvy people with the right connections and a little bit of capital to make good money are endless.

African filmmakers have attempted to attract more attention and investment from abroad (see the Christians Science Monitor article on Danny Glover and the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma). Yet, the fact that films on African themes made by Africans and starring Africans have not gotten more international recognition might be a good thing. The commercialization and Americanization of Chinese film, for example, created a demand for films steeped in a traditional culture turned into something beautiful, strange, exotic, and palatable to Western audiences, but, I would argue, somehow inauthentic. (Elaborately-choreographed martial arts action sequences haven't hurt either.) The big budget Chinese film reached a sort of strange and disturbing apex in Memoirs of a Geisha with the casting of English-speaking Chinese actresses (made famous by the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/Hero/House of the Flying Daggers triumvirate) as Geishas alongside the English-speaking Japanese men. (Did the whole comfort women/Japanese occupation thing cross anyone's mind during the making of that movie???)

I could see a similar thing happening in African film, perhaps not now, but maybe ten or twenty years down the line, where the more exotic elements of popular storytelling - strange cultural practices, genies or evil spirits that pop up and intercede in characters' everyday lives - are translated into a form, complete with eye-popping CGI effects, that makes African stories appealing to American or European moviegoers. Then you might see movies that are African-made and star actual Africans succeed internationally. However, j
ust as new high-budget martial arts movies reflect popular perceptions of Chinese culture, these African films might end up making it not by shattering stereotypes, but by relying on themes and images of traditional culture that confirm popular perceptions of Africa in the foreign imagination: backwards, violent, primal, mysterious.

And yet, however inauthentic or artificial cultural branding has made big budget Chinese film, the expansion of China's cultural reach has been an important and inevitable part of the country's rise to world power. (If having your nation's daughters propel a much-hyped, big-budget film based on a poorly-written bestselling novel to a box office and critical flop isn't a sign that you've made it, I don't know what is.) And if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, Indian films are next. Like China and India, Africa has a large internal market and a far-flung diaspora - key ingredients for cultivating a strong indigenous film industry and projecting its reach globally. And if one day African-filmmakers are in a position to sell-out their culture for the tastes of moviegowers in Iowa or Brisbane, well, I would have to celebrate. It would be better, at least for Africa's international image, than the same old, Hollywood-produced stories about the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, etc. that portray Africans as victims and Africa as a hopeless continent. When it comes to competing globally, cultural influence may be just as important as economic and political power, so Nollywood, the more power to you.


Related News Articles:

"Africans, camera, action: 'Nollywood' catches world's eye" Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 2005

"Step aside, L.A. and Bombay, for Nollywood" New York Times, September 16, 2002

Other Christian Science Monitor articles on African filmmaking:

"Hollywood looks deeper into Africa" Christian Science Monitor," April 22, 2005

"Wanted at Africa's biggest film festival: Hollywood's black stars" March 2, 2005

"Nigeria nips at Hollywood's heels" June 26, 2002


Other Links:

Naijarules, a online forum on Nigerian movies

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1 Comments:

Blogger Orikinla Osinachi. said...

As an Associate Producer with Ark Resources the best film production company in Nigeria, I enjoyed reading your well written feature and I agree with your views.

Don't worry, we are already producing and directing new films sponsored by the French government and private investors that will make the ears of Hollywood to tingle.

I am already working on a film that I can proudly enter for the Academy Awards in 2008 by God's grace.

God bless.

Africabeat should join Blogexplosion to increase the mileage of your blog.

Merry Christmas and Happy New year!

God bless.

5:10 AM  

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