NIGERIA: Isoken (2017)

by Sanvi Bangalore

Please watch the video before reading the crafter statement.  Thank you.

When I first started researching Nigeria and its film industry, I formed the view that Nollywood champions the lives of everyday Nigerians on a worldwide scale, being one of the most prolific film industries in the world while still telling fairly Afrocentric stories. These films, especially at the beginning of Nollywood’s rise, were the epitome of genuity and reflectiveness to Nigeria because of their lower production quality and self-made direction. Nollywood is known to produce films with surprisingly minimal resources, as they are created under volatile circumstances with unfavorable production environments. This is why journalist Norimitsu Onishi coined the term “Nollywood” which translates to “nothing wood,” alluding to the creation of something out of perpetually nothing. The “nothing wood” spirit of the Nigerian film industry is what makes it a true grassroots collective that has not only become profitable for the country, but has created thousands of jobs. It is an industry built by its people and is constantly evolving by contemporary filmmakers.

Contemporary Nollywood is not as reflective of the aforementioned characteristics- the films feature national celebrities, extravagant sets, and intricate makeup and costuming. “Nollywood has become globally recognized for practitioners in film, including script writing, directing, sound, acting, cinematography, make-up, and editing” (ITA 1). PwC Global Entertainment and Media Outlook for 2020-2024 has named Nigeria’s media and entertainment industry as one of the fastest growing creative industries in the world. To support this, Nollywood was valued at $3.6 billion in 2016 and is projected to be worth $6.4 billion by 2021 (ITA 1). It has the potential to become the country’s greatest export; Nigeria’s film industry contributed about 239 billion naira ($660 million) to GDP in 2021.

The film, Isoken, a 2017 romantic comedy directed by Jadieola Osiberu, is a proud paradigm of the glitz and glamour comprising contemporary Nollywood. All of the costumes worn (especially by the women) are vibrant and lavish, the sets are grand and gorgeous, and both the dialogues and the visuals of Isoken have an upscale, modern feel to it. However, this film also touches on social issues in Nigeria, specifically regarding the undue pressures placed on women to marry. We follow this theme through 34-year-old Isoken as she navigates the prospect of marriage in a patriarchal society laden with cultural expectations, racial stereotypes, and familial pressures. Isoken’s mother, while holding redeeming qualities and respect in the family, is very displeased with her daughter studying and working, as she believes it is not characteristic of a woman. The video essay begins with clips from Isoken which display the movie’s feminist  commentary and then transitions into the words spoken by critically-acclaimed Nigerian writer Chindamanda Ngozi Adichie which have similar ideas.

When I first viewed this film, I thought it was a happy, beautiful movie with a strong message. However I started to view contemporary Nollywood and the film Isoken through a different light after I had a conversation with a Nigerian taxi driver coming back from the train station. The driver (remains anonymous as per his wishes) expressed his aversion to Nollywood films as he believes they are fake and dishonest. Some of this conversation is documented in my video essay, but he also made some fascinating comments that were not filmed or included. As we are making the drive from Union Station to American University, he points at some of the ritzy hotels and embassies and says that Nigerian filmmakers will only film such buildings, which are few and far between in more areas. He hates how all these films feature clean, running water, nice cars, and expensive buildings because he believes that the majority of Nigerians do not enjoy those luxuries.

I then viewed Isoken through his lens, and it became obvious that the opulence shown is not the most authentic representation of Lagos, which is where the film is set and filmed. “Lagos is often referred to as the “Megacity of Slums” because while it has over 6,000 millionaires (and even multi-millionaires and a handful of billionaires), a vast majority live below extreme poverty levels” (Nwogu 1). Research claims that two out of three residents of Lagos live in the city’s notorious slums where people have limited access to education, good roads or clean water. Then, even the feminism arch that Isoken has seemed sugarcoated to me- Isoken was still financially stable, had multiple romantic prospects, was not forced into marriage like the majority of African women, and film ends happily with her traditional mother approving her interracial relationship. It raised the question if the fight that Isoken fought in the film was even somewhat reflective of what Nigerian women actually go through. At this point of the video essay, I include a montage of luxurious clips from the film- which include an elegant restaurant, a fancy spa with running water, Isoken drinking champagne on a boat, and a beautiful resort with a pool.

Next, Nigerian artist Ckay’s “love nwantiti” abruptly remixes into “This is Nigeria,” a song parody uploaded to Youtube by Nigerian rapper Falz in 2018. Much like the original by Childish Gambino, the lyrics are serious cultural commentary. “This is Nigeria/Praise and worship we singing now/Pastor put his hands on the breast of his members/He’s pulling the demons out” (Genius 6). These lyrics are referring to the horrific sexual assaults committed against mostly young women in Nigeria in churches. The music video fades into clips from a documentary which explains these assaults against women. Much like the taxi driver mentioned before, the dirt streets and working women seen in these clips is much more representative of the Nigerian lifestyle- but can only be found in a documentary. This video essay explores both women’s rights and poverty in Nigeria and how Nollywood films address and represent these issues, revealing that ultimately these are complex problems.

Works Cited

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