Nollywood has evolved in a number of ways, but there is need to pay more attention to the artistic side of things, to plot development and character psychology, as the industry currently pays to cinematography…
By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
Recently, a friend, a movie connoisseur of sorts, told me of how she had been watching one of the old Nollywood classics, Amaka Igwe’s “Rattle Snake” (1995), and wished the movie would not come to an end. She also cited Chris Obi Rapu’s “Living in Bondage” (1992) as another such movie to have that effect on her. These movies are each almost three hours, but have the effect of holding you spellbound, even more than most Nollywood movies today, half their size. There are dozens of such movies which came out in the late 1980s and 1990s from Nollywood that have now become classics, and looking at those movies now, one has to admit it was something of a golden age for the Nigerian movie industry. Whatever movie made the rave in those days, you were certain to have a rewarding time watching.
There is no doubt that Nollywood is still making some classics today, even if fewer and farther between. Yet, what was at the forefront of the industry some thirty years ago is quite different from what one obtains today. Prequel to writing this, I had talked to a number of friends, I had read, and seen a number of movies, too. My aim in this piece is to probe the simple concern of why excellence seems to have taken a backseat in Nollywood. The industry seems very much preoccupied with catching up with the advancing world that many filmmakers fail to take the time to sharpen their craft and better their art. Whether Nigerian filmmakers read good written literature (novels, plays, etc.) is a matter of scepticism, even. The mid qualities of movies made from books like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, and Sefi Atta’s Swallow leaves little to the imagination about the great work left to be done here in the area of literary exposure.
A friend suggested that in Nollywood, the system does not provide a ready meeting point for the best writers, directors and producers. The rise of the Digital Age meant the death of the marketing and production industries at Idumota, Lagos and Pound Road, Aba. And so, it has become very common for a movie to have a single person write, direct and produce them, which is sure to have a dent on its quality. It is like a novelist writing, editing and publishing their novel themselves. The best even a novelist of great talent will produce in this manner is an engaging novel with avoidable flaws. And herein lies the problem of most Nollywood movies: many of them can be much better, especially in their artistic finessing.
A good story is believable and entertaining. A good storyteller can tell a convincing story of flying elephants, while a bad storyteller struggles to tell a convincing story of a detective trying to investigate a crime scene even if he has all the facts. A good storyteller is armed with lots of experiences, perspectives and superior judgements, and like a good painter, they are able to gaze at characters from the perspective of what gives them better shades. This artistic gaze is something that artists acquire by giving utmost attention to their art. And often, a large part of this attention derives from exposing oneself to the relevant literature, and interacting with it.
Lack of engagement with literature is related to why there are very few Nollywood movies made from books. And like in most other circles in Nigeria, the reading culture is dying in the movie industry. This has robbed its content of some of its sophistication which most of the old Nollywood films did not lack. In 2016, while rereading Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, one of the things that struck me was the similarity in some of the dialogues in Achebe’s novel with some of what I grew accustomed to seeing in Nollywood movies made in English, but rooted in the Igbo culture. It was similar to reading Toni Morrison’s novels and seeing how those books were influenced by the same source as some of the most interesting African American movies. It became clear that there was a deepening reciprocity between the literary and movie industries. This symbiosis is largely lacking in Nollywood today.
Wherever great movies come from, there is a close relationship between the movie and literary industries, and often books are made into movies. In-between the pages of the finely-crafted world of fiction, drama, poetry and even music, there is a lot to see of how art imitates life. To read activates perspective, and translating a story from the page to the screen brings it close to perfection. Nigerian filmmakers, it would seem, often rely so much on their own life experiences, and hardly seem to seek after the kind of exposure which broadens their worldview. This is perhaps why Nollywood movies have failed to readily reach the landmark befitting of movies from an industry as old as it is. Maybe the Nigerian audience is mostly after commercial movies than artsy ones, but in this time when it is easier than ever to sell your movies to the global market, the quality of movies from the industry could be better rounded in storyline and execution. It is possible to make movies that are commercial and artsy.
Bolanle Austen Peters’ The Man of God is a recent example of how a movie with potential and even good cultural temperaments, is ruined by a bad storyline and bad execution. In The Man of God, Samuel, the protagonist, a petulant teenager, abandons his tough religious upbringing and takes to music in the university, even at the expense of his studies. The movie explores his trauma, life journey, marriage, and how he came full circle to once again, return to his father’s church as a ‘covenant child’ is destined to do. The movie is at best a Christian apologist, but it is so disjointed that it is less affecting, and mirrors more of a man returning to the root of his trauma than Christianity in its true sense. Ebonylife’s Blood Sisters’ relative popularity hinges on two things: the lack of quality series from Nigeria, and the fact that it was relatively more entertaining when compared to the disappointment that was Chief Daddy 2. But on the whole, the series does not come close to being brilliant with its storyline ridiculous in parts, as well as its many plot holes. The makers of the series were ambitious and have done a job that manages to stand out, but fails to hit the mark of brilliance, since the plot falls short and some scenes in the movie are not convincing enough.
There are mind-blowing storylines that are ruined by poor execution, and basic storylines that are elevated by their execution. Seyi Babatope’s Fine Wine is an example of a movie with a basic storyline, whose execution makes it a good movie. So does the Netflix movie, Genevieve Nnaji’s Oscar-Nominated Lion Heart. Izu Ojukwu’s 76 is also very highly-acclaimed in this regard, having done excellently well in terms of plot and character execution.
Some of these flaws are seen in movies made by the most resourceful in the industry, and one gets the sense that many of these movies could be better if their makers simply wanted them to be.
A number of Nollywood directors and producers, including Moses Inwang, Niyi Akinmolayan, and Ayo Makun (popularly known as AY) have often taken badly to criticism, often being caught, attacking them on social media. Some have argued that there is supposed to be a scale for measuring the excellence of Nollywood movies. Proponents of this argument say Nollywood movies should not be held to the same standard as Hollywood or European movies, and should be tempered. This argument would have made more sense if there had been no Nollywood movies that are classics even by Hollywood standards.
There are also people who suggest that Nigerians become critics in matters of Nollywood, but fail or refuse to recognise bad plots when Hollywood throws it right in their faces. What these people fail to realise is that in Hollywood, the art of make-believe has been so perfected that farcical plots can be so well-executed that you believe without questioning them. But then, there is a limit to how ridiculous plots can be made credible. This is not Nollywood’s bigger problem. Nollywood’s problem is not that it tells bad stories; it is more often than not that it is capable of ruining good stories because of its poor execution. And if there were just extra efforts made to better the quality of its movies, they could be more brilliant and more critically-acclaimed, with less of its critics being seen as harsh or antagonistic.
Nollywood has evolved in a number of ways, but there is need to pay more attention to the artistic side of things, to plot development and character psychology, as the industry currently pays to cinematography. Beautiful graphics, PR, and a waiting market might be rewarding for Nollywood. But true progress, and global acclaim, like what the K-world has experienced in recent years, can come only through consistent churning of quality movies with artistic merit.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera writes weekly pieces on Culture, Literature, and Music for Afrocritik.