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MGBEMERE, Chijindu Daniel: Language and the Igbo Film Content: A Reappraisal

Language and the Igbo Film Content: A Reappraisal

Chijindu Daniel MGBEMERE

Department of Theatre Arts

Imo State University

Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria

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GSM: +234-803-667-1218


Film is one main repository of culture, values and norms of a people. What is now known as Nollywood, started in 1992 as Igbo film when Igbo traders in Onitsha Main Market developed interest in the business of filmmaking. The first film produced for commercial purposes then, Living in Bondage, was shot in Igbo language and subtitled in English. Subsequently, however, most of the films done by the same people started coming in English Language with little or no effort to accommodate the Igbo language within its content. As a consequence, recently, it was speculated that when the DSTV wanted to incorporate some Nigerian films in its broadcasting space, those of the Hausa and Yoruba were properly situated while the Igbo film found no space for dearth of content. Meanwhile, recent survey places Nollywood second, only to Bollywood, ahead of Hollywood in terms of content. Nonetheless, Igbo Film is synonymous with Nollywood. It is this obvious contradiction that forms the thought commitment of this paper as it sets out to determine the possible reason(s) for the turn of fortune.

Keywords: Language, Nollywood, Culture, Igbo Film


The role and place of language in the definition and development of any nation or people and their culture is no longer arguable. The multi-cultural and multi-lingual nature of the African nations festered by the evil of colonialism has made it increasingly difficult for Africans to develop their indigenous languages over the years. While it is established fact that language is the vehicle that conveys culture, it is only what it is, a vehicle and obviously not the substance or goods, and in this case, culture that is being conveyed. In other words, in any cultural discourse, be it for communication purpose, acculturation or any other influence, language is very important; as it helps to strengthen whatever is been communicated. However, culture is not language and there are many other ways than language via which communication can effectively take place and that without arbitration which is the weakest point of language.

This thought pattern has become necessary to bring to rest the unending fuse over the use of Igbo language in communicating Igbo culture in Nollywood films. First, it is important to reaffirm that Igbo film and Nollywood are one and the same thing; the language of expression notwithstanding. The worry over Nollywood and language use seems to have aggravated since the Multi-Choice's digital satellite TV service in Africa did not see reason why it should a lot a separate channel for the viewing of the Igbo vernacular films. Hence, in its communiqué after its international conference in Enugu Nigeria mid 2013, the Igbo Studies Association inter alia avers:

That Nollywood film producers should make more Igbo-language films to ensure that Digital Satellite Television (DStv), a MultiChoice's digital satellite TV service in Africa, can dedicate a channel to Igbo-language movies as has been the case for Hausa – and Yoruba – language movies (communiqué No. 9).

Meanwhile, its 8th communiqué reads in part thus: That more Igbo-language movies are needed to promote Igbo culture despite the dialect used in the shooting of the films. As contradicting as they sound in these excerpts, the point is made; and that is that more Igbo films should be made to promote Igbo culture whether in Igbo, English or Pidgin, as a mode of expression. The utmost priority should be accorded the production of the film in the first place and the promotion of the Igbo culture, while it is of little or no consequence whether the language is Igbo or not. We are aware that Multichoice Digital Satellite TU has a separate channel where it showcases Nollywood films; those Nollywood films are Igbo films as long as they portray the Igbo people and their cultural heritages and behaviours.

Nollywood and Content

In their article, titled, “Mind Frames in Nollywood: Frames of Mental Illness in Nigerian Home Videos,” published in the Medwell International Journal of Scientific Research, Olayinka Atilola and Funmilayo Olayiwola place Nollywood second in the world in terms of content:

In fact, a global cinema survey, conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2009) ranked Nigerian movie industry, popularly called Nollywood as the second largest movie producing body in the world (No page).

In their combined reaction, Lawal and Aikomo infer that Nollywood has come of age and has witnessed a lot of transformation in production, distribution and exhibition of its finished product. The patronage of the Nigerian video films and recognition Nigerian actors and actresses is now global. This justifies its advancement in rating from third to second position in the world.

This is only an authentication to the earlier known fact about Nollywood since 2009 which the present writer has discovered earlier in his article, Nollywood and the Nigerian situation, published in 2012. An industry that is ranked second in the world, ahead of the veteran Hollywood in terms of content cannot at the same time said to suffer dearth of content; the challenge here is the misconstruing of the Nollywood films as different from Igbo films. However, the call for Igbo vernacular films is considerable and justified.

The Nigerian movie industry is highly acclaimed and watched by millions of people all over the world. They see and enjoy it in theatre halls auditoriums, on television, at home and several other places. The craze for the movie is primarily as result of its remarkable ability to hold, transport, amuse, move and delight an audience. Humour and suspense or surprise, are its common features. Colour, variety, stardom, camera angle and sound effects are some of the aspects that entice the audience. Every movie has its cultural expectations, its codes and values. In this respect, it is apt to mention that if fully utilized, the movie industry in Nigeria can emerge as the single most effective means of the control of mass culture and development

The Igbo Language and the Igbo Film Production

The Igbo nation is one out of the three major ethnic nationalities in Nigeria; hence the Igbo language is one of the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria. It is widely speculated that Nigeria has more than two hundred and fifty (250) ethnic languages or dialects. As has been established earlier, the first Nollywood film, Living in Bondage was done in Igbo language and then subtitled in English. Living in Bondage was adjudged successful in every standard, selling millions of copies, however, when the filmmakers discovered that with all the lofty theme and topicality of Living in bondage, it could not sell as much as Glamour Girls and Ritual that were shot in English language, they switched over to the use of English language in their subsequent films.

Meanwhile, the shooting of these films in English language could be seen as experimental. But the fact of the matter is that, the filmmakers were out for business, and the sole aim of every business in a capitalist economy like ours is to make money. More so, these groups of filmmakers were already full time traders, who were looking for more lucrative businesses to invest in; and they engaged in this film business without government support whatsoever. Whereas Igbo language is unequivocally one of the major languages spoken by the majority of the Nigerian people, it cannot compete in popularity with the English, which has come to stay as Nigerian’s number one and official language.

On the local scene, the Hausa language lays claim to be the most popular language in the country, and sometimes too, the Yorubas would say they champion the cause. Never has it been under contention the position of the Igbo language in this regard, as it has always remained the least spoken by the least number of people of the three main ethnic groups. How then must a trader be encouraged to do film in such a language? The reason is far from the Igbos being the least of the three major ethnic groups. Some of the reasons for this state of affairs shall be discussed later in this paper. However, part of the reason may not be unconnected with the value system of the Igbo person, who, apart from being hospitable, and would always want to accommodate strangers and give them sense of belonging, by finding a common communication ground, the Igbo person is mainly a business minded person, who would always place priority on the need to understand his customer than on any other consideration. That way, he would not mind sacrificing whatever it takes to have his business properly transacted. It is also this business and entrepreneurial spirit that makes him opts for a language that has a somewhat universal appeal, so that his product would not be limited on account of barrier in language. The Nollywood films today are consumed in almost all African countries and other countries of the world as a result this choice of language. The survey conducted in 2006 by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) concluded with the following data:

About 56% of Nollywood films are produced in Nigeria’s local languages, namely Yoruba (31%), Hausa (24%) and Igbo (1%). English remains a prominent language, accounting for 44%, which may contribute to Nigeria’s success in exporting its films (10).

According to the survey, a film should account for about 99% Yoruba, Hausa, or Igbo language in order to be considered a local language film. It quotes Jonathan Haynes as suggesting that, “ethnicity is an example of a submerged issue that the Nigerian videos may help us to see, since ethnicity is a basic (though not a simple) structuring principle of Nigerian video film production and ethnic policies in Nigeria are very much out in the open.

Going by the definition of the survey of what it called language film, the Igbo film has 1% (one per cent) as against 24% and 31% for the Hausa and Yoruba films respectively. Now, this is exactly what we are saying, that it will amount to economic sabotage for one to expect a filmmaker to make film in a language that is spoken by about 1% of the people. Even though it does not mean that only about 1% of the Nigerian population understand the Igbo language. This again comes as a result of one strange complex of the Igbo person, who thinks that his life is better and superior to that of his neighbours if he could communicate in a language other than his native language which is common.    

However, the survey also acknowledged that 44% of these films were made in English language. This implies that the Igbo film accounts for 45% of the total films produced in the country, if the result of that survey is anything to go by (that is 1% plus 44% in simple Arithmetic). Meanwhile, the result of this survey could be misleading as the Hausa and Yoruba films cannot be called Nollywood films. As stated earlier, Nollywood films are one and the same as Igbo films. This assertion is shared with Jonathan Haynes, who can be regarded as the father of film education and criticism in Nigeria. In a parallel drawn for films from the three main ethic divides, in terms of their suitability for literary opportunities, Haynes avers:

…But both Hausa and Yoruba filmmaking have deeper relationships with literary as well as theatrical traditions than Nollywood does. Hausa films sprang from a pamphlet literature… with Hausa literature and literacy (Adamu 2007). In the Yoruba case, much has been said about the travelling theater influence, but Yoruba writers have been more prominent than English-language writers have been both as sources for film scripts and as screenwriting collaborators (2).

Now, notice should be taken that Haynes did not talk of the Igbo film as being exclusive from Nollywood; he used one for the other, interchangeably, for they are actually one and the same. He continues: “I cannot resist saying some things about Tunde Kelani. Kelani is not Nollywood; but he is an inspiration and model, and he is certainly the Nigerian filmmaker with the deepest involvement with, and dedication to, the literary.”

The exclusion of Kelani here as a member of Nollywood by no other than Jonathan Haynes is a stamp on the known fact that Yoruba films –“Yollywood” as Umar put it, cannot make for Nollywood films or can the Hausa film (Kannywood) be considered as Nollywood film. After all, Tunde Kelani is one of the leading names in Yoruba film venture. One should not make the mistake of judging language as the only determinant factor in this argument, the main issues are culture, norms and values which such films try to portray or promote, using whichever language it deems fit. This clarification has become imperative as Tunde Kelani, for instance; even though most of his films are produced in English language, can neither claim to be an English man nor even Nollywood film producer simply because his films are communicated in English language and not in his Yoruba native language. No more can anyone dismiss Nollywood films as Igbo films on account of language mode when all other socio-cultural paraphernalia beautifully adorns the art form.

Why Igbo Films come in English Language

The need to have a larger market for their product has so far been advanced as the main reason why the Igbo filmmakers chose to do their films in the English language, but this is only one out of myriad of reasons why Nollywood films which started in Igbo language in the first instance veered off to English language in the process of time. Such other reasons include:

Economic Factor: We are aware that filmmaking demands lots of funds, and of course, in the characteristic manner of successive Nigerian governments, funding of films has never occurred to them as one way of driving the national economy forward or a means of job creation and poverty alleviation. At a cursory look, one would easily conclude that the main reason why the Igbo filmmakers prefer to make films in the English language rather than their native language is only for economic gains. While recognizing this traditional fact, Nwadigwe raised a very salient point which demands attention, which is that those who actually desire to do films in the Igbo vernacular language find it difficult to access funds, as even the banks see financing such projects as enviable (513). They have always left filmmakers to their fate when it comes to funding, and here again the banks find it difficult to help, the only option left for the filmmakers would then be to find the safest way to remain afloat in business, this drives them to making films in the language that has a more universal appeal. However, there is the revelation that Nollywood films are also appreciated and patronized along the West and Central African coast that are predominantly francophone. This takes this point beyond this façade.

Language Incompetence: For over half a century now, the greatest predicament of African art has been the language of expression. In the words of (Haynes 6) depth of the problems involved in writing about African life in colonial languages is illustrated by the decades in which writers and critics continued to argue over the wholly unrealistic proposals by Ngugi wa Thiongo that African writers all write in their mother tongues, no matter how few speakers of that language there were, or Soyinka’s that everyone learn Swahili. It says something, or several things, about Nollywood that, in 1994, Nnebue’s Glamour Girls demonstrated that there was a larger market for English language films, and within a couple of months, Igbo language filmmaking was dead.

What Haynes raised here is a popular argument which may be applicable to the other ethnic groups in Nigeria but the Igbo. How many Igbo men and women can boast of the ability to write or speak the Igbo language fluently? The problem begins at the cradle; the Igbo person in his pomposity has a feeling that teaching their children how to speak other languages other the Igbo makes their children superior to their peers, who could not speak those languages. The resultant effect of this language incompetent is that most Nollywood films are scripted in the English language; as a result, it becomes a difficult task to translate it on location. Again, because those who could manage to try a reading of the Igbo language take unnecessary time and effort trying to pronounce them correctly, the nuances and the intended linguistic imperatives are risked. Conversely, the other extreme highlighted in the survey conducted by Haynes is that:

Even a director working from her own script and equipped with as powerful a personality and as strong a sense of film structure as Amaka Igwe can find it difficult to control the process of improvised translation. The actors of Rattlesnake lost themselves in the pleasures of the philosophical and rhetorical dimensions of the Igbo language to the extent that what Igwe envisioned as a two-hour movie blew up to eleven hours, which she cut down to three with difficulty (3).

The enormity of the problem associated with the inability of the Igbos to speak and write their language fluently and the diversity of the Igbo tongues are challenges whose time of embrace has come.

Social Perception: One of the apparent handicaps towards the production of Igbo films is the view of the Igbo society towards those who star in Igbo movies. The Igbo society has a social order that reveres anything that is not indigenous to it. Hence, the stars of the Igbo language films are classified as local actors and actresses and sometimes identified with illiteracy, judging that if they are literate enough, they would have been starring in English Nollywood films. This creates a consciousness of inferiority in the minds of some of them who are yet to come to terms with the cultural reality of the time. Laying credence to this point, Nwadigwe says:

Many artists consider acting in Igbo films unfashionable or inferior. They regard vernacular language actors as uneducated. This mentality however has no scientific and or artistic base. It is obviously borne out of ignorance and misconceptions. Ironically, many Igbo actors that shun the Igbo film productions can barely speak good English and clearly articulate their lines in the English language movies they appear in (513).

Research has shown that for one to do well in any language, one needs at least an extra language, since competence in language requires translation. Moreover, a language is as superior or otherwise as the owners of the language, so if the Igbos continue with this lackadaisical attitude towards their language, people may begin to associate them with inferiority complex which is not a likely trait of the Igbo personality.  

Absence of Cultural Association: Another reason many advance as been responsible for the discouragement of Nollywood vernacular films is the issue of national associations. Inferentially, there is no gain saying the fact that one of the reasons that have helped the Yorubas and the Hausa film industries to their present feat is the vibrant film association maintained by these tribes over the years. These associations help the filmmakers to access funds with banks and government, and also enable them to conduct themselves in a cohesive manner so that what affects one affects all. In addition, it labels the association a depository of the cultural mores of that ethnic nationality such that the totality of the cultural information can be obtained in reference with the association. For instance, the Hausa nation is tantamount to Kannywood. Another issue that has been speculated as been responsible for the low production of Igbo vernacular films is the issue of dialectical difference. This has always posed a challenge whenever the production of any art form in Igbo language is the issue. The reason for this is that like many other cultural groups in Africa, the Igbo nation has different dialects, so much so that sometimes it takes a careful listening for one to understand some brands of Igbo dialect. However, instead of being a disadvantage, dialectical disparity can lead to language diversification and become an added advantage to the industry if properly harnessed.

Language Promotion: The Way Forward

The concern for the promotion and preservation of African indigenous languages has been a subject of debate for decades now. The unending row this has created over time is understandable as the lost of language is the lost of identity. It was in search of a common language for African experience and cultural expression, that in their separate contributions writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo advocated the use of the people’s native languages, leaving the translation to whosever cares. For writers like Chinua Achebe and Ola Rotimi, language corruption is the answer. Soyinka was of the opinion that all Africans should learn to speak and write Swahili. Some others like, Matthew Umukoro thought of translation, arguing that a writer can actually write in the language he thinks while creating room for translations. While all this is happening at the national and continental level, the Igbo community has a peculiarity that is irksome.

There are speculations that the Igbo language is at the risk of extinction in the nearest future if nothing is done to preserve and promote it. Our worry is that those who claim to be championing the cause of the Igbo language promotion are either paying lips service to it or are out to score political points or churn out academic papers at the detriment of the case in point. Let us begin with the so called critics who claim to be founding solution to the Igbo language backwardness, how many of them can read and write the language? How many of them can their children speak or even understand the language. All focus is on the filmmaker, who is struggling to recoup his investment on business. If the Igbos would be taken seriously in this claim of Igbo language promotion, they must start from the homes by teaching their children how to speak and interact in the language.

The clergy and academic institutions should prioritize Igbo language as the first language in their day to day activities. First, services in churches should be conducted in Igbo language and interpreted in English only when necessary. Second, pupils and students should be taught in their native language in their first twelve academic years. That is from nursery one to junior secondary, before the introduction of foreign languages. It has been proven with empirical evidence that students who are thought in their local language do better academically than those taught in the foreign languages, the Igbo nation can afford to do this.


The imperatives of promoting the Igbo language cannot be over emphasized. The Nollywood film without equivocation has a major role to play in this onerous commitment. While this is so, the Igbo socio-cultural engineers and stakeholders should device mores ways of propagating the Igbo culture and language, and not depending on the filmmakers whose primary interest is to recoup capital on investment and make gains. Meanwhile, since the production of Living in Bondage, there has been several other films shot in Igbo language and more filmmakers are pledging commitments to keep on shooting in Igbo language. This should be encouraged. However, Nollywood films are still Igbo films; efforts should be intensified towards promoting the Igbo culture whether these films come in the Igbo vernacular or not.  

Works Cited

Ademeso, A. A. “Proposal for Quality assurance in Film Production in Nigeria.” Book of Proceedings, Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), 2013: 432-436.

Atilola, O. & Olayiwola, F. Medwell International Journal of Scientific Research. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2013.

Ekwuazi, Hyginus. “Nollywood: The Audience as Merchandise.” Ibadan Journal of Theatre Arts, 2-4(2008): 191-202.

Haynes, Jonathan. Nollywood Screenwriting: Notes Towards a Literary History. Ibadan: Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, 2013.

Lawal, H. O. & Aikomo, O. “Matching Quality growth and Development with Quality in Nigerian Video Film.” Book of Proceedings, Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), 2013: 87-91.

Nwadigwe, F. A. Quality Assurance and Sustainable Cultural Promotion: Imperatives for Igbo Language Filmmakers. Book of Proceedings, Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), 2013: 512-517.

Shimsenge, E. A, & Agav. “Improving Film Quality in Nollywood Through the Introduction of Filmmaking Studies in Theatre Arts Departments.” Book of Proceedings, Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), 2013: 318-325.

Umar, A. O. “Crisis of Content: The Need for Quality Assurance in Igala Video Films.” Book of Proceedings, Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA), 2013: 131-134.