NOLLYWOOD Decolonisation of Nigerian film industry

'The Nigerian video phenomenon is one of the truly successful strategies in the postcolonial agenda of constructing a sovereign framework in spite of the cultural and economic imposition of the West’ (Okoye 2007). The video-film trend in the Nigerian film industry can be seen as part of an ongoing decolonisation process. The industry has adopted a model which bears no relation whatever to the colonial filmmaking structure that was handed down. Rather, its success could be said to arise from its very ability to overcome the strictures of the inherited approach to filmmaking. (Obiaya 2011)

The History of Cinema in Nigeria

Cinema was introduced in Nigeria in the colonial period, as the British organized the first public showing of film on the streets in Lagos in 1903. The films promoted the colonial project and maintained negative stereotypical images of the “intellectual capabilities of the African.” The films were mainly used for educational and developmental purposes and limited in quantity. With the advent of the Second World War (WWII), the production of films for the colonies was expanded. The Colonial Film Unit (CFU) was established to create propaganda material to support the war effort. In addition, it was decided that some ‘instructional’ videos were to be made, promoting health and socioeconomic development. Many of these films can be accessed online through the British colonial film archive.

examples of films produced by the colonial film unit

One example of the videos produced to support of the war efforts, 'Africa Fighting Men' (1943), produced by the Colonial Film Unit.

An example of the so called instructional films, Day Break in Udi (1949) which promoted health and wellbeing in rural villages.

As WWII ended, independence was looming and the British officials wanted to stay on friendly terms with its former colonial subjects. As a result, the CFU became the Federal Film Unit (FFU) in the 1950s, incorporating and educating Nigerians in the unit, albeit only in junior positions. Even though the incorporation and education of Nigerians in the FFU was a step forward, the FFU largely followed the CFU in terms of the themes presented in film as well as the patronizing stance towards Nigerians and Africans in general. Certain cinematic techniques such as, dolly shots, montages, mixes and wipes were deemed too sophisticated for Africans. At the same time, the patronizing stance by the British towards Africans was increasingly contested. Despite the changing attitudes and incorporation of Nigerians in the FFU, the true problem was the control over the cinema technology and institutions. After independence the Americans came to Anglophone West-Africa and reigned supreme over the cinema market.

The American Motion Picture Export Company (AMPEC) technically had a monopoly on the West-African market.The American company led by market incentives, preferred cheap, foreign movies over Nigerian ones. This led to the exclusion of Nigerian filmmakers, as imported films were significantly cheaper, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 the Indigenization Decree became effective, which was meant to “correct the imbalance in the ownership and control of companies operating in Nigeria.” With this decree, the Nigerian government de jure  gained the exclusive monopoly over the distribution and exhibition of films. However, de facto the Nigerian government was not enforcing the decree, as foreign companies continued to control the cinema technology and institutions. Nigerian filmmakers also faced other challenges, as the Nigerian government was not supportive of filmmaking. They had a negative conception of cinema, as filmmaking was seen as ‘low art’ and ‘an industrial artform’. Thus Nigerian filmmakers were faced with an unsupportive government, funding difficulties and a lack of trained personnel as well as inaccessible distribution and promotion channels.

Despite the odds, indigenous filmmaking started in the 1980s, but remained relatively unknown as most of them were not distributed commercially. Some of the early pioneers are Sanya Dosunmu, Ola Balogun and Segun Olusola. The eve of the neoliberal era in the early 1980s caused severe economic hardship in Nigeria and subsequently led to the decline of celluloid movie production.

The Birth of Nollywod

The decline of celluloid move production and the simultaneous progresses in digital film technology paved the way for the birth of Nollywood. With the digitalization of cinematography the Nigerian film industry was able to experience an enormous success. Filmmakers switched from celluloid film to video film, marking the end of the dependence of foreign resources and structures for celluloid filmmaking. In addition, it solved the difficulties which the industry had always faced. The cheap new way of filmmaking circumvented the inaccessible distribution and production infrastructures, instead making use of informal distribution channels as well as the sponsoring of local business (wo)men. Within short period of time numerous Nigerians produced their own video films and distributed them through the sale of VHS and DVDs in the informal economy. The comparably accessible and affordable costs of production increased the proximity to daily life and popular imagination. For the first time Nigerian cinema, was for the people, by the people and about the people as well as sustained by the people.

