The rise & rise of women filmmakers in Nollywood

Everywhere you turn, women are playing vital roles in this era of exciting filmmaking.

It is an unprecedented time for Nollywood. These days, Nigerian films are racking up huge numbers at the box office and finding easier access to slots at festivals around the world. There are also more pathways, especially bolstered by the ubiquity of streaming, for Nigerian films to reach global audiences and bring in more money and attention to the filmmakers. One thing, though, that is clear in this latest phenomenon is that there are more women—whether as directors, producers or boardroom executives—than there ever contributing to the rapid expansion of the film industry.

Dating back to the nascent period of 1970s, the Nigerian film industry has usually been characterised by male hegemony. When the 1990s came along, moving past the TV golden era of the ‘80s, the situation was still the same, yielding names such as Kenneth Nnabue, Tunde Kelani, Tade Ogidan, Chico Ejiro, Zeb Ejiro and Teco Benson, among others. A fallout of this was that the portrayal of women in Nigerian films only served to uphold the stereotypical and misogynistic views of society, where women were subservient to men and weren’t expected to take up leadership roles. But amid the heavy gathering of names, one woman distinguished herself.

Through her productions, Amaka Igwe upended the patriarchal expectations of the things a woman should do or become. Her portrayal of female characters bears a feminist view, with the women possessing realistic human qualities. Her 1996 film ‘Violated’ addressed the prevalent problem of gender-based violence in Nigerian society while also ensuring her female character shone with agency. In her 1999 film To Live Again’, a woman finds love outside her marriage. In her TV series Checkmate’, Ego Boyo played Ann Haatrope, one of the lead characters in the family drama. Amaka Igwe’s productions proved to be influential, igniting the revolution that inspired more women to venture into filmmaking and tell their stories.

“My own path to directing is thanks to one very special woman, Igwe, who was one of the biggest names in Nollywood and, in fact, throughout Africa. For many years, she was the only well known female director and she was a pioneer for developing our television industry, too,” said Tope Oshin, a producer and television and film director. “Igwe is that one person, who took me out of this mindset that women are less; that there are some things that women can do and some they can’t do. At some point, she told me, ‘I like your process as an actor; I think you will do more if you continue this way. I think you will make a good director.’ I thought she was joking because, for me, only men could be directors and she insisted, ‘If you have the talent, go ahead and be what you want to be!’”

In 2016, Tope Oshin released the documentary ‘Amaka’s Kin: The Women of Nollywood’ to highlight Amaka Igwe’s contributions to Nollywood and chronicle the journey and challenges of Nigerian female directors. The documentary also had female filmmakers share their stories on how Amaka Igwe inspired them to enter filmmaking; they include Mildred Okwo, Omoni Oboli, Blessing Effiom-Egbe, Michelle Bello, Adeola Osunkojo and Jadesola Osiberu, among others. It was also Amaka’s Igwe influence that spurred Ego Boyo (who had starred in Igwe’s productions Violated, Checkmate and To Live Again) into filmmaking.

“We worked so successfully together that she spoiled me for other writers/Directors. I have not worked with that many since Amaka, only a small number of people who I judged to be close to her standards,” Boyo wrote in a tribute after the passing of Igwe in 2014. “She was my mentor. When it came to all things Industry she had an opinion of what I should do and she always told me, ‘Ego oyinbo we have to do this, you have to come and do this or that. You have to make this film,’ do this or that, always something. She was my Nollywood link; she kept me anchored to the industry.”

Years later, Amaka Igwe’s impact has yielded numerous results. With the success of her directing TV series and films, Tope Oshin has become an important figure among the names of Nigerian filmmakers making an impact in the country and around the world. As a producer, she has also scored success with 2017’s ‘The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai’ being one of the highest-grossing Nigerian films in history. Mildred Okwo is another veteran whose works have inspired female Nigerian filmmakers. Her productions, mostly especially 2012’s The Meeting and 2021’s ‘La Femme Anjola’, have received critical and commercial acclaim.

In terms of storytelling, the influx of more female filmmakers has boosted the representation of women in film as well as challenged patriarchal narratives. In Jadesola Osiberu’s ‘Isoken’ (2017), Dakore Egbuson-Akande plays the titular character, a woman in her mid-30s who has a successful career yet faces pressure from family and society because she is unmarried. In a breakaway from the usual of desperate unmarried women in Nollywood, Isoken is focused on herself and sticks to her desires in her choice of a romantic partner.

In Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys franchise (2018 & 2021), the lead character Eniola Salami (Sola Sobowale) is a vicious antihero whose characterisation subverts a role that is usually reserved for male characters and considered normal for men in Nigerian society. Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart’ (2018) casts her as the lead character named Adaeze Obiagu, an ambitious entrepreneur who is faced with the responsibility of saving her father’s company. This choice of characterisation toes the path begun by Amaka Igwe and enforces that women are not one-dimensional but fully functioning human beings with flaws and strengths.

There has also been a rise in female executives who handle the bulk of the decision-making that goes into filmmaking. Mo Abudu is one of them. After years of working in the corporate world, she entered the entertainment and media industry, founding EbonyLife Studios, which involves a TV company, a film company, a cinema company and a film academy. “In my subconscious, I have always had the desire to rewrite the African story. I always wanted to talk about the issues facing our society,” Abudu revealed in an interview. “Importantly though, I have always been disturbed by portrayals of African life and people’s perception of Africa. I have always believed that despite our challenges, Africans are a breed of gifted and remarkable people.” Abudu’s company has produced over 20 projects and inked deals with international film companies, most recently finalising one with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures.

Inkblot Productions is another film company with a woman at its helm. “It is important to have female voices to tell female stories. It is even more important that women are part of policy conversations,” said Zulumoke Oyibo, one of the company’s co-founders. Inkblot Productions has deals with Netflix and Prime Video and has its hands in some of Nigeria’s highest-earning Nollywood films in recent years, which includes The Wedding Party franchise (with Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Films also in the picture). It is important to note that at least five of the highest-grossing Nigerian films in the recent decade feature either female directors or producers.

Outside of the mainstream, Ema Edosio is another success story. Her low-budget 2018 directorial debut ‘Kasala!’ featured newcomer actors but was a solid effort that caught people’s attention during film festivals. Released in October of that year, it would take two months before getting accepted by cinemas. In 2020, Edosio’s film would reach a wider audience after it premiered on Netflix. The Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim-directed Ìfé (2020) would signal the rise of stories that centre sexual minorities in Nigeria; executive produced by Nigerian LGBTQ rights activist Pamela Adie, Ìfé’ is the first lesbian-affirming film in Nollywood. While the film received pushback from the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), Ìfé will stand as a testament to the fearlessness of Nigeria’s queer women.

Despite the usual issues of funding, piracy and conservative censorship that bedevil the Nigerian film industry, female filmmakers have shown that they are worthy creators whose insights and stories shouldn’t be taken for granted, and whose place at the table is deserved. With more commercial and critical acclaim and partnership deals in store, Nigeria’s female filmmakers are running farther with the flame lit by Amaka Igwe and lighting the path for future generations of women.