Reimagining the 'blockbuster' for Nigerian cinema: the Nollywood narrative aesthetic of affective spectacle.

Author:Arthur, Tori


My interest in Nollywood, the growing Nigerian film industry, began during my travels around Nigeria in the summers of 2011 and 2012. During my time in Naija, I walked through city street markets and shops in Lagos's Ikeja neighborhood and along Port Harcourt's Aba Express Road, ate in open air cafes and fast food restaurants in and outside Abuja, Calabar, and the University of Uyo, and attended village social gatherings in the Cross River State town of Obudu. (1) Films lined the stalls of street vendors. Men and women sold films on street corners from baskets and boxes strategically balanced on their heads. People crowded around tiny televisions in eateries and village compounds to watch Nollywood features. International satellite television network AfricaTV and its subsidiaries broadcasted movies like Sweet Mama, Who Will Tell the President, and The President Must Not Die throughout each day. In movie theaters in Enugu and Port Harcourt, Nollywood films played alongside Hollywood features. John C. McCall writes, "In market stalls and corner stores across Nigeria ... these market driven movies have become the engine of a distinctively African popular culture." (2) In Naija, Nollywood is everywhere.

Nollywood was not always such a presence in Nigeria. The origins of film in the country date back to British colonial rule when film production and dissemination was government controlled. Chukwuma Okoye points out that colonial film in Nigeria operated as a mechanism for complete colonization of the African and European mind. Okoye states, "Not only were these films methodically chosen to glorify the image of the colonizer, but they also denigrated the humanity of the colonized ... documentaries that deified the Queen of England and demonstrated English etiquette and technological wizardry were made for native consumption. When Africans began to be visually represented on the screens, they were portrayed as undignified and primitive." (3) After Nigeria gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigerian themes and performance styles began to enter films, particularly Yoruba cultural elements such as the Yoruba traveling theater, musical forms like fuji and juju, and plotlines from familiar television dramas. Yet, cinema houses in the nation mainly showed films imported from Europe and America. Ultimately, due to the rise of state funded television broadcast stations which adapted and broadcast popular theater productions for the small screen, the high cost of film production, a government moratorium on foreign film imports, and increasing economic and political instability in the 1980s, cinema patronage sharply decreased. (4)

Over the last twenty years, Nollywood has grown into the second largest film industry in the world behind India's Bollywood and ahead of Hollywood in the United States thanks in large part to the popularity of the dramatic narrative conventions that the industry has perfected. (5) Currently, Nollywood filmmakers are producing movies that can fall into two camps, the inexpensive traditional direct to video cultural melodrama and the emerging theatrical film that retains Nigerian narrative forms while attempting to mirror the technological methods of a big budget feature.

These two prominent types of Nigerian films can be considered Nollywood blockbusters when the term is divorced from the prevailing 'westernized' notion that prescribes blockbuster as a feature produced on a grand scale with a multi-million dollar budget, high production value, well-known actresses and actors, and the latest special effects and digital advances. (6) I argue here that a new definition of blockbuster that privileges storytelling over production gimmicks is necessary in order to carefully and thoroughly analyze the two types of features currently produced in Nigeria.

While Nigerian films do rely upon the star power of popular actresses and actors such as Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Jim Iyke, and Mercy Johnson, the Nollywood blockbuster can be defined by its narrative spectacle, or hyper-dramatic plotlines that reflect the lived conditions and social pathologies that the Nigerian people face. This new definition allows for a more nuanced socio-economic, cultural, historical, and political reading of the fictive dream worlds depicted in Nollywood films and how those dream worlds affectively influence viewers. By analyzing Kenneth Nnebue's 1992 film Living in Bondage and Obi Emelonye's 2012 film Last Flight to Abuja, I interpret and situate the distinct types of Nollywood blockbusters, the affective spectacles within their narratives, and how they reflect Nigerian culture and society at Nollywood's genesis in the early 1990s and in the contemporary moment. Ultimately, these films outline what constitutes a blockbuster in a highly promising and beautiful developing nation still reeling from the effects of British colonialism, political chaos after independence, and continuing economic instability as a result of corruption and World Bank/International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs in the 1980s.

Reimagining Blockbuster

When applied to films, blockbuster becomes a tempestuous word without a tangible definition or set of criteria that can be used to measure whether a film is indeed a blockbuster. Julian Stringer asserts that the word defies a finite meaning because of the ways film has changed over time and space. He states, "As a key word of contemporary culture, 'blockbuster' is something of a moving target--its meaning is never fixed or clear, but changes according to who is speaking and what is being said." (7) Yet, the term has become a common way to describe any expensive special effects and star driven film that almost promises to be a box office hit before its release. A film considered a blockbuster does not have to make large sums of money, though many do rake in millions of dollars through the course of their theater runs. While I agree with Stringer's assessment that a definition for blockbuster can be hard to hit because of its kinetic nature, I argue that popular discourse has provided a list of characteristics that a blockbuster is not, a narrative driven independent feature film with or without well-known actors and produced on a relatively small budget.

Kirsten Moana Thompson argues that many scholars consider blockbusters to be films that include "spectacle, relative length and expense, and the adoption of special technologies and presentational features in the content and exhibition of the film." (8) This is a particularly useful way of thinking about both older and contemporary blockbusters originating in the global North. Thompson's definition allows for the sort of contemplation that includes analysis of the means by which the term's definition has changed with the rise of technology. Additionally, it provides an apt stick that can be used to measure whether films are worthy of blockbuster status. Thompson's assessment also offers a method for examining the limitations of the term and how its meaning is obscured once it leaves its largely western habitat and is applied to films produced in developing nations without access to the same technologies of their more developed cousins. She states that scholars must consider a new defining model that examines the ways global economic factors and cultural influences and/or aesthetics can "encompass national cinemas outside Hollywood." (9) Likewise, Chris Berry argues that the "blockbuster is no longer American owned" and states that scholars must acknowledge that today's blockbusters are international. (10)

What constitutes a blockbuster changes in various parts of the world. Each nation has its own blockbuster defined with that nation's unique cultural milieu. A Korean blockbuster undoubtedly differs from a blockbuster produced in Sierra Leone and a Sierra Leonean blockbuster differs from one produced in Ecuador. Thompson's and Berry's statements are true in the sense that blockbusters have become major cultural products; global film industries do not exist within cultureless vortexes. Socio-cultural factors within and outside a country can influence what is burned onto tape and celluloid and presented to the masses. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contend that the "primary factors of production and exchange--money, technology, people, and goods--move with increasing ease across national boundaries." (11) Thanks to the world's rapidly expanding media-sphere, ideas also move with ease and can have a strong impact on the ways a specific nation's cultural products are produced. Cultural products are not accidental or uncontrived. Nigerian cultural products, particularly those produced in its film industry, are no exception.

If the more 'westernized' definition of blockbuster was used to measure typical Nollywood features, virtually no Nigerian films would be considered blockbusters. Most Nollywood features, especially those produced during the early days of the industry, would be considered narrative driven independent films produced on small budgets. A new definition is needed for Nigerian cinema, a definition that challenges the western privilege inherently embedded in the common meaning. Thus, I offer a definition...

To continue reading