Nollywood expert, Onookome Okome speaks on mammy water, black magic, objectification of women, and nudity in Nigerian movies. He also expressed his views about the unrest in the Niger-Delta, Nollywood's entrance into the Toronto International Film Festival, and his vested interest in late Ogoni environmentalist and civil rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa's work. Onookome is an Associate Professor of African Cinema and Literature at the University of Alberta in Canada . He spoke to me from his base in Edmonton , Alberta , Canada .

American horror movies, Indian films, and Latin American soap operas are particular sources of inspiration for Nigerian filmmakers. Nudity as a tool of trade is becoming rampant in Nigerian movies. What are your views on these as well as the representation and objectification of women in Nigerian movies? The representation and objectification of women in Nigerian movies – I wrote an essay on this actually. The essay was published in a journal in Sweden . My argument in this essay was that the objectification of women in Nigerian movies has to do with the very idea that not very many women are in the industry, and the few women who are in the industry also partake in this process of objectification, because that is what sells. There is a sense in which filmmakers all over the world, not just Nigeria , focus on selling points. The idea of the poetry of the body of women and the intellectual sense of the body of women is considered as very viable in that sense compared to the male part of the society.

And you will find that it is common in most of the so-called junk that are sent out – the epic video film, or the halleluyah video films that deals with conversion and church activities. I must reiterate that this is something that is very usual in the film industry. It is what sells, and there is a strong slant in Nollywood towards this and there is very little we can do about it. I however do not think that this objectification will go away soon.

I would argue that it will go away once there is a number of women in the industry who will take on the duty of making films that balances out this slant by saying that they won't create women who will always depend on men in order to succeed. The more we have more economically-minded and emancipated women, the more likely this will be taken care of.

The aspect of nudity is also something that is very common in cinema industries all over the world. Nudity is an abstraction; the female body is considered as very poetic, and people (both male and female) always want to see this expressed, so filmmakers are trading in it. This is common even in advertising as you see a lot of adverts showing nudity as an abstraction. It becomes part of the cinema culture.

The good thing about western cinema culture, especially North America and England , is that there are alternatives so if you are against this kind of objectification, you can go to a different cinema in which the movies try to create so-called positive image of women. It hasn't come to that in Nollywood but I'm not too worried; it will come to that.

The industry is just about 20 years old and it has done a lot to put the country on the map of cinema practice all over the world even though you can argue that the images are not always good, and that people think of Nigerians and Africans in very bad terms. This was also said about Bollywood anyway and now Bollywood has grown past the commercially-oriented movies and is concentrating on the art. Gradually I think that this will develop and some of these questions will be answered.   

 In an interview with the Washington Post, you dismissed Nigerian movies for playing up witchcraft, arguing that it perpetuates negative Western stereotypes of Africans. The concept of spiritual forces in Nigerian movies – notably mammy water and black magic – has been identified as big selling points. How do these affect Nigeria 's image abroad? [I met a lady recently who is from Namibia . She wanted to know if I had juju to give her since I'm a Nigerian and she has seen lots of Nigerian movies suggesting Nigerians have juju.

Starting with the interview, I'm not sure it was properly reported the way I said it to the Washington Post. I can not recall dismissing Nigerian movies as playing up just witchcraft alone. I can not dismiss Nigerian movies at all because they have very important social and cultural roles to play as a cinematic practice that comes from the so-called abject part of the world.

What I might have said is that there is lots of witchcraft in these films but my argument is that the witchcraft and other modes of traditional technology should not be read on the surface or superficial value but should be read as a symbolic gesture towards finding a place in a post-colonial, post-modern society, which makes no sense to a lot of people who live in these communities because everything seem to have changed so drastically and we all look towards some kind of post-colonial world in which everything seem to work and at the same time we know that this is not true and that we live at the mercy of the world economy.

The point I always make about this is that you don't see people dying on the streets of Lagos everyday or decapitated heads but when people use witchcraft as a way of demonstrating that somebody who was poor yesterday is suddenly rich, it's just a way of defining how that wealth came about overnight without the accumulator of this wealth actually being part of an economic force of demand and supply or production and distribution.

