Dr. Kaia Niambi Shivers is an assistant professor at New York University, and 2015 Top Voice of Linkedin in Education. A media professional and scholar, she teaches writing in the Liberal Studies Department. She’s also a scholar of, and expert on, Nollywood! We asked her a few questions about Nollywood, its culture, and how that relates to KitSplit and community gear rentals.

What is Nollywood?

Nollywood is a rapidly growing movie production industry that emerged out of West Africa in the 1990s. Noted for its innovative ways to swiftly produce inexpensive movies and cater to an underserved Sub-Saharan African (and its Diaspora) film audience, Nollywood dominates in narrating African pop culture and tradition from the lens of Africans.

Pioneered in Ghana, yet headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria (hence the N in Nollywood), the industry serves as a sobriquet for a number of Nigerian-and-Ghanaian-language production systems. Some movies use English or intersperse Pidgin English between indigenous ethnic dialects as well. Borrowing heavily from established filmmaking cultures around the world while maintaining African roots, Nollywood carries a variety of genres such as juju, gangster, good time girl, historical and Hausa musicals; but the most popular are comedies, romance, melodramas, and Hallelujah (evangelical) themes.

Currently, Nollywood ranks as the second largest movie producer in the world―after Bollywood, and before Hollywood. On average, a little over 200 movies are made per month. then circulated through an intricate network of trade routes that include online and satellite distribution ― thus allowing some of the most remote locations to have access to movies that are still largely distributed to play on DVDs and VCDs.

While Nollywood is a hyperlocal industry, it saturates movie markets, TV content and media streaming from Johannesburg to Ethiopia; and throughout the African Diaspora. Movies are found in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, South America, and even in China. In some cases, Nollywood screens in theaters and is gaining visibility at film festivals in which they were once shut out.

Moreover, the booming production machine serves as a platform to exchange and learn the diversity of African culture. Even among Africans, who historically abide by ethnic specific lines when performing tradition, Nollywood transmits the latest fashion, hairstyles and star system of celebrities recognized throughout the continent and its diaspora.

Black November Courtesy of Entertainment One

The History

The Nollywood “boom” started in 1992 with a tech merchant named Kenneth Nnebue who thought of a way to shed an excess inventory of 30,000 VHS tapes that he purchased from Chinese traders who frequently dump old technology into Africa.

Nnebue, who worked on locally made productions in the past, decided to make a full-length movie using handheld home video recorders. It was a method of film experimentation that Nigerians learned from Ghanaian videographers who could not afford or in some cases, operate professional filming equipment.

Borrowing plots and themes from his ethnic group, Igbo, and, using the corresponding language, Nnebue filmed Living in Bondage. By distributing his movie via local Nigerian traders and launching an aggressive marketing campaign, the movie’s popularity exploded. In turn, Living in Bondage became Nollywood’s first cult classic, and the Nnebue strategy established a template for local business persons to make money by making African-centered movies.

Up until 2002, the movies were labeled by tribal affiliation such as Igbo movies or Yoruba movies. Outside of Africa, they were often termed African movies and were sold in areas where African immigrants lived in high concentrations, like New York. When a New York Times reporter named Matt Steinglass saw the movies as staples sold by African vendors in the city, he decided to trace them. His search ended in Lagos, and Steinglass was so shocked at the number of movies made with little resources that the he lightheartedly designated the movie-making machine “Nollywood.” Though there are a number of Africans who oppose the name, it is now a popular term to reference this nascent production system.

The Economics

Unlike its predecessors, African-Francophone films or South African movies, it is not subsidized by State or colonial government organizations. Rather, Nollywood is privately funded by merchants, traders, investors, and independent filmmakers.

The most significant aspect of Nollywood is its economic success. The movie making industry has become such a money generator, that it is responsible for stimulating the local economy throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a New York Times article, the United States International Trade Commission reported that the industry has brought $600 million annually into Nigeria’s national economy. In addition, Nollywood creates between 200,000 to 300,000 jobs yearly, more than Nigeria’s formal sector (Lobato, 2010; Okoye, 2007). With about 1 million people employed, the industry provides income in countries without government assistance programs or social security

Some of the movies are so popular, they stream on Netflix, Youtube, and Hulu channels. As well, streaming enterprises such as iROKO (the African Netflix) and an array of satellite and cable stations specialize in running movies. Even black Hollywood actors make appearances such as Kimberly Elise, Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox, Wyclef Jean (Haitian-born), Akon (Senegalese-born) and Jimmy Jean St. Louis (Haitian-born).

The movie Covenant of the Ancestors is shot in the creeks of Sagbama near Yenagoa in the volatile Niger Delta region of Nigeria August 14, 2006. Courtesy of Reuters

How Do People Typically Get Gear in Nigeria?

From pre-production to post-production, the average time to make a Nollywood movie is ten days to two weeks. Budgets are generally between $6,000 — $25,000. It is a “straight-to-video” industry that uses video and digital cameras, which are much cheaper options than the celluloid film stock that once dominated Hollywood and Bollywood motion pictures.

Nollywood entails a complex schema of formal and informal markets within a system of shared economies — a cost-effective strategy for the economic climate of Nigeria. Outside of marketers who distribute and fund movies, the biggest local business within Nollywood is the commerce of equipment rental agencies and staffing filming crews.

Many filmmakers cannot afford or carry filming gear. Additionally, issues like unreliable access to electricity, proper lighting while filming and facilities to store filmmaking equipment increase costs in the production process. Thus, equipment and ready-made film crews that include editing companies for post-production, musical scores and soundtracks have risen as businesses to accommodate the volume of rapidly produced movies.

