Much Ado About Black And White Cameras: Why Does Nollywood Suddenly Care About “Arthouse Films”?

Posted on

Maybe Your Idea of Nollywood is Patience Ozokwor in the 2000s

Sometime in late January, in a sea of standoffish bodies on an early morning train to Central London, I noticed a bespectacled Black lady rubbing her palms against each other with urgency and felt the need to break the ice. A twenty-minute conversation was enough for me to find out that she was born to Nigerian parents, worked in broadcasting, and had not been home in twelve years. 

Mid-conversation, I suddenly quipped “Do you watch Nollywood?” and the look she shot me in response was one of derision. Further probing revealed that her idea of Nigerian films was the mass-produced, serialized, poorly-edited, and shoddily mixed movies we had to live with in the early and mid-2000s. I quickly exchanged contact details, but not before saying “A lot has changed, our movies are different now” as I alighted.

Picture and Sound Have Improved, But…

There is the argument that Miss Rubbing Palms hasn’t acquainted herself with what currently obtains in Nigerian cinema, but she shouldn’t totally be blamed that her perception of Nollywood still comprises low-budget films that span six installments, are shot in two weeks, and ply the Idumota-Upper Iweka Road route. 

The turn of the 2010s ushered in new cameras and new equipment, with filmmakers who had returned from formal training in Europe and the United States feeling the need for Nigerian films to be more intentional about panning shots, scores, and technique. The role of the cinematographer and sound editor in Nigeria’s filmmaking landscape is no longer understated. In Uyoyou Adia’s Hey You (2022), a romantic drama involving a techie and an exotic dancer, Barnabas Emordi, the film’s Director of Photography, deploys the use of close-up shots, mood lighting, and wide angles to perfectly capture the intensity and sexual tension between the two lead characters. Niyi Akinmolayan’s Prophetess (2021), a comedy film in which small village bets on a football game based on the statements of a soothsayer, succeeds in creating a believable matchday atmosphere thanks to the deliberate layout of the sound design.

In recent years, more people have trooped to see Nigerian films in cinemas (at least, before the pandemic-induced lull in 2020), and the incursion of streaming platforms like Netflix, Showmax, and Amazon Prime means that more people have access to local content. However, the quality of our storytelling is still under scrutiny: barring movies like 76, For Maria: Ebun Pataki, Brotherhood, and Living in Bondage: The Sequel, most Nigerian films made available on streaming platforms have been treated to mixed or negative critical reception. Sure enough, distribution numbers are expanding, and picture, as well as sound, have evolved from where they were in the O.J Productions days, but there hasn’t been much by way of authentic stories for me to have had a strong argument if that train commute went beyond Hammersmith. 

There is also the not-so-small matter of filmmakers opting to go with what they perceive to be a winning formula. Since the success of Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party (2016), romcoms and slapstick comedy have been the go-to options for many a filmmaker seeking to draw a large audience to cinemas, or score passable streaming numbers on Netflix. From Jade Osiberu’s Isoken (2017) to Kayode Kasum’s Kambili: The Whole 30 Yards (2020) to Niyi Akinmolayan’s disasterclass Chief Daddy 2 (2022), the strategies (and by extension, the accompanying tropes) have not changed much in the past seven years.


There Is Little Motivation To Think Outside The Box

But can we really blame Nigeria’s movie directors for playing safe? To be fair, there is little incentive to do much else. Attempts at experimentation, more often than not, translate to hair-tearing results from a commercial perspective. Kajola, a dystopian sci-fi film directed by Niyi Akinmolayan and released in 2010, gulped about N130 million in production but ended up being a critical and commercial failure. Dare Olaitan’s Ojukokoro (2017), a non-linear crime heist comedy film rendered in the manner of Pulp Fiction, didn’t generate any real buzz until it was acquired by Netflix in 2021. Dimeji Ajibola’s Ratnik (2020), an apocalyptic sci-fi film starring Osas Ighodaro and Bolanle Ninalowo, barely scratched the surface in cinemas, though it can be argued that postponements occasioned by the global lockdown did little to help the movie’s cause.