This is the point I'm making so that a lot of these things are not taken on the face value that people fly in the day or at night, suck blood or use blood to make money. And we find this in our oral literary heritage. The story about the young girl for instance who will not marry anybody from the village is not a story that must be taken on the face value. It's a story that tells the morality of this girl who refuses to be part of the society; it's symbolic.

And some of these stories that you find in the Nigerian video films are just taken directly from this moral backdrop. Of course there is the influence of American, Indian, and Latin American soaps, but these are light because we still lean towards our cultural and social background that is not totally gone away.

This is the point that you could make for instance to the woman from Namibia because she also has folklore from which to draw upon and some of these folklores also carry ideas of witchcraft so this is not something new.

America's movie industry is known as Hollywood . India 's is known as Bollywood. Why the name Nollywood for the Nigerian movie industry? And could this be why the industry is seen as a hybrid of sorts? All cinema industries, all literary productions are hybrid of sorts. I don't see any cinema industry that's not a hybrid, especially in the so-called postmodern and postcolonial world; everything is a hybrid. I think the whole idea of Nollywood is just a marker to distinguish this idea of cinematic practice from the culture of Hollywood which is tied to the city of California or Bollywood which is tied to Bombay .

The origin of the word Nollywood itself is disputed now among scholars especially pioneers like John Haynes with whom I wrote the first book, Cinema and Social Change in West Africa . Nollywood became a byword in the industry after the very hilarious intervention of a guy from the BBC went to make a Nollywood film in Nigeria , but was not given the access to do that by the Nollywood filmmakers. I think he is credited with coining the word Nollywood.

The real important thing about the word Nollywood is that it's a marker of a different kind of cinematic practice from the two major world cinema cultures, i.e Hollywood and Bollywood.

Then you also agree that Nollywood is the third largest movie producer in the world?

Let's qualify this. Nollywood is the third largest in terms of the share production with more than 10 movie releases every Monday of the month; it is by far the largest. But in terms of the wealth that it generates, no, Hollywood still lead on that.  But Nollywood is no doubt the only African cinema that is indigenous, self-sustaining, and has its own system of making films.

As a peripatetic scholar, you've spent the last 12 years of your academic life tracking the careers of video filmmakers in Nigeria and Ghana . What are your views on piracy as a challenge to the growth of the Nigerian movie industry?

One of the great things about the video industry in Nigeria is that the filmmakers are very energetic in terms of dealing with issues in the industry. Piracy is a very big problem but they've been able to get around it. A very funny example came up in my interview with one of the filmmakers. I must have included this in one of my essays. To me, it is like life imitating art, even though it should be the other way around. This individual when asked how he manages to stem the tide of piracy, he said it's very difficult but sometimes you make the people who print the jacket take an oath. So this is exactly life imitating the video stories.

Mostly what they do is to depend on very close associates like brothers and sisters to do all the parts of the video production that would normally be susceptible to corruption, like the jacket, mass dubbing of the primary copy of the movie, etc. But it is still a problem and I think that the video filmmakers, producers, and marketers are getting a firm handle on this.


For instance the marketers will distribute their products simultaneously all over the country and just hope that it sells 10,000 to 20,000 copies to recoup their investment and also make gains before the pirates move in. I think they have worked very well in this regard.  


As Associate Professor of African Literature and Cinema at the University of Alberta in Canada , you have a platform for teaching about African and in particular Nigerian culture to westerners. Do you find that your students are challenged by African art?


Some of them are but as I said in one of my interviews, a lot of North Americans and Europeans already have very concretized idea about Africa and because they are not very open to the new things happening in the continent, they just take it as given.


I teach video films here but some of the students are interested as curiosity not that they believe there is something great coming out of that part of the world. For me this is good because out of curiosity, it is possible to change the attitude to this literature.


I've been to all kinds of film festivals all over the world and I tell you that my most critical and productive experience was when I invited Tunde Kelani to Barbados . The audience there responded to Nigerian films so well, apparently because it is basically a black audience, people who came out of slavery and could identify with the story of Nollywood very well because they wanted some kind of cultural anchor.


But in Germany , at Film Festival in 2003, I saw that most people were just curious – where do they come from, why are they making so much money? Although I've been criticized for saying that because it makes me sound like I think the West can not understand or that they already made up their minds about what Africa is and that I'm playing up the card of the African scholar who always sees nothing good in what these other people do.


