In Cinema and Cultural Modernity, Cardiff University’s Gill Branston explains film as visual imagery seen, in complete form, on large cinema screens, in spaces both private and public. However, modern day film has evolved beyond the screens of cinemas, and ‘film culture’ is one that, today, incorporates an exhausting number of technological devices. Regardless of how you consume films, imagery remains vital to understanding the consumers, the public and public culture; as despite the new, more advanced formats through which it appears, cinema, the culture of film-watching, continually plays a role in the formulation and definition of cultural modernity.
According to the cultural historian, Anttonen Pertti, modernity is ‘some sort of increased rationality, urbanization, decontextualization, and individualism’. Often, modernity emerges from comparisons between societies, across either time or space. This implies a dive, as such, into historical contexts and the diverse realities of communities that cinema facilitates. Through visual storytelling, cinema explores and archives both historical and contemporary realities.
Cinema can be intensely public (think films and open theatres) or, more so these days, private (at home, on your phone, etc.). Whether in public or in more intimate settings, cinema makes it possible to observe and explore multiple ways of being. It allows the depiction of a plethora of emotions, lifestyle, dreams, aspirations, stories and experiences. Viewers see what the world looked like, looks like, and can look like.
Cinema arrived in Nigeria in the early twentieth century as a colonial import but by the 70s, the Nigerian military head of state, Yakubu Gowon, demanded the transfer of ownership of 300 film theatres from their foreign owners to Nigerians. This would mark the beginning of Nigerians defining and expressing themselves on screen. But the indigenization of Nigerian cinema proved unstainable: by the 80s, the falling value of the naira, inadequate funding and investment saw the gradual erosion of Nigerian cinema.
However, the 70s’ oil boom had created a middle class that was able to afford television sets and home video players, ushering in an era of low-budget ‘home films’. As the straight-to-video industry expanded, in Nigeria, at least, cinemas became obsolete; the distribution of films occurred increasingly through sales and rental outlets, giving rise to ecosystem of film production, distribution and consumption that would eventually be nicknamed, Nollywood. In the 2016 book, Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres, Jonathan Haynes explores this history in more detail.
NOLLYWOOD, MODERNITY AND GENDERED SPACES
Through Nollywood, Nigerian filmmakers have been able to explore many symbols of modern life—cars, houses, offices, clubs, people, activities and culture. Particularly interesting is the way old-Nollywood films defined and portrayed the ‘Nigerian Modern Woman’. The cinematic representation of women—as well as their multiple sexualities and femininity—has been crucial to the evolution of female socio-political identity in Nigeria.
The proliferation of [old] Nollywood films marked an era of increased cultural visibility for Nigerian women. Nigerians engaged with an image of the Nigerian female identity often defined through a male gaze. Nollywood became an archive of the complex process by which women were constructed in the Nigerian social imagination. While the visual presentation of Nigerian women wasn’t new, there was a uniqueness about the way Nollywood integrated feminine identity with popular imagery. Marketing Nollywood films on videocassettes meant that these women appeared in our homes, among our belongings. This made watching Nollywood a more physical experience.
Initially, Nigerian films were developed in Igbo or Yoruba but writing and acting in English, as seen through films like the pioneering 1994 Glamour Girls, meant a shift in the audience. Producing a film, in Yoruba for example, meant only Nigerians who identified as Yoruba or understood the language could consume the content. Producing in English meant shifting the scope of the stories told from the point of view of specific cultures to a single Nigerian narrative leading to a bigger audience and more homogenized story telling.
Combining visual content with colonial language also meant Nollywood could travel across and beyond the African continent. In essence, making films in English was a significant step the creation of an identifiable Nigerian identity ready to be packaged, marketed and sold to the rest of the world. With Glamour Girls, which, according to Jonathan Haynes, was the first Nollywood film in English, Nollywood became a touch point for what it means to have a Nigerian identity. Nollywood had become what Canadian actor and director, Blessing Akindele, calls the most accessible ‘visceral visual experience of Nigerian nuance, dynamic, and character’. Written by Kenneth Nneube, and directed by Chika Onukwufor, Glamour Girls centered on female protagonists and the ‘fast lives’ they lived. Therefore, the beginning of defining the on-screen ‘Nigerian’ coincided with the creation of the ‘Modern Nigerian woman’.
Glamour Girls opens with a sequence of a woman, Doris, played by Gloria Anozie. She’s driving on an open road, in a black sedan, and is glamorously dressed. Eventually, she parks her car, and steps out of the vehicle, sure and confident. Itself, the act of disembarking from the car is a performance. Immediately, viewers get the sense that there is something special about this woman; but what it is is not clear until the next scene which takes places inside Doris’s home. The camera hovers over a wine bar, a radio cassette player, an air conditioner, a telephone. Doris, it seems to attest, is a modern woman. Indeed, she is a modern woman because Nollywood tells us she is.
