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The Rise of Nollywood

posted December 29, 2010

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In a new book, researchers of contemporary African cinema describe the influence of French-language cinema of the 1960s, and what came after.

Among many compelling perspectives on the film of the continent are those dealing with the extraordinary rise of “Nollywood” – cheaply made and highly popular films from Nigeria.

Viewing African Cinema in the Twenty-First Century: Art Films and the Nollywood Video Revolution (Ohio University Press) is edited by Mahir Şaul, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Ralph A. Austen, a professor emeritus of African history at the University of Chicago. The essayists in the volume show that African cinema in the 1960s originated mainly from Francophone countries, resembled the art cinema of contemporary Europe, and relied on support from the French film industry and the French state. Beginning in 1969, the biennial Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), held in Burkina Faso, became the major showcase for these films.

Kunle Afolayan, one of the best-known Nolywood directors, on set. Photo: www.sudplanete.net
But since the early 1990s, a new phenomenon has come to dominate the African cinema world: mass-marketed films shot on less-expensive video cameras. These “Nollywood” films, so named because many originate in southern Nigeria, are a thriving industry dominating the world of African cinema.

But little is being done to archive the films. One of the essayists, Jonathan Haynes, a professor of English at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, on archiving “Nollywood,” told MIAN that “we urgently need good archives and study collections. Some films acquire the status of classics, but they can be very hard to find – the industry is set up to churn films out at great speed and in enormous quantities, so after a few weeks in the market they tend to disappear. It would be perfectly possible to set up a system for acquiring canonical older films and a selection of the yearly blizzard of new titles, and someone should get busy doing it.”

The Figurine, one of Kunle Afolayan's Nollywood movies
He adds: “’Nollywood‘ has grown into one of the world’s biggest film industries, but, like other African popular arts, it emerged outside of the formal sector of the Nigerian economy and it still exists in a tangential (at best) relationship with the institutions of international cinema.

“Both in Africa and abroad, the films get distributed through their own networks, in which piracy is a major factor. I know of eight shops selling them within three blocks of my office in Brooklyn, there are numerous websites (such as www.africamovies.com) selling and streaming them in the US, Canada, and Europe, and more Nollywood films have been posted to YouTube (in ten-minute segments) than you could watch in a lifetime. But my university’s library does not own any Nollywood films and would not know how to acquire them.”

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