Nigeria’s Nollywood industry blurs the line between “old” and “new” technology
Whether in the United States or Nigeria, film both responds to, and provides an escape from, political turmoil. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out” captures the paranoia faced by African Americans in the Trump era. Black excellence was celebrated in films like “Moonlight,” and movie-watching proved cathartic for all as Netflix grew exponentially in 2017 — at a similar pace to the New York Times, which provided invaluable election information. In Nigeria, where colonialism left the country in shambles, film has helped to both strengthen their economy and create a sense of nationalism in a nation that some believe is on the brink of civil war. In fact, Nigeria’s “Nollywood” industry is the first economically self-sustainable film industry in Africa; it is also the second largest film industry in the world.
Though the Nollywood industry appears strikingly new - in terms of its growth, productivity, and innovation - the technology is not anything out of the ordinary. However, the way inexpensive film equipment is utilized within Nigeria’s informal sector is unprecedented. “Nollywood” means “nothing wood”: creating something out of nothing. The word captures the industry’s humble roots, as well as its current mode of production. When the Nigerian Television Authority stopped producing media content in 1990, Nollywood emerged to satisfy the need for artistic expression and consumption. At the time, digital technology was innovating rapidly, creating stockpiles of abandoned VHS cassettes. Nollywood capitalized on the unused VHS cassettes as an “inexpensive way to distribute straight-to-video movie releases.” These films were produced quickly - over the span of two days - and used non-professional actors. Anyone could be a part of the Nollywood film production, and the industry grew exponentially — becoming an integral component of Nigeria’s informal economy.
In contrast to Hollywood movies - which require years of planning and production and billions of dollars - the process of film-making in Nigeria involves “creating movies in volatile and uncertain conditions, often with incredibly short turnaround times.” Since Nollywood utilizes relatively newer technologies, and has attracted local and international investors, some of the original spontaneity has been lost, according to some fans. However, the relationship between Nollywood and Nigeria’s informal economy has stayed the same. Since the informal economy entails “financial and other constraints,” production is still limited to “a small scale,” and some directors can still “go from script to print in two weeks.”
Though Nollywood films do not require as much money as their American counterparts, their impact is influential locally and across the world. Nollywood film build bonds within Nigeria by celebrating Nigerian arts, traditions, and ways of life before an international audience. Most films are produced in local languages such as Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa. The industry’s success also "made it possible for Africans to view films made by fellow Africans on a huge scale for the first time.” Pan-African unity was cultivated as a result — encouraging intra-continental tourism, and leading other countries like Kenya and Ghana to produce their own Nollywood-esque films. Internationally, the films have connected members of the Nigerian diaspora, specifically, and the black diaspora at large. Economists and Hollywood producers alike are shocked and intrigued by the profitability of Nigeria’s film industry, and the tools it utilizes to do so. However, due to the little research done into Nigeria’s informal economy, Western onlookers have not been able to figure out the secret.
Africa’s “digital renaissance,” in general, displays similar growth patterns as the Nollywood industry using common-place technologies to serve new purposes. For example, Kenya’s digital financial services and mobile money make transactions easier and less susceptible to corruption. In Ghana, patients can text the code found on their drug containers to a toll-free number to determine whether their medication is authentic or counterfeit. The breakthrough of digital technologies in Africa thus blurs the boundaries between “old” and “new” technologies — as well as the supposed gap between the innovation of the global north and the global south.
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