Dear Netflix Naija, there are films and filmmakers in northern Nigeria
By Muhsin Ibrahim
Nigeria’s diversity cuts across many things, chiefly cultures, ethnicities, religions and regions. Although several commentators consider the northern part more Islamic and the southern one more Christian, Muslims and Christians, followers of traditional belief systems and non-religious folks may be seen everywhere. Due to these complexities, the country is a house to two significant film industries – Kannywood and Nollywood – with many smaller ones operating under these brands.
Kannywood, the name given to the “local” Hausa film industry with Kano State as its epicentre, is a distinct and autonomous film industry in northern Nigeria. Nollywood has its root in the South, has mainly Christianity and Western-influenced motifs as themes and produces films primarily in English or other southern Nigerian languages. For Kannywood, however, Islam is arguably the trademark, and the East remains their vital source of influence and inspiration. Nonetheless, many people and institutions, including Netflix, see Nollywood as “the default” Nigerian film industry.
Lumping Kannywood and Nollywood or seeing the former as merely a Hausa branch of the latter is problematic. Hence, a prominent Kannywood scholar, Carmen McCain, points out that “In most scholarly discussions of Nollywood, Hausa films are footnoted as an ‘other’ to Nollywood.” The implication of this is enormous. It, among other things, leads audiences and potential investors like Netflix into failing to see and understand Kannywood films in their peculiar socio-cultural and religious contexts. But, yes, Kannywood operates differently from and is independent of Nollywood.
On the one hand, Nollywood, now the second-biggest film industry globally, succeeds because it faces little or no challenge from its audience or any censorship board. On the other hand, despite being arguably older than Nollywood, Kannywood struggles a lot. Kannywood was inaugurated in 1990 with a film entitled Turmin Danya (dir. Salisu Galadanci). Two years later, in 1992, Living in Bondage (dir. Kenneth Nnebue) began what later became known as Nollywood.
Subsequently, the editor of Tauraruwa magazine, Sunusi Shehu, coined the name ‘Kanywood’ [with a single “n” before several authors later on added the second “n”, the version that is more recognised globally today]. It appeared in the magazine’s August 1999 issue. While “Nollywood” appeared for the first time in a New York Times article titled “Step aside, Los Angeles and Bombay, for Nollywood” by Norimitsu Onishi in September 2002. The Nigerian newspaper, The Guardian, republished the article a few days later. The rest, they say, is history.
Moreover, the “local” Hausa language has users more than any other West African language. The possible shortage of professionals in Kannywood is due to a lack of support from the government, other stakeholder and investors. Despite all these and more challenges, the film industry stands on its feet and, I believe a little more push will catapult it to the promised land.
Delineating the glaring yet ignored differences between Kannywood and Nollywood is only part of the aim here. The primary objective is to remind Netflix Naija that for “Africans [to] take charge of African stories”, the message its parent Netflix emphasised when launching the local franchise, all Africans – and, of course, all Nigerians – deserve to be carried along.
Nigeria’s entertainment industry is a lot like that of India. Mumbai-originated Bollywood does not and cannot represent all films produced in the vast country. Netflix India understands this truth early on and thus accommodates that diversity so beautifully in its rich library collection of Indian films. There are several exciting films arguably from all nooks and crannies of India on Netflix today. We earnestly wish the same to happen in Nigeria.
Of course, Netflix Naija may argue that the films Kannywood makes are, generally, below their standard. No one can dispute that adequately. However, there are exceptions. Thus, they should get in touch with those exceptional productions. An anonymous top-notch Kannywood director told me that some producers have already approached Netflix Naija. Quite regrettably, they have been, at best, told to go and fix this and that, which they did, and, at worst, summarily snubbed.
Another way to embrace all is via commissioning movies. Netflix Naija can engage Kannywood filmmakers to see the possibility of sponsoring films or series. Northern Nigeria is rich with stories, perhaps more than other parts of Nigeria, thanks to its fantastic mixture and, admittedly, unfortunate incidents like the Boko Haram insurgency. The famous films, Voiceless and The Milk Maid, are only two examples based on a single event – Boko Haram’s abduction of Chibok schoolchildren in the northeast. Netflix can and should have originals from northern Nigeria. I bet that will be a commercial success.
Filming in the North is different from telling northern stories. Thus, having films set in that region is not the same as having filmmakers from the area telling their stories. I am not an agent of division, not at all. I am, instead, an advocate of fairness and inclusion of all, regardless of their culture, ethnicity, region, religion, among other diversities. Therefore, northern Nigerian filmmakers and their films should equally be aboard the ship Netflix captains in Nigeria.
Muhsin Ibrahim is a PhD student and staff at the University of Cologne, Germany. He can be reached via [email protected]