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A Comedy of Errors

How Nollywood is giving Nigerians a reason to laugh, while the country crumbles…

Between January and June 2019, Nigerians spent 3 billion naira (about $8.4 million) at the movies. According to the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria, the films competing for the top three spots have ranged from global blockbusters to locally produced movies. At a cursory glance, the Nigerian box office rankings indicate variety in cinema preferences, with the top 10 going to Hollywood and Bollywood, both blockbusters and genre films. Essentially, the rankings suggest that Nigerians will watch any and many a thing. The country is, after all, home to Nollywood, the third largest film industry on the planet.

On closer inspection, however, the best-selling Nollywood films say something different about the Nigerian filmgoer. Take for example the top three Nollywood releases between July 19 and 25, 2019. Ranking at the top of the list is The Bling Lagosians, a comedy about a wealthy Lagos  family and the drama that ensues from the preparations for its matriarch’s 50th birthday. It was advertised with the tagline “the 1% of the 1%.” In second place is the comedy Rant Queens, a feisty drama about the escalating social media war between a meddling mother and her controversial blogger daughter fueled by their desire to reach more audiences. In third place is Mokalik, a comedy-drama about an 11-year-old who spends a day apprenticing and observing the lives of the less privileged. Although the plot points differ greatly, the top three films all fall into the major categories of light comedy or romance. In the same vein, the top eight most financially successful Nollywood releases of all time have all been light comedies.

This genre dominance raises questions about the variance between the Nigerian audience’s expectations and preferences for local films compared to what it seeks out of international releases. Some prominent filmmakers like Dare Olaitan, whose debut Ojukokoro heralded comparisons with Tarantino,  think of it as a matter of  escapism—Nigerians go to watch light comedies about other Nigerians in the cinema “to lose themselves from the Nigerian experience.” Others, like the director Imoh Umoren, whose filmography shares similarities with Spike Lee’s, think directors are matched against a local film industry that gives preferential treatment to light comedies with no substance at the cost of more interesting films. 

In his panel at the 2016 edition of Lagos Social Media Week, director Niyi Akinmolayan quipped that the surest formula for box office success is making a comedy with famous names. Before directing light comedies, Akinmolayan had amassed credits for a range of films ranging from drama to science fiction, none of which did as well as his mainstream material. His later films Chief Daddy (2018) and The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai (2017) would go on to become two of the most successful Nigerian films of all time. Their storylines, much like many of the rest of the films on the most-successful lists, tell the stories of upwardly mobile middle-class Nigerians, while also recycling simplified comedy tropes performed by a bevy of famous faces. “I think we are divided between the elitists who only watch foreign movies and spend time comparing Marvel movies to DC movies, and others who can’t tell the difference between a good Nollywood film and an overhyped one,” Umoren says. “So convincing both to see the same movie is a task.”

For Muyiwa Awojide, comedies simply do better at the box office because Nigerians don’t trust Nollywood as much as they trust Hollywood with their money. Awojide is known all over Nigeria for building “Sodas and Popcorn,” one of the country’s biggest online communities for cinema and entertainment, and also for his work as a marketing expert for some of the country’s biggest brands. The way he sees it, Nigerian audiences would rather risk paying to see a local romance or comedy than any other kind, because “they are the genres least likely to disappoint.”

While art may imitate life in some places, this does not ring true for popular Nigerian films. Nigeria is a harsh country. At least 98 million Nigerians live in multidimensional poverty, which according to the UNDP is a measure of how much Nigerians lack access to everything from basic health and education to physical and environmental safety. The current Nigerian president is Muhammadu Buhari, the former military head of state who took power via a coup and reigned from 1983-1985, returning as a democratically elected president in 2015. The country’s economic freedom index hovers below the world average. As of 2017, it ranked 157 out of 189 on the U.N. human development index, despite being Africa’s largest oil producer and the 13th largest oil producer globally. Rather unusually, there is no definitive record of the country’s total population, though we know it is around the 7th largest in the world. Nigeria is also a place where incidences of publicly-sanctioned misogyny abound, as when a senator physically assaulted a pregnant woman while the police stayed mute, or when Christian religious leaders publicly supported alleged sexual abusers, or when women were arrested and assaulted for daring to go clubbing. Under such circumstances, the Nigerian audience’s search for escapism is understandable.

Nollywood has managed to build itself into a powerful industry and is a source of pride among Nigerians, despite the complicated social dynamics animating the country. Yet it’s also fallen prey to the conditions that fuel viewers’ hunger for stories which bypass painful and relatable realities. The viewers want what the viewers want, and so Nollywood satiates them with films featuring storylines and protagonists from a tiny, wealthy demographic, instead of films that explore on-the-ground conditions. In return, Nigerian viewers reward the industry by buying enough tickets to propel the light comedies to the top of the charts. This dissonance is by no means new. It echoes the 1978 song “Suffering and Smiling,” penned by the late Fela Kuti to describe the contradiction between rich religious leaders and their poverty-ridden followers that never seemed to change. Suffering and smiling has come to define a certain Nigerian outlook that makes light of every painful experience.

