« Program: Nollywood: Nigeria's Mirror

An Interview with Jonathan Haynes

Professor Jonathan Haynes (Long Island University) has been writing about Nollywood since its inception. Producer Wills Glasspiegel recorded the following interview with Professor Haynes in the summer of 2012 for the Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep radio documentary, “Nollywood: Nigeria’s Mirror.”

Wills- How did you get involved in studying Nollywood?

Jonathan- I arrived in Nigeria on a Fulbright, but it wasn’t clear what I was going to do there, what my project was. I was teaching. It was a half teaching and half a research fellowship, and it was Nigerian writers who had gotten me interested in Nigeria in the first place. I’d also been to a King Sunny Ade concert, which moved me profoundly. I could see he was really the king of something, and I wanted to know what.

I arrived in Nigeria in 1991, which was an interesting moment. It was the hinge between two eras in Nigerian audio/visual entertainment and filmmaking. Celluloid filmmaking was coming to an end. Nobody knew how final that was, I think, at the moment but as a result of the structural adjustment program, the devaluation of the currency and so on, it just became impossible to make films on celluloid.

The video thing began in 1992. The first video called Nollywood is usually dated from the film Living in Bondage, which came out in 1992. So, all of that was just about to begin when I arrived, and I was there when it began. I was interested in it and just kept following it.

I’d been in a lot of places before I got to Nigeria, and why it’s Nigeria that I bonded with in this way, I’m not sure. Why do you fall in love with one person, rather than another? It happens. But it was the stories that I heard in Nigeria which really fascinated me. What I liked about Nollywood from the beginning was this capacity it had to tell these wild stories about what was going on in Nigeria at the time. I felt like I was learning something. I had this window into Nigerian life and into the Nigerian imagination through this popular form of culture.

Wills: Do you remember some of the first films that you watched, and what the occasion was? What are some of your earliest memories?

Jonathan: The first video film I ever saw was actually in Ghana, where I had gone basically on vacation. I wandered into a tiny, little video parlor that was showing Diablo, which was not quite the first Ghanaian film but one of the early ones. It’s a money ritual film about a guy who turns into a snake and causes women to vomit money. It was completely wild, and the viewing situation was in a video parlor, which was a very small room just stuffed with young guys. It was hot and noisy in there. There was just an ordinary TV monitor and a VCR. I was thinking, “What is this? What is going on here?”

Living in Bondage, the first Nigerian film–I first saw a copy of that in the market in Suka, this small university town in eastern Nigeria where I lived the first year I was there. I just looked at it and thought, “What is this?” I’d never seen anything like that. Nothing like that had ever existed before.

The first article I wrote was on the transition from Nigerian celluloid film making to the new video medium, and Baba Sala played a prominent part, tracing the evolution and his own career from one medium to the other. Baba Sala was one of the great comedians who came out of the Yoruba traveling theater tradition, probably the greatest of the comedians, and he had started making films on video. He had been making celluloid films, including some really excellent ones. But, with the transition to the new medium, he started making these much cheaper video films.

Wills: Could you talk a little bit about the roots of Nollywood in the Yoruba traveling theater?

Jonathan: Nollywood inherited a star system and a kind of commercial orientation. There had been this very successful live theater tradition, which had then turned into performances on television and celluloid movies. So, for the traveling theater people, the video medium was simply another way to do their business. At first, they were really just setting up video cameras and filming plays that they had been doing on stage.

What we call Nollywood really was partly inspired by that example, but it started in a different way.  Kenneth Nnebue is the most important single figure in this. He was an Ibo electronics marketer selling electronics to market, selling videocassettes – blank ones, but also he was importing Chinese, Indian and American films, and selling them as cassettes. He started putting up the money, producing films by these Yoruba traveling theater people. He did about 20 of them. They were really cheap films. Sometimes two of them were made in one day. They really just spent a couple of hours shooting these things in the most basic way. There was very little editing. They were kind of primitive things, but he saw that there was a market for selling films directly on cassette.