Rental houses are a critical part of the Nollywood’s ecosystem. These businesses provide the option of renting out equipment or carrying out much of the filmmaking tasks, while aspiring filmmakers and directors (who are often self-taught) focus on the development of scripts and stories while a rented crew assists in filming.

Nollywood Favorites

There are two recognized waves in Nollywood: the first, I term pre-new Nollywood; and the second is New Nollywood. Pre-new Nollywood ranges from its inception to about 2010.

The first generation of Nollywood often filmed with low-technology and meager budgets that resulted in productions considered to be poorer quality when compared to silver screen movies. Issues such as questionable lighting, inconsistent sound and underdeveloped scripts were repeated occurrences. Nonetheless, it was these characteristics that made Nollywood a unique experience for African viewers, who already watched badly duplicated pirated Hollywood and Bollywood movies, Telenovelas and Hong Kong flicks for many years before the West African movie powerhouse emerged.

An excellent example of the first generation of Nollywood, which culled global success are a series of movies named after pop-soul icon Beyoncè: Beyoncè, the President’s Daughter (2006), The Return of Beyoncè (2007) and Beyoncè & Rihanna (2008). Another feature of Nollywood, whether old are new is that most movies have several parts. For example, Beyoncè & Rihanna has 4 parts that are six to eight hours altogether.

From 2010 on, the term “New Nollywood,” heavily promoted by filmmaker Kunle Afolayan (Haynes, 2014) challenged filmmakers with larger budgets and access to better filming equipment and technology, to grow their crafts by enhancing movie productions. The idea is to take the well-established picture making techniques found in African-francophone films and weave them into the Nollywood machine. Examples of New Nollywood that offer a range in genre and to show the diversity in movie making are October 1st (Kunle Afolyan, 2014), Black November (Jeta Amata, 2012), Doctor Bello (Tony Abulu, 2013) and Fifty (Biyi Bandele, 2015) ― movies that are accessible via Netflix.

It must be noted that all Nigerian filmmakers do not fall under the Nollywood umbrella. One of my favorites is Andrew Dosunmu who directed Restless City (2011) and Mother of George (2013) ― both features are on Netflix. The nuanced storytelling and breath-taking cinematography of Dosunmu’s films capture the many hues of brown and black skin (that were issues for many years for Hollywood filmmakers), adds depth to the story and visual aesthetics.

Behind the scenes of Doctor Bello Courtesy of Doctor Bello LLP

Using Nollywood in Your Filming

My scholarship focuses on narrating the experiences of the African diaspora, which are people of African descent who are dispersed throughout the globe via voluntary migration, as refugees or forced removal (chattel slavery). To do so, I started with black people in the United States in an ongoing project called, Orisa in the Ghetto, a title taken from a poem I wrote in 2002. The concept was to see how African-Americans envisioned themselves as divine and what African gods looked like through their presentations.

In the summer of 2016, I began filming Orisa in the Ghetto with African-Americans and an Afro-Belizean woman — all of whom were asked to re-interpret Nigerian deities within the traditional spiritual system of the Yoruba peoples, an ethnic group located in southwest Nigeria and some parts of Ghana, Benin and Cameroon.

I filmed on location in the Nollywood tradition, using a Canon T5i. The sites you see in the trailer are places located in urban areas that have direct, salient connections to black people’s experiences in the United States such as Florence & Normandie where the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest started; Watts train station; the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland known for the moment a group of Black Panthers walked into the building with guns to protest their right to bear arms; the Anacostia neighborhood in Northeast Washington DC that is fighting gentrification; a cemetery in Compton; and the East Orange train station where many black women who worked as domestics and nannies would hop on to service wealthy white Manhattan and North Jersey families.

I am interested in reconstructing the representations of black people on film through my work; which I think that Nollywood attempts to do as well. For years, I asked people to help me film Orisa in the Ghetto, but to no avail. So one day, I decided to do it myself. Rather than ask Hollywood for permission or wait for a grant, this project is self-funded (for now). In addition, the actors are not really actors, but my family members — from my parents, and siblings, down to my nieces and nephews — who volunteered. Even my best friend participated. All of these elements parallel Nollywood filmmaking, as it is guerilla-style, cost-effective and improvisational.

KitSplit has become a critical ingredient in working on this project. The proposed idea is to film in 15 regions across the United States. By using peers in the various areas via KitSplit, the production equipment costs are cut by 75 percent. And admittedly, I am not a trained filmmaker. I am a writer, a journalist who has produced a couple of radio shows and pretty efficient on low-level designs and websites. As a result, I am learning as I go and falling in love the art of film. I now see the world in news headlines and pretty cinematography. Now that I use KitSplit, I have the possibility of collaborating with filmmakers who can offer this novice tips and suggestions.

In what ways does KitSplit Share in this same tradition?

KitSplit’s business strategy to provide a community marketplace for camera gear rentals overlaps in multiple ways with Nollywood. Foremost, both make the process of filming an accessible and more affordable avenue for aspiring and independent movie and TV makers. KitSplit and Nollywood both remove the go-between in production on many levels (profits come to you, you do not have to rely on industry gatekeepers, and you can produce projects without a lot of red tape).

KitSplit and Nollywood allow members to experiment with different equipment and techniques. Moreover, they open the space for peers to share the knowledge and filmmaking and TV making styles, which builds networks and ultimately grows the craft on how we produce content and see the world through a lens.

 Cover image courtesy of Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America