Gender equality, postnatal depression and transatlantic migration are all tackled in quest for international audiences
Kate Henshaw, right, plays a counsellor who must learn to forgive her own daughter’s killer in The Ghost and the House of Truth. Photograph: Courtesy of Film Africa
Once Nollywood might have meant films that were low budget and high drama and aimed mostly at a west African audience. But Nigerian cinema has evolved and this year a slew of new film-makers are tackling grittier subjects – and winning international acclaim.
A roster of screenings at autumn’s Film Africa festival in London reveal directors unafraid to look at issues such as gender equality, postnatal depression and transatlantic migration.
Running until 8 November, and available to view online, Film Africa opens with The Ghost and the House of Truth, which follows a counsellor working with convicts who must learn to forgive her own daughter’s killer. Other issues such as female infertility and religious fanaticism are explored in a series of short narratives also hailing from Nigeria.
Eyimofe (This Is My Desire) is directed by Chuko Esiri. Photograph: Courtesy of Eyimofe
Where it once centred on simplistic tropes such as good v evil, Nollywood has evolved to take on broader issues, says director Chuko Esiri, whose debut film Eyimofe (This Is My Desire) – a tale of two Nigerians who believe their lives will be better in Europe – premiered at this year’s Berlin film festival.
“Nollywood has become something of a catch-all for the Nigerian film industry, but there’s so much more to it,” said Esiri, who co-directed Eyimofe with his twin brother Arie.
“What we’re witnessing now is the birth of an industry that has hitherto been dominated by a particular type of film. Today, new Nollywood films are infinitely broader in scope and style. It is exciting to be part of a new generation of film-makers looking to carve out spaces beyond Nollywood.”
Nigeria’s film industry is now the second-biggest in the world, sandwiched between Bollywood (which comes first) and Hollywood. Although Nigeria releases roughly 1,000 films a year, few currently travel far beyond the continent or the African diaspora, or get much global arthouse attention.
But increased visibility on platforms such as irokotv and Netflix is helping to increase international interest – as is a new generation of film-makers keen to tackle broader themes, says film industry expert Nadia Denton, who specialises in Nigerian cinema and coined the term “Beyond Nollywood” to refer to new wave films, animations and short narratives that are currently marginalised in the Nigerian film industry.
“As Nollywood grows, film-makers are becoming bolder in their output and increasingly seeking international audiences,” Denton told the Guardian.
One example is For Maria, which follows new mother Derin as she struggles with a complicated delivery, says Denton.
“For Maria is unquestionably brave. Here we have a male director under 30, Damilola Orimogunje, taking on what is typically seen as a ‘woman’s issue’. It would have been far easier for him to have made a romantic comedy or gangster film than a sensitive, nuanced piece about postpartum depression.
For Maria, directed by Damilola Orimogunje, looks at postnatal depression. Photograph: Courtesy of Beyond Nollywood
“There is an emotional quality to For Maria that I have never seen from Nigeria on the big screen: the tenderness shared between the husband and wife; and the overwhelming vulnerability of the lead protagonist, who struggles to bond with her newborn. It is also the first film I have seen where a woman of African descent battles with mental health in such a visceral way. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the Covid pandemic, For Maria struck me as having an unwitting sense of urgency.”
Orimogunje, who also co-wrote the script, says he chose to confront postnatal depression because it is such an overlooked issue in Nigeria, where “stigma is attached to anyone who doesn’t meet the supposed ‘standard’”.
“Mental health generally in Nigeria is barely discussed, and depression almost seems like a myth,” he told the Guardian.
“It would rather be confused with spirituality when there’s a dire need to confront it. Many people don’t know so much about postpartum depression, especially the older generation. The husband’s love for his wife, his support and bewilderment [are also] intended to break the patriarchal dynamics of men in African society and also in most Nollywood films.”
The Ghost and the House of Truth, Eyimofe and For Maria are being screened as part of the Beyond Nollywood strand at Film Africa (30 October – 8 November) on the BFI Player