The person who had the idea initially for Living in Bondage is called Okey Ogunjiofor, who ended up being the producer of the film. He claims that the story is in some way his life story. It’s about a young man in Lagos trying to find his way, kind of ambitious. He meets these people who turn out to be involved with a secret cult that practices money rituals in which you sacrifice a person and this magically produces wealth. The third person who was crucial to that film is Chris Obi Rapu, who is one of the principal directors for the Nigerian Television Authority.

Nigerian television is really the most important source for Nollywood, more important than the celluloid tradition, which was just ending at that moment. A lot of the actors in these first films had been acting on television. Most of them weren’t gigantic stars, but they were already somewhat known. The people who had any experience in these early films basically were coming from television. The talkiness of Nollywood films is like soap operas. It was television serials that all of these people had been involved in making, and that was really the model for Nollywood films from the beginning. They still have that character to a considerable extent.

Wills- Could you describe a typical Nollywood set?

Jonathan- Shooting is all done on location. There are some sound stages in Lagos, but Nollywood productions virtually never use them because they can’t afford them.

They usually shoot in a house. Nollywood films are long on interior scenes. When they get out doors, it’s normal to watch somebody get into a car and back it up and drive it out of the court yard through the gate out into the street. The houses are borrowed. The cars are borrowed. Everything has a kind of provisional character to it. There is very little control of what goes on in a street in Nigeria, so the filmmaking has to be done quickly. Normally, there’s no ability to control the color of the wall behind an actor or anything like that.

The crews tend to be small by international standards, although there is a real industrial division of labor, and there’s a guild system. Directors, producers, cinematographers and so on all have their professional guilds. Labor is specialized. It’s much more an apprenticeship program than a matter of coming into it with formal training.

Wills- How has Nollywood changed since the early ’90s?

Jonathan- It’s bigger. It’s just grown and grown and grown. But there are also remarkable similarities. The basic structure of financing by a marketer – the center of gravity has always been with the marketers in the industry. They often determine the casting and the kinds of stories that are told. That really hasn’t changed.

The production outfits are still very small. The productions involve mobilizing this floating population of people for a particular production, and then the whole formation breaks up and everybody goes onto another production. It’s nothing like a studio system where you have the same set of people cranking out one film after another.

Wills- What about scripts?

Jonathan- Scripts can come from anywhere. It’s the most open aspect of Nollywood. You tend to see the same actors in picture after picture and, again, the same directors. But the scripts can really come from anywhere. A lot of them come from people who have a story to tell and offer it. They may try to write the script themselves or simply tell their story to a filmmaker or to a scriptwriter just in the hope of having their story told. This is one of the powerful things about Nollywood. From the beginning, the population has a sense that this film industry is telling their stories. Potentially their own personal story might get turned into a movie.

Wills- What makes someone choose to watch a Nollywood movie versus a big budget Western film?

Jonathan- The most remarkable aspect of the whole phenomenon is the fact that people do choose to watch Nollywood films made on an average budget of something like $65,000, rather than a Hollywood movie where $65,000 buys the coffee and donuts on the set. Nollywood films mostly have no advertising. It’s all just word of mouth, especially when they’re sold outside of Nigeria, in Brooklyn or all of the places in the U.S. or UK or Germany, or all of the places in the world where they’re watched. All over the Caribbean, people are fanatical about Nollywood.

Normally, in Nigeria, Nollywood films have always been a little bit more expensive than pirated American, Indian or Chinese films, so there’s an active choice here. It’s mysterious. People should research this properly. All I can do is speculate, but certainly for Nigerians, there’s a really powerful sense that Nollywood is telling their stories. They want to see faces of people they recognize as being like them and behaving in ways that are natural to them. That’s a tremendous amount of it — just the way people eat their meals, the way they greet each other. Whether the film is in English or in an African language, it doesn’t matter because what you’re seeing is an African lifestyle.

Often, that lifestyle is very modern, but Nollywood has always shown various lifestyles. There’s a genre called the cultural epic, which are films set in the traditional past where people are living in villages with thatched roofs and so on and so forth. Nollywood gets a lot of mileage out of representing tradition in that way. But even more films have people driving Mercedes Benzes and other fancy cars and talking on really nice cell phones. So a lot of the draw for Nollywood has always been that it gives images of an attractive, African modernity. It’s an image of specifically African success that people can identify with.

