Nollywood. The third largest in the world, Nigeria’s film industry churns out more than 1000 films annually and is worth over $250 million. The first of its kind in Africa, Nollywood, which officially came into existence in 1992, not only represents a shift in the producer/receiver exchange between the West and the developing world, but also has become an object of debate within a post-colonial discourse.
The first films to be made in Africa by Africans, with the work of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène did not emerge until the 1960s. The productions were defined as “art house” and were more concerned with articulating the post-colonial African experience than creating narrative and obtaining wide distribution. As a result, hardly anyone, especially not Africans themselves, saw these first attempts at creating a pan-African identity through film.

If its possible to use such a term as “African film”, which homogenises the output of this huge and extraordinarily diverse continent, Nollywood comes closest in terms of dissemination and distribution. The films produced by the Nollywood industry delve into the genres of soap opera and horror – commenting on the urban experience that is confronted head-on with the traditional – and are produced and sold, straight to DVD, around the world.

South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nollywood’s actors are not a behind the scenes glance, as such, but could even be described as stills, as the actors are on set, in costume and in character. The characters intensely stare into the camera, their stillness almost rendering them soulless, mannequin-like.

A Nigerian fascination with juju and ritual, the mystical and the grotesque – is reflected in the thousands of low budget films produced here and the monsters and demons created – not to mention the gore or the sinister props. A topless woman sits on a bed, a long knife through her chest. A red-eyed vampire sits with a fresh victim in his lap, fangs dripping blood. And yet the most frightening scenes are more obscure: three young boys in a field, their bodies painted white, eyes and mouths ringed with black. A woman sits at a window, dead or possessed, coins over her eyes.

The nature of Nollywood filmmaking, hinted at by Hugo’s images is one of low-budgets, on location, use of non-actors. The “sets” that are the backdrop to the photographs are not constructs but real streets, houses, dumpsters. The varying quality of the props and costumes attest to the improvised nature of the industry.

The three pieces of writing that open the book, by Nigerian author Chris Abani, Stacy Hardy and Zina Saro-Wiwa, contextualise the Nollywood industry through, respectively, the use of storyboard jumping between past and present, a more factual essay and creative prose invoking childhood memories and fear as encountered in Hugo’s photographs. These various, eclectic styles and the accompanying design of the text, on its own paper stock, solidify the work.

The surprising portrait of a white man in mask is a jolt towards the end of the book. The thumbnails with captions in the back tell us that this is a self-portrait, Hugo has inserted himself into the Nollywood machine, standing, naked down to his underwear in a field of rubbish, wearing a balaclava, gloves and brandishing a weapon. What at first seems like a humorous, lighthearted inclusion, in fact hints at something more telling, the always inevitable presence of the coloniser.

It would be easy to trivialise this project by saying that it’s a positive take on Africa and therefore worthwhile. What it is, simply, is Nigeria, a country attempting to regain control of its image and industry, creating entertainment that has been determined by what people like and want, signifying a step towards counterbalancing the one-way movement in media dissemination.

Lauren Heinz