Where Are Igbo Epic Movies?
Over the years and since the inception of “new Nollywood,” Nigerians have seen movies with bouts of indigenous languages. Sometimes, a mixture of all three major languages in Nigeria – Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba. Most of the time, language use in movies with indigenous language revolves around the Yoruba language with English as a base, and 2022 has birthed films in full indigenous language for the Yorubas that are outstanding. King of Thieves by Femi-Adebayo is an epic Yoruba movie released April 2022. It earned its due in the cinemas and is cooling in Prime video right now. Kunle Afolayan’s Anikulapo was released in September, and it is among the top 10 movies on Netflix now. Mo Abudu’s Elesin Oba is slated for November. All three movies have the Yoruba culture firmly represented with full Yoruba language, dressing and spectacle.
As an ethnic group, the Igbos who spearheaded the creation of Nollywood in the 90’s, seemingly are lagging since it is saddening to see that Igbo stories are not being told or rather, the world does not know about the Igbo narrative. It is as though the Igbos have been benched or instead, they benched themselves. So, “where are Igbo epic movies?”
Igbo filmmaker with the award-winning documentary, No U-Turn, Ike Nnaebue rephrased the question to “what are Igbo people doing to encourage Igbo filmmakers to tell Igbo stories?” Nnaebue argues that the Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria appear to appreciate their culture and language more, and it serves as the motivation for championing their traditions through the various media, especially Nollywood. “Igbos will rather give English names to their kids but you see Yorubas bearing their Yoruba names to the fullest. We have a generation of Igbo people who do not know and are not in touch with their culture, tradition, ancestry, and history,” Nnaebue adds.
Deviating from the cultural aspect, a look at the business angle of filmmaking is essential in understanding where Igbo epic movies could fit in. Nnaebue, who has studied the business landscape, posits that most of the movies that have made money in Nigeria since the advent of the new cinema are Yoruba movies. “Even if they are not Yoruba films, they have strong Yoruba leads and produced by Yoruba people,” Nnaebue points out.
Production manager, Afamefuna Ikegwuonu agrees with the statement and adds that “In the entire South-east, there are not many cinemas. There are more cinemas in the South-west.” If you make an Igbo film, your first market should be South-East. This goes to prove that if there are less than five cinemas in the whole South-East, that is a big problem for the Igbo filmmaker who is thinking of connecting with the Igbo audience.
Filmmaker, Chimezirim Young puts his two cents on the matter, “When the Yoruba man wants to make a movie, Yorubas all want to make a movie. However, when the Igbo man wants to make a movie, it’s only that man making a movie.” Young emphasizes that there is a lack of unity amongst Igbos in the creative space, and this attitude is greatly affecting filmmaking.
The Eastern part of Nigeria has been likened to a part of Nollywood called Asaba Nollywood. Some say that this is where one can find the sought-after Igbo movies. Typically, Asaba Nollywood produces mostly “low-budget” movies that do not make it to the cinema or Netflix. Ikegwuonu believes that the stereotypes associated with Asaba Nollywood is affecting their production. According to him, “The already established stereotypes rocking them is already eating up and making a lot in that space settle for less.” He goes further to emphasize that the kind of market in that community supports them and encourages what they are doing.
This is a certainty because these Asaba movies are on high demand from broadcasters like Africa Magic Epic. So, they do not need the cinema or Netflix when they can easily make turn over from VODs (Videos on Demand). The “lowbudgetness” of Asaba Nollywood in filming equipment, resources and intellectuals makes them not to be recognized in the AMVCAs. Their counterparts in Lagos have more opportunities to better equipment. This causes a brain drain in the East because most people want to go to Lagos and tap into the resources there.
An attempt at a blockbuster movie with dominant Igbo language was Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart which starred Igbo-born actors that are already very successful. People watched it with elation and great hope that Igbo movies were gradually coming up. Lionheart was Netflix’s first Nigerian original film.
Charles Okpaleke’s Playnetwork Studios have focused on giving sequels to and remaking old Igbo movies. This initiative produced Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, Nneka, the Pretty Serpent, and Rattlesnake: the Ahanna Story. One of the greatest flaws with these movies from Playnetwork studios is the casting of non-Igbo actors – people who do not speak the language effectively. It becomes a situation of “actors who can market the movie” and not “actors who know the language.”
There’s a lot of restructuring to be done to revive filmmaking in Igbo communities. It’s not the job of filmmakers alone, though, because it’s also the job of the Igbo audience. Nnaebue commends YouTube content creators who have carved out a niche for themselves and made their contents for the Igbo audience specifically. “More people like that will help sell Igbo narrative to the world,” he adds.
Emeka Mba, former CEO of Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) agrees with Nnaebue’ take. He explains that channeling the power of YouTube in marketing Igbo stories is not a bad idea using Uduak Isong’s Selina as an example.
The big screens will require more investment and can happen when the story idea is pitched to the right persons. The work becomes easier when the East invests in media and entertainment. The two sectors are lacking in Southeastern Nigeria.