One of my favorite movies of all time is David Fincher’s psychological thriller Fight Club (1999). Starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham-Carter, the movie is an edgy, visceral take on nihilism, value systems, and contemporary masculinity. It fared poorly upon initial release, and critics were divided – people walked out when it premiered at the 56th Venice International Film Festival – but it has since grown to become a cult classic. I am always drawn to art that examines mental illnesses – the protagonist in Fight Club suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder – and I love the use of the “unreliable narrator” technique, but what is most striking about this film is its originality in approach. It is violent and controversial, but interrogative and thought-provoking all at once. How many Nigerian filmmakers can wait for nearly half a decade for audiences to go through the motions before calling their work a “classic”? Who has that time, in a fast-paced industry like Nollywood where numbers run the game?


Could A Shift Be Happening?

In 2016, three Nigerian filmmakers, namely Michael Omonua, Abba Makama, and CJ Obasi came together to form the Surreal16 (S16) Collective. Disillusioned by the state of affairs in Nollywood where producers and distributors only seemed to care for glossy romcoms, their vision was simple: tell original stories, and export them to the world. 

In the past three years, the grit and determination of Nigerian independent filmmakers to go against the grain and emphasize authenticity have appeared to reap dividends, and in the process, their works have garnered international acclaim. In 2020, Eyimofe (This is My Desire), the debut feature-length film by Arie and Chuko Esiri, premiered at Berlinale. A gritty, poignant story on migration that has been described as “achingly beautiful”, Eyimofe would go on to win Best Feature at the 2021 Blackstar Film Festival. It has also been added to the hallowed Criterion Collection, and has received widespread praise since it debuted on Amazon Prime.

In 2021, Juju Stories, co-directed by the founding members of the S16 Collective, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The three-part anthology film, which stars Belinda Agedah Yanga, Paul Utomi, Nengi Adoki, Elvis Poko and Timini Egbuson, explores mythical tropes rooted in Nigerian folklore.

The most recent examples of international success for Nigeria’s “new wave/arthouse” cinema practitioners are CJ Obasi’s Mami Wata and Tunde Apalowo’s All the Colours of the World are Between Black and White. The former, a monochromatic mythical film that intersects Nigerian folklore and technology, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The latter, an emotive queer drama that examines a tender romance between two men in the heart of Lagos, premiered at the 2023 Berlinale, and clinched the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film.

How Sustainable Is The Making of “Arthouse Films” in Nigeria, Though?

In 2021, while covering the Blackstar Film Festival, I had a chance to chat with the Esiri Brothers, and they were gracious enough to talk about the creative direction that influenced the making of Eyimofe. In their words, “The overriding aim of the film was to tell a story about Nigeria and in doing so, present the human side of migration from West Africa. There have been a number of films centered around the topic, but none give you a sense of the world that’s left behind, particularly with respect to its joys and sorrows. I think ultimately, we wanted to portray life as it is.”

But have “arthouse” films come to stay? Is this new brand of storytelling viable in the current clime that is Nollywood, or is the current wave just another flavor of the month? Would audiences find themselves in a situation where every other film would now “be shot in black and white” if the Wedding Party formula gets to be replicated?

Abigail Chukwu, Nigerian director and screenwriter, argues that arthouse films are not necessarily a new phenomenon.

Arthouse films are not new in the industry”, she tells me. “We are just finding out about the filmmakers because streaming happened and we now have access to their films. Also, the new crop of filmmakers are now obsessed about festivals and travelling (abroad), so we are seeing a lot of arthouse films from Nigerians who we didn’t know existed.

Chukwu also suggests that the thirst for global acclaim will push the demand for new-wave Nigerian films.

“We are a third world country with third world problems. Unless the story is fantasy, our trauma will make good stories. As a result, arthouse filmmakers are now in high demand, because commercial producers want global appeal and they can only get that from arthouse filmmakers who can access their artistic parts, even while trying to achieve commercial success. Yes, there have been instances of conflicts in creative interest between production houses and directors on where a story should go, as arthouse directors will always pick quality over marketability and production houses will prioritize the latter, but we can see arthouse directors taking over the commercial scene.”

