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Let's not stereotype Nollywood films

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(Read caption) A sales girl sorted through DVDs in a shop at the Nigerian film market in Lagos, Nigeria earlier this spring. In just 13 years, Nollywood has grown from nothing into a $250 million per year industry that employs thousands of people.

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The great popularity of Nigerian movies in Africa is often noted but rarely explained.

In The Nation, Emily Witt takes a valuable stab in the process of explanation in a review of a collection of essays on “Nollywood” published by Indiana University Press, an important source of fresh books on sub-Saharan Africa.

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Witt shrewdly observes that African movies of the sort made by such celebrated Francophone directors as Sembene are “burdened with ideology” (doing what elite Africans think Europeans consider to be art) and far more popular abroad (with the very Europeans who often funded the films in the first place) than at home in Africa, partly because the high-minded pretensions and “puritanical didacticism” of the films drove audiences away.

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By contrast, Nigerian films about everyday urban life – these are do-it-yourself videos without pretensions and frankly pandering to mass tastes – represent a radical re-ordering of African cinema. Hence the prominent role granted the supernatural, romance, corruption and crime.

Unfortunately, Witt’s actual experience viewing Nigerian movies seems limited to rummaging through clips available on Youtube. As a result, while trying to defend the value of Nollywood content, she unfairly stereotypes and denigrates Nigerian films, fixating on the themes of juju, magic, and mayhem that do indeed dominate many Nigerian movies though hardly all.

Witt even dismisses the content altogether, seeing the films instead as chiefly valuable as signs of rebellion. Yet Nollywood content, while often trivial and offensive, sometimes rises to the level of art and social criticism.

That only a minority of Nigerian movies achieve this level, however, is no different than, say, what happens with Hollywood or American television. Witt thus cruelly ignores – likely out of ignorance rather than mean intentions — the best achievements of, for instance, the talented comedic actor Nkem Owoh, whose satires of Nigerian greed and crime actually can be readily appreciated by foreign audiences and of course Nigerians themselves.

Owoh also is fond of depicting ordinary people, such as bus drivers, which enhance his presentation of class conflict and working-class culture. While presenting herself as a kind neo-Marxist cultural critic, Witt manages to de-politicize Nigerian films. She also sadly de-racializes them, too.

Owoh, for instance, in his classic “Osuofia in London” explores the hilarious contradictions of an ordinary Nigerian visiting London to gain his share of an inheritance from a deceased relative who had the good fortune of marrying a white British woman.

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Owoh both exposes the folly of Nigerians expecting whites to always assist them while at the same time dramatizing the real ways in which Europe and the US. serve as a steady source of relief from the grinding difficulties of Nigerian life.

Witt also fails to appreciate the useful moralizing present in the films of Zack Orji, one of the most serious and articulate Nollywood directors, who also acts in his own films with his talented wife.

Orji’s films often depict the struggle of independent women to reject men who abuse them and take control over all aspects of their lives.

To be sure, Nigerian films are contradictions in form and content. But they need not remain objects of ridicule and misapprehension by Western writers apparently motivated by a desire to celebrate Africa and Africans.

--- G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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