Film Studies

Nollywood and the idea of the Nigerian cinema

Credit Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP/Getty Images. A typical Nigerian film market in Lagos.

Credit Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP/Getty Images. A typical Nigerian film market in Lagos.

Today, Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world. It falls behind only Bollywood in terms of production volume. While video is seen as the founding technology of Nollywood, Professor Akin Adesokan seeks to illuminate the relationship this industry has to its  precursor—Nigeria’s celluloid films of the 70s and 80s.


Nollywood and the idea of the Nigerian cinema

by: Akin Adesokan
in: Journal of African Cinemas: Volume 4,  Issue 1

IQ Overview:

Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world—it falls behind only Bollywood in terms of production volume. Hollywood only comes in third. Nigerian cinema began its rapid acceleration into this dominant position in the 90s. The adoption of video technologies at that time drastically dropped production costs and opened up vast channels for distribution in the form of home movies. While video is seen as the founding technology of Nollywood, Professor Akin Adesokan wants to illuminate Nollywood’s relationship to its celluloid precursors of the 70s and 80s. He claims, “…in aesthetic and ethical terms, the ‘new Nollywood’ films have much in common with the celluloid films that should be identified and explained.” Beyond dramatic differences in production quality, one of the fundamental reasons this relationship has been very opaque is the elusiveness of celluloid films in comparison to the deluge of available videos. Adesokan: “The one is everywhere palpably as a commodity and irrepressibly as a material force; the other is mythical in its absence…  It is sobering…that most of the celluloid films from the 1980s are nowhere to be seen these days.”

Adesokan takes a three part approach to the problem. He looks at industrial aspects of film making with respect to the project of nation-building. He outlines out a number of paradigmatic elements of Nigerian film that were established by celluloid directors, and which continue to be present in Nollywood. And, finally, he analyses Hostages, a 1996 film by prominent director Tade Ogidan. Hostages was created in the juncture between late-celluloid and early-Nollywood, and so sheds light in both directions.

In tracing the industrial emergence of film in Nigeria, Adesokan turns to a volume of essays, The Development and Growth of the Film Industry in Nigeria. These were collected following a pivotal seminar organised in 1977 by the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). He cites a contribution from pioneering filmmaker Sanya Dosunmu as particularly relevant and insightful, stating that its “central thesis is that film is not a mere leisure item, but an instrument of culture in the most fundamental sense, one tied to economic forces in such a manner as to deserve the same level of attention as is given to other industrial forms – steel, oil exploration, agriculture and the like.” Adesokan contends that Nigerian film was first seen as “an industrial form that, given the right economic climate, was guaranteed to lead to a formidable cultural form on the order of Hollywood.” Ultimately, he claims that a lack of synchronism between “the discourse of modernisation and the national discourse” allowed Nollywood productions to thoroughly and rapidly supersede celluloid. Government organisations like the NCAC had a particular vision of how the cinema industry would develop with respect to the Nigerian nation, but this was not aligned with the reality of how local technological modernisation was unfolding. In conjunction with the ‘official’ industry’s crippling adherence to dated technologies, the multifarious nature of Nigerian audiences, made up of diverse cultural and ethnic groups, played a significant role in supporting the development of a new cinematic form. “Until the emergence of Nollywood, the bulk of Nigerian cinema… was constituted by works that were principally, although not exclusively, addressed to Yoruba audiences.”

Adesokan identifies six persistent general characteristics of Nigerian cinema. He claims that they: are narrative; have a close relationship to television serialisation; heavily involve spectacle; proliferate freely and rapidly with one successful production engendering many others of a similar type; involve exhortation, with dramatic elements having an explicitly moral context; use politics as a subcategory of this morality. He thoroughly explicates each point in his article, and finds all of these qualities represented in Ogidan’s Hostages. This film is in essence an inter-ethnic and inter-class love story set within the spectacular context of an thriller/action. He holds this work in particular to be representative of the ‘generic’ Nigerian film because, “it is filmed in the city, shot in English, presents a socio-political critique in broadly moral terms and projects a national identity in ways that draw attention to the contentiousness of political sovereignty.”

The economic circumstances of Hostages are also instructive—the film was very close to never being produced. It was originally conceived as television series, but Ogidan was unable attract sufficient investment. He ended up selling his own cars to help fund it, and though he was ultimately able to secure sponsorship from a new television station, the situation was always financially precarious. Numerous other attempted celluloid projects were not so fortunate. Although there was a great deal of resistance to the emergence of video as a filmic medium, the opportunities it afforded as far as allowing projects to actually see completion proved more compelling.

In his conclusion, Adesokan states:

Nollywood, with all its imperfections, is a happy accident, and represents one possible way of advancing [a Nigerian cinematic] discourse, which need not be simply nationalist. For, in the final account, whatever the nature and the context of the national discourse in Nigeria, it is not an end in itself, but a means to the realization of the principles of social justice, an open-to-the-world idea that Nollywood appears to be pursuing, making a home for itself in the imaginary of others.

He contends that it is precisely Nollywood’s existence as a product, as opposed to as a governmental apparatus of nationalist culture, that allows for this possibility.

— IQ Editor

To Rise Again – Nigerian Nollywood Movie
Published on 19 Apr 2013

The original article is available on IngentaConnect

Akin Adesokan is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Roots in the Sky, a novel (2004), and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics (2011). He has also published essays and fictions in Research in African Literatures, Chimurenga, AGNI, Mail & The Guardian, Social Dynamics, Textual Practice, Black Camera and Screen.

The Journal of African Cinemas will explore the interactions of visual and verbal narratives in African film. It recognizes the shifting paradigms that have defined and continue to define African cinemas. Identity and perception are interrogated in relation to their positions within diverse African film languages. The editors are seeking papers that expound on the identity or identities of Africa and its peoples represented in film.


Keyan G. Tomaselli
University of KwaZulu-Natal

Martin Mhando
Murdoch University