As the sun sets over Hillbrow in Johannesburg, South Africa,
Phillipine Theledi, her fiancé, and a friend settle down to watch TV.
The watching hour of the soaps has begun, but the 24-year-old police
constable and her guests are not interested in the bizarre goings on in
the Hollywoodstyle soap operas. Instead they get their entertainment
from watching Nigerian (or Nollywood) movies.
"I can’t remember when I last watched a soap," says Theledi, who
started watching Nollywood movies five years ago. Her friend and
colleague-constable, Kgaugelo Motsepe, who began watching Nigerian
films two years ago, says: "Soaps are always the same – you know that
Brooke (of The Bold and The Beautiful) will always marry someone else."
Constable Motsepe adds that she stopped watching Hollywood soaps
because "people just die and come back to life. That’s not reality".
The two policewomen live a couple of doors away from each other at
the high-rise South African Police Service barracks in the densely
populated inner city neighbourhood of Hillbrow, which they patrol.
It was while they were on different patrols in the neighbourhood
that they discovered Nollywood films – almost every second street
corner in Hillbrow has a shop run by a Nigerian whose Nollywood DVD
sales form part of a barber shop or cellphone shop.
On their days off, the two spend their time glued to the TV. This
evening they are watching Keep Us Together. It is trademark Nollywood
fare, and it has their full attention. Motsepe, 22, says she can relate
to the values depicted on the screen. "From these movies, you can see
that Nigerians are very traditional people. They are very religious and
strongly believe that God can help them no matter the odds."
ButTheledi’s fiancé, Cornelius Maphoto, who began watching Nigerian
films not long ago, is not too impressed: "They’re okay," he says, "but
about three-quarters of the films have the same message. They’re
Many a plot of a Nollywood film revolves around money and reflects
the psyche of Nigerians: "If you no get monie, you no be person. Ho ha!
(If you don’t have money you’re nobody. Simple and short!)" Nollywood
films reflect the social dynamics that make Nigeria a money-mad
country. The basic formula is a son promises to send money to his
impoverished family before he leaves the village to head for the big
city or country (say London, South Africa, America, etc). Under
pressure to deliver, he gets involved mjuju, waiyo (419 scams), armed
robbery, political assassinations or drug dealing. For female lead
actresses, the roles are a spinster who will only settle for a rich
man. She steals him from his wife, using juju, or falls for a dashing
mugu (419) specialist who turns out to be her worst nightmare.
Often the architects of the diabolical plots end up with nothing. In
their own way, the directors and scriptwriters question Nigerians on
whether the quest for money at all costs is really worth it.
But not all Hollywood films are about the unrelenting quest for
money. There are also love stories such as Keep us Together. The plots
though have a rather familiar theme: son/daughter wants to marry a
woman/man of higher status but because he comes from a tribe/poor
family/socially inferior clan, the woman’s/man’s family frowns upon the
Nollywood films can be compared to egusi soup (a popular meal eaten
in Nigeria) that is badly cooked. But within the soup, there are some
nutritious morsels in the form of proverbs spoken by Igbos from
southeastern Nigeria: "The chicken that is searching for food in the
rain must be very hungry"- Chukuma scheming, with his younger brother
Greg, on how to get the wealth of their elder brother in the film, The
Price of Love.
"When a lamb plays in the den of a lion, is there any future to
expect?"- Chief Phillips to his daughter whom he wants to dissuade from
marrying the son of his arch rival in the movie, Power Play.
The popular saying at the back of every Nigerian’s mind that fuels
their hopes and ambitions for a better life is uttered by Mama Enyi
about her son’s forbidden affair in Keep Us Together. "Nobody knows
In fact, Hollywood films have a kitsch feel about them. The poor
technical quality of shots taken indoors gives them their distinct low
budget feel. Scenes that involve actors shouting in anger or crying
loudly often come out as a screeching sound.
Inadequate use of lighting indoors leaves macabre shadows dancing
around actors and the soundtracks of some films often do not correspond
to the scene on view. Added to this gaucheness, are the titles: After
the Fight, Nothing Spoil, Who’s Fault, I Want My Money, The Broken
Plate, Last Billionaire, Dogs Meeting, Hard Lover and My Own Share.
But in spite of their perceived poor technical quality and tacky
titles, Nollywood films are in huge demand. Constables Theledi and
Motsepe each rent up to three Nigerian films a week. And their interest
has caught on with their families as well.
"Emperor" is the owner of a video rental shop at the Mansion Hotel
in Claim Street, Johannesburg. His store, a DVD store-cumbarbershop, is
the largest of the lot in the downtown area. The wall on the left and
centre are crammed (from wall to ceiling) with Nollywood films. He left
Nigeria for South Africa seven years ago and most of his clients are
South Africans, Zimbabweans and Zambians.
His clients say, compared to American films, Nollywood movies
enhance African culture and show that Africans have a rich heritage to
draw from, and give them a sense of dignity and pride.
Apart from their cultural appeal, Nigerian films are also drawing
interest because they are cheaper to hire than Hollywood films. Emperor
rents out a Nollywood film, burned on a double compact disc, at R5 for
three nights – a Hollywood equivalent hired for one evening costs Rl 8.
Despite the low cost of rentals, Emperor, who has a collection of about
4,200 Nollywood films, is able to make a profit. He says if he spends
about R30,000 importing 1,000 Nigerian movies, he can rent out about
100 videos in an average week and make about R700. But the bulk of his
profits come from selling videos for about R60 each.
The genre of Nollywood films in greatest demand is comedy, and it is
easy to understand why. Films featuring Nkem Owoh (Osuofia in London 1
& 2) and the actors Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze (Lagos Boys 1
& 2 and De Don and De Capo) are always booked out. In the case of
Nkem Owoh, his delivery of punchlines in pidgin (broken) English is
side splitting. The pint-sized Iheme and Ikedieze (their feet barely
touch the floor when they sit on chairs) can deliver a brand of
waiyo-scheming humour to make Leon Schuster’s comic feats seem like a
geriatric on a zimmer-frame.
The Nollywood film industry is primarily geared towards the DVD home
market. It is estimated that there are about 57 million DVD players in
Nigerian households. Home movies took precedence over cinemas when
celluloid films became too expensive to make under the military regimes
that ruled Nigeria in the 1980s. Now that Nigeria is under democratic
rule, on average about 430 movies are made every year, powering an
industry estimated at R300m. A typical Nollywood film will have 50,000
copies dubbed onto VCDs at less than R5 each. It is not clear to what
extent piracy and bootlegs are driving the value of the industry down.
But in the next few months, the script that Nollywood currently acts
out is about to change – dramatically.
According to Brian Pottinger, CEO of Johnnic Communications Africa
Division, an agreement has been signed by Nu Metro Home Entertainment
West Africa for a new distribution chain, starting in Nigeria, with a
VCD and DVD plant to open in October which will make licensed and
quality-made Nollywood films available to markets in Africa and beyond.
The big idea is to ensure that from the licence agreements, revenues
generated will be ploughed back into the industry in the form of
royalties which "will create a sustainable industry in which actors,
producers, directors, distributors and ultimately the consumer
benefits", says Pottinger.
As the storyline on the Nollywood film industry unfolds, perhaps an apt title should be: Nobody Knows Tomorrow.