In Glamour Girls, modern women are referred to as ‘Senior girls’. According to Jonathan Haynes, these were independent women who have chosen careers over marriage, and overtly pursue their own sexual interests. They are sophisticated, independent, free and supposedly ‘outside the control of patriarchy’. Years after this film, owing to its popularity, colorful projections of who the modern Nigerian woman was and could be will still be plastered across screens in Nigerian homes.
Growing up with Nollywood meant being exposed to actresses like Patience Ozokwor otherwise known as ‘Mama G’—always the antagonist, but firm, confident, loud, unapologetic; and who, often, antagonized actresses like Omotola Jalade, who played the more reserved, less calculating characters. However, as theorized by Liz Conor, you get the sense that these women ‘were intimately and meticulously aware, as they are required to be, that [their] femininity was [being] produced [for] a performative and visual effect’. There was always a moral lesson and punishment attached to the stories of non-conforming women. Nollywood was clear which of these women Nigerian girls should aspire to be. There was a push for conformity and uniformity of expression in style, ideals, and behaviour.
Consequently, over time, only a handful of these women have survived on screen and off-screen. Investment in being a ‘proper woman’ was heavily rewarded. This led to a diversity retrograde, an erasure of uniqueness and specificity of identity. Twentieth-century Nigerian cinema explored non-normative female behaviour—particularly sexual—and that was entertaining then but today, this legacy has created the opportunity for a new generation of Nigerian women to push back against social conformity, uniformity of identity, and mainstream culture.
NOLLYWOOD IN THE INSTAGRAM ERA
Given the popularity of Nollywood, it is not surprising that in the remaking and refashioning of the Nigerian identity, younger Nigerians are looking to old-Nollywood films for inspiration. Among younger Nigerians, there seems to be a longing for past representations of Nigerians on screen and in cinema that is unmistakably tied to nostalgia—defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with a happy personal association’.
Nollywood Nostalgia is at the center of the rise of a new wave of cultural, social media accounts. On Instagram and Twitter, these accounts are carefully curating culturally relevant photographs and videos celebrating aspects of contemporary and retro African identity. Curators like Nollybabes, Nataal, Manju Journal and SUNU Journal are dedicated to African storytelling and explore storytelling through an array of artist-designers, photographers, models, filmmakers. These accounts draw inspiration and content from archival images as well as contemporary art. Nollybabes (@Nollybabes on Instagram) was, however, the first social media account dedicated to ‘Nollywood Nostalgia’; to archiving and sharing nostalgic content centred on Nollywood and its women.
Nollywood nostalgia motivated Tochi and Ebele, two sisters who appreciated the ‘killer looks’ of Nollywood babes, to start an archive of stills from old-Nollywood films. In their interview with the online platform, Eparapo, the sisters made it clear that they consider themselves ‘historians keeping an archive of what [they] consider to be the golden era of Nigerian filmmaking’. Feminism and Nollywood Nostalgia made it a no-brainer to focus their archival efforts on the ‘babes of Nollywood’, and this combination of aesthetics and social charge, makes their work stand out even more.
Before Nollybabes, excluding Youtube and feature film hosting platforms like Iroko TV, a medium to engage with old-Nollywood imagery did not exist. Nollybabes was, then, a vehicle through which old-Nollywood crossed over to the Instagram era. Co-piloted by two women, the platform carries with it a complex and diverse collection of women who feel as familiar as they are different. Furthermore, these sisters are proof of why it is essential that women are at the centre of the storytelling process for women.
While more accounts curating online content sourced from old-Nollywood films have popped up since Nollybabes, a consistent theme across these accounts is a sense of nostalgia and an interest in the modern woman. As one of the curators, of the platform, Yung Nollywood, put it, ‘there is still a lot that needs to be said on the female experience in Nigeria, but we are trying to say what we can’.
Followers of these accounts are mostly appreciative. For its audience, comprised mainly of Nigerian women, it is not very common to find such relatable online media. Nollywood nostalgia allows babes to explore on-screen representations of an aesthetic or lifestyle that resonates with them. Nollywood nostalgia, then, is about representation on screen, and off-screen, but most importantly off-screen.
The remaking and evolution of the Nigerian female identity is a core feature of the ‘New Nollywood’ era. In this era, young women are embracing archetypes of women that appeal to their specific ideas, passions, interests, and style. In the age of social media and hyper visibility, Nigerian women are cultivating a modern image of womanhood to be projected in public spaces, online and offline.
