Someone unfamiliar with the development of African film might think that female engagement with Nollywood is a recent evolution of Nigeria's cinematic industry, but this would be untrue. Women have been leaving their mark on the African cinematic landscape for quite some times now, at least in Nigeria. For instance Amaka Igwe was a pioneering figure for women in the country, but also more broadly in Africa, setting a successful example for a new generation of women. She keeps inspiring African female artists and technicians aspiring to become part of what we know as "the second biggest film industry in the world." Despite its impressive amount of productions per year, Nollywood (the contraction of 'Nigeria' and 'Hollywood') exists in the shadow of other international cinematic industries such as Hollywood and various national or continental auteur niche markets that have popped around the globe. These visions of national cinema sometimes wholly created or encouraged by the Western cultural authorities themselves, thus not always producing honest and unbiased pieces of work, do not showcase local talents or issues relevant to the culture they are supposed to stem from and talk about (1). Unlike these constructed visions of cinema Nigeria’s Nollywood is a national cinema that has been naturally fostered by the local communities themselves and the African diaspora abroad rather than western forces.
Unlike Bollywood whose creative cinematic industry was legitimized by Western authorities and critics and is consequently able to strike out on its own in the international market, Nollywood did not benefit from the same interest. This invisibility forbids this industry and its productions to reach an international audience. There are several reasons as to why Nollywood has been unable to enter the mainstream. Firstly it is a younger industry that was born in the 90s, and is only currently achieving its "maturity." Nollywood also possesses a quite different cinematic language Western audiences are not used to see onscreen. But is it also because its productions are too commercial to be considered seriously, and do not reflect the values that most widely successful national cinemas possess? However, many of the Nollywood films I have watched are as much entitled to be called auteurs films, some even more so than the actual auteur films I had the opportunity to watch. Still, Nollywood remains off the international industry's radars despite its incredible number of films released per year and it's impressive and resounding success within African communities.
The thing is I have the feeling that Nollywood films have a lot to say about feminist stakes and fights. Nigeria is the country where Boko Haram was born and strikes with one of their most notable crimes being the Chibok kidnapping of 276 of schoolgirls. It is also one of the nine countries in the world that still allows the execution by lapidation. A form of execution which is disproportionately faced by women. Yet, Nollywood proves to us that the mentality regarding the situation of women in society can be challenged. But as I mentioned earlier in this article, any points Nollywood could make regarding the situations of women in Nigeria, Africa and in the world remain in the shadows of more visible cultural industries, which is a shame. What is going on in Nollywood is, to me, incredibly important, impressive and unexpected and its cinematic offerings should be seriously addressed. Sadly, I am sure that people around the globe know more about Boko Haram than the works of these Nigerian female film directors featured in Tope Oshin's documentary Amaka's Kin: The Women Of Nollywood (2016). Because, again, visibility is a the key factor and the Western media's disinterest in genuine national cinema means that the interesting and important developments of this industry remain hidden. We could - and we should - learn a lot from what is currently going on in Nollywood because, from what I saw, this unique film industry gives space both on and off-screen to women in a way other behemoth industries would never do. When you take into account the traditional cultural pressure on women in Nigeria, it is even more admirable. With such developed attitudes to women's role in cinema, it raises questions about why women are still dramatically underrepresented in mainstream film industries. What's your excuse then Hollywood?
When I volunteered for the Nollywood Week Paris 2016, I was first struck by the amount of onscreen time women received as developed characters. The festival showcases a few of the many films that were successful within the year, and features more female credits that I have ever seen at film festivals. Of the 8 feature films screened at the fest, 7 had female protagonists as either first or important key roles. One of the films Fifty (2015) actually tells the story of four successful women all around the age of 50 living in Lagos and focusing on their personal and professional lives as well as exploring their vision of sexuality at an age where it starts to become taboo in most societies. However all these films were directed by men and were sometimes produced by women. Despite male directors being at the helm in many of these productions, it is an incredibly positive thing to see all these men were inspired by the strong female Nigerian figures they get to work with. These artist and directors evolve in a society where women, even though not having the same privileges as men yet, get to leave their imprints on the minds or their male counterparts. I am not saying that all these films were perfect, but I found amazing that men decided - on their own volition - to dedicate their efforts in telling stories about women, featuring women, for a very diverse audience. Don't get me wrong: these films are not solely aimed at women which is most likely the way Hollywood would market them, and that's what is truly great. The only film that did not actually have a main female protagonist in its story was nevertheless directed by a woman, Omoni Oboli, who won this years' edition of the festival by receiving the audience's award and who is also featured in Oshin's documentary Amaka's Kin: The Women Of Nollywood.
There was also an interesting diversity of themes and casting in the short films' section. The artworks ranged from horror film such as Hex (2015) with another woman having the key role - victim but also predator, to social criticism in Joy (2015) and its denunciation of the practice of excision, Ireti (2016) telling the story of a woman in prison directed by Tope Oshin herself and finally Prey (2015) which addressed the harassment of women through a thriller format.
What I think important to stress first and foremost is that Nollywood films are created in the first place because of the audience's appeal to them. If male and female film directors have no difficulties creating films about women, it is because the audience is eager to watch them in the first place. Nollywood developed thanks to the growing demand from its African audience as well as the demand from the African diaspora abroad. I don't believe that any study has been conducted so far to measure the impact of these female characters, the actresses who impersonate them, and these artistic figures towards the general public, but this success story cannot be considered seriously if the place of women within it is not either. I think professionals of the industry slowly became aware of this, even though there is still a lot to do to erase inequalities and sexist issues as it is part of a wider cultural problem in Nigeria.
Regarding Amaka's Kin: The Women Of Nollywood, the film will soon be part of the Berlinale and it premiered at the Dublin Feminist Film Festival in late 2016. For once we are seeing a Nollywood-related film that will be able to exit the circuit it is usually confined to. These screenings go beyond festivals dedicated to Nollywood or African cinema which, even though being great initiatives, do not allow the artworks to reach wide audiences. I would be very curious to read more about this fascinating industry where fresher discourses are developed on several matters, including feminist ones. Maybe feminist film festivals just like Dublin's FFF should consider opening their selection to Nollywood films in order to broaden their respective horizons. Nollywood films are perhaps most effective or surprising as a part of specific cultural context but I do not think that they should be limited to this sole aspect. The themes presented throughout Nollywood can cross borders and appeal to a more diverse audiences. In the meantime I'd like to see more of Nollywood productions acquired by international distributors so that eventually the brilliance and audacity of Nollywood might inspire artists - women or men - globally.
(1) Deformations of local cultures and artistic expressions created and perpetuated by narrow western-centred approaches on them (and their politic of 'auteurs') is addressed in Lindiwe Dovey's work Curating Africa in the Age of Film Festivals (2015), and is an issue also raised by Abé Markus Nornes in Asian film festivals, translation and the international film festival short circuit (2011), in both festival and industrial cinematic fields. It is a reality.
Find out more about NollywoodWeek Paris here.
Words by Leslie de Oliveira