Wills- Can you tell me more about the various Nollywood genres?

Jonathan- Nollywood films are very generic. I’m working on a book that’s about genre in the first place partly because there’s something like more than 5,000 English-language Nollywood films that have been made, and you need categories with which to think about them. They’re also inherently generic in that the films can be made so quickly and so cheaply because everybody who is making them understands exactly what kind of movie they’re in, so they know what to do. And the people who are consuming them also can tell from the jacket, from the title, from the blurb, what they’re getting when they buy this movie. There’s always been a tremendous amount of repetition in Nollywood. If something sells well, four more people will make the same movie or something that’s very similar. It’s a deck of cards that keeps being shuffled and dealt out in different fashion, but the generic structure remains important.

The very first films were what people called ‘get rich quick’ themed movies, mostly about fast money. So Living in Bondage, the first one, was about a money ritual – and occult practice that is all about sacrificing a person like your kin or your wife – somebody you love – to get money. Other species of this were “419 films.” Nigerians are notorious for being the world champions at fraud [so-called 419 schemes]. Everybody’s gotten emails from Nigeria saying, “I’ve got $3 million and I’ll give you 10% if you’ll let me deposit the money in your account, but you have to send me $2,000 first,” so there were films about that kind of fraud from the beginning and various other scams.

The family film may be the most common genre. Africans live in families even more than most people in the US. Kinship is still a tremendously important aspect of life for everyone and, as the modern institutions of the government and the formal economy crumble, people have been thrown back on those family resources to a considerable extent. This is part of the inheritance also from soap operas, which tend to take the family as the dramatic unit as well.

Nigerians also have a category of film that they call emotional films, which has two main components: one is romance and the other is the family film.

Lately, romance has become a really prominent genre, but what strikes me is the extent to which it’s secondary to the family film. There are some really deep cultural reasons for this, I think. In the western tradition, it goes all the way back to ancient Greece and through Shakespeare and so on. The classic plot is boy meets girl, there are obstacles that they overcome and then, at the end, they get married. In Shakespeare’s society, for instance, the one free moment in a girl’s life was the moment when she passed from being her father’s property to being her husband’s property, but she had a moment when she could choose. Shakespeare gets a tremendous amount of mileage out of that moment. That’s the moment of dramatic interest. Not just Shakespeare; it’s the whole western comic tradition.

In Africa, that’s often not true. Women have much greater capacity to realize themselves. Let’s say in Igbo society, because Nollywood has been more influenced by Igbo culture than by any other. Igbo women have always been expected to have careers that are at least partly independent and autonomous from their husbands as farmers and gardeners. They all traditionally would be in the market buying and selling stuff. And also having their own social or political careers–if you like–through women’s organizations and so on.

This is true up to today. Everything doesn’t lead in an Ibo woman’s life to this one moment of romantic choice. She becomes most fully herself, most fully human, when she’s married and has children; this is a basic African conception that people become fully adult when they are married and have children. So the goal post has been moved. The issues in family films tend to have to do with fertility and with children – lost children, missing children – rather than with romantic choice. There’s a cultural disposition to tell a different kind of story than Hollywood tells in its most typical pattern.

Then there are crime films, especially when Nollywood was starting, there was a permanent crime wave in Nigeria. This was a tremendous fact of life for everybody, and the crime films reflect that. There have been a couple of species of crime film. One is the vigilante film, which, again, arose as many films do in response to headlines, to contemporary developments. In the crime genre, there is almost nothing like the police procedural, which is the staple of American crime films. You don’t follow a detective who goes about collecting clues in the matter of Sherlock Holmes and deducing who’s done it. In Nigeria, the crime films tend to get resolved in different ways. One is through melodramatic stories, which may well bring in a family element. There’s also frequently a supernatural aspect. In the vigilante films, for instance, the vigilantes themselves have magical objects which help them confront these evildoers who, themselves, may be practicing money rituals or have other occult practices.

The cultural epic is the most distinct Nollywood genre because its setting is so distinct. It’s set in the traditional past. Sometimes modernity appears in the form of a Christian missionary or something like that. More often, we’re simply in a historically undefined period of the past, but this is African tradition, which is put on display. There’s a very particular way of conceiving of this, which doesn’t always correspond with what academics know about the historical truth but it’s a very powerful way of conceiving of the African past.

