The Boom in Nigerian Cinema

The Sinking of the Titanic in the Niger River

In multi-ethnic Nigeria, creative filmmakers have been able to productively fuse their own cultural identity with Western influences. Ariana Mirza spoke with the Nigerian director and producer Kabat Esosa Egbon about this phenomenon

photo: Stephan Schmidt
Fusing local cultural identity with Western influences turns out to be a market strategy that has made Nigerian films a popular export within Africa, says Kabat Esosa Egbon

​​The sinking of the Titanic lured millions of viewers to movie theaters all over the world a few years ago—also in Nigeria. But this African country doesn't just consume imported cultural goods.

Soon the dramatic scenario of the film Titanic was reinterpreted locally and adapted for African audiences. A few weeks after the Western original was seen in cinemas, audiences could access a Nigerian version on video.

This approach is indicative of the laid-back way in which Western cultural imports are dealt with here. While the world is busy debating how the cultural identity of individual UN member nations can be protected from the effects of globalization, Nigerian filmmakers have already found their own way. They produce homegrown low budget videos that can be marketed throughout Africa.

"For our video production, we are happy to take up good film ideas from the West," explains director and producer Kabat Esosa Egbon. But the fact is that the people in Africa have always been and still are particularly interested in stories that have something to do with their own lives.

"In terms of equipment, editing, dramaturgy and technical effects, we are open for new impulses," says the filmmaker. Concerning Nigerian actors imitating "Western gestures," however, African audiences usually react negatively.

"Why does she walk like a white woman?" is a murmur that might be heard among a disgruntled audience if a black actress tries to hard to mimic famous Hollywood stars.

For several years now Nigeria has earned the reputation of being the "African Hollywood." "Every popular genre is produced here," says Kabat Esosa Egbon. Comedies, thrillers, love stories, and family dramas all find an audience. But as different as these films may be in format, certain figures have become a staple.

A particularly popular figure is the emigrant who returns home to Nigeria with new character traits. "This can be explained by the fact that so many of us are living strewn about in all corners of the world," says Kabat Esosa Egbon. Almost every Nigerian family has experienced the emigration of someone from their ranks. The character of the emigrant has thus been propagated in the cinema, whether as an evil figure, a buffoon, or hero.

In the video business, however, emigrants are not only highly desirable as film characters. They also contribute to the distribution of Nigerian films abroad, whether through professional or semiprofessional channels.

Finding concrete references to their own lives seems to be much more important to African viewers than it is to Western audiences. Even in the horror genre or in action films, Nigerian videos are clearly oriented toward everyday life in Africa. Traditional aspects such as magic or witchcraft are integrated into the plots just as much as car accidents and laptops.

"Of course our lives are changing, too, due to globalization," explains Kabat Esosa Egbon regarding the symbiosis of tradition and modernity in homegrown cinema. He names fashion trends and beauty ideals as visible examples of Western influence. "According to traditional, men don't usually wear earrings in our culture, but recently this has become fashionable. You meet more and more men with earrings. These kinds of details are reflected in the cinema."

The young director doesn't see these changes in traditional culture as a negative trend, however. He sees them instead as part of a natural process. "Life is always subject to change." And it is only appropriate that these developments should be reflected in the cinema, too.

But on the other hand, Nigerian filmmakers shy away from outright social critique. Political statements are hardly ever made, and conflicts between the different peoples such as the Yoruba, Igbo and Haussa are not addressed in film, or if so, then not openly.

A similar reserve can be noted concerning debates about religious issues. "We don't have any films that denigrate one religion in order to promote another." Even a film that tells a Christian story will consciously avoid criticizing Islam, says Kabat Esosa Egbon. "We would like to strengthen unity, not cause divisions. We therefore avoid fomenting conflicts."

Addressing the different religions in Niger is thus done carefully, but it is not taboo. Inter-religious family dramas or love stories in which protagonists from different religions fall in love are part of the usual repertoire.

Often a strict father or an envious onlooker with a grudge will try to hinder such relationships. These kinds of love stories that transcend the singular issue of religion sometimes end happily, sometimes sadly. But regardless of the ending, the narrative is a popular one that also appeals to audiences in other African countries.

In the past decade, the Nigerian video industry has developed at a parallel rate in the different parts of the country. But nonetheless it is the Muslim Haussa region in the north that has specialized in producing for the domestic market. And the Christian Yoruba dominate the video market in the south.

The Igbo, who largely subscribe to a religion based in nature, were ahead of the others in tapping into the international market. Their English-language productions were the first to be taken up in the rest of Africa, and later in the US and in Europe.

It is hard to say why no other African country has made such extensive use of the video medium, which is considerably cheaper to produce. "Many of the people making films today originally came from the theater," says Kabat Esosa Egbon. Perhaps the video boom in Nigeria has its roots in the regional tradition of traveling theater.

Since the beginning of the 1990s when the first Nigerian films hit the market, the number of productions had steadily risen. Currently, about twenty video films are made per week on average. A typical budget is rarely over 200,000 naira, or about 1200 euros. In Germany, barely ten seconds of a television film can be shot for this price.

A merchandising industry based on the film star cult has yet to develop in Nigeria, although a few fan magazines in the south have recently started in this direction. But the idea that film can open up new markets has already long been understood.

Like in the US and Europe, producers in Nigeria are generally business people who are less interested in art and culture than in profit. "They could be trading in any other commodity," Egbon dryly comments.

Ariana Mirza

© 2005

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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