Monday, February 21, 2005

A Trip to Nollywood: Nigerian Videofilm Culture

Recently, my local museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, hosted a talk by Nigerian filmmaker Tunde Kelani, as part of a citywide celebration of contemporary African art. The lecture was an incredible change to lean about an emerging cinema culture from one of its leading practitioners.

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most populous and diverse nations, with about 100 million people amongst 250 ethnic groups. Emerging into democracy from a military dictatorship, Nigeria has a remarkably productive film industry. Today, Nigeria cranks out approximately 600 titles annually, making the country one of the world’s top film-producing nations and earning it the nickname “Nollywood”. The medium of choice (and of economic circumstance) is video, and most of its practitioners are unapologetically dedicated to making a quick buck. Olaf Möller in a recent Film Comment article describes the qualities of a typical production: “Absurdly ardent acting, the absence of anything remotely resembling craftsmanship beyond keeping the actors in frame (forget focus), dialogue-drowning soundtrack noise, sub-amateur-porn production values, and above all…ultra-twisted stories…always ending with a moral so heavy you would need a crane to lift it.” Möller later sums up Nigerian videofilm culture as thus: “Here’s the African experience in all its violent contradictions: corrupt cops paying a visit to a witch doctor in a BMW, curses that can turn a woman into a vagina dentate, jolly jesters and born-again Christians, occasionally all-signing, all dancing. It’s sheer invention, born of utter poverty, from people desperate to tell themselves stories, to forge a cinema culture of their own, like the one they know from TV or video—but rooted in their own experience.”

Tunde Kelani, who took two days to travel from Nigeria to Houston to show his films, is an anomaly in the Nollywood culture. Classically trained as a photographer and cinematographer in Great Britain, Kelani is one of the few actual “filmmakers” in the Nigerian videofilm culture. Indeed, he is considered an “auteur” in many circles. A recent recipient of a small retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Kelani has made it his life’s mission to document the Nigerian/Yoruba ethnic culture. At the lecture, Kelani showed nine clips of his work. Shot on video and film, Kelani’s work explored the impact of AIDS, depicted the abuses of political power, and dramatized the conflict between traditional values and contemporary society—all with engaging, and sometimes quite humorous, narratives, many adapted from Nigerian literature. The following weekend, the museum’s film department presented his film AGOGO EEWO (2002) a thinly veiled allegory critiquing Nigerian politics.

Kelani is excited by the possibilities offered by new digital technology, and by his current role as a leader in the Nigerian film industry. Reminiscing about when he first decided to become a filmmaker, Kelani said that he believed that his photographs would be more powerful if they moved. He further states, “There’s a tremendous need to see stories about our own culture…like a revolution, someone has to start.”

Olaf Möller’s article “A Homegrown Hybrid Cinema of Outrageous Schlock From Africa’s Most Populous Nation” explores current Nigerian videofilm culture, its history and its practitioners. You can read the article here.

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