Wills- You’ve written that Surulere is a section of Lagos that is central to Nollywood. Can you tell me more about that and about how Nollywood resides or ‘doesn’t reside in Lagos, the city?

Jonathan- Nollywood is not a place the way Hollywood is. You can go to Hollywood and take the tour and there it is. Nollywood is a name for an industry, for a marketing system, but there’s no one particular place that you can point to and say, “This is where it is.” But if there’s one neighborhood that has more of Nollywood in it than anywhere else, it’s Surulere, which is a middleclass neighborhood on the mainland of Lagos. It’s a fairly well to do neighborhood, as Lagos neighborhoods go. It’s fairly low density, as Lagos neighborhoods go. From the beginning, lots of people involved in the film industry have lived there. The first editing studios were there. Also the people who provided the music for soundtracks were there, and the film producers tend to be based in Surulere.

Producers’ offices tend to be quite modest. The streets in Surulere are modest, and the offices tend to be in single story or two story building, quite simple, a couple of rooms. Film producers tend not to have much in the way of equipment. They rent that as needed for each production, so these are small-scale operations that are almost invisible in a residential neighborhood.

Wills- Why do you think Nollywood is so interesting to scholars today?

Jonathan- I’ve been amazed at all of the essays I’ve read and all of the people that are writing about Nollywood. It almost seems sometimes that scholars are more interested in Nollywood as a process than in the films themselves. Nollywood has been attracting a whole lot of attention from academics of late. It’s actually become institutionalized in the Nigerian university system as an accepted topic of research. This is a real revolution because African universities, in general, have been very slow to recognize popular culture of any kind as a legitimate object of interest.

The first reaction to Nollywood by almost the entire educated elite was scorn and indignation at the technical quality, but also at the image of the country that was being portrayed in the films, which was thought to be very embarrassing because it was stories about occult practices and people behaving disreputably in various ways.

Nollywood is so important in Nigerian culture at this moment, and a whole generation has grown up seeing Nollywood films. They saturate the environments and they are what there is in terms of Nigerian film culture. If you’re graduating from a theater arts program, where else are you going to find work? Stage drama is almost impossible to make a living from that these days. Even television doesn’t mostly pay very well. So, gradually, a whole generation has grown up taking Nollywood as an obvious thing to be interested in.

The size of the phenomenon is also extremely impressive. It is the third-biggest movie industry in the world. This is what people keep repeating and given that fact, the level of interest in it is not extraordinary. In fact, why aren’t more people writing about it It’s just an enormous thing to be explained.

The structure of the industry has made it very hard to understand the films in some ways that, coming from the west, we would think of as normal. Nollywood does a terrible job of preserving its own history. Films get produced very quickly and cheaply. They’re in the market for about three weeks, and then almost all of them disappear within a couple of months. Some of them hang around for longer than that, or they may be re-released, but that’s pretty rare. So, it’s extremely difficult to come by copies of old films. In Nigeria, there’s a strong sense of the canon of films that is important. You can construct this canon out of newspaper reporting, of which there’s a mountain. Nollywood has always been covered pretty intensively by the daily press; but getting the films in order to see them is extraordinarily difficult to do.

Wills- Can you talk a little bit about the way Nollywood has dealt with the influence of Hollywood?

Jonathan- Like most forms of African popular culture, Nollywood appropriates whatever is interesting to it. The cinema culture in Nigeria had been overwhelmingly dominated by foreign films until the advent of Nollywood. So every Nigerian film maker or every viewer of a Nollywood film has also seen thousands of American television programs and movies, so that’s just part of the assumed culture from which Nollywood develops. From that perspective, it’s remarkable the extent to which Nollywood has created its own genres. In many cases, Nollywood will make a film which may appear to resemble an American genre but which is actually quite different in some fundamental ways. For instance, some people use the term ‘horror film’ to describe Nigerian films that have an occult element in them but, in fact, that’s usually not a good guide to what’s going on in these films.