Last July I was in Hollywood at the Hollywood Rising conference and the audience was basically African-American and African audience. The very few white people who showed up came out of curiosity to see what it was all about. It might change as soon as the industry gets better in terms of organization but as it is now, their involvement is mostly out of curiosity.


The Nigerian movie industry has gone from VHS (Kenneth Nnebue's pioneering efforts) to VCD. There are options for podcasting, mobile viewing, online streaming, movie theatre releases, etc. Which of these platforms do you think the industry will embrace in future?


Let's qualify this. If it is the industry Nollywood in Nigeria , it will remain VCD. For now, the affordable and accessible technology will be VCD and DVD. The other point I would like to make here is that Nollywood is Nollywood because it has been able to circumvent certain orthodox ways in cinema.


Nollywood does not rely on outdoor cinema viewing, which means that patrons of Nollywood do not go to a cinema place. They go to places like the video parlour, which is not regular cinema hall. In fact I just concluded an essay about the fact that Nollywood audience can see films virtually in any street corner in Lagos or Kano , etc. The video parlours are normally located in poor neighbourhoods in the cities and mostly in the rural areas. These are not orthodox ways of showing films in North American or European sense.


You also see people going to buy the movies from the video stores and taking it to their homes and calling friends to see them. So within the context of where Nollywood is situated, the technology will determine how Nollywood progresses from one point to the other. For now it's the technology of the VCD and DVD. Podcast is great, online pay-per-view has been suggested, but this will work in North America probably and Europe but the audience is not as huge here as you find in Africa .


You are heavily invested in Ken Saro-Wiwa's work. The Ogoni environmentalist and civil rights activist was hanged by General Sani Abacha during his military regime in Nigeria . How has that affected your interest in Saro-Wiwa and what projects are you working on now?


I wrote a book of essays on Ken Saro-Wiwa called Before I'm Hanged. I come from the Niger-Delta and I know Ken Saro-Wiwa personally and we talked about some of these things before he was executed. I feel strongly about the things that Ken Saro-Wiwa talked about because they are still with us today.


I feel strongly about the injustice, the judicial and ethnic minority issues in Nigeria . I feel really disgusted about the way the Nigerian state has systematically deprived ethnic minorities from their position, their stake in the nation, so I totally agree with some of the points that Ken Saro-Wiwa made and I do not think that he died in vain. The little progress we've made since his death is evidence of this.


I did a documentary script on this actually which was paid for by a foundation in the Netherlands and I'm looking to some foundation to help me fund the production of this documentary. I really hope once I get round to that in a year or two, the documentary will really give a sound idea of what Ken Saro-Wiwa was all about.


I should stress also that the problem of ethnic minorities is not just the problem of ethnicity but it's also the problem of greed and the problem that came out of this greed since 1958 when oil prospects became the byword in the area can also be attributed to the stupidity of the chiefs among the minority people. The chiefs played a strong part in depriving everybody in this region a fair share of the national wealth.


I do know also that it is a political equation that began in the sixties. Also added to this is the kind of democracy that is practiced; it's hinged upon the idea that majority takes all so if your ethnicity is 50 million, you're sure to get a shot at governance and you can do whatever you want to do but I don't think that is true democracy. Democracy has to take the interest of people and people who consider themselves different into the equation to make it possible for a nation to actually exist as a nation but the real problem is not just with governance but also with the attitude of greed and money.


You are involved in development work with some if not all of the notable Nigerian art academics like Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Abiola Irele, Tayo Olafioye, Biodun Jeyifo, Ernest Emenyonu, Tanura Ojaide, Molara Ogundipe, and Tejumola Olaniyan. Is there a formal think-tank of Nigerian movie industry academics? Is there any plan to set one up? Is there a need for one?

There is no formal think-tank so to speak. I'm not sure if there is a need for one but what I do think is that the industry is still young. There are people you can identify who are working in the industry who may be Nigerians and non-Nigerians. The Nigerian educational system is organized along the old British school system and this system was the last, even in Europe , to accept Cinema Studies as an intellectual and scholarly endeavour so it is still difficult for Nigerian schools to accept cinema as a strong scholarly and intellectual endeavour.


