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Nollywood Film and Home Video, or the Death of Nigerian Theatre Becky Becker Nigerian authors Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Femi Osofisan, among others, have brought welcome acclaim to a country plagued by a corrupt young government, unwieldy infrastructural problems, violence linked to oil, and, most recently, violence linked to religion. While such challenges have inspired individual writers, perhaps it is more surprising that the volatile situation in Nigeria has allowed a film and home video industry to develop and flourish. Yet, over the past two decades, “film” has become a burgeoning business there— particularly in its behemoth former capital, Lagos. Having visited various parts of the country on a faculty development seminar in May 2008,1 I left with the impression that the film and home video industry has had a disastrous impact on live theatre, despite its dependence on Nigerian theatrical tradition for its very existence. A return to its theatrical origins may be exactly what Nollywood needs to bring Nigeria the kind of recognition this young nation craves.2 The term “Nollywood” was first used in 2002 by Matt Steinglass in a New York Times article discussing a self-imposed “recess” Nigerian video makers enacted that year due to overproduction. According to Steinglass , quality and sales in the largely Igbo-controlled video market had diminished to such an extent that industry heads agreed to the recess in order to examine problems and discuss solutions. In the same article, Steinglass points out the tendency of Yoruba filmmakers to separate themselves from Igbo video makers, which may help to explain conflicting histories claimed by different segments of the film and video industry.3 The Yoruba legacy appears to be more directly linked to traditional Nigerian theatre practitioners, like Hubert Ogunde, as well as a more artistic ap- 70 B E C k y B E C k E R proach to film; in contrast, the Igbo legacy of moving directly to video seems to take a more market- and audience-driven approach. While Lagos is a cosmopolitan city populated by people from all over Nigeria, in addition to many other Africa nations and countries across the world, two of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups lay claim to Nollywood’s uncertain legacy. One important lineage acknowledges Nollywood’s connection to the traditional Yoruba Traveling Theatre movement championed by theatre director Chief Hubert Ogunde. Typically, Nigeria’s film industry is traced back to the 1979 film Aiye, directed by Ola Balogun and based on Ogunde’s original play pitting a traditional medicine man against an evil witch doctor.4 A decade later, however, another lineage was fostered through the Igbo-language film Living in Bondage (1988), directed by Chris Obi Rapu, and credited with bringing home video to the wider attention of the Nigerian people. Depicting a man who is promised success by a secret cult if he is willing to sacrifice his wife, Living in Bondage was filmed in Igbo with English subtitles and released directly to video. It was among the first financially successful home videos in Nigeria and seems to have been the spark that ignited the rapid-fire subsequent growth of Nollywood.5 Film critic Femi Shake acknowledges Nollywood’s connection to the “second generation of scholars [in Nigeria] who were trained in the theatre arts,” but also points to an earlier source—the mobile cinema, which got its start in Lagos in 1925. According to Shake, Lagos Chief Health Officer William Sellers used film during a major epidemic outbreak to educate the people of Lagos, under colonial rule, who thought the plague was brought there by non-Lagosians. Film allowed Sellers to show the people of Lagos that the illness was caused by unhygienic conditions , rather than foreigners.6 Nosa Owens-Ibie concurs with the film industry’s origin as a propaganda tool for Sellers’s Colonial Film Unit; however, he points to film’s beginnings even earlier in Nigeria’s history, noting that “[t]he first film screenings in Nigeria took place at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos” in August 1903. Although Nigerian Herbert Macaulay managed the screening, it was presented for dignitaries visiting from Spain,7 setting a precedent for foreign involvement in Nigerian film...


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