[Reader-list] report on nigerian video film conference

Brian Larkin blarkin at barnard.edu
Sun Jun 19 19:22:43 IST 2005

for those who might be interested here is a feedback report on the 
recent conference on nigerian video films (nollywood) held in L.A. and 
organized by sylvester ogbechie, chike maduekwe and jude akudinobi.


Report on Nollywood Rising Conference
Brian Larkin

(n.b. Nollywood refers to feature films that are shot and distributed 
on video and vcd.  The word itself was coined by Western journalists 
but 	has since become a standard term used by Nigerians to refer to 
English language Nigerian video films (NVF)).

Nollywood Rising was a conference intended to bring together academics, 
Nigerian filmmakers and potential financiers and distributors from the 
U.S., especially those involved in African-American media.  This report 
concentrates more on the academic side of things but there was a strong 
industry component which is indicative of how Nigerians (and others) 
are trying to make the NVF phenomena grow in new directions.  It was a 
very vibrant conference and in many ways most of the interesting things 
were said by the filmmakers themselves.  From the beginning these 
filmmakers have had to develop an aesthetic form and an institutional 
structure for production and distribution without much of a precedent 
and their comments expressed this and their ideas about how to develop 
and expand their market.  In many ways academics are trying to catch up 
with what filmmakers are doing and there was a realization that there 
is a need to develop new critical and conceptual tools to catch up with 
what is turning out to be a major transformation of African media.

For those who know nothing about the phenomenon, in the last 15 years 
Nigeria has developed a feature film industry based around video and 
vcd distribution which has appeared from nowhere and now produces over 
600 films a year making Nigeria (in terms of numbers) one of the 
largest film producing nations in the world.  English language films 
(Nollywood) have become a dominant media form all over the African 
continent certainly in all Anglophone countries (Kenya, Sierra Leone, 
S. Africa etc.) and are beginning to cross over into Francophone Africa 
despite language barriers).  The producer Charles Igwe said at the 
conference that 600,000 vcds are pressed everyday in Lagos (there is no 
check on the numbers) and that “crates and crates leave on planes 
everyday for all over Africa”.  This makes Nigeria one of the leading 
digital media content producers and NVF one of Nigeria’s most important 

The conference raised some basic questions about Nigerian video film, 
its place in African cinema and where it is going now.  Several 
speakers (Frank Ukadike, Moradewun Adejunmobi, Onookome Okome, Jude 
Akudinobi) pointed out that the conceptual frame that constituted 
African Cinema has to be dramatically rethought.  African Cinema refers 
to an art based cinematic practice designed to promote African cultural 
traditions and to develop authentically African films forms that stand 
in alterity to Hollywoood and that are both aesthetically and 
politically vanguardist.  As both filmmakers and academics pointed out, 
these films do well in Western film festivals from Berlin to Paris to 
New York but are rarely seen in Africa itself outside of the famous 
festival of FESPACO.  Okome refreed to them as “embassy films” because 
they are only ever screened at Embassies.

Nigerian video films, while undoubtedly popular, have been severely 
criticized for being of poor technical quality and for using themes of 
witchcraft and ritual abuse (in Africa this is often seen as an 
exoticising, negative stereotype beloved by Westerners).  NVF do not 
get selected often at Fespaco, they are rarely featured in mainstream 
Western festivals (with the exception of the Pan-African  film festival 
in LA and the NY African Film Festival) and are sometimes derided by 
Francophone African filmmakers – critiques that the filmmakers in the 
audience were well aware of.

What was interesting in the filmmakers’ response was a confidence and 
lack of need to apologise for what they were doing. Charles Igwe argued 
that from the beginning the main goal of the industry was to gain an 
audience.  Whatever criticisms people can bring, he said, “we possess 
the Nigerian audience. There is no question about that.”  They were 
equally bullish about the content and style of their films.  Unlike 
African cinema which searched for cultural independence from other 
forms of national cinema (to look for a truly “African” film form), 
Nigerian filmmakers borrow from any form that suits their purpose.  
Zach Orji said that they show witchcraft because that is what many 
people care about and because it is a real problem for people.  But he 
also pointed out that there are other genres too and the industry 
functions by riding waves of genres for a while jumping from 
witchcraft, to love films to comedies depending on what is successful 
at any moment.  The irony is, of course, that in the midst of all this 
borrowing Nigerian video films have built a truly distinctive film 