Hollywood, horror firms, the emergence of the occult element, the supernatural element, is something which is deeply shocking to everybody involved. The protagonist usually goes through a struggle before he or she is willing to admit that this super natural phenomenon is actually real and happening, whereas the audience of Nigerian films and the people in them tend to assume that the super natural dimension to life is very much around and there are many portals to access it. For the overwhelming majority of people in Nigeria, it’s easier and cheaper to find a so-called native doctor who is an herbalist but also practices divination than it is to see a Western-trained practitioner. So, the notion is that, if you have a problem, you look for a super natural explanation through a divine or some other means, that’s natural and no cause for a surprise.

Nollywood films are sold in a market that’s totally saturated, so they’re all scrambling to find something which sells the film, something on the surface, so the titles are always chosen to try to spark some kind of interest. So, you get names like Beyonce or Lady Gaga or Blackberry Babes or whatever as a way of appealing to the prestige of these foreign brands.

The audience understands they’re going to be given a Nigerian version of this and, again, that’s part of what’s inherent in Nollywood in general. The name itself is a takeoff on Hollywood, again, playing off of the prestige of Hollywood and Bollywood but saying, “We’re doing our own thing, which is different from those. This is our own version of a glamorous entertainment industry.”

Foreign culture, especially American media culture, just saturates Nigeria, as it does most of Africa. Nollywood exists in that environment. So, it appropriates elements from foreign culture. It plays with them. It adapts them. It fits them into its own structures. It’s a very complicated process, and it isn’t always the same. Sometimes it looks like a slavish imitation, a desire to acquire foreign prestige — there are lots of people in Nollywood films who have just come back from abroad and are filled with the prestige and glamor that has always been associated with that status in African culture. But, at the same time, very often it’s being appropriated according to some other cultural logic.

The big men in Africa are going to dress at one moment in flowing African embroidered robs and, in the next, in a very sharp Italian suit, and this is part of their power: They can be seen from one scene to the next in these different costumes. They are simultaneously mastering various roles, and that’s the essence of their power. Success in the African context is often based upon an ability to play many different cultural roles from moment to moment, according to what’s appropriate.

Wills- Tell me about themes that you can trace throughout the genres and throughout Nollywood.

Jonathan- I believe the most prevalent theme in Nigerian films across the board is betrayal of intimates. You don’t find this theme in all of the Nollywood genres but it comes up in a whole lot of them. The split personality is also a way of internalizing that theme in a single character — so even the person that you’re closest to can have this strange, unsuspected doubleness to them.

From the beginning, a lot of what’s central to Nollywood’s thematic has been suspicion of successful people. This is a film culture that arose in a moment of spectacular corruption in Nigerian society directly sponsored by the military dictatorships, so the suspicion is that underneath this surface, and the most glamorous surfaces of the most successful peoples’ lives, there might be some hidden crime, some evil, something latent there that could be illustrated through some lurid back story.

Wills- Why is Christianity so prevalent in Nollywood?

Jonathan- Christianity has a very powerful influence over Nollywood. Birgit Meyer had written extensively about Pentecostalism in relation to Ghanaian video films but almost all of what he says about Nigeria and Ghana is true as well. The Pentecostal imagination depicts a world beset by dark spiritual forces to which only Christianity could be a sword and shield. In General, Africans don’t become Christian because they think that other spiritual forces aren’t real; they may well become Christian because they do feel that those other forces are real and they fear them. Again, Christianity offers them protection and a source of greater strength.

There are a lot of ways in which the rise of Pentecostal Christianity and the rise of Nollywood are intertwined. They happened, more or less, simultaneously as historical phenomena. Many of the old cinemas houses turned into churches. A lot of churches produce video films now out of their own resources and sold through their own networks, so they really are densely intertwined. To some extent, you can see them as springing from a similar source, which connects with the collapse of the institutions of the modern nation state: the government civil service employment, the educational system, all of the secular institutions, which, after independence, were supposed to be the foundation for a glorious national future, are all in very bad shape.