The movie Living in Bondage, produced in 1992, is perceived as the beginning point of the Nollywood era. Initially shot only in Igbo, later English subtitles were added to the film, clearly contributing to its enourmous nationwide success. While there have been other productions prior to Living in Bondage, it is regarded as the pioneer of Nollywood films "because it was the first to be packaged in a full-colour printed jacket and wrapped in cellophane, like an imported American or Indian film" (Haynes 2007, 137).

In a broader sense, before the eruption of Nollywood, both the Nigerian and the African audiovisual landscape were dominated by foreign films, mainly Hollywood (Westerns and actions films), Bollywood (musicals) and Asian (martial arts) films.(Marais & Feinauer 2017, 134-135)


Interestingly, the name Nollywood was first used in an article written by Norimitsu Onishi and published in the New York Times in 2002. Onishi's wordplay derived from a statement made by the Nigerian actress Emeka Ani:

"This is Hollywood in Nigeria"

The plots of Nolywood productions vary a lot, as the industry has developed a number of genres over the years. Nevertheless, love, conspiracy, class and culture, religion, the supernatural and spiritual are reoccurring, popular themes. Moreover, Nollywood movies often tend to have a moralizing mission, teaching the audience lessons about ethical life.

The Nollywood industry is characterised by multilingualism. Nollywood movies are produced in various languages, but for the most part in either one of the three major languages in Nigeria (Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa) or Nigeria's official langugage English. According to a survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics around 56% of the movies are produced in indigenous languages - 31% in Yoruba, 24% in Hausa and 1% in Igbo - whereas the remaining 44% are produced in English. In the recent years, with the increasing transnational popularity and success of Nollywood, there has been a trend towards favouring English productions, as it allows to reach larger audiences. However, from its onset, Nollywood has been able to navigate its multilingual composition by making use of subtitles. Further, even if a movie is mainly produced in English, code-switching between English, Pidgin and indigenous languages is very common. The multilingual code-switching mirrors the linguistic reality of Nigerian society.

An example of multilingual composition of Nollywood prodcutions: trailer of "Phone Swap" (2012) - shot in English, Pidgin, Igbo, Yoruba and Twi

"The medium is the message" (McLuhan 1964)

Although the broad range of Nollywood productions do not specifically dedicate themselves to the theme of decolonisation, the medium of Nollywood video-films itself bears great decolonising potential. Drawing on McLuhan's (1964) famous phrase "the medium is the message" it can be argued that the content of Nollywood movies, which comprise a wide range of sub-genres and themes, does not have to be explicitly related to the theme of decolonisation to contribute to the process. McLuhan argues that while the actual content is often rather irrelevant or secondary in conveying a message, the medium itself is significant in communicating that message, as the medium itself has social effects. McLuhan suggests that the message is "the change of scale or pace or pattern" that a new technology or medium "introduces into human affairs". Nollywood with its grass-root form of production enables almost anyone to produce his or her own video film and therefore lots of single stories to be told. Nollywood's decolonising potential therefore lies in its technological format; the fact that it allows for the emergence of a film industry by Africans for Africans in a fairly accessible and democratic way.

"Nollywood reveals a conglomerate of identities,(...) which are no longer 'the Other' and which now a voice of their own." - (Marais & Feinauer 2017, 149)
"not that Nollywood provides a coherent philosophy or world-view that might be called ‘pan-African’, but that Nollywood is a primary catalyst in an emergent continent-wide popular discourse about what it means to be African. Despite criticism from both elite and non-elite quarters, Nollywood has a rapidly growing audience in Africa and as a result it is beginning to generate continent-wide discourse about the problem of representing African life and its diverse cultures. While it may not be the monolithic ideology that pan-Africanists envisioned, this discourse is truly pan-African because it engages the common villager as well as the socially privileged." (MCcall 2007, 94)

Criticisms and limits of Nollywood

Why is it important to look at limitations and downfalls of Nollywood? Does that undermine the decolonisation potential?