Anita Eboigbe, Operations Lead at Big Cabal Media and co-founder of the Inside Nollywood media company, feels that the recent craze surrounding arthouse films in Nollywood is primarily influenced by international acclaim.

It’s suddenly a conversation because the industry is moving from the mass market”, she says. “Mind you, Nollywood was founded with the mass market as its prime focus, and the mass market is super-important for money among other things, but with arthouse (cinema), you get to experiment, and it’s a lot of privilege that you need to have to be able to experiment. More ‘privileged’ people are entering the industry, privileged enough to make those kinds of experiments, and they are now getting on bigger stages. 

“You can compare it to the Alte music wave (of the late 2010s); people like Odunsi and Cruel Santino had been trying hard to push a genre that is niche, then someone like Tems makes it to the global stage, and everyone suddenly wants to listen to that kind of music. It’s the same thing with our films; Sundance and Berlinale are taking notice. The conversation is just more amplified now because these filmmakers are slowly but steadily hitting it big on the world stage, plus, they are crossing over into industries that are ripe enough for these kinds of conversations.”

Eboigbe also asserts that arthouse films are important in Nollywood, to exhibit some sort of variety in what passes for cinema in Nigeria.

“We need them (arthouse films) to show the importance of soul in filmmaking. Beyond commercial appeal, it is necessary to have a point of view where the Art is the main component. In terms of impact, just having a varied slate of things helps to expand the viability of the entire industry. No one does arthouse films to make money in Nigeria, or any part of the world as a matter of fact, that’s why there are special spaces for them. They help to further educate audiences, and they help to show a large scale of what is possible across different genres”, she notes.

What Does the Future Portend?

From a critical and purist perspective, amplified conversations on arthouse films leave a sweet taste in the mouths of Nigerian film enthusiasts. But will filmmakers who choose to ply the less-trodden roads not be discouraged when they hear that there are no seats for them at the table?

In a European Film Market (EFM) conversation at this year’s Berlinale, the Head of Nigerian Originals at Amazon Prime, Wangi Mba-Uzoukwu, appeared to lean towards commercial material in terms of her international content strategy. To paraphrase her words, she advocated that filmmakers looking to pitch should “focus on light stories and stay away from the dark material”, adding that there was little chance of exploring epic productions because historical fiction “tends to be expensive.”

Every film industry needs arthouse films; they serve as important markers in analyzing their evolution. Hollywood is replete with monster-budget movies and multiple franchises, but there is still room for the likes of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour (2013), among others.

Nollywood needs its “new wave films” for the purpose of documentation, among other things. No Nigerian film lover wants a situation where in discussing Nigerian cinema, the only movies they can make reference to are the features produced mainly for commercial appeal. It’s important to have a well-rounded industry that film journalists, data buffs, and potential investors can make reference to when curating the history and trajectory of Nigerian cinema.

It’s equally imperative for Nollywood to show that it cares enough about diversity when churning out movies for audiences that comprise multiple demographics. No one wants to walk into a supermarket where only snacks are sold, without drinks or even cooked food made available as viable alternatives. Everyone loves to be spoilt for choice, and this is where arthouse films come in. They may not tear up the box office, but beyond storytelling, they help in providing perspective for audiences and filmmakers alike. There are Nigerian moviegoers who think that Nollywood has never produced a musical, even when Jeta Amata’s Inale (2010), Dimeji Ajibola’s Hoodrush (2012) and Kayode Kasum’s Obara’m (2022) exist.

These non-commercial films also serve as a vehicle via which Nigerian filmmakers could dig deep, tell stronger stories, and better their craft. With them, there is more room to try, fail, and learn. It’s why the Omonuas, Apalowos, Esiris, Makamas, and Obasis of the world should be given more space to fly, not stifled by industry dynamics or consumer demand theories.

Jerry Chiemeke is a communications executive, film critic, journalist, and lawyer. His works have appeared in Berlinale Press, Die Welt, and The Africa Report, among others. Jerry lives in London, where he writes on Nollywood, African literature, and Nigerian music. He is the author of “Dreaming of Ways to Understand You” a collection of short stories.