The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines culture as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. In other words, culture embraces tangible objects (artefacts, monuments, cultural spaces, utensils etc.) and intangible essences and ways of life (practices, performances, expressions, skills etc.) shared by a group of people, and which distinguish them from other people. The notion of cultural heritage, therefore, encompasses all tangible as well as intangible cultural expressions and representations that are collectively recognised or appropriated by a group of people for their value as evidence and historical memory and which merit being protected, preserved, and enhanced for the purpose of transfer from one generation to another.
One major way societies have preserved and passed on their cultures from one generation to another is through their artistic performances, which they display at special occasions, either for commercial returns or for purposes of cultural reconstruction. Technological and scientific revolutions have further made the collection, preservation and presentation of dramatic performances of cultures of the world possible beyond their immediate environment, through cinema and motion pictures or films and, recently, the internet. Beside their social and commercial values as objects of entertainment, films reflect the culture of the society that produces them. Even though films are artistic and creative productions, they are remarkably important as a major piece of the nation’s memory and cultural legacy.
As a result, the film industry in many nations of the world has become a major instrument of cultural orientation and re-orientation. For instance, Nollywood in the United States of America and Bollywood in India have proved to be much more than filmmaking extravaganzas loaded with stars and special effects. In addition to their commercial and entertainment values, they have become a viable means of projecting the culture of the people to the outside world.
Nollywood, the flagship of Nigeria’s celluloid film enterprise, have become the symbol of the collective memory of the time and space they were produced. Nollywood films have become major cultural export items. This is, partly, because in just three decades, Nollywood had been transformed from being videographers’ experiments in home movie production into a multi-billion naira industry. Presently, the avant-garde Nollywood motion picture and stories that are released weekly on the labels of local and international producers through both terrestrial and online platforms are easily translated into instant successes all over the world. In spite of the depredatory nature of film piracy that is making the business of moviemaking in the country a commercial wreck, Nollywood films producers still smile to the bank. The creative achievement of Nollywood filmmakers was so high that in 2009 Nigeria was rated second in the world in a UNESCO survey based mainly on the quantum of films produced, only next to India. At the moment, it is difficult, if not outright impractical, to determine the number of films that are churned out by Nollywood producers on a daily basis, let alone keep tab on the total number of movies produced annually across all genres, due mainly to lack of proper record-keeping. Vaguely, they are estimated to run into billions of naira on the nation’s annual international trade balance sheet.
In terms of their cultural value, certain Nollywood films, the epic movies in particular, offer a wide–ranging socio-cultural view of the country and its people that are unavailable anywhere else. As a purveyor of popular culture, Nollywood films come across more to non-Nigerians as an instrument of cultural socialisation that offer a glimpse into the soul and mind of the nation than a cinematic landmark. Movies on subjects such as crime, abortion, Hiv/AIDS, and politics, for instance, have served as potent civic orientation tools, and have helped to shape public attitudes and opinions in myriad ways, beyond their commercial values. Indeed, the remarkable impact that some Nollywood blockbusters have brought to bear on ethical, social and political issues in Nigeria have proved that the printed word, no matter how evocative, is no substitute for the viewing experience.
Unfortunately, the impression Nollywood motion pictures produce in the average Nigerian viewer is as if their relevance consists merely in being a platform for theatre celebrities, rather than cultural materials that they truly are. This should come as a surprise if the so-called ‘Nollywood stars’ have been acting as a mirror, providing role models that reflect the prevailing values of the culture of Nigerian societies. However, the phenomenon of previously unknown individuals becoming famous only for being famous for the roles they play in movies and not because of their accomplishment as culture ambassadors is rather disturbing. With actors doing the sort of things that questionable people might themselves do in everyday life, Nollywood movies raise profound question about cultural identity.
Perhaps, more disquieting is the tendency that the contents of most Nollywood blockbusters are more likely to be richer in alien cultures than in the local cultures. A major pointer of this is the alarming rate at which excessive emphasis is placed on amoral expressions, including nudity, sex, violence and other social tendencies that resonate with some trappings of Western slum culture and Western-oriented movies, which have invaded the cinematic landscape of the country. How this recklessness escapes the watchful eyes of the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) is regrettable. One major challenge of the situation is that as less and less Nollywood productions portray the cultural property of the people of Nigeria, their potential as both material and intangible heritages of the people is lost.