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MUBI Podcast Expanded: Nollywood Unlimited and "Living in Bondage"

Critic Aderinsola Ajao provides historical context to explain the massive influence "Living in Bondage" had on the Nigerian Film Industry.
Aderinsola Ajao
Episode 4 of the MUBI Podcast tells the story behind Living in Bondage, the micro-budget feature shot on VHS that launched the modern Nigerian film industry.
Below film critic and culture writer Aderinsola Ajao expands on her commentary featured in the episode, examining this monumental film’s influence in the early days of Nollywood and its recent 2019 sequel Living in Bondage: Breaking Free
To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here.
Between the late eighties and the early 90s (circa 1988 to 1992) the Nigerian video film industry emerged from the fading shadow of celluloid film production (the celluloid boom was from the 70s till the late 80s) in the country. Escaping the financial trappings of the latter, it was a well-timed moment for video filmmaking, despite the risks of piracy. 
One film largely credited with popularizing the video film format in Nigeria is Living in Bondage, an Igbo-language thriller released in two parts between 1992 and 1993. The films follow the story of Andy Okeke, who is envious of his successful peers and longs to become rich. Driven by greed, he joins the occult and sacrifices his wife as part of a money-making ritual. He gets to enjoy the wealth for a while but must equally live with the haunting consequences of his actions. Filmed with a VHS camcorder and produced straight-to-video, Living in Bondage was produced with around N150000 (US$12,000) and sold close to a million copies.
Upon its re-release in 1993—with English subtitles—the film reached the wider Nigerian audience and brought a topic that was relatively taboo further into mainstream conversation. While newspapers reported cases of human sacrifices for money-making rituals, few people would choose to publicly discuss such stories. Living in Bondage however did this using one of the epoch’s most accessible media: video film. 
Viewed consecutively, the original Living in Bondage films are five-plus hours of drama. Party scenes carry on for minutes—a luxury unaffordable to celluloid filmmakers—perhaps to immerse the viewer in the cultists’ fine living and to draw the envy of the outsider looking in. It is during one such instance that the film’s main character Andy Okeke (played by Kenneth Okonkwo) is convinced to join the occult. Under the guidance of the members of the so-called “millionaires’ club,” Andy falls deeper into the abyss of materialism that he longed for and the bloodshed that he loathed. He is put through a series of rites and rituals and ends up sacrificing his wife, Merit (Nnenna Nwabueze) for money. 
Subsequent party scenes indicate his ascension on the ladder of success. Thanks to Merit’s restive ghost however, public celebrations will cause Andy much torture. Unable to escape, he soon finds himself on the verge of lunacy and the potential eradication of his bloodline. 
Leaning heavily on TV production techniques, Living in Bondage is an invitation behind closed doors (and into secret spaces) to witness not just activities of the occult but to also give an insight into how the man next door had become rich “overnight” in a time of widespread economic hardship. After all, the film’s enduring narrative is rooted in the socio-economic problems of late 80s and early 90s Nigeria. Much has been said or written about the IMF/World Bank-sanctioned structural adjustment programs that led to losses in corporate and personal incomes, with a long-lasting impact on Nigerian businesses and households. 
In order to beat the economic crunch, there were reports of people choosing diabolic means of wealth acquisition. Insecurity was rife and staying home was considered a survival strategy. The film industry was not immune to this crisis: celluloid film production was becoming expensive due to inflation, a hike in import costs, and post-production fees, as the latter was only possible outside Nigeria. With a reduction in its audience numbers, cinemas were also steadily shutting down. Video film production rose to the fore, meeting the demand for home entertainment options and relatable narratives.
These factors provided an opportune moment for Living in Bondage to emerge and succeed. Chris Obi-Rapu, TV producer and director of the film’s first installment has countered the claim that the project was born of a desire to fill up unsold VHS tapes. Rather, he says, there was no question of chance in the making of the film nor was there any doubt of its attendant success. Its producers were certain that they were creating a lasting phenomenon, which would indeed signal the relevance of the Nigerian video film industry that would later be dubbed, “Nollywood.” 
