Sex, Nollywood and Nigerian hypocrisy

If you’re one of Nollywood’s millions of fans around the world, you can’t fail to have read one of the sensational headlines in the blogosphere and Nigerian media earlier this year: “Nollywood now producing blue films”, “From Nollywood to Pornllywood”

There were many more: “Nollywood has gone haywire”, “Pornography takes over Nollywood”, etc. What’s going on, you might have wondered? I happened to be chatting with friend and blogger Sugabelly, when one of us mentioned Room 027, so we decided to watch the trailer.

‘Filthy sexual content’
Room 027 is one of the so-called pornographic movies that Nollywood had apparently started releasing. The first thing that struck us was what appeared to be a rape scene. We found this disturbing, as we did the ever-present male gaze: the way the camera lingered over the body of the attractive female actor but not on that of the male actors. The trailer did nothing to pique our interest further, and I promptly forgot about the movie and the entire topic of sexually-explicit Nollywood movies until I came across a trailer for yet another “controversial” movie. And then another. Altogether, I stumbled upon five Nollywood movies that supposedly contained pornographic scenes before deciding to look further into the matter. What I find interesting about these movies is the moral panic around them, the “uncalled for” and “unAfrican” “filthy sexual content” that apparently has no place in Nollywood. Supposedly, the introduction and presence of sexually explicit scenes should now be added to the already long list of problems plaguing Nollywood, such as subpar acting, soundtracks that reveal the entire story, badly titled movies and poor directing.

Is this really porn?
The list of home-grown sexually-explicit movies is surprisingly long for a country suddenly taken aback by sex. There’s Destructive Instinct 3 & 4 by US based Nigerian actress Judith Opara Mazagwu, aka AfroCandy, and Bold 5 Babes, an erotic comedy about women who turn men into BlackBerry phones by having sex with them. Opening with an explicit sex scene between two men was enough to get the film Pregnant Hawkers labelled a “gay porn movie”. There’s The Benjamins, rumoured to have been directed by a teenager, which follows the lives of university students into hip-hop and sex, and of which one commentator concluded “shows too much flesh for the Nigerian context”. The list continues: Bedroom Assassin, Sinful Act 1 & 2, Taboo!, Lesbian, etc. Somebody’s buying this stuff, cos say what you want about Nollywood, it’s not an industry to experiment with content it thinks it might have a hard time selling.

These movies clearly do contain sex scenes, but sex scenes explicit enough to be labelled pornographic? Nigerians have a tendency to exaggerate – it’s not unusual for scene involving a half naked man kissing a woman in lingerie to be labelled a sex scene – but we don’t label Hollywood films with similar amounts of sex pornographic, so why are viewers judging Nollywood films, and actors, by a different standard? One possible answer is that Nollywood has long been seen as a means through which African cultures and mores are celebrated, thus, in the opinion of the morally panicked, sexually explicit scenes are demeaning because they show how the lack of moral values in the West is penetrating the African consciousness.

Some Nollywood fans have noticed this double standard, and the tendency to exaggerate; as one, commenting on this page, asks: “When will Nigeria start [making] blue films [pornography] and stop this nonsense they call sex? Are they shy or what?”. Another writes: “when you think of doing something that has sex, let it convince the viewers not make them furious over nothing”. But these lone voices are drowned out by the much louder voices of people scandalized by nudity and some relatively tame sex scenes. Male actors, producers, but especially female actors involved in such films are routinely called out and shamed, though some of them don’t take the criticism lying down.


A nation of hypocrites?
Collins Onwochei, one of the actors in Room 027, insists he isn’t making porn, and calls Nigerians hypocrites who don’t raise an eyebrow when watching sex scenes in TV shows like Spartacus. Nollywood bad girl Tonto Dike voiced a similar opinion when fans started hyperventilating over her own “porn” movie, labelling her critics “pretenders”. “Why would we enjoy seeing nudity in Hollywood? It’s a fucking profession peeps, grow up. I am all out with my job and fuck you hard if you find otherwise. Rubbish fucking pretenders…”, she said. Benson Okonkwo, who appeared in the “gay porn” movie Pregnant Hawkers, is also quoted as saying “…it’s only a movie and make-believe…We watch movies like that in Hollwyood. Nigerians are hypocrites.”

The release of a trailer for Destructive Instinct 3 & 4 a couple of months ago got everyone in a tizz again and made the female lead AfroCandy notoriously popular with bloggers and online versions of Nigerian newspapers eager to interview her.

Like Collins Onochei and Tonto Dike, AfroCandy calls out the hypocrisy in the reactions of Nigerian netizens, reminding her critics that Nigerians enjoy watching Big Brother Africa, in which housemates have been known to have sex. She also points out the sexism in the reactions. I must say, judging by the trailers only, her work seems to do a better job of portraying consensual sex.

Unless they’re being disingenuous, none of the professionals think what they’re producing is pornographic, but Nigeria’s moral police disagree. Read the comments below articles about these so-called porn movies and if you’re anything like me you will find yourself rolling your eyes in disbelief at the amount of puritanism on display. The furore over sex in Nollywood is partly a reflection of our schizophrenic attitude to sex, one attitude behind closed doors, one when things are out in the open. We are like the conservatives in America, who are the largest consumers of porn but also the loudest voices railing against sex in cinema, and against almost anything to do with sex in general. We know, for instance, that Nigerians rank in the world’s top 5 in Google searches for gay porn, yet we’re among the most vocal in spouting anti-gay sentiments.

Instead of our over the top reactions and hypocrisy, we could be using the issue of sex in cinema to criticise Nollywood’s role in normalising rape culture in Nigeria, or discussing the extremely exploitative ways in which gay people are portrayed in some of these movies. But we would rather claim the moral high ground and pretend that despite being a highly religious country, sex pervades every single aspect of Nigerian society. Thus we are lectured to about the evils of pornography and made to believe that using sex toys means you’re having sex with demonic spouses, while Nigerians frequent strip clubs and support a thriving sex economy. There is a market for porn in Nigeria that has nothing to do with Nollywood. This double consciousness is perfectly illustrated in the fact that AfroCandy saw fit to thank God for the success of her movie, scandalising a few more people in the process.

The Ghanaian connection
It is hard to read about the so-called growth of sexually obscene films in Nollywood without coming across mentions of Ghana. “We [are] extremely shocked at Nigeria’s sudden affiliation to the whole soft porn syndrome. Most Nigerians were insolent to the emerging Ghanaian soft porn movies. Little did we know they were going to take it to the next level” wrote one blogger. Another goes “I wonder what it is with Ghanaians and pornography, maybe it is the only way they can put their movies on the map”. Yet another notes “We have been complaining in Ghana about how some of our movie producers enjoy putting a lot of unnecessary sex scenes in movies, but unfortunately the trend has now been shifted to Nigeria”. Oh, so it’s our Ghanaian brothers who have led us chaste and innocent Nigerians astray? Hmm, I beg to differ. The fact that we eagerly consumed Ghanaian films like Wapipi Jay (which you shouldn’t search for if you reading this at work) shows we’ve long had an appetite for sexually explicit movies. But we like to have our cake and eat it too, watch the films and be titillated so we can speculate about whether the sex was real, and then claim to be scandalized.

With Nollywood expanding and an increasing number of actors willing to show some skin, I expect we’ll be seeing many more films pushing against our conservative threshold, and until such movies really do cross the line, I think we should all just calm down and stop pretending to be such innocent, morally upright pillars.

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