The critics of nollywood perceive their task as one to correct the erroneous and banal way that nollywod films represent nigeria to its own public, to africa, and the rest of the world. (Okome 2010, p.28)

Example: Ademola James, former head of the National Film and Video Censors Board (2001):

[...] the themes common to most of the presentations cover greed/avarice, perfidy, treach- ery, occultism, love and hate. Story lines invariably revolve around infertility or child- lessness, the problems of polygamy, child abandonment or desertion, legacy or inheritance issues, prostitution, sibling rivalry, philandering, wife or husband snatch- ing, problem of inlaws, househelps, bonding and oath-taking. Sensitive cultural issues such as the Osu System, incest, witchcraft and fetishism are also delved into number of the English language productions have handled stories related to crime, drugs, health and fraud based on happenings in recent times. However, the major issues of our time such as joblessness, problems of the legal system, justice, equity, freedom, politics, social problems in education, medical services, housing, food, drug addiction and trafficking are still begging for serious screen treatment.

Yet, those themes are not necessarily as negative and useless as some picture them to be:


This quote illustrates Karin Barber's point that what may seem naive and meaningless in fact may just seem so on the surface, whilst at the same time being able to encapsulate the essence of our lives and what matters to us. Indeed, it is even applaudable that Nollywood is often able to capture all these emotions and share the with the viewers in a way that remains entertaining and relatable.

However, despite Barber's argument, some critics go beyond simply attacking those seemingly 'naive' depictions and themes within Nollywood films, and instead call out patriarchal representations featuring too heavily in Nollywood films, thus constructing a damaging feature of this film industry. Ogunbiyi (2010) exemplifies this by explaining that women in a majority of Nollywood films are represented in situations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that are not realistic. Although true, trends are showing a move away from this. Both social media, such as VICE, and academic literature are praising how women are increasingly at the forefront of Nollywood - in front as well behind the camera. Further, here we draw back to McLuhan's point that the 'medium is the message', and that perhaps the themes addressed don't matter so much for the decolonisation aspect. For McCall, the fact that Nollywood films reach all social classes and that critics will still watch all the films (in order to engage in debate about them) is enough to prove its success.

In fact, perhaps all the criticism surrounding limitations and negative aspects of Nollywood actually contributes to further increasing the decolonisation potential of it. Having such discussions helps pin down what we really mean by 'decolonisation' and, more importantly, how it might take a different shape depending on the individual. For some, it might be exactly the freedom to portray patriarchal depictions that is a form of decolonisation This should be seen this way particularly if we view decolonisation to be 'democratisation of access and means of production'. Further, if the medium is truly the message, then the content that might be seen as problematic by some is of a lessened importance anyway.

The recent debate on "Lionheart"

This is a recent example of developments in the media that engages an important discussion around language and decolonisation. Does the mere fact of using English decrease the decolonisation potential? We believe that this example helps to illustrate the limit of McLuhan's theory, because even though the medium is the most influential, there is a point at which the content matters too. As we have seen, the medium indeed does contribute to the decolonisation of the mind and does so in an important way in the case of the Nollywood in a way that is deeply entrenched in history. However, at the end of the day Nollywood remains a film industry and there is limits to the extent to which it can decolonise the mind on its own - perhaps because it does not reach those whose minds needs to actually be decolonised (in this case the Oscar committee). Whilst Nollywood is further continuing to gain popularity and spreading through a globalised world we can hope that maybe it will eventually reach them. Yet, relying on this alone is not enough and it is imperative that we continue targeted and concerted efforts in various spheres of life in order to decolonsie the mind. And although this illustrates the limits of the effects of Nollywood we do not believe that this is negative because in fact it does show that Nollywood has decolonising potential in the first place.


Although the African continent has formally been decolonised, decolonisation remains to be an important issue outside of the mere political sphere. Authors like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Achille Mbembe discuss the subject with regards to decolonising the mind (wa Thiong'o 1986), with an emphasis on languages as well as the decolonisation of knowledge (Mbembe 2016) with regards to educational institutions. What follows from Mbembes argument is that decolonisation is unserepable from the "democratization of access". The development of the Nigerian film industry from the colonial era up until today's enourmous success of the uprising Nollywood industry can be understood as a democratisation of means of production and therefore of access. What is special about the case of the Nollywood industry is its medium - the videofilm. The change in medium has led to the birth of this flourishing industry. Despite the content of the vast amount of Nollywood films not having a distinct decolonial agenda, the new form of film production and its opportunities, inherit decolonising potential especially due to its distinctive accessibility. Looking at Nollywood through the lens of Marshall McLuhan's (1964) well-known expression "the medium is the message" allows us to look beyond the textual meaning and to understand social changes brought about through the introduction of new technology.