Amongst the production team’s publicity strategies was casting known faces from popular TV soaps broadcast nationwide by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Jennifer Okere (Chinyere) featured in Ripples, while Francis Agu (Ichie Million), Bob-Manuel Udokwu (Mike), Obiageli Molobe (Cult Mother) and Kanayo O. Kanayo (Chief Omego) had recurring roles in Checkmate
It worked and the film also made household names of Kenneth Okonkwo and Nnenna Nwabueze in their breakthrough roles as Andy Okeke, the lead character and his wife Merit respectively. Due to Living in Bondage’s’s impact, most of its cast would be stereotyped as villains in subsequent roles. Kanayo, Okonkwo and Udokwu, for example, are immortalized in memes or comedy sketches acknowledging their numerous villainous roles in Living in Bondage and across their filmography.  
All three reprise their original roles in the 2019 sequel Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, which features another 90s screen favorite Ramsey Nouah in his directorial debut and as the film’s archvillain Richard Williams. When news first broke in 2015 of the intended production, it heralded a new chapter (of remakes) in Nollywood. The film would eventually be produced as a sequel, unfolding nearly thirty years after the cult’s threat to Andy’s life and lineage.  
Clocking in at a runtime of 149 minutes, Breaking Free isn’t just an update on Andy however but on Nollywood and the Nigerian film industry in general. We don’t just see that the objects of Andy’s desire are outdated; it is the same for film production as a whole. Between the first two films and the 2019 sequel, Nollywood has transitioned through VHS, VCDs and DVD distribution formats to cinemas, satellite television and video-on-demand. 
Immense technological advancement is also evident in the difference between the sound, cinematography, editing and post-production of old and new Nollywood films. Plot and story development have been a blend of good and bad from then till now but there is a growing diversity of themes and genres in recent productions. Even Williams, Breaking Free’s main antagonist reminds us, “This is not Nollywood,” a recurring refrain in a number of new Nigerian films. 
In the 90s, Living in Bondage had sparked a conveyor belt of “ritual dramas” or “occult melodramas.” At various points in Nollywood’s history, “cultural epics,” family or inheritance dramas, campus-based films and romantic comedies have been genre du jour. Breaking Free joins a slew of recent films that can be classified as horror but attend the genre on a psychological thriller level, even though it retains elements of the ritual and the spiritual from its original. 
Horror has been a constant genre of choice in Nigerian entertainment and moral spectacle. Hubert Ogunde’s stage and screen productions were known for scaring audiences with its use of immersive techniques depicting battles between the supernatural and the physical; the good and the evil; themes that would be replicated in subsequent Nigerian films, including Living in Bondage. A Nollywood myth that good always conquers evil is however regularly dispelled in new Nigerian cinema offerings including—spoiler alert—Breaking Free
In a similar vein, not all of contemporary Nigerian cinema agrees to be labeled “Nollywood;” the term is however now loosely used to qualify the diverse worlds and narratives that inhabit the wider industry, with distinctions where necessary: for example, independent arty films as well as indigenous Nigerian language films that have their niche audiences across the country. 
Following its November 2019 theatrical release, the thriller had a five-month run with box office earnings currently putting it in 12th place amongst the highest grossing Nigerian films. In May 2020, it was released on Netflix, joining other Nigerian films that have found an eager global audience online. Festivals, satellite TV channels and streamers have become a new avenue for distributing and exhibiting Nigerian films outside the majorly commercial focus of local cinemas and mainstream audiences. 
Breaking Free is not the only redo of a Nollywood classic by its producers Play Networks. A version of Nneka, The Pretty Serpent was released in 2020, and the Glamour Girls remake is scheduled for a December 2021 opening. On the international scene, a more recent Nollywood film, Elevator Baby (Akay Mason, 2019) already has a Bollywood remake titled, Thank you, Brother! (Ramesh Raparthi, 2021).
Nigerian cinema is not stuck on its past successes: not its golden era of the 70s nor the glory days of Nollywood—old and new. Neither is it held back by limited funding or cumbersome censorship. In much the same way as the industry has always operated, there is a future and much promise for its countless self-starters who manage to succeed with or without conventional support and infrastructure. 

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MUBI PodcastNollywoodNigerian Cinema
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