Nollywood has been a term that’s been used to represent the growing Nigerian movie industry since the early 2000s, supposedly coined by a writer from a New York Times article. The film industry has been part of Nigeria’s DNA, providing a visual medium that served as an escape during trying times, a source for mirroring the daily lives and cultures that make up the nation, and most of all as a storytelling channel that has been an aid to documenting the different cultural landscapes within the Nigerian system.
Growing up, shows like Super Story, Fuji house of commotion,This Life, Binta and Friends, were big pictures that became an intervening web for the 2000s kids all over Nigeria. These shows helped shaped our idea of mainstream TV locally and for many became a founding love for cinema.
Fast forward to a new generation of Nigerian cinema, one that has been pushed by a new generation of directors, the internet, and the introduction of the streaming era, a boom in cinemas across the nation and you have “New Nollywood,” a future that sees Nigerian cinema finally finding its footing on the grand scale as more development and investment comes in to help the budding scene flourish even more.
In 2021, PwC reported that Nigeria’s film industry contributed 2.3% of the economy’s GDP, 239 billion Naira ($600 million), and estimated the industry to increase its export revenue to over $1 billion in the next few years. This is good news for new-age directors ready to not only push the Nigerian film industry globally but help reshape its voice as more than just mundane Rom-Com, and Drama.
That’s where Abba Makama comes in, one of contemporary Nigeria’s more exciting directors who made his break with the release of Green White Green, at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Following it up with his most recent masterpiece,The Lost Okoroshi, you can call Abba Makama the future of Nigerian film. His approach to cinema is an eclectic mix of genres creating something he’s termed “Afro-psycho-pseudo-hipster-babble,” giving birth to a unique film style that’s unlike anything else you’ll see but at its core remains innately African and Nigerian without having to overemphasize.
Talking to NativeMag, Abba Makama believes the term “Nollywood filmmaker is almost like being called the ‘n-word’.” For him, accepting this n-word description is relative; there are times he readily embraces it while there are other times he refuses to accept this label.
We spoke to Abba Makama about his love for filmmaking, what inspired him, what being a Nigerian filmmaker in the new age means to him and his upcoming feature.
How was growing up for you? What inspired you?
Abba Makama: So, I grew up in Jos, Nigeria, in the 90s. I grew up during the VHS era you know. So there was a video store called “video mars” in Jos that just had a really good collection of movies and almost every weekend we go rent out films, with my siblings. I think we were allowed to pick maybe two films or so, there was always an argument about what films we would select and I think my older brother was plugged into what was happening at the mainstream level. So if a movie like Back to the Future was made, he was the one who would be like “Oh, this is the new cool film we need to check out.”
My dad happens to be a fan of cowboy culture and the western culture (when I talk about western I mean the United States) so we grew up watching a lot of Westerns, I remember when I discovered Quentin Tarantino and I started realizing a lot of stuff I had already been introduced to when I was a young person.
There were also British comedies as well, and I think that hugely Influenced my comedic choice or even comedic tone in my film. But then, there were also cartoons as well. Tom & Jerry happened to be the reason I use Classical music today in my films, it was inspired by the pacing and the rhythm of classical music and jazz music in the scenes.
I remember, 2004 was when I moved to the United States and that was when Kill Bill 2 came out. I saw the first part when I was in Nigeria, “2” came out when I was in the States and I also had a roommate, a white friend and he had like a great collection of DVDs and he had all of Quentin Tarantino films up until date, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and I went through his collection, I think I watched Goodwill Hunting by the Gus Van Sant and I also saw Fight Club by David Fincher.
I started studying these filmmakers, then I remember we watched Reservoir Dogs on VHS in the 90s. I remember I never even finished it because I was frustrated that a huge part of the film was just in this warehouse and I’m like when are they going to come out of this warehouse, I was just young, I didn’t get it. But I watched it again and was like this is fucking genius. Like everything I hated about it was why I now liked it, and the moment you get stuck into the world of cinema, you just start studying a director, you start studying what he studied, you start studying the people he studied and then you start studying what they also studied.
So you just keep going back and that’s how I just engulfed into this world I remember taking a German Film class and I was so into it that even my essays, the professors would call me after class and we would talk about it and before I knew it I bought a camcorder, and I just started making short black and white films with my friend and at this time I was studying Business Management but all my friends were in the art department either studying visual art or they were doing music and I remember when I moved off campus, I had a friend, Jewish kid who was studying communication or so, and he also wanted to be a filmmaker, by then I was kind of just dabbling but he wanted to be a filmmaker and that’s the energy I was around, and before I knew it this was the only thing I wanted to do.
