Letter from Nollywood

By Nicola Woodham

end-of-the-wicked-teco-benson.jpgEnd of the Wicked, 1999

Nollywood, the huge film industry based in Nigeria, grew out of a landscape drained of resources for cultural output in the 1990s, an aridity which was the result of restrictive economic policies imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. A criterion of these Structural Adjustment Programmes, along with other measures which depleted the standard of living, was to reduce social expenditure, and so many cinemas and television projects were closed down or privatised. 1992 saw Nigeria looking locally to create a homemade entertainment structure with the production of Living in Bondage, sponsored by entrepreneur Ken Nnebue.

This hugely popular feature film with its themes of greed, jealousy, occult oppression and final championing of good over evil can be seen as a blueprint for subsequent films. Soon groups of producers took their cue from its success and invested in digital video technology to make lo-budget films to distribute across West Africa at an affordable price for the mass market. To date the $250,000,000 industry generates 500-1000 films a year, and a range of genres from action movies, to musicals, to the popular occult witchcraft films. Hence the opportunity was created to tell stories about Nigerian life by Nigerian filmmakers and actors.

end-of-the-wicked-teco-benson-2.jpgEnd of the Wicked, 1999

These bold films could be criticised for being melodramatic, but rather this is what they are all about. We are pulled into sometimes epic emotional journeys with scenes of graphic sex and violence. But what stops the films from being over sensational is an abrasive aesthetic, a makeshift, ‘all seams showing’ filmmaking. Distorted sound, loose narrative threads, and some shaky acting jolt us out of any smooth engagement. Classic moments include shots of actors visibly laughing in-camera and dialogue recorded with inexplicable conversations murmuring in the background, which invoke an unsettling surreal comedy. Yet, these films are by no means thrown together, the productions have huge casts and crews, and budgets on average $15,000. What\'s interesting about the films is that they exhibit an enthusiasm, a ‘make do and mend’ ethos, which distils the filmmaking process. What is left is charged and not weighted with stylisation and over-emphatic production values.

This compelling format has appealed to Evangelical producers and sponsors with a specific agenda to promote the Christian church and challenge the practice of religions based on animism and ancestor worship. This calls for some genius lo-tech computerised manifestations of supernatural phenomena, such as out-of-body experiences, curses and visitations. Add to that some unsettling combinations of electronica soundtracks and library sound effects repeated over and over, to create an African horror-trash.

rising-moon-andy-nwakalor.jpgRising Moon, 2005

In Kabat Esosa Egbon's Vampire's Call (2005) a harrowing two minute long group mourning for several blood drained victims is concluded with a Bewitched-style magic wand 'trrring' sound heard over a spiralling shot of overhead trees. Teco Benson's End of the Wicked (1999) is a tale of flying witches who destroy a family by causing internal hatred. In one scene a nurse is injecting a patient and an owl appears, a witch in animal form. It stares at them for a moment and then disappears in a flare of sparkling blue and red light. The result: the patient keels over and dies.

These effects are resonant of 1980s’ western horror blockbusters, but juxtaposed with the everyday scenes of African family life in rural compounds and town scenes, this makes for a new and addictive viewing experience. I also enjoy the intertextuality. It's interesting to see a film that reminds me of Voodoo Passion by Jess Franco (1977), in the form of a film based in contemporary everyday Nigeria, such as Vampire's Call. In the Franco film there are some laughably kitsch, though potentially perturbing, stereotypes of Haitian culture, such as topless black occultists in ritualistic trances in synthetic-looking jungle spaces. In Vampire's Call, we see attractive young possessed women being called to vampirism, although this time with the knowledge that the filmmaking originated in Africa, where animistic religions, such as Vodou, are still active.

rising-moon-andy-nwakalor-2.jpgRising Moon, 2005

For me it’s the intrigue of seeing cinematic motifs such as the voodoo witch doctor, the voodoo curse, manifest in the locale from which they were originally drawn. In Voodoo Terror: (mis)representations of voodoo and western cultural anxieties, a talk (with film clips) presented at the Feels Like Vodou Spirit event at the Haitian Art, Culture, Religion exhibition (October Gallery, London in 2000), John Cussans spoke of these motifs as the 'voodoo construct'. So in these occult Nollywood videos, can we see the 'voodoo construct' being unravelled, re-appropriated by its resurrection on its home turf? Or are these films a vehicle for the same negative stereotypes about animistic religions that western filmmakers perpetuated during colonialism, but here as an expression of Evangelical anxieties about African moral health? In these film spaces ethnography, anthropology, storytelling, religion and home-video making fuse to present some mesmerising stories and also some complex cultural propositions. However you look at it, Nollywood has struck gold, and offers the world an inspiring story of self growth.

Nicola Woodham is an artist based in London.