The year is 1992, and businessman, Kenneth Nnebue is looking to sell off old stacks of VHS cassettes. He would partner with a young storyteller, Okey Ogunjiofor, who disadvantaged due to his poor economic background could not shoot his story on celluloid, and together, they would make a film, Living in Bondage. The nationwide success of this film shot on a budget of 150 thousand naira (less than a thousand dollars today) would shape what would later come to be known as Nollywood, as it blazed a trail for young creatives and storytellers to follow —shooting on VHS—and birthed other classics such as Glamour Girls, Nneka the Pretty Serpent, Most Wanted and Diamond Ring.
However, these early years of Nollywood filmmaking brought with it an era of creative silence for women. Nigerian society is one entrenched in a tradition that believes positions of power, authority, and leadership are not meant for women. This translated into a one-dimensional and misogynistic portrayal of the Nigerian woman, under the patriarchal gaze of the male filmmakers. Whatever archetype—campus babe, wicked mother-in-law, mami wota—the female characters were, a tragic end tended to befall them. Whether as villains or femme Fatales, nuanced storytelling would have allowed for an empathetic understanding of their cause. These male filmmakers have propelled Nigeria’s rape culture through their narratives of rape which were usually more sympathetic to rape perpetrators than to the rape victims, who were oft portrayed as “bad girls” whose behavior, perceived immorality, and mode of dressing made them deserving of rape. There were numerous movies where a rapist would find both forgiveness and love from his victim, and in the end, conjugal bliss awaited them.
Filmmaker Amaka Igwe would exist as an exception. She’d not only defy the regressive traditional notions of what a woman should be, and become the first known Nigerian female filmmaker, but would also in her sophomore film,Violated, challenge the narrative. She’d spin a brilliant tale around the life of a young woman, Peggy, who had been raped by her relative. Not only would Peggy find restitution in the end, but her rapist would also meet his comeuppance: sacked from his job, and abandoned by his wife. Amaka Igwe is also the filmmaker behind hit TV series, Checkmate and its spinoff, Fuji House of Commotion. Her first movie, Rattlesnake: Ahanna’s Story, is a Nollywood classic. It is now being remade by Charles Okpaleke, as executive producer, and Ramsey Noah, as director. Genevieve Nnaji dedicated her directorial debut, Lionheart, to Amaka Igwe’s memory. The film is boldly feminist as it tells the story of Adaeze who sought to save her family’s company from bankruptcy; highlighting the underlying sexism that can be found in the corporate world. In Tope Oshin’s documentary, Amaka’s Kin: The Women of Nollywood, she chronicles Amaka’s film career and had individual female filmmakers talk about their journeys and the role Igwe played in inspiring and influencing them. Ego Boyo, actor and producer, spoke of the influence of Igwe in her transition behind the cameras. In an interview with Ebuka Obi-Uchendu on Rubbin’ Minds, Boyo revealed that although cast to play Peggy/Amuche on Violated, through casual conversation with Igwe, she shared her desire to produce the film, and her wish was approved. Then only 26, she produced what would become a Nollywood classic and would go on, in 2002, to produce the romcom, Keeping Faith, a heart-warming film about love and the insecurities that come with it. Her two most recent films have challenged Nigerian filmmaking. The first, the 2017 silent film, A Hotel Called Memory. Away from Nollywood’s penchant for watery comedies about the glitzy lives of the Nigerian elite, Boyo’s latest work, 2019’s The Ghost and House of Truth is set in the slums of Lagos and tells the story of a middle-class mother whose child has just gone missing. The woman’s situation and environment are reflective of the lives of many Nigerians, Just like Boyo, Tope Oshin started off acting, but the ever discerning Igwe saw qualities in her that’d make for a good director and encouraged her to pursue a career behind the scenes. Today she’s better known as a filmmaker of films like Fifty and Up North.
Through the documentary, Amaka’s Kin, Nollywood female filmmakers talk about how Igwe used the tool of motivation to nudge them into becoming filmmakers and strengthened them to ignore naysayers—chief amongst them, their male counterparts. Blessing Effiom Egbe, the producer of hit TV series Lekki Wives, narrated her experience of how a male director had asked her to partner with him and let him direct her films because as a woman she would be unable to manage actors. Other challenges the filmmakers face include being disrespected on set by cast and crew. Film/TV director Adeola Osunkojo said “every time I go on set, they probably think I’m the makeup artist.” She also shared an experience: “I remember once on set, a guy asked me, are you the director? Are you really really the director?”