It is a given that cheap comedy is unconcerned with whether it resonates with the experiences of most Nigerians, but how far-fetched must a scenario be before the viewer can no longer suspend disbelief? In Nollywood, the answer is pretty far. Take the phenomenon of traffic and electricity blackouts. Lagos has been categorized as the third most stressful city in the world to live, with some traffic jams lasting longer than international flights. For decades, Nigeria has not had a stable supply of electricity; constant power is available only to a select few. Yet these conditions seldom appear in Nigerian films. Take the country’s most popular web series, “Skinny Girl in Transit.” The camera follows Tiwa, an on-air personality who breaks the fourth wall to share her thoughts as she navigates life. The script regurgitates tired tropes like the dramatic African mother, the beautiful airheaded sibling, and a bevy of attractive and successful suitors. Though the series is universally beloved, it has much more in common with the tiny minority of upper middle-class Nigerians than the 98 million poor who are invisible to them. No one in “Skinny Girl in Transit” wonders when the next power outage is coming.  

Illustration by Olusola Akinseye

One of the show’s  director and co-writers, Bunmi Ajakaiye, wants to keep it that way. She believes describing reality should not rest on her shoulders. Rather, filmmakers should be satisfying the Nigerian audience’s cravings. “Nollywood is doing exactly what it should be doing: focusing on supersizing spectacle on the scale that Hollywood has achieved.” she says. What Ajakaiye does is in stark contrast to Umoren, whose upcoming film is a black comedy. The Coffin Salesman revolves around (as you might suspect) a coffin salesman, whose business falls on hard times due to a reduction in deaths. In the midst of this misfortune, the salesman’s wife leaves him, and his daughter decides that she’s now a superhero. The trailer suggests that the film will balance dark humor with familiar Nigerian realities. By Nollywood standards, Umoren’s feature falls outside the mainstream, but it fits the growth of emerging and experienced filmmakers who see filmmaking as an opportunity to expand the lens through which Nigerians, and even Nollywood itself, are perceived. Too often, films like Umoren’s will receive significant success and praise at foreign festival screenings, only to face little recognition at home where they seem atypical against the light comedies about the well-off. Yet these same films are far more representative of actual Nigerian experiences. They are also of better quality, with more investment placed on the artistic aspect of the cinematography. The Coffin Salesman should be given a chance to succeed. Umoren remains pessimistic. “People say they want certain [higher-quality] films,” he says. “People make those films, but the film tanks and all these other mediocre films are still raking in box office numbers.”

Some of the more artistic movies’ failure to gain traction can be attributed to how the industry allocates its resources. Smaller movies that do subtle and subversive work are routinely given less favorable screening times compared to cheap comedies. Many of the top grossing comedies are also the most widely marketed. For Umoren, Olaitan, and the many young directors whose brilliant features never quite reach the box office top, the heavy costs of marketing and distribution can be hugely impactful. In Nigeria, most major studio films are produced on an indie budget in the range of $25,000-$70,000 U.S. dollars. This would make filmmaking highly unfeasible in most markets, but Nigerian directors still manage to create. The key difference is that many of the top Nollywood movies are bolstered by strong marketing campaigns. The fact that comedies are much easier to sell than original films only tilts the investment more heavily in their favor.

The success of substance-free films in Nigeria recalls the quote by the Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan who once said: “More than an actor, I am a performer…I’m a great believer—honestly so, shamelessly so, vulgarly so—that cinema is for entertainment. If you want to send messages, there’s the postal service.” If all Nigerians want to do is to be entertained, then by all metrics, popular films have fulfilled their duty and will continue doing so at a profit, without the slightest concern that the result may be pigeonholing an entire industry and culture. But what a waste this would be, when comedy can elicit so much more than laughter. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Elnathan John’s Becoming Nigerian are regions and decades apart, but serve the same brilliant satirical value. A universe exists in which Nigerian film soars to the same heights.

As the country faces looming challenges and poor governance, Nollywood has morphed into an industry of comfort where the audience can pay for a ticket in exchange for forgetting their troubles. Despite the overrepresentation of shallow humor and the upwardly-mobile among the bestsellers that have recently dominated Nigeria’s box office, more stories are increasingly being told, and in clever ways to boot. The trouble is that they are largely being ignored. Perhaps it is that foreign audiences at film festivals have the luxury of viewing stories of distress and pain, knowing they will go home to their fundamentally more privileged lives. Nollywood certainly isn’t the only large industry to prioritize comfort over artistic integrity when making and promoting movies. There are plenty of fingers to point at plenty of different countries’ film studios. Nollywood is also considerably smaller, which means the opportunities for independent filmmakers exist on a much slimmer margin. Yet there is some complicity from the Nigerian audience, which has proven itself willing to watch a larger variety of foreign movies but won’t apply the same appetite for risk to Nollywood. Or maybe the fault lies with an industry that could, but will not, throw its weight behind films that can both entertain and present a strong purpose and artistic utility, which can make people laugh but also see and think. Either way, the continued prevalence of the status quo forces us to ask how much longer this intellectually castrated version of the Nigerian film industry can go on. Will we eventually pause the laughter marathon to embrace a Nollywood that can make us laugh and reflect, or are we doomed to continue suffering while smiling?

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