Thirty Years of Nollywood since ‘Living in Bondage’

A generation of Nigerians and other denizens of the world have experienced every step of Nollywood since 1992. Is Nollywood a cultural renaissance?
BY Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The Nollywood phenomenon started out on the note of a handshake across the River Niger when one quixotic young man argued that the Yoruba people of the West had the culture of going to the theatre to watch films while the Igbo majority of the East needed to have the movies brought into their homes via videos. The young dreamer felt that the few Nigerian dramatists and comedians in Lagos and Onitsha who had recorded and sold some of their plays via the VHS format were of inferior quality.

 

It’s against this inauspicious background that the landmark Igbo language home movie, Living in Bondage, was produced to launch forth the revolution called Nollywood.

 

 

At the heart of the making of the breakthrough movie is the story and tenacity of the young man known as Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, popularly known as Paulo, after the character he played in Living in Bondage.

 

Okey, that is short for Okechukwu, says on how Living in Bondage came about: “When I left TV College, Jos in 1987, I was jobless and had to make do with hawking video cassettes at National Theatre, Lagos. Some theatre artistes such as Frank Vaughan, Ruth Osi and Wale Macauley who were rehearsing at the theatre could not understand why I should be hawking after my training. I told the artistes I had a story I wanted to shoot as an Igbo movie. Ruth Osi was kind enough to give me a note to meet Kenneth Nnebue who was into the marketing of Yoruba movies on VHS.”

 

On meeting Kenneth Nnebue, who would eventually provide the funding for Living in Bondage, Okey said he needed N150,000 to be able to make the film on a format superior to VHS. Kenneth told him that the amount was enough to make three Yoruba movies. The self-assured Okey instantly did an analysis of how Kenneth could quickly recoup his money on the investment. Kenneth then told Okey to bring along his certificate to prove that he was not some nobody. Okey went home and came back with his certificate. As Okey had said he’s not willing to shoot on VHS, Kenneth told him he’s about to make a trip to Japan to procure some cameras.

 

Kenneth then told Okey to put the story together while he made the trip to Japan. Okey went back to the National Theatre and began rehearsals without any script whatsoever. Okey who had been under the tutelage of the ace NTA director Chris Obi-Rapu while in TV College, Jos brought the highly sought-after director into the project. Since Chris was still in the employ of the NTA he could not append his real name to the project, but instead chose a name from his maternal side, Vic Mordi. He then established a camp in Badagry for the shooting of Living in Bondage, complete with the ritual communes.

 

 

According to Chris Obi-Rapu, “What made the Nigeria home video industry to take-off was the input from Okey Ogunjiofor and my direction. Nobody had wanted to do anything in Igbo or Yoruba among television producers around then because they felt it was degrading. There had been some shootings of Yoruba and Igbo videos. Mike Orihedimma recorded Igbo home videos in Onitsha, while NEK (Kenneth Nnebue) was recording and marketing Yoruba videos in Lagos. They were poorly produced and directed. It is a known fact in filmmaking that it is the direction that makes the film. If I had not shot Living in Bondage and Taboo there could not have been any Nollywood. This film business really took off because Living in Bondage was well shot as at that time. If I had not stood my grounds, the financier could have influenced the production and direction in a negative way. I resisted him because I knew that he lacked the knowledge of filmmaking. It was a deliberate directorial effort that brought about the home video revolution. It was not accidental.”

 

The making of Living in Bondage, according to Okey Ogunjiofor, marked “the first time some people were paid in thousands of naira to act on a film. I got N500 because I had not appeared on television then. People like Bob-Manuel (Udokwu) and others were paid a thousand naira. As a producer and an actor, what I got was only N500.”

 

Okey stresses that the formula that pushed him on was that unlike in the western part of Nigeria where the Yoruba people always went to the theatres to watch movies, the easterners, especially the Igbo, needed the movies to be brought to their homes. For whatever it is worth, the young man’s dream has materialized into a phenomenon that now holds the entire world in thrall.

 

 

The Nollywood movies have since proliferated in English language and the major languages of the ethnic nationalities such as Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa as well as in Ijaw, Tiv, Idoma, Efik, Ibibio etc. The English language films such as the pioneering Glamour Girls are seen as welding the diverse ethnic groups together. Major players in the English language films include the producers: Zeb Ejiro and his now deceased brother Chico Ejiro, the late Amaka Igwe, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Tade Ogidan, Andy Amenechi, Opa Williams, Kingsley Ogoro, Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Don Pedro Obaseki etc. Outstanding marketers-cum-producers include Ken Nnebue, Rob Eze (Reemy Jes), Ossy Affason, Gabosky Okoye, the late Azubuike Udensi, Arinze Ezeanyaeche, Ugo Emmanuel and Alex Okeke (Emmalex) etc.

