A couple of months back I had the honor to meet Jim Iyke, one of Nollywood’s most sought after and successful actors. He has done over 150 Nigerian movies and has come to be known as Naija’s Bad Boy. The bad boy roles he brings to life on our screens have earned him this nickname.
When I had the opportunity to have a chat about Nigeria’s film industry, the one question I had to ask… “What has been some of the factors that have propelled Nollywood to the success it is?” He explains to me that firstly, Nollywood was born as a result of lack of videotapes to play when every household in Nigeria had a VHS machine. Remember those? Well the new school generation might need to google this gadget. I digress.
Owing to the demand for household entertainment, the founding fathers of the industries started to shoot low budget productions to give people something to watch. Iyke says that at times there was hardly any money for one to put a film together but they would pull resources together and make riveting productions. Since then they have never looked back!
Secondly, Nollywood has embraced is their religious culture; they are a religious nation he emphasized. So, what about the witchcraft that seems prevalent in Naija? Just like every African nation and its cultures, witchcraft is one common feature of our diverse culture but since Nigerians know how to exaggerate stories, they make sure they keep a viewer glued. So much so that when Jim meets with his fans in Europe and other countries in the diaspora, they ask him if he has a wife who has put juju on him to keep tabs on him. He explains that with this exaggeration about witchcraft and other society vices the story is always to remind audiences that there is a Supreme Being taking care of His people. Hence quotes like “In God we trust” at the end of their movies. A branding concept Nollywood got right, in my view.
In my opinion they have done such a good job that Nollywood has created a niche and identity for themselves. Their consistency and persistence has made their film industry what it is today. Their identity is now embraced in East, Central and South Africa and diaspora as well and have a faithful following.
When we look at the situation here in our beloved 254, the film industry has been set aside for a selected elite. My observation is that in a year we release very few films and when the few are released it is usually a bourgeois event and leaves behind the ultimate consumer, the ordinary citizen. How about a premier show and sell tickets at a subsidized rate for fans to sample Kenyan talent first hand? We are quick to promote foreign films and crowd our cinemas but with local productions, that is not the case. Why is that?
Later, I had a discussion with a popular Kenyan actor who featured in a big film here at home some years back but we are yet to see this film. I will not mention any names but he told me that the reason they had to take the movie to diaspora where it was launched and watched was to please the executive producers who were foreigners. He even tipped me off by telling me how the script was altered to please and attract foreign investors. So, a Kenyan story was never told.
I do not know the truth of this allegations and sadly though I have not watched this movie to judge it for myself. But the question that begs to be asked…Why do we as Kenyans sell ourselves short? We should tell our own stories. Even if it turns out to be a low budget production, we should not shy away from authenticity. Even Hollywood occasionally churns several low budget films in a year. Blockbusters are a selected few in number every year and millions cannot constantly be poured to produce them.
We are relying quite a bit on foreign investors who in turn want to dictate our creativity and how we tell our stories? Why are we selling ourselves short? It is about time we believed in our talent and tell Kenyan stories as they should best be told. Slowly by slowly I am sure that the Kenyan film industry shall flourish.
If you cannot tell a Kenyan story and sell it to fellow Kenyans, how will you be able to successfully do so with outsiders? Charity begins at home. Let us learn from Nigeria.