Is Nollywood creating a great image of Africa?

| February 8, 2013 | 0 Comments

Movies give us the imagery that makes us familiar with the unfamiliar. Sometimes a particular movie manages to encapsulate the tone and feel of a city like New York.

Though the depiction may be fictional which include clichés and stereotypes, but it still leaves an impression on the viewer.

Many African film and TV productions are criticised for lack of quality and poor depiction of Africans.

Nollywood’s imagery and storylines have greatly affected people’s perception of Nigeria and Africa beyond the continent.

The second largest film industry in the world, churning out about 2,000 movies a year provides more than enough material for viewers to create a visual impression of Africa beyond National Geographical channels and BBC headlines.

These movies have in many ways contributed to the opinions about Nigeria, Nigerians and even Africa as a whole.

But it’s no different from Bollywood: gross exaggerations of homegrown truths created for great entertainment.

Then again, there are many people who watch these movies and believe Indians walk around singing and dancing on staircases.

The depiction of Nigerians in Nollywood movies is sometimes frustrating – the witchcraft, the greed, the violence.

Some pundits actually argue that these depictions perpetuate stereotypes, yet on the other hand, it took years for Nollywood to arrive at this successful formula.

Besides, like it or not, witchcraft is very much an African issue, as is HIV/Aids, and corruption.

This is why Nollywood movies are so popular around the continent, despite the diversity of cultures and this is because African share a common past.

It may appear on the surface that these movies glorify the rich and elite, but in fact they chip away at the belief that money buys happiness, because aside from bank balances, everyone has the same problems, and no one’s life is perfect.

Sure, this is as much a fairytale as anything Hollywood produces, but we need fairytales, too, for comfort. As T. S. Eliot wrote, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Beyond Nollywood, there are movies being made specifically with the international market in mind.

For example, the South African film Tsotsi, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005 and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film in 2006.

Many saw this as a turning point for African film, but there were also those that believed the movie portrayed Africans through the Western lens, and not the national representation it claimed.

These types of films are being made to higher technical standards, with better-developed scripts and more subtle acting.

They are being made with higher budgets and take up to a year or more to complete, unlike the days it takes for the typical Nollywood movie. It is easy to brand such films as sell-outs, simply because they are after international reverence and because they may glorify or depict imagery that is usually swept under the carpet, or downplayed in our regular movies.

Despite the critical acclaim and awards – including MTV’s Best African Film – Viva Riva! did not escape criticism for its depiction of Congo, as well as for what some considered graphic scenes of violence and sex.

But such criticism remained continent-bound; internationally the film wasn’t branded too violent or too sexual, it was a successful piece of work from Africa, with an African cast and directed by an African.

South African movies such as Jeruselama and District 9 were both directed by white directors, as tends to be the case with African films created for an international market.

So to see black directors telling an African story should be something we commend, even while remaining critical as film fans, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

The African audience – accept Hollywood in its entirety (and don’t expect them to be proxy trailers for America’s tourist industry), but continue to judge African entertainment somewhat unfairly.

Perhaps our reception to these movies will change as we see more and more co-productions with transnational themes like The Mirror Boy and The Assassin’s Practice.

And looking beyond Nollywood again, movies like Pumzi – an African sci-fi short film, the first of its kind.

This is an example of uncharted territory that the African film has yet to explore, but which we might see more of as the filmmakers step out of their comfort zones, with the permission of an audience ready for more experimental films.

At the moment, though, the perception is that we are telling African stories to a western audience, certain formulas apply, even if we are affirming stereotypes.

It’s about box office sales and making up to the investment, and for that the African “ghetto” story seems to fit the bill.

If we are telling African stories to African audiences, then another set of rules seems to apply, and the latter is what Nollywood has traditionally done well.

It has built a massive industry on the premise that it is entertainment for everyone. Rough around the edges, yes, but playing by our own rules, using our own actors, filming in real Africa and not fake backdrops, making mistakes along the way, but at least they are our own mistakes. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other; there’s enough room for variety, creativity, taking chances and wider leaps.

Some will work and others fail miserably, but the boundaries will be pushed at a pace that works for African audiences. (This is Africa)

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Category: Entertainment