 

 

Actors who used to earn peanuts while hanging around the NTA premises became worth their weight in gold, notably: Richard Mofe-Damijo, Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie, Bob-Manuel Udokwu, the late Sam Loco Efe, Justus Esiri, Enebeli Elebuwa, Ejike Asiegbu, Saint Obi, Jim Iyke, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Clem Ohameze, Emeka Ike, Segun Arinze, Ramsey Noah, Nkem Owoh, Mr. Ibu, Hanks Anuku etc.

 

The equally distinguished ladies of the klieg lights compete with the men on the earning front, and the list is made up of Amazons such as Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Chioma Chukwuka, Sandra Achums, Stephanie Okereke, Liz Benson, Joke Silva, Ebube Nwagbo, Rita Dominic, Nkiru Sylvanus, Mercy Johnson etc.

 

The making of Glamour Girls by Kenneth Nnebue shortly after the making of Living in Bondage showed that movies made in English language could make good returns on investment. Actors and actresses such as Zack Orji and Eucharia Anunobi shot into limelight, if not notoriety.

 

Diverse themes were explored along the line, from traditional practices such as the Osu caste system (Taboo) and prostitution as in Zeb Ejiro’s high-grossing Domitilla. Some of the films were shot outside the shores of Nigeria like Kingsley Ogoro’s record-breaking Osuofia in London, acted with requisite mastery by the inimitable Nkem Owoh. Comedy films have over the years proved to be winners with the actors Nkem Owoh, Mr Ibu, and the diminutive duo of Aki and Pawpaw acquitting themselves as the masters of the genre.

 

The banks started to show interest with Ecobank funding the films of Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Chico Ejiro, Fred Duker etc. The actors gained recognition in the national honours list with such eminent honorees as Pete Edochie, Justus Esiri, Lere Paimo, Eddy Ugbomah, Zeb Ejiro etc.

 

Schools and agencies have been springing up for the training of the new talents, from scriptwriting through directing to marketing. Leading the charge are such schooled eminences as Wale Adenuga, Muritala Sule, Victor Okhai etc.

 

 

51 Iweka Road, Onitsha attained top spot as a major market for the home movies. Any film that came out of Nollywood must bear the imprimatur of the ubiquitous 51 Upper Iweka Road, the most famous address in Nollywood. It used to be a place for electronic merchants who have since abandoned their trade for the making of home movies. That famous address is an old building, about 60 metres in length, and made up of three storeys of a thousand and more shops owned by the famous Modebe family of Onitsha.

 

The Yoruba film setup continues to draw the crowds to the film theatres in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and so on. A major player in Nollywood is obviously Tunde Kelani who is almost always invited to all the major film festivals across the globe. He is getting on in age but still talks film with the passion of youth. He started out as a cameraman and literally knows all the nooks and crannies of the film world. The maker of such masterpieces as Thunderbolt, Saworide, Agogo Eewo and more says, “I think the journey to become a cinematographer is a long one and it could as well be a lifetime.”

 

 

The indomitable Hausa film world is tagged Kannywood, and Sanni Muazu who produces films in Kano stresses: “We may not produce tapes or cameras, but we have a product: films. So, we do have an industry.” Ali Nuhu is arguably the most highly rated actor out of Kannywood having acted in about 100 Hausa films. Mama Hajara on her part has acted in well over 100 films in her 20-odd-year career. The industry currently employs about 15,000 talents working as directors, producers, scriptwriters, engineers, and costume designers. Ibrahim Mandawari doubles as a leading actor and director, saying: “You cannot expect filmmakers to have a free ride. Custodians of society’s heritage, clerics and conservative elite will react, stressing the need for social responsibility in the kind of themes we display.”

 

The relevance of Nollywood in the cultural renaissance of Nigeria shows that the country can indeed conquer the world through the reach of film, just as the Americans did through the exploits of Hollywood.

 

Peace Anyiam who organizes the annual AMAA awards says, “When a man wants to make up with his wife, he comes home with ten video cassettes. If he wants to go out without her, the same thing – that way, she won’t want to come with him!”

 

Nollywood has become an integral feature of the life of every Nigerian, via the African Magic Channel on DSTV. The joy is that the phenomenon has spread through the Diaspora, blazing through all of the world at large. The hotel rooms of the major cities across the East and West coasts of Africa beam to the guests from all over the world films featuring such Nigerian celebrated stars as RMD, Genevieve Nnaji and the redoubtable diminutive ones known as Aki and Pawpaw. Little wonder there was a riot in Sierra Leone when some conmen duped a mammoth crowd about bringing the Aki and Pawpaw duo to the stadium!