The experience of living in Nigeria for the last generation and more has been one of great precariousness from an economic point of view, a social point of view. Life is clearly unjust. The powers that be are not moral, so to go on living in an environment like this, you need to believe in something. Both Pentecostal Christianity and fundamentalist Islam and Nollywood all tell stories that explain the evil that’s in the world and show it being overcome. They show that there is some other principal at work which is stronger than these evil forces and which can win at least provisional local victories.

There are aspects of the Christian influence over Nollywood culture, which don’t make me happy. One is a tendency to demonize any non-Christian form of spirituality and often this extends to just condemning outright traditional culture because it is so linked with traditional religious practices. You do find Nigerian films in which the old culture is strongly associated with the devil, and the devil needs to be cast out.

This is by no means true of all Nollywood films, many of which still valorize the traditional culture and look to it for a source of moral values. In lots of them, there are deities of the land, of a village deity with its shrine so on, who will enforce a moral law.

An oath made at a shrine is often taken much more seriously than any other kind of oath. You can go to a courtroom and lie on the Bible or on the Koran, but going to a shrine and taking one of these oaths is considered to be a really dangerous thing to do. There’s the sense in which the traditional, spiritual powers are still held to embody a legitimate moral and social order and that they’re effective. They’re immediately effective in ways that nothing else is–certainly not the Nigerian police force and the court system.

Wills- That’s fascinating. Talk to me more about the supernatural elements of Nollywood films.

Jonathan- One of the things that’s distinctive about Nollywood as a film culture is the prevalence of the supernatural and the way it occurs. Bollywood from the beginning had a genre called mythologicals, which were stories about the Hindu gods, and Nollywood is really never done anything like that. In Nollywood, what happens is that supernatural forces of one kind or another – and there are quite a number of different kinds – intervene in human life. The basic plane is that the film is concerned with this world, life as it’s lived in this world. The supernatural intervenes mostly as a source of order, a potential source of rectifying some disorder in the body politic, or in the family, or at whatever level of social organization. Sometimes the order emanating from the supernatural is, in itself, irrational but has to be accepted simply because it’s there. Sometimes it’s a world in which they’re competing. Very often they’re competing spiritual powers, whether it’s two sorcerers dueling with one another, or it’s a traditional deity possessing one person and then being cast out by a Pentecostal preacher. These conflicts can take various forms.

The very first Nollywood film, Living in Bondage, created an archetypal Nollywood story and it’s still the story most deeply associated with Nollywood, and that is the money ritual film. A money ritual is a practice in which a human being is sacrificed by a cult in order to or under the direction of a specialist, in these matters, to produce wealth. What Living in Bondage did was take this notion of human sacrifice, which, of course, has very deep roots in West Africa and in most other cultures – what is Christianity except a story about a human sacrifice also? — and it coupled it with a domestic melodrama. The protagonist of that film sacrifices his wife. When he joins this cult, he doesn’t know what will be required of him. He’s warned that he has to be ready for strong things, but he’s shocked and tries to get out of the whole business when he learns that he has to sacrifice the person he loves most in the world, who is his wife.

This is a tremendously rich, thematic complex because the money ritual itself – as Karen Barber pointed out in writing about the way money rituals appeared in the Yoruba traveling theater plays in the decades before Nollywood began — the money ritual story crystallizes this sudden, mysterious wealth that came with the oil boom.

Nigerian societies were agricultural societies based on hard work, for the most part – certainly, the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the other ethnic groups of southern Nigeria. But, suddenly, there were fabulous amounts of wealth that appeared without any work at all. They appeared by virtue of being part of a cabal. You had some secret relationship with the people giving out contracts for this or that. Nothing was visible. It was all done in secret, and the effects of it were miraculous.

So, the money ritual story gave a symbolic structure through which people could come to an understanding of this process and, through which, they could project their moral condemnation, this very deep and accurate sense that the ruling elite was up to no good. They were sacrificing the national good for the sake of their own enrichment. So, as a symbolic structure, it actually did capture a great deal of what was going on in Nigeria in the early 1990s. Living in Bondage mobilized all of that, and tied it to this theme of the betrayal of intimates in a domestic setting. So the idioms of soap operas could be mobilized, as well, to tell the story in conjunction with this very powerful symbolic complex.

