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Nollywood: storytelling for the simple minded African

Living in bondage, the film credited for being the catalyst of modern day Nollywood, was released more than a quarter century ago. I remember seeing the movie back then and saying to myself that one day Nigerian movies will rival that of America.  And no I am not talking about big budget movies. I am talking about story, characters, impact.

The 1956 classic twelve angry men, a must watch for every student of film, was a movie that took place in no more than two or three sets, and relied almost entirely on good actors and a strong engaging script. One thing we must understand is that the art form goes far beyond the writer’s room. In order to make good film, one must be a student of life itself.

Two of my favorite movies of all time are the godfather and Jerry Maguire. The godfather because of the authenticity of the world it presented, and the complexity of its protagonist, and Jerry Maguire, because of its relatability and sincerity. These movies were particularly well made because the film makers took it upon themselves to be students of life.  Michael Corleone was a man that wanted to live up to his father’s legacy and expectation, only his vindictive inclinations weighed him down so much that he went as far as killing his own brother, his father’s son. Jerry Maguire allowed his idealism get to his head and was fired from a top sports agency because of it. He started his own business prematurely, only to expose his own hypocrisy when faced with real life problems.

Being a student of life is the only way you can garner the perspective needed to create a compelling story. It is that perspective that informs us that the rich don’t always buy big cars and live in fancy houses, gold diggers are not always vain and shallow, criminals don’t always wear dark shades, and wicked women don’t always twist up their faces. It is that perspective that forces us to shy away from one dimensional characters, which perhaps is my biggest issue with Nollywood. No amount of good acting, good lighting, or good camera work can compensate for one dimensional characters. Or as I like to call them, Nollywood tropes. Nod if this sounds familiar; The comical security man. The abusive mother-in-law. The dibia that made shit happen. The pastor that un-happened the dibia’s shit.

Virtually all Nollywood movies are plot focused, whereby the story drives the actions of the characters, instead of the characters driving the action of the story. Characters lack complexity… a certain moral ambiguity consistent with the real world.   So why is this the status quo?

Well, the real reason why our stories are… simple (for lack of a better term), is because writers believe that we the audience are simple minded (for lack of a better term). They believe that if they put their best foot forward, the majority of Nigerians might not get it. Heck, their producers will not greenlight it. Comedy must be slapstick, tragedy must be sorrowful, and you can’t have a family drama if wealth isn’t involved. After all, majority of Nigerians are wealthy, right?

Now Take a look at the Nigerian music industry. In the last 20 odd years, the Nigerian music industry has gone through its own embarrassing past. Just take time out and look through the type of music videos we put out in the early days. Take time out and listen to the music we sang along to… why would anybody want you to pour another person’s wine. Like seriously, who walks up to someone and asks them to pour their wine. Is it your wine? Did you buy it? But unlike Nollywood, the music industry grew out of its adolescents and boy did it grow well. Now the likes of Wizkid and Davido can rival any pop artist anywhere in the world. Music artists are setting trends, and for the first time in five generations, western music is secondary music in Nigeria. This was only possible because Nigerian artist started taking their craft more seriously. And it showed. It showed in the lyrics of Asa’s Fire on the mountain, in 9ce’s street credibility, and of course in Tuface’s African queen. Now the number of good music coming from the region are too many to mention

As artist we must challenge ourselves and push the boundaries of the art form. We must be fine with the world not getting our vision, and be willing to take bold steps that might go unnoticed.

Thankfully some filmmakers are listening, and setting the trends for the next wave of film to come out of Nigeria. Living in bondage: breaking free is one such film. With believable performances from the likes of Shawn Faqua and Munachi Abii, and brilliant directing and cinematography, I couldn’t help but be fully engrossed in the film. Its pace, its aptness.  It’s not perfect, and it does have its share of Nollywood tropes. But I will be remiss to expect perfection from anything.

It’s all very ironic if you think about it, that much like its predecessor, living in bondage is the movie to break us free.

Obinna is a writer, analyst and businessman. His debut novel, the Sky Sage, will be available in stores soon.


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