 

It is indeed worthy of note that while the Nigerian national football team, the Super Eagles, was in 2005 having a pulsating match with the Zimbabwean national team in Harare, the Zimbabwean supporters had one big banner in the stands on which was written in bold red: “Nigeria – Good only for Films!” For the many men and women of Zimbabwe, the prowess of Nigeria in the football pitch was not as great as the accomplishment of the country in the film industry!

 

The Zimbabweans are not alone, for across the length and breadth of the African continent the Nigerian home movies are all the rage. The phenomenon has extended to the frontiers of Europe, North America, and Asia with throngs of foreigners making the frequent pilgrimage to Nigeria to have a feel of the Nollywood revolution, which accounts for the third place in worldwide film production after America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

 

Professor Jude Akudinobi who teaches film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says: “What Nigeria has in Nollywood is a global brand. I am always being consulted from all over the globe about the workings of the Nigerian home movie industry. The government has a goldmine in the industry if properly managed with the requisite technical competence.” Akudinobi has in the past many years made many trips from his base in California to Abuja and Lagos to facilitate Nollywood projects.

 

Film luminaries who have shown profound interest in Nollywood range from the top Hollywood director Bill Duke to the respected acting coach Ms Adilah Barnes, the international copyright expert Ms Avalyn Pitts and the Paul Robeson Award director Prof Shade Turnipseed.

 

At the height of the Nollywood influence, Leke Alder said, “The revenue generated by sales and rentals of movies in Lagos State is N804 million per week.” This adds up to an estimated N33.5 billion per annum. Demand for broadcast content in Nigeria averages 836,580 hours of programming per year valued at N250 billion. Uptake of CDs at Alaba International Market, Lagos alone is estimated at 700,000 discs per day. Alder submits finally that “the market potential of the movie industry in Nigeria relative to the size of each state’s economy is at least N522 billion per annum.”

 

 

Former Nigerian Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had at a seminar on “Global Imperatives for the Nigerian Movie Industry in 2005” said that the “Government expects the industry to generate about US250 dollars in foreign exchange.”

 

Nollywood’s cinematography, editing, dialogue, continuity, sound design, and mise-en-scene have over the years witnessed remarkable improvement.

 

Shooting on celluloid which had over the years been a bridge too far for Nigerian moviemakers was trumped when the ace filmmaker Mahmood Ali-Balogun courageously made public his bid to break the trend in Nollywood by shooting his movie, Tango with Me. Mahmood’s drive was enough to earn a feature story in the esteemed Nigeria Monthly magazine of April 2009. The four-page magazine feature aptly introduced Mahmood Ali-Balogun as “A New Face for Nollywood.” Nollywood’s leading actress, Genevieve Nnaji, embraced the project, acting with the then relatively little-known Joseph Benjamin as her leading man. The film-script took more than two years to write. Acting as Uzo and Lola, Joseph Benjamin and Genevieve Nnaji offer virtuoso performances of what it takes to see that love outlasts all tribulations. The brooding sweep of the film owes a lot to the deep psychological drama inherent in the balancing act of faith against the trauma of rape. The product is a film that bears testimony to the long years of conception, the attention to details of the script, the rehearsals, and of course the solid direction of Mahmood Ali-Balogun. Incidentally, Tango with Me holds the record of the highest-grossing film in Nigeria in 2011. In the maiden Nollywood Movies Awards, Tango with Me dominated literally in all the categories by taking six awards, notably Best Director (Mahmood Ali-Balogun), Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Design, Best Actor (Joseph Benjamin) and Best Viewers Female Choice (Genevieve Nnaji).

 

The celebrated African American film producer, Sharifa Johka, believes that “the future of Nollywood is limitless.” According to her, “For some strange reason, people expect Nollywood to transform overnight. That’s unrealistic. Rome was not built in a day, and it took God six days to create Heaven and Earth. So, I think people should remember that Nollywood is in its infancy and those people who are interested in furthering its advancement should step up and concentrate on how to contribute to its growth through, among other means, dialogues of collaboration. I look forward to playing my small role and I encourage others to do the same.”

 

It is purely academic engaging in arguments about the so-called Old and New Nollywood. The truth is that movies are still daily being shot in the Nigerian cities of Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Asaba, Onitsha, Enugu, Kano etc.

 

 

Nollywood movies are now a major feature of Netflix. The impact of Nollywood cannot be overstressed. The downer is the recent death of the filmmaker Biyi Bandele who shot for Mo Abudu’s Ebony Films the made-for-Netflix film, Elesin Oba – The King’s Horseman – based on a Yoruba translation of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman – set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

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