In the lives of everyday women, Nollywood nostalgia is a source of confidence. For instance, when Blessing, a writer, started watching Nollywood, her self-consciousness regarding her hair began to fade. As a kid, she loved seeing the different hairstyles that Nollywood actresses would wear. Because of Nollywood, she stopped caring if her peers knew whether her hair was real or not. There is empowerment and self-assurance that comes with reliving this moment in adulthood.
Babes my age were kids when Nollywood was in its prime. From personal experience, conversations with friends and observing other women engage with Nollywood Nostalgia, I get the sense that we were not particularly active consumers of Nollywood. The babes on screen were women. We were girls. But still, the times we watched them, we were thoroughly entertained and enamoured by their characters.
However, today, young women are paying attention to and engaging with old-Nollywood. What were the characters talking about? Was that a feminist idea? What were they wearing? Is it non-conforming? Who were they dating? Would I date him? Would I say the same thing? Wear the same clothes? We are placing the expressions and experiences of these characters side by side with ours. We are making connections between what it is like to be a modern woman then and now, asking how are alike and different, and whether we have evolved as Nigerian women.
The result of this process is discovering the multiplicity of the modern Nigerian woman. Regardless of era, on-screen and off-screen, the presentation of the Nigerian female identity is complex. Age, class, educational level, style, sexuality, and religious affiliation nuance these identities. Therefore, it is possible to connect with different women for the same reason and the same woman for multiple reasons.
Earlier this year, I spoke to a few Nigerian women and artists about their perceptions of women in Nollywood. For my friend and old-Nollywood enthusiast, Whitney, Regina Askia is an icon because she exudes class and always displayed wealth. For Tayo, it is enough that ‘Regina Askia was a bad bitch’, she exuded the same level of confidence that millennial women aspire to today. Old-Nollywood and the nostalgia it fuels, are allowing and helping a new generation of Nigerian women to push back against social conformity and platforms like Nollybabes are the oracles. Nollywood nostalgia is reminding Nigerian women that they can be whoever they want without stripping or moulding themselves into to whatever society’s current expectations are. Looking to old-Nollywood allows us to explore womanhood as varied experiences.
NOLLYWOOD NOSTALGIA AND CONTEMPORARY STORYTELLING
Social media feeds featuring meticulously curated, compelling visuals of Nigerian women, can also be very inspiring for female artists creating content about women. In this way, Nollywood nostalgia’s particular focus on women is forcing female artists to pay attention to the way they themselves present women in the work they create. In creating art and telling stories, it is essential that women are personified in a multi-faceted and dynamic manner that showcases and honours the plethora of female experiences.
The Nollywood film industry itself still has a long way to go when it comes to stories about or featuring women. For a new generation of content creators like the writer, Fiyin Femi, it is crucial that the women in the worlds she writes about are autonomous and have agency. Unlike what mainstream Nollywood would suggest, women’s stories can exist independent of a male protagonist. Female characters can stand alone as fully developed characters. This is something, ultimately, that Nollywood has always lacked.
However, Blessing thinks things are changing. According to her, ‘there is something in the air right now’ and she hopes it thickens and forces studios, writers, directors to start thinking bigger when it comes to how women’s stories are told. As a new-generation filmmaker, when Blessing writes a script, she thinks to herself: ‘why does this male character get to be the one with all the driving force?’, and then she changes it. For her, it is important to subvert the ‘default gender narratives and stereotypes’. The result would be more films like Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart; films that feature a complex female protagonist that is both relatable and aspirational.
Modernity in Nigeria is an ongoing process that is far from completion. Presently, we are in a period of rethinking modernity. We are cross-examining and approaching our aesthetics and cultures in historical terms. One of the ways we are doing this is through films and visual storytelling. In the remaking and evolution of the Nigerian identity and modernity, it is essential that we remain authentic. Nollywood nostalgia presents an avenue for striving towards authenticity. With old-Nollywood, the characters were realistic, rooted in culture and relatable. This can be empowering for women and artists seeking freedom from conformity. Nollywood nostalgia and its ‘retro vibes’ allow ta new wave of self-branding and self-presentation to be rooted in and contextualized in Nigerian visual history.
Because the history of Nollywood is directly connected to the creation of the modern Nigerian woman, exploring Nigerian modernity through Nollywood automatically means interacting with what it means to be a Nigerian woman. For everyday Nigerian women and female artists, then, it is important that old-Nollywood continue to exist as a place and resource for creating, expressing, interrogating and validating modern identities⎈