The Challenges of Making a Historical Film in Nollywood


What is an epic film? This is the question that the producer/director, Lancelot Imasuen, set out to answer as an introduction to the topic, "The Challenges of Making a Historical Film in Nollywood: Invasion 1897 as a Case Study." The occasion was the August edition of the Filmmakers’ Forum of the Nollywood Studies Centre. On that occasion, he spoke at length about his new film, Invasion 1897, a film based on the invasion of the Benin Kingdom by the British.


According to Mr. Imasuen, the genre of the epic film is common worldwide, but the term is largely misrepresented in Nigeria. People erroneously see it as just “a style of filmmaking with large scale, sweeping scope and spectacle, often transporting the viewer to settings of old.” Those that hold this view consequently equate the epic to a showing of mud houses, large crowds, and people dressed in raffia palm skirts. But the true epic is not limited to this; rather, it deals with themes that are of historical, national, religious, or legendary importance and uses an elevated style to celebrate heroic accomplishments. Mr. Imasuen indicated that his desire to make epic style films is motivated by the wish to draw out important events from the past, and to relate the problems and solutions of the past to present realities.


Lancelot Imasuen then went on to speak about the challenges of making a historical film in Nigeria. In talking about such challenges, he said, one must begin by considering the general problems of the country and the common problems that face the Nigerian filmmaker. The Nigerian filmmaker has to contend with the lack of access to public places for shoots; the absence of funding from financial institutions; the drought of trained film professionals; and the non-existence of structures such as sound stages and film villages. All of these lacks make it particularly challenging to produce a historical film in Nigeria.


To make an appealing and believable epic film, the filmmaker said, requires in-depth research in order to come up with authentic period costumes, makeup and scenery. This, in turn, requires well trained professionals that know what to do and can effectively and convincingly create the right atmosphere for the film. Unfortunately, he said, the bulk of filmmakers in the Nigerian film industry – among whom he included himself – had not had the opportunity to sit in a film class. Most of them, he noted, were largely passion driven. Thus, the required skills were often hard to come by.


But the absence of funding turns out to be one of the greater challenges. A convincing epic film is necessarily a big budget film, Mr. Imasuen noted. He said about six million Naira had been spent on research alone for Invasion 1897. In addition the recreation of the historical period concerned required a heavy investment in the construction of props. He noted, for instance, that the ship used in Invasion 1897 had to be built from scratch. This involved felling a tree for the purpose. The guns and the cannon that appear in the film were also produced under the supervision of the police. Thus, he said, 90% of his budget was spent on the crew and props.


In response to a question about whether he would consider his latest offering a ‘new Nollywood’ film, Lancelot Imasuen vigorously affirmed, “Invasion 1897 is a Nollywood film!” He dispensed with the adjective ‘new,’ noting that the changes in Nollywood are merely developmental ones, which were inevitable in any case. “Maybe it’s that Nollywood has come of age,” he said, “and people can [now] distinguish between good and bad.”


Invasion 1897 will be premiered in Toronto at the Toronto Africa film and music festival, in August 2014, and the Nigerian cinema release will take place on the 1st of October, 2014.


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