A tour through the golden era of Nigerian movies
May 7, 2016
Ibadan, Nigeria – In the 1960s and 1970s, you could watch a different movie every week in Ibadan, and many of them would have been locally produced.
After Nigeria’s independence, the city was a hotbed for the film industry. But these days all the cinemas of that golden era of Nigeria’s celluloid movies have disappeared or been turned into something else.
Laolu Ogunniyi remembers coming early to KS Cinema that night, because he suspected the showing would be sold out.
When Àiyé hit the movie theatres in Ibadan in 1979, the Yoruba-language film was an immediate blockbuster in the southern Nigerian city. The Yoruba audience, the major ethnic group in the region, loved the home-grown movie whose title refers to the metaphysical world.
Àiyé depicts the struggle between good and evil and some have described it as the first Yoruba horror film.
“It was a full house that night,” Ogunniyi recalls. Those early decades after Nigeria’s independence were the golden age of the country’s celluloid movies, he says. And Ibadan was its creative centre of gravity.
At the time, Ibadan had countless cinemas. For a long time, however, the content had been foreign.
Ogunniyi grew up watching John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin at the Odeon Cinema, about 200 metres from his parents’ home in Oke-Ado. Fascinated by the motion pictures, he diligently saved up for his three-pence entry fee to watch what he calls “the wonders of the white man’s land”. He would grow up to become a successful TV and film producer and actor.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ogunniyi took Al Jazeera on a tour of his home town, starting with the Odeon.
But his childhood cinema is no longer there: above the entranceway that was once marked “Odeon”, it now says “Power Cathedral”. Where the movies used to be screened, pastors now preach to a congregation. Like so many public buildings, the film house has become a church.
In fact, all the cinemas of Ogunniyi’s childhood have either been transformed into something else or demolished.
Soon after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, a generation of Nigerian film and TV practitioners took matters into their own hands and started producing local content. Laolu Ogunniyi was one of them.
Upon finishing secondary school he’d left for Brighton, England, to study drama and speech: a fact that explains why the 69-year-old speaks with a diction Nigerians call “the Queen’s English” and orates as if on stage acting Shakespeare.
But during his time in England there was no doubt in his mind that he’d return to his home country. The post-independence optimism was still thriving among Nigerians, and whenever they would meet each other abroad the main question was, “When are you going home?” Ogunniyi recalls.
“I wanted to go back to Nigeria and effect change. You’re most relevant at home,” he says.
His wish came true in 1974, the year he returned to Ibadan and was hired as a drama producer at the regional government television network. Ogunniyi describes the years in Ibadan that followed as the most inspiring in his career.
In this sprawling traditional city, several things came together to create a fertile ground for the creative industry. Some of these are cited in the book The City State of Ibadan, where the editor Dele Layiwola, director of African Studies at the University of Ibadan, writes of a “pioneering cultural renaissance of national importance taking place in Ibadan from the 1960s”.
First of all, the Yoruba theatre tradition was still very much alive. In that epoch, more than 100 travelling theatre companies toured Yorubaland. These Alarinjo dance and theatre groups attracted crowds with their all-night-long performances in an age when TV had not fully penetrated Nigerian society.
Another factor that contributed to the rise of Ibadan as a cultural hub was the fact that the city housed the country’s first university, established in 1948. The artistic scene at UI, as the acronym for Nigeria’s oldest university would later become, was energetic and diverse. In those days the writers Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wole Soyinka, as well as the architect Demas Nwoko, the dramatist Duro Ladipo, and the broadcaster Mabel Segun, all found themselves in and around the UI campus.
The fusion of modern literature and traditional theatre on celluloid produced the first generation of Nigerian films, mostly based on books and stage plays adapted for cinema.
Kongi’s Harvest, after Soyinka’s play of the same name, was shot in Ibadan in 1970, and a year later an adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart was recorded there under the title Bullfrog in the Sun.
“This place was instrumental to the education of local theatre artists for the wide screen,” says Ogunniyi while standing in front of the Arts Theatre on the UI campus. Nowadays students from the nearby dorms frequent the modernist building mostly to buy soft drinks, fried chicken, or Scotch eggs at BreadLife, the modest snack shop at the entrance, but Ogunniyi remembers how large crowds used to gather there every week to watch Alarinjo performances or to see movies.
Many of the actors of the travelling theatres would eventually become big names in Nigerian cinema. Hubert Ogunde, the star of Àiyé, the movie Ogunniyi watched as a youngster at KS Cinema, is an exponent of that generation. Ogunniyi was 16 when he first saw Ogunde on stage. “Little did I know that I would later get to produce him,” he says.
In 1975, the dean of the theatre department organised a workshop for those actors, in which Ogunniyi participated.
The problem with adapting stage acting to film, explains the UK-trained actor, is that the “explosive utterances and demonstrational acting” that work in theatre seem exaggerated when performed on the wide screen. Film requires a more introverted approach, he says.
Apart from the prevalence of mystical and supernatural themes in Yoruba films, the loudness and expansive gestures that to this day characterise the acting in them are an inheritance from the stage acting techniques imported from the travelling theatres, Ogunniyi believes.
The political climate after independence was also conducive to the blossoming of the creative industry.
The well-funded public organisation that employed Ogunniyi after his return from the UK, the Western Nigeria Television and Broadcasting Service, became the breeding ground for many a Yoruba film talent.
“Our government at the time believed in the importance of culture and was aware of the need for international artistic standards. With that backing, we were able to perform wonders,” Ogunniyi says.
He remembers visiting the Cannes Film Festival in the early 1980s as an independent producer. “Our international exposure was minimal. No Nigerian movies were presented at the festival, but I was hopeful that we would change that in the future. We were so optimistic,” he recalls.