The example of my supervisor, for instance. He wanted to work on the Nigerian film industry. His supervisor said there was no such thing and he was advised to go to Mass Communication. When I was working on my PhD, studying the movement from Yoruba theatre to Yoruba cinema in the late 1970s, this was also the case. Some Nigerian academics today still think that the video film is nonsense and that it has no cultural values. There is a big debate about authenticity. In light of this, you are not likely to find people thinking about a think-tank as such.


It's changing a little bit, in the light of the work that I have done and what other people such as Jonathan Haynes is doing. There is a guy in Columbia ; he is doing a lot of work in this area as well. There is an anthropologist in Columbia and another one in Illinois who are working in this area too. But in Nigeria , there is no consensus among the scholars. People are just making scattered commentaries about the video film and some of these comments are really bad.


They always compare Nollywood to Bollywood or Hollywood , and this is absolutely wrong. Every film industry must develop its own way of critiquing content within the industry as a whole and I really object to people making negative comments. And I also tell my students to suspend the idea of Hollywood when they come to my class; that they must go into the sociology and culture of the people who make and consume these films in order for them to understand why it is important for the people to tell their stories.


You also work directly with some of the Nigerian artists and producers. One notable producer is Tunde Kelani whom you have shared podiums with as a resource person on the Nigerian movie industry. How has the industry benefited from your involvement with these artists and producers? Also tell us about your all-time favourite Nigerian movie and Nigerian movie actor/actress?


It will be immodest to talk about how my work in the industry has benefited the industry itself; that would be left to posterity to judge. My involvement with the industry is very scholarly and intellectual. I support their art; the video should not be taken less seriously than we take, say for instance Achebe's novel. The work speaks to different sets of people in the society. The fact that they are popular tells us that there is something in them that people want to see and this is the basic thrust of my intellectual argument.


I know a lot of them in the industry. Some of them were my classmates. Some I taught art at the University of Calabar but Tunde Kelani is really great because he is one of the very few people within the industry who actually had training in cinematography and so he is quite outstanding in that respect, and he loves his job and does it well. I've worked with him and I just invited him to Liverpool where there is some talk about the video film coming up November 4th and 5th.


I also invited one of the leading women video filmmakers in the Nollywood industry. One of the things I aim to do when I have the opportunity to invite these filmmakers to international conferences is to make them speak about what they think the industry is all about. That way, there is a balance between what I produce for the conferences from an intellectual platform and what the practitioners think as those working in the industry. I think this is very important for us to get the two sides of the story of Nollywood to the general public.


I like Richard Mofe-Damijo; his acting is really great. I like also Pat Obechie although I must say that his acting style reminds me of the declamatory style of the old theatre but the acting too is getting better in the industry and hopefully things will move on well. Genevieve is really good. Omotola is great. There is an upcoming female artist, Nyedo; she's also very great. I saw her on set in Calabar late last year. They are all doing great work. I find them fascinating. 


Please tell us briefly about your family and educational background.


I was raised in Sapele, a small town in the Niger-Delta. I went to school in Sapele, Edo State , and in Ibadan where I was for nine years taking the first, second, and third degrees. I have a Ph.D in Theatre Studies, with special emphasis on Cinema. I moved on to the University of Calabar in 1989 and taught there till 2002 then moved to Alberta in 2002 as an artist and professor. I became an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta in 2003. I've published a couple of books, one of which was co-authored with Jonathan Haynes of Brooklyn College , University of Long Island .


In 2005, you issued a call for papers for an international conference in honour of Tanure Ojaide whose first work, Children of Iroko and Other Poems was published in 1973. The conference was titled Tanure Ojaide: telling the Delta and Beyond. Is this an annual event and what was the outcome of that first conference?


The original idea was to make it a bi-annual event. The idea was to convene critics writing on bi-annual basis to deal with certain kinds of literature that is emerging in Nigeria , which is the literature of the Niger-Delta, telling about the Niger-Delta. Tanure Ojaide is one of the leading poets and scholars who have dealt with the issues of environmental problems in the Niger-Delta.