Amaka Igwe passed on in 2014. Being the first foremost Nigerian female filmmaker, female filmmakers after her are considered as riding on her shoulders. Since her death, Nollywood has witnessed an influx of female filmmakers. And just like her and those who came before them, they’ve taken the bull by the horns and are making giant strides in Nigerian film. These young filmmakers are often tagged under the “New Nollywood” umbrella. And like their male counterparts, they are fresh from film schools and better skilled in the technicalities of filmmaking. Although they’re still at the start of their journeys and finding their voices, they are making strides in challenging stereotypes and patriarchal narratives. Jadesola Osiberu would take center stage in the scene after years of directing and producing web series for Ndani TV, making her debut feature film, Isoken. It is lauded today as one of the best rom-com to come out of Nollywood in recent times. But what’s striking about the film, is Osiberu’s titular character Isoken, a successful unmarried woman in her mid-30s who isn’t desperate for marriage despite pressures from family and friends. She represents the modern Nigerian woman who is ambitious, self-reliant, and independent. Osiberu’s latest output, Sugar Rush, gifts three female protagonists in a comedic heist like never seen before in Nollywood. Kemi Adetiba, directed Nollywood’s highest-grossing film, The Wedding Party, produced by Nollywood’s powerhouse, Mo Abudu. Adetiba’s commercial success also extends to her independent film, King of Boys. King of Boys having grossed almost 250 million naira is the first Nollywood film outside of the comedy genre to cross the 100 million naira mark. But what’s most inspiring about King of Boys lies in its presentation of an antihero and femme fatale, Eniola Salami, played by Sola Sobowole and Toni Tones (as young Eniola Salami), and its feminist leanings.
But away from commercial success and fame is filmmaker Ema Edosio whose success with her first independent feature film, Kasala, after years of directing TV films for Mo Abudu’s Ebonylife TV, is inspirational. Kasalais low budget, featuring a relatively unknown cast. By normal Nollywood standards, it would seem destined for commercial failure, and this seemed to be its fate having been rejected by cinema distributors. The wide acclaim and buzz that the film would generate after screening in festivals such as AFRIFF meant that it finally earned the cinema treatment in Nigeria in December 2018. What would follow would be a wider audience for the film as it debuted on Netflix in January 2020.
Writer Edwin Okolo recently wrote a piece published on YNaija petitioning that Ifeoma Chukwuogo helm one of the upcoming Netflix Naija Originals. His petition might seem ambitious for a filmmaker at the start of her career, with no feature film to her name. But there’s no rush for Chukwuogo. She’s settled on telling stories that matter. Her short film, Bariga Sugar set in the slums of Lagos takes a humanistic narrative to the lives of Nigerian sex workers, would not only get the attention of an international film festival like AFRIFF but also the attention of international publication Shadow And Act, profiling it in its #ShortFilmShoutOut series. Chukwuogo has also produced and directed a yet to be released crime series Under. Her pivot for telling stories also stretches to the documentary medium. Her first, Collateral Damage, calls the public’s attention to the black soot crisis in Port Harcourt, caused by the activities of the oil companies. Her ongoing project, No Victors, is a documentary seeking to tell a balanced story of the Nigeria-Biafra war which has been airbrushed by the Nigerian government and the perpetrators of the evils of the war. Recently, she released part of the documentary that features young Nigerians under the age of 35 from different Nigerian ethnic groups sat in a circle, having frank conversations about the war and its impact on their generation.
Mildred Okwo is another filmmaker of repute featured in Tope Oshin’s Amaka’s Kin: The Women of Nollywood. Her first film, 30 Days was ambitious when it came, not only for its US premiere but for the film’s political thriller genre, action sequences, and a raunchy sex scene. She’d go on to make The Meeting, a modern classic with partner filmmaker Rita Dominic. Her yet to be released La Femme Anjolawas named by culture critic Wilfred Okiche as one of the best African films of the past year. Okwo is also a member of the Nigeria Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC) chaired by Chineze Anyaene whose debut feature film Ijé, shot on celluloid, is viewed as one of the best films from Nigeria and was as Nollywood’s highest-grossing film for a long time, some thanks to the performances of two of Nollywood’s biggest stars Elite: Omotola Jalade Ekeinde and Genevieve Nnaji.
Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart and its Netflix purchase would pave the way for Netflix’s entry into the industry. Presently, an unnamed series is in the works helmed by Akin Omotoso, the director of the Ego Boyo-produced The Ghost and The House of Truth. 12th of June 2020, presented news of Netflix partnership with Mo Abudu’s Ebonylife TV for a slew of films and series including the adaptations of Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman. While this is wonderful news, it comes as no surprise, as Mo Abudu has become a Nollywood powerhouse since she came into the industry with her first feature film production, Fifty. She rules the Nigerian box office, having three of her films (The Wedding Party 1 & 2, and Chief Daddy) as the highest-grossing Nollywood films of all time. She also struck a three-series deal for the production of a series about the Dahomey warriors of Benin with Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures, in 2018.
Nollywood is still a young and growing industry, grappling with issues ranging from lack of financing to the lack of set structures to cater for its creatives, however, the future seems bright. With women now at the forefront of affairs, it’s expected that in addition to seeking commercial success and worldwide recognition, Nollywood would shift its narrative from the patriarchal and misogynistic stories that pervaded its early years, and become a vehicle proselytizing the validity of women upending societal norms and traditions, women like the women of Nollywood.
Dika Ofoma writes because he believes one who eats maize must learn to grow maize. He’s on IG and Twitter as @dikaofoma.