The Westernisation of Nollywood — The loss of the family film and a unique identity?

One could say that the growth of African cinema can be owed to the prominent Nollywood. The continuous stream of stories dedicated to exploring the polygamy, witchcraft and barrenness in Nigeria. Not to mention the rise of megastars like Genevieve Nnaji, Funke Akindele-Bello, Mercy Johnson, Jim Iyke, Ramsay Noah and of course Osita Iheme.

These films would make the olders cry, the youngers roll their eyes and make others watch on in mild confusion. Yet, they were usually a family favourite. No matter your view on Nollywood, it wouldn’t be abnormal to find yourself totally engrossed in the theatrics.

But with all things, they must progress. They had to get with the times. And Nollywood, the second largest film producer in the world behind India’s Bollywood and ahead of America’s Hollywood, had to keep moving forward.

Nollywood, once only available to buy or rent with suspiciously familiar titles like Hunger Game or Spider Girl, and my favourite Desperate House-girls, is now extremely easy to watch. You can simply search a title on YouTube or popular Nollywood platforms like IrokoTV, and SceneOne Productions to find the latest films. One can get immersed in modern TV series like Lagos Husbands and Single Ladies. A far cry away from the grainy Super Story series that many of our parents as well as us, remember from our childhoods. Not to mention the big blockbusters such as The Wedding Party that had a huge budget of 60 million Naira and making over 450 million in revenue, becoming the biggest grossing film of its genre. So, it seems that Nollywood is catching up really fast to the world’s movie industries. Better production, distribution as well as budgets.

But, there is also one other way it seems they have done this, and that’s through the addition of sex scenes.

Nollywood in the past, that made it distinctly different from Hollywood (although similar to Bollywood), was the lack of sex scenes. One would be hard-pressed to find a film that featured erotic scenes that lasted more than a few seconds. At most, there would be a general nod towards anything sexual and the concentration would be purely on the dramatic reveals or the religious credit; ‘To God Be The Glory’ at the end of every film.

Quite frankly, sex had no real place in Nollywood. There wasn’t any time for that when there were bigger plots to unravel — did the aunt poison her nephew? Or did the daughter actually turn the mistress mad? These are the things that gripped Nollywood lovers, the things that also gripped the nation familiar with these notions.

Until it changed.

Nollywood writers and actors are mirroring their Western counterparts with more scenes that are raunchy and highly sexual. Recently, a sex scene starring big-time actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde in her new film ‘Alter Ego’, caused some controversy due to the raw erotic-ness of it all. However, Omotola advocates for the return of on-screen chemistry and romance which has been notoriously downplayed in Nigerian cinema.

It could be said, this is due to the culture in Nigeria, which although can be sexual, tends to reject this for a subverted and supposedly conservative society. Dressing provocatively is normally reserved for the outliers and prostitutes, and flagrant displays of affection are unusual. But really, sex plays a big part in Nigeria — just look at the percentage of youths that make up the country. The United Nations Children’ Fund (UNICEF) says approximately 20,210 babies were born in Nigeria on New Year’s Day 2018. By 2050 Nigeria will have twice the population it has now, more than half will live in cities and about 60% of them will be under 25.

So, for a country that acts like sex is an abomination, they sure do like to get down a lot. It’s clear sex is happening a lot and often. And while one may argue what’s the big deal with more sex scenes, sex is a part of everyday life and always will be — it highlights the adaptation of the western movie culture (where sex scenes are very normal), and a departure from the norms that made Nollywood so unique.
And I think this a damn shame.

I loved Nigerian films, simply as a way to connect with my culture that I often felt so far removed from. Sure, there wasn’t polygamy or a wicked stepmother in my life, But it was the main way I learnt about some of the things back home. A way that stopped me from feeling so British and more Nigerian. The chasm between where I come from and where I lived, was closed by watching them every week. I could pick up slang, learn more of my native tongue or find a nice style I wanted to sew in Nigerian material. Yes, I may have laughed, even mocked their lack of movie- production expertise, as it was often low-quality and very juvenile. But subconsciously, I suppose, I was cementing my two simultaneous identities that made up the deepest parts of me.

And don’t get me wrong. I want Nollywood to thrive and grow. So many of my current favourite TV shows are of the genre and I look forward to watching them on Nigerian owned and led platforms. It’s truly an exciting era to be to in, watching young people like myself take control of the industry and make it into something accessible and enjoyable for many. I mean, who wouldn’t struggle to relate to the love trials and tribulations of Tiwalade in Skinny Girl In Transit on Ndani TV. A series that illustrates that talent of emerging Nigerian writers and actors.

But I feel, its Westernisation is killing the industry. It’s not just the sex. Slowly, storylines are becoming overly obsessed with showing how modern it is, with reality TV shows like Oyinbo Wives of Lagos which depict lifestyles that are so far removed from its core audiences. And so Nollywood, in my eyes, has lost part of its magical essence trying to ‘fit’ in. The characters that illustrate old Nollywood, i.e the villagers, the traditionalists, and the hard workers struggling to make it in a warped and uneven country, tend to be the ones being mocked in films by the more contemporary, ‘civilised’ characters.

And this shouldn’t be. It was built on narratives that would always be deemed too ‘foreign’, but gave it, its star status today. Now, in an attempt to make these narratives so commercial we’re losing ourselves.

Becoming a bright and shiny version of a country that has deep, deep problems.

Ultimately, I hope Nollywood finds its way back to its original charm and doesn’t lose its unique identity in the midst of becoming more Western.