The conference was hugely successful. At that point in time I was visiting the Delta State University so I used that opportunity to get the Delta State University authority to do this, and the State Governor actually participated in it. It was successful beyond my imagination. I didn't know that people were really keen on listening to what this poet had to tell about the Niger-Delta. I'm just putting the papers together now and hopefully sometime next year, the papers from the conference will be published.


I do hope to convene another one in 2009. It's really difficult to do from my base but I do hope to convene another one and then hand it over to local scholars to continue from that point on. Hopefully this time we will focus on other Niger-Delta writers. New writers from the Niger-Delta will be featured as well. People like J.P. Clark, Isidor Opeo; all these guys have done really great work in the Niger-Delta, so that we can begin to position this kind of literature that is coming out of what this region holds for Nigeria .


The Urhobo people of the Niger Delta have been described as some of the most artistically creative of African peoples. What are your views on that statement? And also touch on the project aimed at documenting Urhobo art.


The project was actually the brain-child of Tanure Ojaide and Professor G.G. Darah, who is currently the Chief of Staff of the Delta State government. The project was simply organized to get Urhobo scholars to deal with specific aspects of the cultural history of the Urhobo people.


The statement about Urhobo people of Niger-Delta being some of the most artistically creative is just saying the obvious. This does not take away from the fact that all African society one way or the other are artistic in their response to the society and environment they live in, so the Urhobo people are not different in this description.


What is different is that because it's a small group of people, a lot of scholarly attention was not paid to the artistic output of these people from the 50's to the 70's. I can only think of a scholar called Jenkins who has done such a wonderful work on the art of the Urhobo people.


You can't compare the volume of work on Yoruba art to the volume of work of Urhobo art. The project was to touch on this and increase awareness about the art of these people.


There is annual revenue of close to $300 million a year from Nollywood productions. Nigeria (more than 1,200 movies per year, made on shoestring budget, within a few weeks and up to 200,000 copies are sold, reaching an audience of millions all over the world) churns out more films than America or India. How are Nigerian movies performing at international film festivals like FESPACO and the Toronto International Film Festival? Do they even feature at all?


I should tell you immediately that Tunde Kelani's film, Abeni is featuring at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The Nigerian video films do well at festivals but they are not often programmed as the key films because of the format in which many of them are made. The films are made in VCD format and most of the international film festivals feature 35mm and 75mm films; the big celluloid formats.


Nigerian video filmmakers can't afford that so they are limited in terms of the place that they record in international film festivals, but they do go to these festivals. FESPACO now has a session on video films so people can compete from Africa and all over the world.


Talking about the revenue, statistics in the industry is hard to come by so most of the figures we here of are conjectures. They are things that we dream of; not hard-and-fast rule statistics so we should be very careful about them. I think that Nollywood is doing pretty well, if you consider that it's just 20 years old.


President Obasanjo has offered to help repackage Nollywood. Industry experts are divided on this offer. In your view, should the industry accept help from the government considering the issue of political economy and oligarchic influence that pervades Hollywood , as a case study?


I do believe that the government should invest in the industry but what I would not like to see is that the government should have direct say in what is produced in the industry; that is something that third world governments are not good at doing. The government could through its cultural agencies start telling the filmmakers what to do.


I do not believe that filmmakers or literary agents should be told what to write or what to film, but the government could and should be part of the industry by creating an enabling environment. Looking after our heritage for instance is something that the government should do. This is something the government can help with so that people who work in the industry will live by the industry so that there is a professional sense of people working in the industry.


Government should not be the owner of Nollywood. That will just kill Nollywood. One of the great things about Nollywood is that it speaks to the people about the things that matter to them. Once government gets involved, then government will speak to people about what it wants them to hear and this means that Nollywood will just go in a different direction. The popularity of Nollywood is that it speaks to people about what matters to them. Once government start making major decisions in the industry then Nollywood will cease to be Nollywood.




There are talks of Oscar awards. In February, a group of expatriate Nigerians set up the Nollywood Foundation in Los Angeles to establish links with Hollywood and promote the Nigerian movie industry. Are you aware of this and what are your views on it?


