Nigeria 'Nobody knows tomorrow'

Emeka Nwandiko writes in New African (March 2006) about the growth of Nollywood (Nigerian Hollywood) and its portrayal of and impact on African culture. Nigerian films are hot in Africa and far cheaper than the American flicks they are displacing.

As the sun sets over Hillbrow in Johannesburg, South Africa, Phillipine Theledi, her fiancé, and a friend settle down to watch TV. The watching hour of the soaps has begun, but the 24-year-old police constable and her guests are not interested in the bizarre goings on in the Hollywoodstyle soap operas. Instead they get their entertainment from watching Nigerian (or Nollywood) movies.

"I can't remember when I last watched a soap," says Theledi, who started watching Nollywood movies five years ago. Her friend and colleague-constable, Kgaugelo Motsepe, who began watching Nigerian films two years ago, says: "Soaps are always the same - you know that Brooke (of The Bold and The Beautiful) will always marry someone else." Constable Motsepe adds that she stopped watching Hollywood soaps because "people just die and come back to life. That's not reality".

The two policewomen live a couple of doors away from each other at the high-rise South African Police Service barracks in the densely populated inner city neighbourhood of Hillbrow, which they patrol.

It was while they were on different patrols in the neighbourhood that they discovered Nollywood films - almost every second street corner in Hillbrow has a shop run by a Nigerian whose Nollywood DVD sales form part of a barber shop or cellphone shop.

On their days off, the two spend their time glued to the TV. This evening they are watching Keep Us Together. It is trademark Nollywood fare, and it has their full attention. Motsepe, 22, says she can relate to the values depicted on the screen. "From these movies, you can see that Nigerians are very traditional people. They are very religious and strongly believe that God can help them no matter the odds." ButTheledi's fiancé, Cornelius Maphoto, who began watching Nigerian films not long ago, is not too impressed: "They're okay," he says, "but about three-quarters of the films have the same message. They're predictable."

Many a plot of a Nollywood film revolves around money and reflects the psyche of Nigerians: "If you no get monie, you no be person. Ho ha! (If you don't have money you're nobody. Simple and short!)" Nollywood films reflect the social dynamics that make Nigeria a money-mad country. The basic formula is a son promises to send money to his impoverished family before he leaves the village to head for the big city or country (say London, South Africa, America, etc). Under pressure to deliver, he gets involved mjuju, waiyo (419 scams), armed robbery, political assassinations or drug dealing. For female lead actresses, the roles are a spinster who will only settle for a rich man. She steals him from his wife, using juju, or falls for a dashing mugu (419) specialist who turns out to be her worst nightmare.

Often the architects of the diabolical plots end up with nothing. In their own way, the directors and scriptwriters question Nigerians on whether the quest for money at all costs is really worth it.

But not all Hollywood films are about the unrelenting quest for money. There are also love stories such as Keep us Together. The plots though have a rather familiar theme: son/daughter wants to marry a woman/man of higher status but because he comes from a tribe/poor family/socially inferior clan, the woman's/man's family frowns upon the affair.

Nollywood films can be compared to egusi soup (a popular meal eaten in Nigeria) that is badly cooked. But within the soup, there are some nutritious morsels in the form of proverbs spoken by Igbos from southeastern Nigeria: "The chicken that is searching for food in the rain must be very hungry"- Chukuma scheming, with his younger brother Greg, on how to get the wealth of their elder brother in the film, The Price of Love.

"When a lamb plays in the den of a lion, is there any future to expect?"- Chief Phillips to his daughter whom he wants to dissuade from marrying the son of his arch rival in the movie, Power Play.

The popular saying at the back of every Nigerian's mind that fuels their hopes and ambitions for a better life is uttered by Mama Enyi about her son's forbidden affair in Keep Us Together. "Nobody knows tomorrow".

In fact, Hollywood films have a kitsch feel about them. The poor technical quality of shots taken indoors gives them their distinct low budget feel. Scenes that involve actors shouting in anger or crying loudly often come out as a screeching sound.

Inadequate use of lighting indoors leaves macabre shadows dancing around actors and the soundtracks of some films often do not correspond to the scene on view. Added to this gaucheness, are the titles: After the Fight, Nothing Spoil, Who's Fault, I Want My Money, The Broken Plate, Last Billionaire, Dogs Meeting, Hard Lover and My Own Share.

But in spite of their perceived poor technical quality and tacky titles, Nollywood films are in huge demand. Constables Theledi and Motsepe each rent up to three Nigerian films a week. And their interest has caught on with their families as well.

"Emperor" is the owner of a video rental shop at the Mansion Hotel in Claim Street, Johannesburg. His store, a DVD store-cumbarbershop, is the largest of the lot in the downtown area. The wall on the left and centre are crammed (from wall to ceiling) with Nollywood films. He left Nigeria for South Africa seven years ago and most of his clients are South Africans, Zimbabweans and Zambians.

His clients say, compared to American films, Nollywood movies enhance African culture and show that Africans have a rich heritage to draw from, and give them a sense of dignity and pride.

Apart from their cultural appeal, Nigerian films are also drawing interest because they are cheaper to hire than Hollywood films. Emperor rents out a Nollywood film, burned on a double compact disc, at R5 for three nights - a Hollywood equivalent hired for one evening costs Rl 8. Despite the low cost of rentals, Emperor, who has a collection of about 4,200 Nollywood films, is able to make a profit. He says if he spends about R30,000 importing 1,000 Nigerian movies, he can rent out about 100 videos in an average week and make about R700. But the bulk of his profits come from selling videos for about R60 each.

The genre of Nollywood films in greatest demand is comedy, and it is easy to understand why. Films featuring Nkem Owoh (Osuofia in London 1 & 2) and the actors Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze (Lagos Boys 1 & 2 and De Don and De Capo) are always booked out. In the case of Nkem Owoh, his delivery of punchlines in pidgin (broken) English is side splitting. The pint-sized Iheme and Ikedieze (their feet barely touch the floor when they sit on chairs) can deliver a brand of waiyo-scheming humour to make Leon Schuster's comic feats seem like a geriatric on a zimmer-frame.

The Nollywood film industry is primarily geared towards the DVD home market. It is estimated that there are about 57 million DVD players in Nigerian households. Home movies took precedence over cinemas when celluloid films became too expensive to make under the military regimes that ruled Nigeria in the 1980s. Now that Nigeria is under democratic rule, on average about 430 movies are made every year, powering an industry estimated at R300m. A typical Nollywood film will have 50,000 copies dubbed onto VCDs at less than R5 each. It is not clear to what extent piracy and bootlegs are driving the value of the industry down. But in the next few months, the script that Nollywood currently acts out is about to change - dramatically.

According to Brian Pottinger, CEO of Johnnic Communications Africa Division, an agreement has been signed by Nu Metro Home Entertainment West Africa for a new distribution chain, starting in Nigeria, with a VCD and DVD plant to open in October which will make licensed and quality-made Nollywood films available to markets in Africa and beyond. The big idea is to ensure that from the licence agreements, revenues generated will be ploughed back into the industry in the form of royalties which "will create a sustainable industry in which actors, producers, directors, distributors and ultimately the consumer benefits", says Pottinger.

As the storyline on the Nollywood film industry unfolds, perhaps an apt title should be: Nobody Knows Tomorrow.

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