“Old Nollywood,” Meme Culture, and The Fluidity of Time

Stephanie Linus, Ini Edo, Uche Jombo, Genevieve Nnaji, Rita Dominic, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde at Nnaji’s 40th birthday event on May 3.

Some years ago, when the internet was still a new, shiny, and fairly populated place full of discovery, I came across a marriage proposal I would later ruminate on and never forget for what I considered then as weirdness, chewing over it to decipher the appeal of using such methods to propose a forever after to the one you love.

The woman, whom my memory now says is to be Chinese American, is standing in a shop and turns around to her soon-to-be fiance holding out large white cards with images on them which were drawn out in sequence. Each one was some variation of a large-headed, stick figure sometimes laughing by “shining its thirty-two,” other times depositing an exaggerated pool of tears on an imaginary floor. The woman was enamoured and I was left wondering why anyone should react so to these ugly characters.

Later on, I would find out that those were called memes. At the time, I was still getting used to the fact that a semicolon and a bracket was really a smiley face when you turned your head sideways, in fact, till this day, I pride myself on discovering its use at the end of sentences all by myself. Being creative with keyboard characters would later become all the rage; it was almost possible to create 2d stop motion out of dashes, underscores and a few emojis.

But these memes, even though I came to understand their usage in the abroad corners of the internet, never quite did it for me. Blame it on internet penetration, becoming creative and skilled in the ways of the internet took longer than most for some of us, and is still taking a while for others. However, even though we hadn’t developed a thriving internet culture then, without knowing it, we were creating an archive of content for use for when that day comes that Nigerians will finally develop, as usual, our unique brand of the internet.

Despite having been criticised for its see-through storylines, its absence of scores and overdramatic piano riffs, bad CGI, unnecessarily long scenes and exaggerated, almost unbelievable, acting, Nollywood “home videos” still retained the ultimate allure in that it was for us, and by us. The action movies of Nicholas Cage and Jean-Claude Van Damme, the romance of Jack and Rose in the Titanic and the ability of Steven Seagal to single-handedly take down a mafia, children’s imitation of Jackie Chan’s fighting and the allure of decadence in Roman-centric films: all of that may have been exhilarating and beautiful to watch, imagine and experience. But you see, when Uche Jumbo gets angry and her brows furrow into something that seems alive, when Genevieve Nnaji flips around to deliver a dose of “you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” and when Tony Umez finally wakes up from a love charm and discovers the one who had loved him all the while, that is us. Yes, it is not fully ranged, the inherent misogyny shows up now and again, and the endings almost always end up with a “man of God” binding and casting, but it is still us with all our tendency for drama and overreaction on the streets, at an event, in places of worship and in our families.

Osita Iheme (Pawpaw) alongside an actress in an old Nollywood movie. Courtesy: nollywoodroll/Twitter

Nollywood was behind in advancing with the latest technology and heavily conducted storylines, most people would agree. And others went on to correct what was missing with what they imagined to be what we should be creating instead which, most times, turned out rather dull and lacking in the heights most people were now used to. In addition, the struggle for the ever elusive, well written, affordable, cohesive, Nigerian storyline would, more often than not, simply end up trading one manner of representation for another: a truckload of bourgeois-living reenactions which the watcher enjoyed like something foreign but which one did not think too much about beyond reality gossip about the actresses themselves, caring even less about the movie itself.

Today, vintage home videos have become a treasure trove, but not for any of the reasons which it could have imagined. The second decade of the new millennium is about to come to a close and Nigerians have more internet penetration than ever, bringing along with themselves all the nuances and uniqueness that come with being Nigerian. Everything that was said to be bad about what some refer to as “Old Nollywood” is exactly what makes it brilliant for the meme culture that has finally been caught up to, and which thrives wholesomely.

Courtesy: yungnollywood/Twitter

Memes have evolved from being the stick figures with big heads to incorporating 2d images frozen in time, GIFs and even 2–7-second clips which emulate what the West once referred to as vines, a culture that most Nigerians never even encountered.

For once, there was no need to import a culture that no one relates to for general identification as is common in the West African nation. Old Nollywood has been here all along. Watch any movie, even more so when it's muted, and you will be sure to come up with hilarious captions, comments about everyday occurrences and imagined reactions to scenes which most likely are discussing something entirely different. Female protagonists formerly thought to be in a bad light and portrayed as a lesson learnt now tell a different story when excerpted. So do male leads who were thought to be morally upstanding. So do religious leaders and married men who were portrayed to be “waylaid.”

Accounts like yungnollywood and nollywoodroll on Twitter realised this early enough and played it to their advantage, the former even going on to create merchandise for sale. Instagram Skits and videos reenact this previously derided Nollywood aesthetic to the thrill of their followers who keep asking for more. And occasionally a random individual uploads a screenshot of his TV set with an image that would make the rounds as the new meme on board.

Its use has crossed the cultural boundary and found its place where no one would have thought possible without the boundaryless capabilities of the internet — large known gif and meme repositories lack niche cultural representation and this makes it even more enticing when one comes across a perfect depiction of an experience that you can relate to. It could even be said that the Balenciaga fashion brand had a person or two telling them things about Nigerian home videos in their Summer 19 Campaign meeting. The video clip which aired in February combined the Matrix movie elements and Nollywood-like low-fi special effects to produce the white, Obalende version of Neo and Trinity carrying around Balenciaga bags.

And this is why Old Nollywood home videos will not completely transform despite counterparts chasing cinematic reveals and well-written storylines: it has found new meaning even beyond its previously colonised audience who are deconstructing their previously held beliefs about themselves and finding community and comradeship through newfound appreciation for that which is for us, and by us without any influence from that which compares us to what we are supposed to be.

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Adaku Nwakanma

Adaku Nwakanma

I write about digital product design.