I graduated and I moved to New York City, NYU, the school had this twelve-week intensive filmmaking class that I enrolled in and it was a really great class. My professors were really amazing. I remember being at NYU and realizing that just based on studying filmmakers and experimenting with my camcorder and everything I was being taught in school and had already learned on my own. I just needed some kind of validation so to speak. After that, I got a job at a production company in New York City, it was a small company. I did an internship there for like 3 months or so. I think the biggest job that company ever got was shooting the like a Cancer campaign that was directed by David Fincher.
I moved back to Nigeria in 2008, and I was in Abuja with my Dad then, I was supposed to do NYSC and I figured the only place that would make sense was Lagos. I was trying to get a job, I was trying to do my NYSC at Silverbird, and lo and behold we had a family friend whose son just started a production company. So I did my NYSC there.
MTV Base at that time just started broadcasting on terrestrial networks. They had blocks on Silverbird, AIT, and I think DBN, whenever it was 6:00 o’clock they would show MTV Base on these channels. So our job was to record MTV Base from DSTV, put them on Mini DV cassette but also put adverts in between because that’s was how MTV was generating revenue, they were selling advertising on their blocks on terrestrial networks. So my job essentially then was to make sure these tapes went out but to also make sure that these commercials ran in between. So, you get a schedule, and on Monday, Pimp My Ride, in between you put one spot of Fanta, one spot of Buttermint, that type of stuff. And, I did that job for like 2 years or so and after that, while I was doing that, I shot my first short film in Nigeria and directed a Nollywood satire about a Nigerian filmmaker trying to shoot a film in one day.
In 2014, I was fortunate to be contacted by a production company in Jordan, that wanted to do a Nollywood documentary, then I didn’t know much about Nollywood but they were looking for some sort of a fixer that would take them around, and then this was also around the time Boko Haram struck.
So, they got scared and didn’t want to come and they were like they are looking for a director and I was like well, that’s what I do and they requested for my works which I showed them they asked if I would be interested in directing and I said sure. It was my first time getting to meet like all the big Nollywood filmmakers and actors from Kunle Afolayan to Tunde Kelani, Genevieve Nnaji you know, interviewed all these people and then I traveled to Jordan for 2 weeks and did the post-production and then the documentary aired in 2015 on Aljazeera world and it did extremely well, it went to a couple of festivals as well.
The same year, President Goodluck Jonathan is trying to get re-elected, he creates the project ‘Act Nollywood’ and people could apply for Grants for films, I applied for a Grant, but I didn’t know anybody, I wasn’t connected, I got some money so that’s how I made my first film Green White Green. I think Green White Green is what changed everything for me. It made me an international filmmaker. I premiered at the Toronto International Film festival, subsequently went to Stockholm, and then I just started traveling.
I found myself in Russia, found myself in Berlin, and found myself in Spain. Netflix eventually acquired it or licensed it for like 2 years and by 2018, I shot my second film The Lost Okoroshi, and the same thing has been happening since, keep traveling, Netflix acquired it, and here we are right now with Juju Stories, same thing, premiered at Locarno film festival, we went to Burkina Faso we screened at AFRIFF, won a few awards and also it’s the first time we’ve released a film in Nigeria cinema’s Nationwide. Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell.
How would you describe the films you create?
Abba Makama: I remember in 2010, me and my friend / co-writer Gabriel Okafor used to joke about the genre of films that would classify my work because it was just a mixture of everything you know, you had comedy, satire, it was mockumentary you know, it was also surreal and dreamlike, magical realism. And I remember we came up with the term “Afro-psycho-pseudo-hipster-babble,” just joking you know, as a genre. Just yesterday, while I was pitching, I just pitched my fourth feature-length film, which we pitched to the European film market. The facilitator of the program was telling me that she liked my films and that they are very Afro-hipster comedies. I was like oh my God, that’s crazy, in a long time that was the kind of label I wanted to call the films but I just hate the term hipster that but she said oh, while we were doing Q&A do I mind if she mentions that and yeah we kind of spoke about it. Yeah, I’m not a genre filmmaker, I’m just a storyteller and I’m like a collage artiste. My films are like collages, you just look at them and there’s a mixture of so many things. It’s like a pixel with multiple topics.
