The Nigerian film industry, popularly known as Nollywood, was once seen as a mass producer of poor quality “home videos”. It’s now become known for increasingly slick films that are able to attract big budgets and compete at film festivals across the world.
As a critic, scholar and lecturer in Nigerian film, I regard 2023 as another impressive year for the quality of Nollywood output.
I saw a number of great films both at film festivals and on subscription video platforms, particularly Netflix and Amazon Prime. I enjoyed the diversity in themes and the “un-Nollywood-like” experience each film presented. Indeed, it is an era of “beyond Nollywood”, a term which a film industry specialist, Nadia Denton, uses for the new wave of cinema. From Kunle Afolayan’s foray into teen movies, to C.J. Obasi’s arthouse reimagination of west African folktale, Babatunde Apalowo’s gay love story, to jungle justice in Toka McBaror’s Dark October, Nollywood is conquering barriers and taking Nigeria to the world through films.
The four most remarkable films I saw this year were Jade Osiberu’s The Trade, C.J. Obasi’s Mami Wata, Editi Effiong’s The Black Book and Femi Adebayo/Adebayo Tijani’s Jagun Jagun. These films were my favourites because of their ability to artfully and authentically spotlight socio-cultural issues, evoking genuine emotions and prompting introspection.
Some of the films embrace the high octane thriller genre and tackle gritty social issues. Others explore culture and history in a new and exciting way. They all boast excellent production. If you are making a list of films to stream this holiday, these are highly recommended.
1. The Trade
Jade Osiberu (38) is a writer, director, producer and a rare female powerhouse in the new Nollywood. She impressed with two spectacular releases to Amazon Prime – Gangs of Lagos and The Trade. Both films, like most of Osiberu’s films, dealt with social issues, drawing material from real life. But The Trade is a manifestation of in-depth research, perfect casting and a commitment to details characteristic of Osiberu. Doubling as the writer, she portrays, through her main character, played by Blossom Chukwujekwu, the life and fearsome activities of Nigeria’s most dreaded and elusive kidnap kingpin, Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike, also known as Evans. Thoroughly researched and graphic, The Trade shows the chaos a nation degenerates into when law enforcement fraternises with criminality.
2. The Black Book
Similar to The Trade is Editi Effiong’s The Black Book. A multifaceted creator, digital marketer and social justice activist, Effiong is a masterful storyteller. The Black Book creates a story out of many social issues plaguing Nigeria. Opening with a kidnap scene, it also explores political corruption, the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the Islamist group Boko Haram, and the unholy flirtation between law enforcers and criminals. It is a revenge thriller and a tale of espionage, with hitmen, road chases and gun fights. It was criticised for being late to the Hollywood party, but I often wonder if Hollywood has a monopoly on any genre or narrative. The Black Book is full of the lived experiences of Nigerians.
3. Mami Wata
Surrealist and co-founder of the Surreal16 Collectives, C.J. Obasi is a computer scientist turned filmmaker and popular for his zero budget feature length film Ojuju. Obasi’s Mami Wata looks from the past to reflect on the present and interrogate the future. Produced at a time when folklore adaptation is regaining prominence in the country, Mami Wata offers spectacular imagery of the water goddess which stays in the viewer’s vision long after the film ends. Shot in black and white, it is a metaphor for the intergenerational conflict bedevilling the nation. Mama Efe represents a certain political class, ageing and unsophisticated, yet clinging to power. Her traditional ways fail to offer needed solutions to collective needs, resulting in conflict between the middle-aged and youths, each fighting for similar goals, but with dissimilar motives.
By exploring a national problem through the lens of a goddess spirit venerated in several West African countries, Obasi tells a pan-African story in which an ideology characteristic of Africa is not demonised. Mami Wata’s journey in film festivals across six continents has been remarkable, lifting awards in various categories, but especially for cinematography. Mami Wata will be Nigeria’s third attempt at the Oscars.
4. Jagun Jagun
Siblings Femi Adebayo and Tope Adebayo, the directors of the successful Yoruba folktale Agęsinkólé, literally King of Thieves, return with a captivating epic war thriller.
Jagun Jagun (The Warrior) goes as far into the past as Mami Wata, drawing material from a spirituality peculiar to the Yoruba nation. Set in pre-colonial Nigeria and crafted with a mastery of art direction and special effects, Jagun Jagun’s love story is unusual. A tragic story of war and rivalry triumphing over love and unity, Jagun Jagun highlights the endlessness of wars, conflicts and rivalries, and questions the sensibility behind current humanitarian crises around the world. Its theme is the unquenchable thirst for power and the willingness to destroy and manipulate others to get and retain it.
Jagun Jagun offers the Ifa Corpus to a global audience in a not-so-complicated narrative. Ifa is the blueprint of life used to guide humanity towards the manifestation of their destiny in a positive way. It provides guidance on how to make good decisions and how to proceed through uncertain times.
It is interesting to observe the shifts in the focus of criticisms levelled against Nollywood and its films. My expectation that the new and old Nollywood production models and strategies will co-exist is currently playing out. It’s providing the competitive environment needed for sustained growth within the industry. Considering projections and growing investment opportunities available to the industry, I have even higher expectations for 2024. Kudos to the commitment and doggedness of Nollywood stakeholders, past and present.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.