I'm aware of it and this is not the first time that the so-called expatriates have come to Lagos to do this. My opinion is that the people on the ground should set up whatever form of award they want; they know what is on the ground, they recognize those who do the great work behind the scenes and every aspect of the industry.


It should not be an Oscar award. It must be an award that makes sense to the people who work there in Nigeria and makes sense to the cultural meaning of Nollywood. You don't need some expatriates, whether they are Nigerians or not, to come in from somewhere else to do this as it will create antagonism.


Nonetheless, if there is a group of people coming from abroad, it will be really nice for them to get in close contact with people who work on the ground so that whatever is gestured really get to the root of the industry itself, not some global people just coming in to blow hot air about how great the film is or how great the industry is and then they go back and nothing has happened.


We must recognize the integrity of the people working in the industry because these are the people who matter as far as I'm concerned and they must be recognized as those who made the industry popular.  


What are your views on the civil unrest in the Niger-Delta and the spate of kidnapping of foreign oil workers? How do you think this reflects on the region's call to separate from the rest of Nigeria ?


I keep track of things going on and I'm not aware of anyone saying that the region should secede from the federation. If there is any such talk, I think it's a way of asking the federation to go deal ruthlessly with the people as they have already done in the last couple of weeks, killing innocent people just for suspicion of being members of the group of people that kidnap oil workers.


No matter what the federal government does, these kidnappings will not stop. Even if they legislate that anybody who kidnaps someone will get the death penalty or be jailed for life, the kidnappings will still not stop because the conditions in the Niger-Delta is pathetic. The conditions are awful, terrible, and people don't have anywhere to go.


There is no recourse for them so that is the only way they can say what they really feel about the nation and governance at the federal level. Even at the state level, the unrest will continue especially when you see politicians from elsewhere with absolutely no oil pollution or environmental degradation lavishly spending the money of the nation the way they do, buying helicopters and private jets. This is a case of the abject actually rising up to say we have a case.


My take on the kidnappings is that it is wrong for these people to do it especially because the idea of kidnapping these oil workers is not backed up with any ideological foundation. They kidnap foreign oil workers, get a couple of thousand dollars, kidnap them, release them again. What does this mean? Isn't the whole idea part of a desire to change what is not good? Why don't you have a formidable force that is ideologically directed at the goal of making life better for people in the Niger-Delta?


This is why I don't support these kidnapping being done just for the sake of getting money from oil companies and the state government. This will not solve the problem. What will solve the problem is a very strong power group that will be strong enough to negotiate, and that is what democracy is all about; an ability to form regional groups to negotiate the interests that are peculiar to a group of people.


As far as I can tell, the federal government doesn't seem to be very nice about enabling this kind of formation to take place because to the advantage of the federal government, the people in the region don't have a strong basis to negotiate, and also because the micro-minorities in the region fight among themselves.


The federal government even supports one group in the region against the other group so as to cause the chaos that we see everyday in this place. It's clear from the Ogoni world for instance that the Andonis were harmed with all kinds of lethal weapons during the Abacha regime in order to attack the Ogoni people and they killed a lot of these people. These are documented and they are some of the things that Ken Saro-Wiwa talked about. I don't see how this unrest will go away.


I was in Warri most of the time in the summer of 2005 and 2006 and every young man is slaving to form some kind of group even though these groups don't have any political directions or ideology. They don't have a long term collective goal for the people of the Niger-Delta and that's my problem with them. I think that the kidnapping of foreign oil workers is not the place to begin.



The aim of this series of interviews I'm conducting is to document the walk of people as they journey through life. I see that you have come a long way from the young Independence Day child growing up in Nigeria to become an international expert on African Literature and Cinema. What is your advice to someone who would like to tow the same line as you?


It's very simple – hard work, objectivity, and passionate desire to know. These are the things I've always taken into consideration as I move from one point in my life to the other. Believe in what you do, be as objective as possible, and although nobody can be totally objective, hard work and persistence are equally important. You have to search; searching is very important. You have to keep searching, be part of your community in different ways. You have to do this in order for you to be abreast of what is happening.


Once you make a choice, just stay with that choice and work towards making yourself important in that area. The only way to do this as far as I can tell is through hard work.


*** This is part of One hour with Jumoke: the life-walk series*** This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


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