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Nollywood existed before it was christened. Nigerian films were first made in the 1960’s by legendary pioneers like Herbert Ogunde and Ola Balogun. But most cinematic efforts were focused on theatre and folklore. The first generation of Nigerian filmmakers struggled with the expensive production costs of quality film. Shooting on celluloid film, as their foreign counterparts did, was a pricey venture. These early filmmakers needed an alternative, and the solution didn’t come until 1992; when the creators of Living in Bondage had the innovation to record films straight-to-video using a video recorder and abandoned VCR tapes. Their ingenuity launched a national frenzy that drew the world’s attention.  

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In 2002, the industry had grown to incredible proportions, but was still in the process of finding its feet. A correspondent for the New York Times, Norimitsu Onishi, was in Lagos that year; Surulere to be exact. ‘West Africa’s new moviemaking capital’, at the time. Norimitsu sat with producers and directors, listened to the ambitions of young and eager actors, observed chaotic audition processes, and even considered playing the role of an evil white man in a film called ‘Love of My Life.’ In spite of its immaturity, the Nigerian film industry had, by this time, established itself as an alternative to Hollywood and Bollywood in Nigerian and even African homes. Rapidly produced films were being sold by the thousands. In 2002, Nollywood was already fertile ground: grossing $45 million a year in revenue.

But Nollywood did not become Nollywood until Norimitsu Onishi had concluded his observations of the industry in 2002. In the process of trying to explain the fruitfulness of his Lagos visit to his editor, he likened the emerging field to Bollywood and Hollywood: “It’s like Hollywood or Bollywood but in Nigeria — Nollywood!” The word ‘Nollywood’ must have struck a chord with Norimitsu’s editor, because a few days later, The New York Times published Norimitsu’s article with the headline: “Step Aside, L.A. and Bombay, for Nollywood.” The rest is history.

14 years later, in a 2016 article, Norimitsu wrote that he had since acquired a kind of notoriety among Nollywood big-wigs for the name he coined, even though he makes a point of declining full responsibility for it:

“I’ve received occasional queries over the years from the growing cohort of academics doing research on Nollywood: “Was I the one who had coined ‘Nollywood’?” I’d reply that a copy editor had written the headline, but, yeah, sure, “Nollywood” appeared for the first time with my article.

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Norimitsu’s perceived popularity is two-fold. On the one hand, there is the pleasant surprise of hearing Mahmood Ali-Balogun (an acclaimed Nigerian filmmaker) respond with “Oh, yes, you’re Nollywood,” when Norimitsu introduced himself to him over the phone. On the other hand, there is the slight discomfort Norimitsu acknowledged in his 2016 article: the discomfort of knowing he unintentionally christened a foreign industry on a whim.

Norimitsu Onishi is Chief of the New York Times bureau based in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2015, he and a team of other New York Times reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the West African Ebola epidemic. In 2018, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. He is a Japanese-Canadian journalist who has investigated and reported on areas in Southeast Asia, Japan and the Korean Peninsula, and West Africa.





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This article was first published on 20th December 2019


Tochi Onwubiko is a 'Jack' of many trades. A designer, book editor, lawyer and happy freelance writer. She enjoys drinking tea, sitting in quiet spaces, and reading thick books. She hopes to publish books one day. She also loves a good house party. If you know about any good books or parties, leave a comment on one of her posts.

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