Like many other countries with a violent colonial past, the origins of Nigerian cinema can be traced back to those dark periods of colonial control. During that time, the government had a strict censorship board that limited the representation of Nigerian content in films while ensuring that the production of cinema, as well as the distributive ecology, was mostly handled by foreigners.
Before the technology for cinematic productions was introduced to that region, the popular forms of entertainment were theatrical companies which often took to the road to bring their art to new communities. Of course, many of them were funded by the colonial churches that were set up but it also provided an avenue for talented Nigerian actors to showcase their brilliance in the performing arts.
In the decade leading up to the country’s independence, the amount of Nigerian content on the big screen saw an increase thanks to the efforts of the Nigerian Film Unit which was specifically created to disrupt the centralised influence of colonial film production. Even after Nigeria managed to free itself from the clutches of colonial power, the market was mostly dominated by foreign films from different parts of the world.
However, Nigerian actors such as Hubert Ogunde and Moses Olaiya, who had developed their skills in the domain of theatre, eventually made the jump to cinema which brought a lot of attention to Nigerian productions in the country. To combat the increasingly omnipresent influence of foreign films in Nigerian cinema theatres, an important policy was passed in 1972 which changed Nigerian cinema forever.
As a part of Yakubu Gowon’s Indigenisation Decree, the ownership of Nigerian film theatres transferred from the hands of foreigners to citizens of the country which resulted in a cultural phenomenon that can only be described as a “boom”. Nigerian artists found the means to make an unprecedented number of productions focused on the country, thanks to the influx of screenwriters and filmmakers as well as investments.
The period which is now referred to as the Golden Age of Nigerian Cinema actually began back in the ’50s with the establishment of the Nigerian Film Unit but it gained the necessary momentum it needed during the late ’60s and into the ’70s. From Fincho (1957) – the first Nigerian film to be shot in colour to other important historical projects such as Amadi and Ajani Ogun, Nigerian cinema found its own cinematic language.
Due to the simultaneous oil boom which happened in the ’70s, there was also a general improvement in the average economic conditions which contributed to the widespread popularity of television broadcasting. More and more Nigerians were able to visit cinema theatres and even purchase television sets, leading to an increased demand for shows and sitcoms specifically tailored for Nigerian families. Not just that, even TV adaptations of literary opuses such as Chinua Achebe’s indispensable masterpiece Things Fall Apart gained popularity.
The growing sociopolitical consciousness of Nigerian audiences was perfectly complemented by Nigerian cinema’s golden age which soon gave way to the significant video boom of the ’80s and ’90s. The commercial potential of catering to Nigerian audiences hit many creators like a revelation when a horror film from 1980 called Evil Encounter managed to make a lot of money through extensive marketing and trading of video copies.
Surveys conducted in the early 2000s showed that around five films were being made in a day in Nigeria as Nigerian productions not only dominated the country’s market but also that of the larger African continent. There were other sub-industries as well, including the Hausa-language filmmaking tradition, and video piracy became rampant in Nigeria but the video boom eventually faded away due to the instability of the distributive methods.
The Golden Age’s influence can still be seen in the productions that are coming out of Nigeria now, categorised as New Nigerian Cinema which has shifted back to making films for the big screen instead of videos. Despite the fact that most western audiences are only familiar with popular productions such as Chris Obi Rapu’s Living in Bondage, there have been other pioneers like Ngozi Onwurah who have had definitive influences on the traditions of filmmaking in the country.
With the recent commercial as well as the artistic revitalisation of New Nigerian Cinema, thanks to the efforts of burgeoning artists including Desmond Ovbiagele and Genevieve Nnaji, the future of Nigerian cinema certainly looks very promising even though the filmmakers still face challenges due to the distributive landscape. When we experience the cinematic mastery of new Nigerian auteurs such as Chika Anadu who made the brilliant B for Boy, we know that the future is limitless.