In questions, Charles Igwe pointed out that NVF began with no business 
(or aesthetic) structure.  “Our people took a jump off of a cliff and 
landed in the middle of the ocean.  Then we started building the boats 
while we were in the water”.  He said this to emphasise what they had 
accomplished so far and also that things were continually developing.  
Films are technically better now than they were, that they will be even 
better in the future, he said.  Mahen Boneti, who programs the New York 
African Film Festival later pointed out that some Nigerian filmmakers 
she spoke to had never seen an Ousmane Sembene film indicating that 
these films – in structure, content and form – were being developed 
wholly outside the film school structures of African cinema and the 
distribution and exhibition structures that dominate global media.

The producer Peace Fibererima also took on the critique of NVF 
asserting its growing international presence, one of the main themes of 
the conference.  She had just returned from South Africa where she 
argued that satellite television sales were being driven by black South 
Africans who wanted to get hold of the “African Magic” station 
screening Nigerian films. Zach Orji, a film star, said that on a recent 
trip to Sierra Leone the President flew back to meet the filmmakers and 
that in countries as diverse as Sierra Leone, the Congo and South 
Africa he cannot walk down the street without being mobbed.  Where a 
few years previously the filmmakers might have been defensive about 
their shortcomings, here there were no apologies as Charles Igwe said, 
in a personal comment to me, that “we know the future of African media 
is with us.  Everyone wants to copy Nigerian films”.

In this he was supported by Jean-Pierre Bekolo, a major Cameroonian 
director whose earlier film Quartier Mozart won an award at Cannes and 
who represented the older cadre of African filmmakers.  Bekolo 
described himself (with tongue in cheek) as “an arrogant French 
filmmaker” who was taught that each film he made had “to define cinema” 
and that what they were doing would “change mankind”.  He said that he 
wanted to keep this cultural ambition but at the same time he and all 
Francophone filmmakers realized that they were detached from any sense 
of audience and that what Nigerians were doing was extremely dynamic 
and effective and not reliant on foreign support. “African cinema is in 
a big crisis” he concluded and he said that all African filmmakers were 
looking at ways to try and adapt what Nigerians were doing.

Jonathan Haynes had an interesting twist on this success as he examined 
the ways that the rise of Nigerian films had almost destroyed the 
nascent video film industry in Ghana (built along many of the same 
lines as its Nigerian cousin).  He raised the idea that the success of 
what has become the Nigerian behemoth might have negative as well as 
positive consequences for popular filmmaking in other parts of the 

The name Nollywood came in for some considerable criticism.  The first 
known use of it was in the New York Times and it was quickly taken up 
as soundbite for Western media sources.  Nearly all commentators were 
unhappy this had become a dominant marketing term but as Jonathan 
Haynes pointed out, it might have started as a Western term but has 
quickly been adopted by Nigerian filmmakers themselves because it has a 
sense of glamour, aids marketing and it “expresses a genuine aspiration 
of the Nigerian filmmaking community”.

What came over in the conference is that idea that Nigeria in 
particular but Africa in general might become the next generation of 
media content producers.  The actor Zach Orji pointed out that 
increasingly he is working on co-productions in countries from the 
Cameroon to the Congo as filmmakers there are trying to develop their 
own media along the lines of Nigeria (and have to use Nigerian actors 
to generate sales).  “They want to be doing what we are doing and when 
they start up they are asking Nigerians to come and help”.  This 
suggest that model Nigerian media has developed has great power in 
developing new media structures.  The producer Peace Fiberesima was 
scathing about the recent attempt to build multiplexes in Lagos which 
to her was built on an outdated media model.  The aim is to screen 
first run U.S. films aimed at upper middle class viewers.  These 
multiplexes do not screen Nigerian films (because the technical quality 
is not high) but the consequence has been to ignore the form that is 
driving media consumption in Africa and as a consequence the 
multiplexes are failing.   She suggested that the only way for western 
media structures to succeed in Nigeria now is to begin to engage with 
Nigerian media.

Brian Larkin
Department of Anthropology
Barnard College, Columbia University
3009 Broadway, NY NY 10027
212 854 5402
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