And Ogunniyi isn’t the only one who can attest to that.
The career of Tunde Kelani, one of the biggest names in Yoruba filmmaking, also blossomed at that same station, where he started as a trainee cameraman. He remembers the exact date of his first day there: September 20, 1970.
“The foundation of my life and my career was laid in Ibadan,” the artist popularly called TK declares. “This was before video, and everything at the station was celluloid. The level of professionalism in the creative industry was staggering. We all had a sense of belonging: nobody was in it for the money alone.”
He talks about the political importance of Ibadan in those years, referring to the fact that the city had been the seat of government in the Western Region since colonial times, when Nigeria was divided into three zones. “Ibadan at the time was the political capital of Yorubaland,” says the Lagos-born filmmaker.
He remembers how the area around Agodi where the station was located – the building is now the Ibadan headquarters of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) – used to be full of life, and reminisces about the evenings at the Total Garden terrace, a popular joint not far from the station where he and his colleagues would gather to relax.
He also remembers how once in a while one of them would gulp down his drink and then take off, only to be heard on radio or seen on TV not much later. “All creatives hung out there. Now the area is a ghost town,” he says.
So, what happened to the Ibadan film and TV industry?
Kelani and Ogunniyi agree that successive military governments – from 1966 Nigeria would be ruled on and off by military dictators – played an important part in its downfall.
“The military saw the creative artist as a potential catalyst for change, one who needs to be watched and, if possible, put in chains,” Ogunniyi says.
It was the end of government backing for the creative sector and the beginning of oppression, with actors barred from performing and artists getting arrested and jailed.
“The funding started dwindling, until it came down to zero. All the people in the industry dispersed,” Ogunniyi recalls.
Gradually, Ibadan’s movie theatres closed their doors.
The city tour with Ogunniyi has now reached KS Cinema, and the veteran filmmaker is standing in the desolate parking lot at the front of the building. He points out where the wives of Àiyé star Hubert Ogunde – who was a polygamist – were selling movie tickets that night in 1979.
“Halls for hire for all events and ceremonies,” it says on the wall of the now-defunct cinema.
The tour continues towards Sabo, where a young Ogunniyi watched From Russia with Love and The Sound of Music.
The bicycle repairman on the sidewalk next to the shopping mall has no recollection of the cinema called Scala that used to be on these premises. And a bit further down, past the stadium, the block letters on the facade of the shopping complex remind the audience that where they now sell clothes and electronics once was the Queen’s Cinema.
The exit of movie theatres from Ibadan was paradoxically speeded up by the next boom in the Nigerian film industry: the emergence of home video.
By the late 1980s, technological developments had made it possible for anyone who could afford to buy video equipment to make a movie, and Nollywood was born, with eastern cities such as Aba and Onitsha gaining importance.
Often quoted as the third biggest movie industry in the world – after Hollywood and Bollywood – it grew into a multimillion-dollar business producing videos to be watched at home.
Technology also opened the way for large-scale illegal copying: nothing was spared from piracy.
One of the earliest experiences of its destructiveness which shook the old-school Nigerian film industry was the case of Moses Olaiya, the popular Yoruba comedian known as Baba Sala.
In 1982, he produced his first movie, Òrun Móoru (Heaven is Hot), starring himself and a mostly Ibadan-based cast. Before the film arrived in theatres, however, it had already been pirated and distributed on video. The audience watched it at home rather than in the cinema. Olaiya’s movie about a formerly wealthy man fighting for rehabilitation almost bankrupted him.
The experience sobered people in the industry like Ogunniyi. “It made it very hard to earn invested money back. I realised I had to be careful with film,” he says.
From then on the producer of the first-ever Nigerian soap opera, Winds Against My Soul, stuck mostly to TV.
Shooting films on celluloid for the cinema, an expensive and labour-intensive process, became rare in Nigeria. Since the popular home videos were not fit for the big screen and everyone was watching movies – foreign and Nigerian – from their couch at home, the film houses eventually disappeared.
The tour of Ibadan’s cinema history has ended up not far from UI, across from its main entrance. Here lies the bunker-like structure that used to accommodate the film theatre named after the famed comedian Baba Sala, whose appearance in any scene alone, with his signature oversized glasses, would have the audience in stitches.
After functioning as an event centre for a while, the venue is now left empty awaiting a much-needed renovation, as the young men hanging around the building explain. Ogunniyi climbs the stairs to the box office, which is now planked shut, shaking his head.
“To imagine that people would drive all the way from Challenge on the other side of Ibadan to watch a movie here,” he says.
Still, the producer believes Ibadan will experience a revival.
In the past few years, the city has seen the re-emergence of film houses. The two new and popular cinemas situated in shopping malls might lack the atmosphere and history of the ones lost, but in his eyes they do symbolise a reviving film culture.
“The young generation is patronising these places. People are in desperate need of relaxation and desire a decent place to drive to and watch a movie with friends or family,” he reflects.
And even though these cinemas feature mostly American films, Nigerian content is on the rise.
A new generation of Nigerian filmmakers focusing on quality rather than quantity – already coined New Nollywood – is producing movies for the wide screen again. Films like Jenifa, a comedy about a wannabe socialite who cannot get her English accent straight; Half of a Yellow Sun, based on Chimamanda Adichie’s novel set during the Nigerian Civil War; and October 1, a thriller set in colonial Nigeria just before independence, have pulled audiences to the theatres in the past few years.
Even the filmmaking crowd that has moved away from Ibadan to nearby Lagos might someday return to his city, Ogunniyi believes.
“Lagos is getting so congested and expensive, and creative artists need a more peaceful environment. They will move to Ibadan and work in Lagos once the roads get fixed,” he says.
“You’ll see: this city has a way of naturally regenerating. Ibadan never says die.”
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