Emily Witt’s concise overview of Nigeria’s film industry, titled Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire (Columbia Global Reports, 2017, 128 pgs., U.S.$14.99), opens with a monologue from Nigerian director-producer Femi Odugbemi: “Up until the last 20 to 30 years the history and culture of African communities were the narratives of the colonialists. Those narratives, quite frankly, beyond not being accurate, beyond not being authentic, were political.

“Every cinema is political,” he continued. “The only way cinema works for you is if you are in charge of it.” Later on: “Film allowed you to be able to show, to tell, to wow, to entertain — while indoctrinating. Unless you were in control of that, your story was at risk.”

Odugbemi frames the story of Nollywood’s emergence as propelled by the impulse for cultural and creative autonomy for one’s nation. Rather than ceding territory to foreign-produced films that advance the perspectives of Africa’s former colonial powers, Odugbemi sees an opportunity for Nigerian — and, more generally, African — filmmakers to reinterpret dominant narratives to reflect the history of their communities. But these films, which are political revisionist histories, are not dry accounts. On the contrary, the compelling films of Nollywood have achieved astounding popularity despite the hindrances to financial success.

Nollywood is the second largest movie industry in the world in terms of film output, surpassing Hollywood in the U.S., and second only to Bollywood in India. The prolific industry — according to journalist Norimitsu Onishi, who helped coin the term “Nollywood” — produces about 2,500 films a year.

Nollywood is a slim travelogue recording Witt’s time as she is shown various sites relevant to the production and distribution, even promotion, of Nigerian movies: a red carpet premiere at The Palms multiplex in Lagos; a film set for Queen Amina in Jos; the Alaba International Market for Electronics in Ojo; another film set in the town of Asaba. In addition, interspersed throughout the book are film synopses of six touchstone Nollywood films: Living In Bondage, Violated, 30 Days In Atlanta, Taxi Driver (Oko Ashewo), Ojuju and Nkoli Nwa Nsukka.

Despite its brevity, Witt’s book addresses the major shifts in Nollywood: how the change in Nigeria’s film distribution model affected both the content and the industry’s digital future, among other topics. Witt, who spent five weeks in Nigeria researching Nollywood, seamlessly blends travel writing with cultural and media history for a product that is as informative as it is effortless to read.

Nollywood’s origins are in the local distribution of movies through pirate markets, not with satellite cable networks or digital subscription platforms. “Nollywood began in the market — here, in Alaba,” Witt writes. “It created its vast audience by an effective market-based distribution system first of VHS tapes and later of digital discs.” Alaba is “the major wholesale electronics market” in the area, where Nigerians and anyone else can come to purchase pirated foreign and domestic movies, cables, mobile phones, etc., that have just arrived in large bundles from “cargo containers from Asia.”

While these pirate markets were exceptional in their accessibility, it was challenging to gauge the success of early individual Nollywood titles because of the diffuse nature of the marketplace. Witt writes, “The metrics by which I, an American, would try to gauge a movie’s popularity or success did not apply to Nigeria’s fragmented market.” (Witt learns that the two metrics a movie is judged by are how many people are talking about it and how many sequels it has.) However, she cites Living In Bondage, directed by Chris Obi-Rapu, and released in 1992, as “the movie that inspired an industry,” with estimated sales of the original VHS in the hundred thousands.

Living in Bondage — a film about marriage and greed that tells of a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult in order to become rich — has the production quality of a home video, a characteristic of initial Nollywood films. Production quality differentiates earlier films from their better-produced contemporary counterparts, which, Witt writes, “are often referred to as the ‘New Nollywood,’” a subset of Nigerian filmmaking “sometimes made by foreign-educated young people from Nigeria’s economic elite.”

Witt writes that “The New Nollywood movies aspire, like the malls in which they are screened, to be ‘international-standard,’ to rank alongside Hollywood, Bollywood, and the soap operas of Latin America or Korea in networks of global distribution and international audiences.” There’s a very real divide then between the type of Nollywood film found in the electronic markets of Lagos, where a film could be priced as low as 150 to 50 naira, and “those that play to a wealthier audience in the cinema,” which is only reinforced by “the class hierarchy of one of the most economically unequal societies in the world.”

Witt notes that “Nollywood did not have a distribution problem. Its movies were widely available around the country and the world,” but the emerging issue with this model of bootleg distribution was that “the money made did not necessarily go to the producers who invested in the movies.” And yet, Witt remarks, “it was due in part to piracy that Nollywood’s popularity had extended beyond the country’s own borders.”

Witt observes that “Nollywood producers and directors, especially those of bigger-budget movies, had come, by necessity, to ignore [the] audience,” catered to by unauthorized marketplaces. Witt continues: “They would talk to me about the potential of cinemas, satellite cable networks, and digital subscription platforms like iRoko and Netflix, even though such platforms would only be accessible to a fraction of their viewers in Nigeria and around Africa (outside of Africa was another matter.)” Witt addresses the data that shows that “as of 2015, the most popular African pay TV network, South Africa-based MultiChoice, had only an estimated 1.2 million subscribers in Nigeria.” In a country with a population of approximately 186 million, the number is telling.

Discussing Nollywood’s prevalence back in 2015, Odugbemi said, “Now you have a multi-fiduciary channel for Nollywood. Today Nollywood is sold in the market, Nollywood has got cinemas, Nollywood is on cable TV, Nollywood is in Netflix.”

In one chapter, “Digital Futures,” Witt profiles England-born Jason Njoku in his efforts to advance the online distribution of Nollywood films. Njoku eventually found success in 2011 with iRokoTV, a VoD streaming platform for thousands of Nollywood titles. The globalization of Nollywood through digital platforms isn’t taken up only by services like iRokoTV or Afrinolly, a mobile app that allows users to watch Nollywood titles on their smartphones. “In 2016, Netflix launched its own streaming service in Nigeria,” Witt writes, “but for most Nigerians it was still easier to receive Nollywood movies via disc, USB stick, Bluetooth, or cable television.”

Witt’s Nollywood is a timely primer that depicts the story of Nollywood’s progress as one where a change in the distribution system — a movement away from piracy and toward a profit-based business model — positively affected the production quality of its films. Witt comments that “anyone looking hard enough at the Nigerian market” will find “the long-term future of Nollywood is the smartphone,” which will certainly present new obstacles for tomorrow’s industry. Nollywood will undoubtedly continue its expansion and become more widely available in the coming years. In fact, BASIC LEAD, the DISCOP market organizers, recently announced two new markets: one in Zanzibar and the other in Lagos. Scheduled to launch in 2019, the DISCOP Lagos market intends to focus on Nigerian content.

(By Luis Polanco)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)