Women Are Driving the New Wave of Film in Nigeria
Adébólá Ráyò remembers growing up with Nollywood films, and how women are behind its most exciting changes.
Photograph by Ruth Assai for GARAGE Magazine.
Often, my memory brings up a scene from my childhood: It is the mid-nineties. I am sitting in the living room of my parents’ house with my siblings and some of the neighbors’ kids. We have just finished watching a movie, and one of us is trying to coax the videocassette out of the cassette player so that we can watch another. While waiting for the next film, we would talk about other movies and actors. We were mostly girls, so the conversation would turn to who looked like, or adored, which female actor. There is a scene in Chika Onukwufor’s Glamour Girls (1994) in which Barbara Odoh, as Helen, is wearing a glittering green off-the-shoulder dress. Her hair is styled perfectly, her edges laid, as she holds a roll of film with which she plans to blackmail a governorship candidate. She looks gorgeous; it is clear she is not to be messed with. That is how I remember a number of the female actors from the Nollywood movies in those years.
Some point to Chris Obi Rapu’s Living in Bondage (1992), with its unprecedented sale of more than a half million copies, as the beginning of Nollywood; others insist the Nigerian film industry had been around decades before. And even more are split on what constitutes “Nollywood.” Everyone agrees, though, that it was in the ’90s that Nigeria’s movie industry gained the reputation that has made it into the second largest in the world. Its films were often low-budget and straight-to-VHS—characteristics that brought them more quickly into Nigerians’ homes and hearts, with its production value evolving into its own signature aesthetic of lo-fi glamour.
Yet as beautiful as the women looked and as skillful as their acting was, their story lines were often unfavorable. Women were either long-suffering and much-oppressed—in Living in Bondage, the heroine’s husband sacrifices her life to Satan in exchange for the wealth he dreams of—or calculating operators whose only goals were to get rich and get husbands, like the Glamour Girls antiheroine I adored. It is not hard to see why: Besides outliers like Amaka Igwe, whose 1996 romance about class prejudice, Violated, was one of the most popular movies of that year, most of the movie directors and writers were men.
But over the last decade, a new group of filmmakers, the “New Nollywood,” has emerged—many of whom are women. These filmmakers make movies with bigger budgets and better narratives; release their films in cinemas rather than on DVD; and sometimes screen their films at international film festivals. It is now impossible to talk about Nollywood directors without mentioning Kemi Adetiba, whose first feature film, The Wedding Party, became Nigeria’s highest-grossing movie in 2016; Mildred Okwo, whose 2012 political satire, The Meeting, premiered with a speech from then-president Goodluck Jonathan; or Tope Oshin Ogun, the director, producer, and casting director helping to define the mold of female mogul. It was Igwe’s doggedness—and sometimes personal guidance—that paved the way for them to build their careers as directors in an industry that was once saturated by men.
There is still a way to go in representing female characters, but the films coming out of Nollywood are only getting more complex, with more human characters, and women are the ones writing, directing, and portraying change.