Nollywood isn’t ‘cinematic,’ and that’s ok
One of the criticisms of Nollywood since it theatrical exhibition began is that it isn’t cinematic. Our films look like television shows; flat lighting, scene coverage lacking mis en scene, dialogue conveying what images should. Telling, not showing, some coming off as, 90 minutes of daytime soap, wrapped as a feature film
You know what! It’s true, a lot of our films look like television. But here is the thing.Expecting cinematic expression and execution from Nollywood is like expecting the same from Secrets of the Sands, Passions or Days of our Lives. It’s not built for that. It’s not in its DNA to be cinematic and that’s ok. Don Pedro Obaseki’s 2009 essay, “Nigerian video the child of television” sums it up.
Created in the 1930s, soap operas were targeted at American housewives who watched them in between meal preps and folding the laundry. The characters, dialogue, execution had nothing to do with artistic expression or subtext but with entertainment, intrigue, amusement and wish fulfilment; whatever it took to make her tune in the same time tomorrow.
There was no time to; set up lights for 2 hours to get a Caravaggio aesthetic, do seven takes to give the director/editor a range of choices in post. There were 20 pages of dialogue to get through and only a few hours of shoot time. With over 200 episodes a year and a fixed budget- nuance & pathos didn’t cross the minds of the producer.
Nollywood is similar in production turnaround; practitioners in the earliest days came from theatre and television. The projected performance/acting in theatre, as well as the lighting of episode television and how scenes were covered came with them. Basically, what would happen if you bring the crew who only ever shot, The Bold & The Beautiful for 3 decades, to shoot a noir or thriller.
Nollywood was always intended for the small screen, i.e. consumption in the home. At inception, the cinemas had shut down. The few functioning mostly played Indian films, so the birth of Nollywood came when cinema culture of the 60s and 70s was comatose.
A foreign equivalent of the feature film production model, is that of Roger Corman. In the 1960’s his films were made quickly on a low budget and it was on the next project. No intentions for audiences to lyrically wax on the poetics of what the filmmaker intended by every frame or light design.
So, does Nollywood need to be “cinematic”? NO. Can It be? Yes, but we’ll come back to that.Peter Igho, a key creative figure in NTA’s hey day attributed the talky nature of Nollywood to the radio background of many of the early NTA producers imported to television positions, thus , little visual sense. This lack of visual sense, in addition to shooting on video, was a reason, despite the success of Nollywood, her films were turned away by FESPACO for many years. Films exhibited in the cinema are less than 15% of Nollywood’s 3000+ titles annually, a large percentage of the core audience still get their fix via Africa Magic, Iroko etc and have no plans of patronizing cinemas.
Nollywood was a head turning, 16 year old teenybopper when her films started screening frequently in the new multiplexes, circa 2008/2009. To put that in perspective, Hollywood introduced home videos in the 1970s, after 50+ years of exclusive theatrical outings. Nollywood did it in reverse, growing pains.
To the earlier posited question. Can Nollywood be cinematic? October 1, Tatu, 76, Taxi Driver: Oko Asewo, The Encounter and others, show the ability of Nigerian made films to be cinematic- in the use of light, shadows, framing, composition, colour and light. The cinematographers and directors put in the work to create an aesthetic.
Andrew Dosunmu’s, Mother of George(2013), cinematically tells the same story many Nollywood and Yoruba Films have for years; a young married couple are having issues conceiving, and the wife is asked to go to bed with the younger brother by her mother in law.
Dosunmu’s use of colour, composition, frame rates, light and shadows made the difference in the interpretation of his images, the emotional and psychological points he transferred to the audience- It won the Best Cinematography prize at Sundance.In the decades ahead, we’ll find out if theatrical exhibition evolves the DNA of the Nollywood film for future generations and if it doesn’t? Well, it is what it is.