by Péter Pölöskei
Film production has peculiarities in every continent – most readers would be familiar with the globally renowned Hollywood and Bollywood industries, and of course with the state-subsidized European ones. But you might be surprised that in the last ten years, the top 3 in number of movies produced in a country always included a contestant not mentioned in the first sentence – and this is Nigeria, the home of Nollywood, producing more than 1000 movies per year, thus only rivaled by India.
Of course you should not be shamed if you have not seen the latest Nigerian hit or artsy feature in your local multiplex – because these movies have to do with the technology that they actually have at their disposal, which means that distribution is done directly on CDs, DVDs (and yes, occasionally still on VHS!). But why is this important to us now? Because it is a great example of how a historical accident and agglomeration effects can define a continent-wide industry.
In the 1990’s technology was ready for a democratizing shift in film making in Africa, as video devices, cheap but reliable cameras - and people with a taste for cheap entertainment - was already available. While before mostly francophone countries – encouraged by France – were forerunners (more like slumping at the time) in making African films, a hit came from Nigeria titled Living in Bondage. Unlike the francophones, the movie was shot straight-to-video, and became a real blockbuster, that showed that there could be profit to made for Africans in this industry.
This was a start signal, and the few filmmakers already living in Lagos sensed the opportunity. The most populous city in the country was not only providing a readily available market, but other features as well. In a place with some experience available in filmmaking, with people ready to take a shot at African superstardom, selection of talented film crews could go easily. Since Lagos was a destination for migrants from different regions, the use of English was necessary, so most applicants had some of the necessary skills as well. The city also offered distribution connections to the new industry, as a significant share of the igbo tribe lived in Lagos – who were influential in trading activities all over the country. This only just increased the size of market available on top of the local demand. So all in all, after the initial opportunity came, the city provided the unique connections of the igbo, a significant amount of talented and skilled enough people willing to be either filmmakers or part of film crews, plus the scene soon created competition between the emerging little studies.
In a matter of years the features that started making Nollywood successful also made it capable of leaving the country. Since distribution channels are constrained by state borders, but are helped by border-crossing older trade patterns and modern technology, soon the industry was capable of supplying the many English speaking countries of the continent.
But the story of Nollywood is not simply a rise of a monocentric movie empire – just as Hollywood also helped creating Hollywood North (Vancouver), or re-shaping New York to add cinema to theatre. While Lagos is the centre of production, where all big Nigerian producers have their offices, after a while, there were other factors to consider. Lagos location-wise was not perfect, as it turned out after the first decade, that some parts of the production process – like many parts of shooting – are not ideal to take place there. To put it simply, it just became too crowded, as companies were vying for resources, like locations for shooting, which were hampering production, thus driving up prices. So came the rise of Enugu, a city that already had some shootings going on, offering vast areas for production processes. Thus in the latest years, producers moved a significant share of shooting activity to this more eastern Nigerian city, to control rising costs.
Justus Esiri, the posthumous winner of the 2013 African Movie Academy Award for Best Actor
Some further readings about Nollywood:
McCall, John C. (2004) ‘Nollywood Confidental – The Unlikely rise of Nigerian Video Film’; African American and African Diaspora Studies, Issue 95 (Vol. 13, No. 1), 2004
Saul, Mahir – Austen, Ralph A. (eds.) (2010) ‘Viewing African Cinema in the Twenty-First Century’; Ohio University Press, Athens (OH), 2010