“A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person—flawed, complex, striving—you’ve reached beyond stereotype.”
― Hazel Rochman
Nollywood, is probably one of Nigeria’s best loved exports. In terms of volume of output, the Nigerian film industry is the second biggest in the world, behind Bollywood; though its capital generation places it third behind Hollywood and Bollywood. Nigerian film-makers receive almost no governmental support, so the size of the industry is a source of pride for the people of Nigeria. Furthermore, it is much easier to identify with the characters in Nollywood films than any other film industry – they speak our languages, have our names, look like us.
Nevertheless, I have found it very, very difficult to develop any affinity for Nollywood’s products. Nigeria has the highest concentration of black voices anywhere in the world, Nollywood is the best opportunity to tell black African stories, but we fail miserably at it. The stories in our film industry are basic, simplistic and largely superficial. Most of the characters are not given the luxury of depth and subtext. Yet we complain that international media portrays us as two-dimensional, ‘single story’ subjects! No-one else has a responsibility to tell our story but us. Everything else is hearsay. We have told the world that we are concerned only with money, food, witchcraft and male children. They hear and believe what we say.
I would love to see the Bechdel test being applied to Nollywood films. The Bechdel test asks whether a film features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. According to Nollywood, all women think of is how to get a man, how to keep a man, how to get rid of a man, how to get a new man, how to keep the new man from finding out about the old man, how to have man children for one of aforesaid men…
Representations are important. They have been at the centre of so many of the recent social media campaigns like #oscarssowhite #Rhodesmustfall #whyismycurriculumsowhite. The decolonising movement is also fuelled by questions of mis(representation). ‘If you cannot see it, you cannot be it.’ We need to see ourselves reflected in the media, anything infrequently reflected is perceived as undesirable. Nigeria is a complex country with different groups and classes, for many the only member of another group they will see will be on the television. Nollywood underrepresents and stereotypes very, very badly. The result is to make certain groups of people in Nigeria voiceless and invisible – women, ethnolinguistic minorities, people living with disabilities, survivors of traumas… people with principles. When someone tells you everyone is doing something, they really mean everyone on television is.
So we need Nollywood movies that have stories or plots… a script at the very least, something written down. A plot is meant to organize information and events in a logical manner. Many Nollywood films defy logic and have the power to lower the IQ. A suitable plot emotionally connects the viewer with the characters and their story. So we need characters. A character has to be multidimensional and logical. We need to know the driving force behind each character. A character has to be true to type. A character that starts out highly principled cannot halfway through the fifth part go and steal money without the plot giving us good reason to belief this great shift in character. And the explanation cannot be ‘everyone is doing it.’ We are human beings not moths. People would have us believe that great stories require money – in that sense Nollywood is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Great stories require patience.
We are bombarded with the same misrepresentations night and day; our subconscious imbibes what we see and it becomes reality. Our imagination is held captive by what we have already seen. Nollywood denies us the luxury of a many-textured existence. For our future, for our tomorrows, we need more complex and sophisticated imaginings; stories that explore the intricacies of our lived experiences, stories that engage with the full spectrum of Nigerian dreams and desires, sorrows and sadnesses, limitations and languishings. The colonisation of our intellect transplanted the colonial picture of Africans into our psyche. Achille Mbembe says that the representation of the precolonial Africa was that of:
‘a simple, unambitious creature who liked to be left alone. It was felt that the extraordinary simplicity of his or her existence was evidenced, first of all, by his/her manner of speaking: “no complicated sentence constructions; no tenses, no moods, no persons in verbs; no gender or number in nouns or adjectives; just what is required to express oneself: infinitives, nouns, adverbs, adjectives that are tacked on to one another in simple direct propositions.”’’
Valentin Mudimbe noted that the foregoing misrepresentations had disadvantaged Africa, he suggests that:
themselves read, challenge, rewrite these discourses as a way of explicating and
defining their culture, history, and being.‘
But we do not, not enough. If we continue to permit representations of ourselves as people of low intelligence, no principles, people consumed with lust of the flesh and the pursuit of ill-gotten gains, this is what we will become. It is what we are becoming.