Wills- You wrote something along the lines of, “Nollywood is a extraordinary example of the sort of coping mechanism that keeps Africa alive.” I thought that was a really powerful sentiment. Could you explain it?

Jonathan- Nollywood arose out of a complete crisis on many fronts. In the early 1990s, the structural adjustment program had been instituted a few years before. It had collapsed the currency. Peoples’ pensions suddenly became worthless. Schoolteachers, police, all kinds of civil servants weren’t getting their salaries. Or, if they got them, they were next to worthless and so on and so forth. So, everybody was trying to the informal sector just to get by.

The collapse of the currency meant that importing celluloid film stock was now impossible. Going to London to get your film developed and to edit and do all of the post-production work had suddenly become impossible and so on. This is what killed off celluloid film production. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Television Authority was going through its own crisis. Just in every sector – the Yoruba traveling theater was basically grounded because of chronic fuel shortages. You couldn’t get the diesel fuel to put into your truck to move your production around. Also the security situation was so bad that traveling with the Yoruba traveling theater on the roads had just become dangerous. It had become dangerous to go out at night to see a play or to see a movie.

Almost every sector of the audiovisual entertainment business in Nigeria was in crisis at this very specific moment, and that’s the moment when Nollywood arose. It took advantage of this new technology, camcorders, cheap video cameras that were good enough that you could make some kind of movie on them. It was equipment that didn’t need a lot of professional training to operate. The films were easily reproduced and there was an infrastructure, as Brian Larkin has pointed out, to pirate foreign films – American, Chinese and Indian films – and that infrastructure was simply converted to distributing Nigerian films made in this way.

It was a remarkable example of resilience in the face of catastrophe and, as a number of people have told me, part of why it was such an immediate success when Living in Bondage came out was people felt trapped in their houses. They were really afraid to go out. They didn’t have the money to go out. There was less and less to watch on television. There had been a golden age of Nigerian television five years before, so people got used to high quality, interesting, locally produced entertainment, but that had really gone downhill. So, they were kind of trapped in their houses and bored. And now, suddenly, for a couple of dollars, you could have a Nigerian movie that gave you lots to talk about with your family and with your friends the next day. It was just perfectly adapted to this terrible moment.

Wills- What do you think some of the benefits are to low-quality films?

Nobody in Nollywood has ever been happy with the quality of the films they’re producing. Everybody wants to be producing films that look more professional, that are just of better quality in every way, but the low budgets and the quick film making do have certain virtues. There’s a real immediacy to it. The films often chase headlines. Some producers have kind of specialized in this. OJ Productions, for instance, has made a lot of films that were immediate responses to some spectacular event in the papers, and within a few weeks, there’s a movie about it. So, it’s got an extraordinary ability to be part of a national conversation even as it’s going on.

The stories that Nollywood tells, sometimes they can come from newspapers, but sometimes, like the money ritual theme, they come from rumors, from a kind of unofficial knowledge. An oral popular form — Nollywood is that. It provides that in a very immediate way. The bar to entrance into it is also very low. You don’t need a lot of training, so anybody who has talent or thinks they have talent can try to make a movie. Sometimes the results are not good, but sometimes they are, so it’s got openness to it, which is very attractive.

It’s also experimental. Nollywood has two sides. There’s something very conservative about it, and most producers are on such a small scale that they can’t afford to have a film flop so they really want to do something that they know will make money back so the amount of imitation of formulas–which have proven to be successful–is enormous. People go on making the same movie until it’s just completely worn out.

But, on the other hand, then they have to come up with something new, and there’s always been this kind of restless experimentation. What might sell? What might the next thing be? So, there’s a lot of creative energy that’s been harnessed over the years as a result of that.

Wills- Tell me about the word, Nollywood.

Jonathan- Nollywood, the word, which was invented by a New York Times journalist in 2002, has become an incredibly successful brand, and the word now gets used sometimes as synonymous with the Nigerian film industry, which really isn’t true. I think the term ‘Nollywood’ is really properly used for the English language industry, but also for some minor ones in other languages.

For more information regarding this interview and the radio program, “Nollywood: Nigeria’s Mirror,” please feel free to contact our Afropop producer, Wills Glasspiegel at William.Glasspiegel@gmail.com.