What challenges do you feel your face creating films from Nigeria? Cause you could have decided to be a diasporan filmmaker…
Abba Makama: This challenge of filmmaking is something everybody goes through, even people with big-budget films. Film making is not just easy, but the challenge is now what even gives our films a certain type of texture you know. I mean, it’s the usual, if you are in Nigeria even if you are selling bread or you are selling pure water you know. Infrastructure is going to fucking beat you down and we know that, so you’ll just have to figure out a way around. So, it’s not something I’ll really ponder upon like, I know getting into this what exactly I was going to face. In fact, I decided to make it a mockumentary about a guy making a film and I was like whatever happens while we are making the film, negative or positive, would be part of the story, that would be part of the narrative. So in another way people describe my film, they call it “Meta Nollywood,” because I’m always kind of referring to this theme of self referer or film within a film. So I tend to incorporate all that even with The Lost Okoroshi, we made a bit of Meta as well by referring to this 90s Nollywood shooting in a four-by-three aspect ratio, giving it a little bit of grey, using static shots as poised to movements, just keeping it simple so it looks like it has almost like a VHS quality to it. So, yeah I never wanted to be a diasporan filmmaker, the moment I chose to become a filmmaker I just wanted to come home immediately and start making films because it just seemed like virgin territory.
What do you feel about our cinema moving forward? Obviously, you are one of the leading directors in Nollywood right now, what do you feel about moving as an entire ecosystem?
Abba Makama: I’m excited about its diversity that it’s straying away from being monolithic, because for a long time people just had a certain view of what Nollywood is especially from a European point of view you know, it just equated bad films. Everything is a matter of time like we are in the era now where 90s Nollywood has become an aesthetic back then anybody who is from the upper class frowned upon Nollywood films – they weren’t an aesthetic, people just saw them as trash. But now people are like look at the fashion, look at the aspect ratios, oh look at the VHS grain. So, I’m just happy right now that we are in a diverse space, there is still a lot of work to do.
I keep telling young filmmakers you know, shoot a couple of short films, understand your hand, know your style, and don’t waste time, go in for the feature. They need to be more diversity in our industry for every big budget ‘Wedding Party’ type of film, we should have films that are also making waves and building a community, that’s the only way we can have an arthouse theatre.
There was a time Reservoir Dogs did over a year in the Prince Charles theatre in London. So, that’s the type of energy we are bringing to the game right now that there’s a space and a community for independent films that they can co-exist with the big budget films and there should be an exchange between these communities. There is no reason why I can’t wake up one and say I’m doing a film with Kemi Adetiba or you know, and vice versa. Because that’s what happens in other parts of the world you know.
Do you mind telling me about your next film?
Abba Makama: So, my next film the title is called Kaka Fly. I’m still writing Kaka Fly, which tells the story of a young girl who studied in the United States and moved back to the Jos. It’s a comedy-drama. “Kaka means grandmother of grandfather in Hausa.” So, this is going to be my first film shot outside Lagos, I just did a pitch for it at the European film market, hopefully, someday the audience is willing to give me a million dollars to shoot it, so we see how it goes.
Tell us about how you got into painting.
Abba Makama: I’ve always been a visual artist, even as a child, I remember my dad told me that just a couple of years when I was younger when he came to pick me up from school and the teacher stopped him and said, that, “oh look, your son has exceptional talents, the school wanted to do a book and publish some of my drawings or something like that. I don’t think he agreed, I can’t even remember though, it was when I said I was going to be a filmmaker, and he wasn’t surprised. And that my side of creativity obviously came back you know. Because at some point I guess I ignored it, I was just being a rebellious child, just fooling around, going to parties, doing all kinds of nonsense in Jos I wasn’t really focused on developing that side. So, I’ve always been a visual artist, and again, when I lived in the US, I took a couple of art classes, I think I took a drawing class, and then I took 2D design. I did some art classes, and at some point, I even wanted to be an architect when I was young. I really did well in technical drawing. So, for me, filmmaking, painting, same expression just different mediums I guess.
How would you describe your art?
Abba Makama: I don’t know. I don’t have a word for that because I can switch. I can go from pop art to something minimalist to abstract expressionist. I’ve not painted in a while, in a couple of months to be honest because I’m really trying to figure out the next thing I’m going to do. I’ve been studying alot about the use of glass and light as well. I might do something in that medium. I don’t know.