Cameroon-born, Berlin-based scholar Julien Enoka Ayemba traces the history of the African film industry from the 1960s and its decline as a result of reduced European financial support to the emergence of the locally financed Nigerian video films in the early 1990s. Nollywood “symbolises the hope for independence” of African film, he concludes.
Since its existence, the African film production, especially that of the French-speaking West African countries, has been to a high degree dependent on European financial sponsorship. In most cases, the money came from institutions in countries that were former colonial powers. For example, between 1960 and 1980, about 200 African short and long movies were produced with the financial support of the French Ministry for International Co-operation.
Between 1996 and 2001, European sponsorship was reduced dramatically. African film-makers faced difficulties in financing their productions. This led to a sharp reduction in the number of films produced, revealing the financial dependency of the African movie industry. This development seems contradictory when one considers that until 1997 many African films were celebrated and won prizes at European film festivals in Cannes or Berlin.
Factors adding to the financial crisis were the limited distribution channels for African films both in Africa and Europe. Especially in Europe, African films are still today mostly shown at special occasions such as festivals and are not integrated into regular movie theatres’ programmes. Even though the popularity of African cinema is increased through these film festivals, the films remain marginalised.
The political environment of West African countries also has an influence on the situation: television stations in many African countries are controlled by governments and are not politically independent, shutting out socially critical African movies. Movies that are part of TV programmes are mostly European or US American soap operas or South American Telenovelas.
Moreover, in recent years, a growing number of African movie theatres have been closing down owing to lack of customers as well as technical problems. According to the 2005 statistics, only 10 per cent of the movies shown in African countries were of African origin. Most of the movies shown are European, American or Asian productions.
The Nigerian realities of the 1990s were difficult ones. The country was ruled by very repressive military regimes and, at the same time, it had to deal with the harsh economic policies prescribed by the IMF. Its economy suffered because of the end of the oil boom, a negative balance of payments and a devaluation of the national currency, the naira. It was in this context that the Nollywood story began, parallel to the downfall of African movies financed by European institutions.
From the beginning, Nollywood productions enjoyed a high popularity and were financed through local and private resources, with an average movie costing about US $15-10,000. Low-budget productions are the rule and not an exception. So-called “marketers” (distributors) dominate the industry instead of traditional financial sectors such as banks. They finance movies from the beginning to the end. Foreign investment is very seldom.
Production means used are those that are easy to acquire. Also, the technical format mostly employed, the digital video format, allows for a fast production of mostly video CDs or DVDs. This is crucial as the Nigerian movie industry relies on mass production.
Clearly one main success factor of Nollywood videos is their emphasis on authenticity instead of technical perfection. Its audience appreciates films that reflect the realities of Nigerian life versus movies that have nothing to do with their situations. Idrissa Ouédraogo, the well-known film producer and director from Burkina Faso, notes that cinema now reflects the reality of many of its viewers.
Film producer Balufu Kayinda sees in the digital video technology used for Nollywood productions the opportunity for more financial independence of the African film. Today it symbolises the hope for independence of the West African film from institutions of the former colonial powers.
In this context, the Nollywood phenomenon seems to point to a new direction and might be a showcase and inspiration for other African countries. The fact that these movies are made for home consumption provides much potential for other countries to produce films for a similar market.
The article was originally written in German and translated into English by Tina Chidera Bach