*This also appeared in the Language Compass published by the National Language Service Corps.
I saw the filming of a “Nollywood”, or Nigeria’s highly profitable film industry, movie for the first time a week after moving to eastern Nigeria. I was passing through a neighbor’s grassy yard on my way to a party one evening, and I heard heated yelling that alarmed me. I was surprised to peer around a corner and find a camera crew flooding lights on two young actors filming a dramatic fight scene. As I watched, I was impressed with the innovative electrical set up of the camera crew, attention to detail of the makeup artists, and vibrant energy of the actors. I was in Nigeria to learn a local language and was pleased to overhear that the characters’ names were of that tongue, Igbo.
I gained a greater appreciation for Nollywood during my time in Nigeria. I think it makes the cinematic representation of Nigerian life feel accessible to the audience. Unlike Hollywood, Nollywood movies are made on small budgets, often in people’s homes using amateur actors, and without any visual or special effects. It was easy for me to have friends point out filming scenes to me as we explored Lagos. Also, because of their modest funds, scripts often focus simply on the dynamics of human relationships—marriage, parenting, siblinghood, etc. Although these relationships are highly dramatized in sometimes silly ways, they are still ones that many of us have.
I saw that Nollywood gives Nigerians a way to tell their own stories in their own way. Historically, so much of what the rest of the world has understood about them was narrated by Europeans, by outsiders. This was the basis of my academic research before I arrived. However, these films are a way for Nigerians to be their own storytellers. Then, at the same time that it narrates what West African culture is like, Nollywood also helps create it. Often, the clothes that I saw friends wearing there were fashionable because of a certain Nollywood star, and I heard idiosyncratic phrases in daily conversation that I knew had been popularized by a local movie.
Years later, I still try to watch Nollywood cinema to practice listening to Igbo. I also do so because it reminds of the moment I realized that I was no longer watching Nigerian films from the U.S. as a way to understand a foreign culture, but actually living that culture.
Here is an excellent short documentary on Nollywood: