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SHAKA, Femi Okiremuette & IBE, Ibe O.: Nollywood: Authorship and Ideology in Popular Culture

Nollywood: Authorship and Ideology in Popular Culture

Femi Okiremuette SHAKA, PhD

Professor of Film Studies

Department of Theatre & Film Studies

University of Port Harcourt

Port Harcourt, Nigeria


GSM: +234-806-442-1567


Ibe O. IBE

Department of Theatre & Film Studies

University of Port Harcourt

Port Harcourt, Nigeria


GSM: +234-703-542-8148



Through representations of 3-dimensional images indistinguishable from the immediate society, Nollywood video films subject viewers to identify with the characters on screen so strongly that they become susceptible to ideological positioning. The essay is motivated by the fact that these films should be studied in terms of domestic conventions and inner dynamics using auteur and Marxist film theories. It is found that the combination of auteurism and ideology flattens out the mechanisms of production and makes the text transparent in such a way that viewers do not realize that the work is meant to create a state of relaxation through ideological positioning. As contribution to knowledge, this study opens up critical possibilities, with respect to the elaboration of auteur theory and the role of ideology in Nollywood productions. It clearly submits that film theory and criticism of any nationality or culture can readily be interchanged and intertwined in the ideological posturing within the film industry of a nation. It is worthy to note that though studies have been carried out in the field of authorship in the cinema within Nigeria, but there is still much vacuum left in the theoretical discourse on the role of ideology in Nollywood films. It is this space that the essay explores.


Nollywood is part and parcel of popular culture which seeks to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the masses. Dreams which cannot easily be fulfilled on their own. This explains why in most of its films, the industry showcases people living in palatial buildings whereas in contrast, the audiences live in rickety edifice and swimming in abject poverty and misery. The narratives are steeped in conservative ideas intended to maintain taste and morals in the society, and it is for this reason that the industry is always criticized on the basis that it only exposes the ‘Nigerian shame,’ and it is all about ritual, necromancy, supernatural influences, poverty and so on. These critics tend to forget that these reflections are products of the popular imagination. Filmmakers use the medium of cinema to teach the regulation of human behaviour and adherence to tradition, and reflections in the media are a consequence of underlying material practices occurring in the social formation. According to Uwah:

Nollywood is seen to have become a kind of a cinematic version of the public service broadcasting mechanism in the country, not only for Nigerians, but maybe, for the continent of Africa. In this way, it is able to reflect the news items of the society to its numerous consumers who tend to rely on it as an alternative medium…what we see in these videos is a direct reflection both of what happens in real life and what people think and feel (322).

There is no cinematic production which does not in some way affect the outlook and conduct of the audience. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht summarizes the point thus: “good or bad, a play (film) always includes an image of the world…. Art is never without consequences” (as cited in Storey 6). This explains why in Nigeria for instance, it is common place to hear people bring in narrative experiences of Nollywood movies into real conversations. They refer to instances of films as examples of where they have seen certain things happen live. This is inherently ideological as viewers have a puzzled distinction of film and reality.

            Nobody can gainsay the fact that the growth of an industry which (as at 2014 and as acknowledged by the Nigerian government) is Nigerian’s number one source of high economic GDP growth also needs to be matched with a higher level of resounding theoretical discourse. The usefulness of such theoretical discourse to the industry is the explanation of the nature of film which will provide a better understanding of how Nollywood video films work, how they convey meaning, what functions they provide for us and by what means they affect us. As the industry grows, so should theory; opening up new areas of interest, and reminding us that the cinema is a complex institution and Nollywood video film is a product of the cinematic institution. It is therefore the desire of this essay to unravel the authorial and political nature of the Nigerian cinema using relevant film theories that will enunciate a contextual and theoretical framework within which to assess a Nigerian cinema. But then, it should be pertinent to explain in a few words the key conceptual terms; authorship, ideology and popular culture, on which the discourse is anchored. Authorship as a term will be used interchangeably with its French form auteurism to refer to the analytical process of highlighting in the film production the personal genius of the director, and then tracing its permanence and progress in several works of same director. Auteur on the other hand is a French word for author which means one who creates or originates. For the purpose of this essay, auteur director will be used to refer to the director (of a film) with a distinguishable recurring style. Ideology is a crucial concept in the study of popular culture. Ideology is seen not simply as a body of ideas, but as a material practice. Ideology is encountered in the practices of everyday life and not simply in certain ideas about everyday life. The fact that ideology is used to refer to the same conceptual ground as culture and popular culture makes it an important term in the understanding of Nollywood.

Conceptual Discourse

How films are framed discursively, according to Naficy, is dependent on the manner with which they are conceived and received (984). The works of established Third Cinema directors are often times placed under the rubrics of auteurism. These directors usually indulge in what Naficy describes as, “Salvage filmmaking,” that is, making films that serve to preserve and recover cultural and ethnic heritage. But Altman argues that the framing of films according to classical classificatory approaches and how much they are able to Okerespeak to mainstream audiences, are “ideological constructs” (as cited in Naficy 985), forcing Third Cinema filmmakers into discursive ghettos that fail to reflect or account for their personal evolution and stylistic transformations over time. These stylistic transformations have brought a degree of success to Nigerian auteurs who tell ethnic and national stories in more recognizable narrative forms. “It can perhaps be argued that works are of especial interest when the defined particularities of an auteur interact with special ideological tension,” (Wood 479), and when the film is fed from more than one cultural source. The task of the ideological film critic therefore, is to expose what might be called the mechanisms of ideology, that is, the cinematographic apparatuses which are capable of positioning the viewer as a subject in the cinema. By so doing, the apparatus of ideology is utilized in the review of Nollywood film and filmmaking, and in the appraisal of film theory in general.                         ©Social Media

The Ideological Nature of the Cinema

As illustrated by the picture above, the link between auteurism and ideology is “concealment.” That is, what post modernists describe as defamiliarization and estrangement. The films of an auteur have a greater tendency to conceal ideology through mastery of cinematographic apparatus and visual aesthetics, while the ideological film conceals the auteur; it conceals the “real relations of production.” This tends towards what Jean Louis Baudry described as the cinema’s ability to deny difference in favour of unity.  When the auteur interacts with the cinematographic apparatus, the finished production becomes the auteur’s predilection for the reenactment of the passive audience’s immediate environment. In the image above, this true nature of the cinema is exposed. The cinema represents images to the viewer and not reality itself. This objective reality is shot, edited and projected to the viewer in such a way that the viewer has no idea that a transformation has taken place. As can be seen above, the projected frame gives spectators the impression that the figure on screen left is actually the one about to inflict injury or death on the figure to the right, whereas in reality, it is the reverse. This is the cinema’s ability to offer an out and out denial of reality, and by this, the Nollywood cinematographic apparatus is an ideological equipment according to Baudry.

            Film practice in Nigeria since its wee hours, has inherently been ideological in nature. Onookome Okome asserts that, “there is the desire, even need, to see the African film from this perspective – as a political tool for self-determination and self-definition.” He further posits that the Nollywood film and film of the Black Continent in general “grew out of the struggle of Africa’s independence and indeed coincided with the rise of nationalism in the African continent” (412). During the colonial era for instance, Femi Shaka explains that, “film sponsorship, production and exhibition has deliberately been oriented in favour of government sponsored documentary films” (11). The colonial government’s involvement in film production in Nigeria started as far back as 1929. “The success of this experimentation led the colonial administration to adopt film as a medium of instruction in what was then a largely pre-literate society” (as cited in Shaka 12). By the end of the 1980s when film production in Nigeria had fully entered into the hands of independent commercial exhibitors, Ovunda Ihunwo explains that;

Video films had become the strongest technological medium of popular culture and entertainment in Yoruba urban centres. First to realize its immense social and economic potentials were the popular musicians, then television stations followed (12).

Arguing strongly for an understanding of Nigerian video films as comprising a “real first cinema which can compete with the ‘First Cinema’ of the western world,” Ukadike points that the “video films have been successful in cultivating a domesticating and Diasporic African audience which has enabled and assured its economic viability” (as cited in Paleker, 7). This economic viability has emerged despite the economic failure of measures such as the International Monetary Funds’ (IMF) imposition of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1986 during the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. The devaluation of the Naira as a direct consequence of the SAP impacted on the film industry negatively; forcing a halt to the production of films using the celluloid format. Nigerian filmmakers and entrepreneurs have, however, followed a different trajectory, and the prohibitive costs on conventional filmmaking have led to an alternative and cheaper technology: video films shot on digital cameras and burnt directly to VCDs and DVDs. This alternative technology has in turn led to the privatization of the media, creating new modes of production, distribution and exhibition best exemplified by the movie industry known as Nollywood. The social importance of this industry is the large audience it creates; the social world it makes meaningful to Nigerian audiences; the ideological communication it fosters and; the amount of film criticism it gives birth to (Larkin, as cited in Paleker 10).

            When Jean-Luc Godard recently declared that with digital cameras, “everyone is now an auteur” (as cited in Rice, 2012), he envisioned a time as this in Nollywood reawakened by Kenneth Nnebue’s blockbuster movie, Living in Bondage. A time when the industry is placed as the world’s second largest movie industry, the first being Bollywood of India. Since 1992, and in spite of several hiccups, Nigeria’s film industry continues to grow, giving birth to auteurs whose works remarkably differ from other metteur-en-scene directors. “The work of the auteur has a semantic dimension; it is not purely formal; the work of the metteur-en-scene, on the other hand, does not go beyond the realm of performance” (Wollen 364). In film scholarship, and even in Nollywood, there is a strong controversy over whether some directors should be seen as auteurs or as metteur-en-scene. But in spite of this, the auteur theory survives despite all the “hallucinating critical extravaganzas which it has fathered…. It has survived because it is indispensable” (Wollen 364).

            In this paragraph and the one that will succeed it, I shall undertake a material review of the American film scholar, Andrew Sarris’ 1976 article on “The Auteur Theory.” The sole essence of this ‘lengthy-paraphrase’ is to attempt a practical, metaphoric, and theoretical relativism of what Sarris did to the American cinema in 1976 to what currently obtains in the Nigerian cinema. The result is not a repetitive and moribund set of doctrines devoid of intellectual ingenuity, but an application of the basic tenets of auteurism on Nollywood directors. I shall paraphrase freely to buttress my account that film theory and criticism of any nationality or culture can often times be interchanged and intertwined in the analysis of a distant industry. According to Sarris:

Directors, writers, actors (even critics) do not always run true to form, and the critic can never assume that the bad director will always make a bad film. No, not always, but almost always, and that is the point. What is a bad director but a director who has made many bad films? Hence, the auteur theory is a theory of film history rather than film prophecy (243).

In Nigeria and Nollywood in particular, people most often distaste the phrase “used-to,” or “has-beens.” So an auteur is only as good as his last movie. Whatever positions he assumed in time past can only be upheld when compared to the recent production’s successes. Likewise also, the phrase “will-be” is counted only as a dream. A director will (only) be better or worse than his present position. This ranking of directors places greater emphases on total rather than occasional achievement. That is, relating the past to the present in the most meaningful way possible and not vice versa, i.e. present to past. This argument gives credence to Paul Valery’s remark that “taste is made of a thousand distastes (as cited in Sarris 244).

Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully (Sarris 246).

No doubt in Nollywood, there were (and are) weak and strong directors as there are weak and strong leaders, but directing history like leadership history concerns those who merely reign as well as those who actually lead. The strength of an auteur is a direct function of the weakness of a metteur-en-scene just as the strength of a democrat is a function of the weakness of a dictator. The true auteur stamps his own creative signature on a film; the weak metteur-en-scene director allows the presence of other production conditions to run rampant. Even the overzealousness of movie moguls, Executive producer for instance, will often times work against the script-writer than the auteur. For these business merchants will more likely attempt to alter a storyline than a visual style. “Producers, like most people, understand plots in literary rather than cinematic terms” (Sarris 247). However, the auteur critic must look at the cinema as both a window and a mirror. The window is the authorial nature of the cinema, while the mirror is the ideological stance. “The window looks out on the real world both directly (documentary) and vicariously (adaptation). The mirror reflects what the director (or other dominant artist) feels about the spectacle” (Sarris 247). Nollywood cinema flattens up the window in order to brighten the reflection. It knows its audience and their expectations, but it often adds something extra. This something extra lies in its ability to deny difference in favour of unity.

            Admittedly, not all Nollywood filmmakers and director are auteurs, and not all auteurs are directors. The former points to the fact that other directors are either metteur-en-scene directors, or are virtually anonymous. And the latter means that certain Nigerian comic players like the A-list comedian, AY, are their own auteurs to varying degrees. The director in this instance, “is both the least necessary and most important component of film-making” (Sarris 251). The modern camera itself has technologically become so efficient a manufacturer of “poetic” images that even a well trained chimpanzee can pass as a “film poet.” And the auteur theory’s rationale lies in the fact that the cinema could not be completely a personal art even under the best of conditions (Sarris 247). The best Nollywood directors make the best films in such a way that critics remark “that was a great movie, who directed it?” When the answer remains the same over and over again, a pattern of performance emerges. The career of a Nollywood metteur-en-scene director, like Charles Novia; jumps up and falls down, while the auteurs, like Dickson Iroegbu, grows up and stands. The former is like somebody who gives one an umbrella when the sun shines and takes it back when it rains. The moment one looks up to see the directorial statement in a Nollywood film by a metteur-en-scene director, the point the film begins to end. The Nollywood auteur on the other hand, can be likened to a donkey whose owner becomes fed up with and decides to bury his donkey alive. He goes, digs a big pit, throws the donkey inside and begins to pour in sand. He pours in a part of the earth but the donkey, now inside the hole, shakes it off and stands on the sand. He puts in more sand; the donkey shakes it off and stands on the sand once more. He repeats the same process several times, only to discover that the donkey has risen up to the level of the ground and has run away. Production conditions, societal prejudice, and what have you, are the sand on the auteur director. But no matter the pressure, the auteur never fails. His recognizable mark always stands tall on the finished work. To a film critic therefore, the film should precede the filmmaker.

In Nollywood, the test case for the auteur theory is provided by the works of Zeb Ejiro, Tade Ogidan, Mahmoud Ali-Balogun, Amaka Igwe, Teco Benson, Ifeanyi Onyeabor, Dickson Iroegbu, Izu Ojukwu, Kunle Afolayan, and Tunde Kelani. The last two, whose works have been examined in close detail in the paper sequel to this, cover a hard core of basic and often recurring motifs behind their superficial contrasts of subject and treatment. This, according to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s summation of the auteur’s task, qualifies them as well as others mentioned above as auteurs (as cited in Wollen 364). This classification of authorship is made bearing in mind the four characteristics of auteurs: they repeatedly return to the same subject matter; they always treat a particular psychological or moral theme, they employ a recurring style and; they stick to a particular genre (Ihentuge 16). But when these four cardinal traits cannot be held tenaciously in categorizing an auteur, Ihentuge argues that, the auteurs “leave marks of their creative flair on their films. Nollywood auteurs also experiment with techniques in order to carve out an identity for Nollywood” (Ihentuge 29).

            The end products of these auteurs are so realistic to the Nollywood audience that the films “are very reassuring for audiences for there is no difference between the ideology they meet every day and the ideology on the screen” (Comolli & Marbonin 482). These films are considered ‘special’ to the audience because of the peculiarities of the authorial style and the ideological issues imbued in them. Most of the films treat dominant ideology in pure and unadulterated forms. So pure that they give no indication that their makers were even aware of the fact. According to Andre Bazin, these auteurs are their own subject matters, bearing the same attitude and always passing the same moral judgments on the actions and on the characters. And in the words of Jacques Rivette, they speak “in the first person” (as cited in Bazin 45).

            Teco Benson, in a bid to take total control of his movies, established a film production (TFP Global) network, and also controls the financing and distribution of his own works. He maintains absolute authorial control over aspects of his film production process, and also supervises the post-production process handled by his TFP global network studio. Through his works, he makes ideological comments about his immediate environment. His works deal with psychological and moral themes which call for a total socio-political re-orientation of the Nigerian people. His State of Emergency is arguably the first serious action film in Nigeria. The Senator is another political explosion which captures the politics of “do-or-die” that has characterized the Nigerian polity since the first Republic till date. Explosion and Mission to Nowhere treat issues of ideology calling for a peaceful co-existence and the need to remain ‘subjects’.

            Izu Ojukwu and Tunde Kelani also separate themselves from the pack by standing out above the marketers who determine sales. They are able to stand out because of their understanding of celluloid production format. They aesthetically design their films with the importance of the individual frames in mind, and with the big screen as their ultimate goal (Laramee 162). Ojukwu, in his youth, constructed a film projector using waste materials. He received training in cinema at the Jos National Film Institute and also took part in Jamie Meltzer’s famous documentary Welcome to Nollywood. His films, The World is Mine, The Eleventh Hour, and Sitanda reaffirm Izu Ojukwu as an auteur who continuously returns to the same themes and subject matter. Ojukwu agrees to this when he admits that quality films are difficult and dangerous to produce in the Nigerian environment:

Because it is a growing industry, when you do something and do it well, you become stock with it. You become a stereotype … then every producer comes to me, you know, with an action script, and suddenly I realize that this will lock me into a corner I don’t want, I want to make movies that transform lives (Ojukwu, as cited in Laramee 169).

The message of anti-war and cross-cultural understanding in his Across the Niger, and other films, led to his first personal meeting with then President Obasanjo and the eventual adoption of the film by the Federal government as a reconciliatory tool of the North and South. Izu Ojukwu’s reputation as a quality filmmaker and as an auteur, gained him the award of the Best Picture and Best Director among five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards in 2007. When viewed critically, many of the films by Nigerian auteurs “exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo” (Wollen 365).

            In an urgent bid to grow its popularity, the Nigerian cinema has recorded world-class collaborations with other international movie industries. Top and most recent of such industry collaborations with Hollywood is Robert Peter’s 30 Days in Atlanta, starring Joel Rogers, John Schmedes, Stephanie Stevens, Lynn Whitfield, Ramsey Nouah, RMD, Desmond Elliot, Majid Michel, and produced by Nigeria’s A-list comedian AY. It was declared Nollywood’s Highest Grossing Cinema Movie of all time in December 2014 few weeks after its release. It amazingly grossed the sum of N76million which many, including the director, Silverbird Distribution company Guy Bruce termed “impressive for a Nollywood film” according to media reports. Another blockbuster collaboration is Tony Abulu’s Doctor Bello, written and directed by Tony Abulu, starring Jimmy Jean Louis, Isaiah Washington, Vivica Fox, Genevieve Nnaji, Stephanie Okereke, Jide Kosoko, etc. This adventure drama film attracted brand sponsorship from DSTV, MTN, etc.

            It is no fallacy that directors have contributed immensely to the speedy growth of Nollywood. One of such directors is Lancelot Imasuen, alias, “De Guv’nor,” who in spite of not been ranked an auteur, has stimulated the industry especially with his epoch making epic movie, Invasion 1897. This epic is based on the invasion of the Benin kingdom by the British Empire in 1897 and the eventual siphoning of the ancient artefacts of Benin kingdom. Another of such landmark movies is Kunle Afolayan’s October 1 which grossed more than a total of N330million in box office rating (Ebirim 1). Juliet Ebirim reports that October 1 is a Nigerian psychological thriller written by Tunde Babalola, produced and directed by Kunle Afolayan. The film which is set in colonial Nigeria stars Sadiq Daba, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Kunle Afolayan, Kehinde Bankole and a host of others. The story is based on Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba), a police officer from Northern Nigeria who is posted to a remote town of Akote in Western Nigerian to investigate the frequent female murder cases in the community, and have the mystery solved before the Nigerian Flag is raised on October 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day (Ebirim 1). Kunle Afolayan who was named “Nollywood man of the year” by The Sun Publishing Company in 2015, says he makes films for the international community. In an interview with Tadeniawo, Afolayan submits that he makes films that will do well in any and every territory (1).

            These films, have qualified the Nigerian video film industry as part of the popular arts or popular culture. In “Popular Arts in Africa,” Karin Barber summarized her understanding of popular arts to mean:

The large class of new unofficial art forms which are syncretic, concerned with social change, and associated with the masses. The centres of activity in this field are the cities, in their pivotal position (as cited in Haynes & Okome 107-108).

Nollywood remains a source of popular entertainment in Nigeria with a growing scholarly attention to it decades after the ground-breaking book, Nigerian Video Films by Jonathan Haynes came to the fore. Shaka posits that,

The video film industry represents one of the many sites where the subjectivities and identities of modern Nigerians are constantly being creatively negotiated between the demands of traditional African institutional practices and those of modernity. This result is a hybridized subjectivity and identity which defiles reduction to either tradition or modernity (28).

Shaka further argues that most middle class scholars are too preoccupied with their own cultural bias to admit popular culture as the cutting edge of identity formation and social transformation in their own societies. The truth, Shaka maintains, is that, “whether popular culture is sanctioned or not, it will continue to attract youths or poor urban dwellers whose source of entertainment derive from it, and in this sense, popular culture will continue to remain the most vibrant culture of any society” (28).

Haynes argues that this identification of Nollywood as popular culture aides analysis which has been disconnected from classical film theory and criticism. This “identification gives birth to interdisciplinary approach which brings social history, cultural studies, anthropology and literary criticism together in the study and analysis of the industry. He further argues that African popular culture is a broad category of cultural forms that occupy the interstices between the rural-traditional and the modern elite. They “broker between the rural-traditional and the wider world from which modernity has been imported” (as cited in Paleker 10).


The essay opens up critical possibilities, of areas of interest, especially with regards to Nollywood, the elaboration of the auteur theory in its various manifestations, and the role of ideology in Nollywood productions. It is observed that when an auteur, who is the director with a recognizable creative ingenuity over his collected works, exerts this indelible signature of his on a film, that film becomes of especial interest when it interacts with common ideological tensions. Every cinema is inherently ideological, and this article unravels the political nature of the Nigerian cinema through theories of Marxism as exemplified in the works of Althusser, Gramsci, Baudry, Metz, and Lacan amongst others. Films are made to be viewed not just as a representation of reality, but as a reality itself. The Nollywood core audience sees these films as reality, not just a representation or a sort of public service broadcasting mechanism of realistic events. This inherent ideology of the Nigerian cinema is made worse when the auteur interacts with the basic cinematographic apparatuses. This interaction of the auteur with cinematic ideology flattens the film to the point that the audience do not even agree that the author had any ideology in mind while making the film. The viewers see the films as though there is no ideology in them, whereas the ideology is there. This is the point the audience becomes a subject of the ruling ideology.

It is also pertinent to reiterate at this point that the ideology of film studies is not that about a set of ideas, but that about a material practice. Ideology is encountered in the practices of everyday life, and not just simply in certain ideas about everyday life. Given the many similarities between the film experience and dream experience (Baudry 712), this essay equates the cinematic apparatus of the Nigerian cinema to the "force of paralysis" on its spectator. The force is found in its ability to tell the Nigerian story by representing characters in their 3-dimensionality. The essay also makes case for a re-appraisal of Nigerian films using appropriate conceptual and critical models that help explicate the complexity of popular culture.

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