July 25, 2021

In northern Nigeria, the conservative Kannywood cinema

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Last makeup touch-ups before filming a scene in the large Kano shopping center on May 28, 2021.

With its impersonal architecture and standardized South African brands, the mall Ado Bayero is a must-see monument in Kano, a city of 4 million inhabitants. Since its inauguration seven years ago, “The largest shopping center in northern Nigeria” has become a popular setting for Kannywood growers, established near Zoo Road, the congested thoroughfare that adjoins the complex. That day, a team of around twenty people gathered at the foot of the grand staircase leading to the fast-food chains and the deserted cinema located on the first floor of the building.

While the technicians adjust their cameras, the makeup artists carry out the final touch-ups. Amal Umar’s cheeks are covered with several layers of foundation and her lips expertly painted in shades of scarlet. Her waist tight in a long lamé dress to match the scarf tied to her head, the 22-year-old actress takes selfies for her Instagram account while waiting to take the stage.

Episode 1 Ivory Coast: in Abidjan, on the trail of old cinemas

“My fans are mostly teenage girls. They love what I do, because they also dream of dancing and singing one day in front of the cameras ”, explains the young actress, who has more than a million subscribers on social networks.

Upstairs in the shopping center, a loudspeaker has just been plugged in and spits out at full volume synthetic rhythms and songs pushed in the treble by the autotune. A couple of actors engage in a slightly hesitant play-back, a big smile plastered on their lips.

Kannywood avant Nollywood

The film crew then moves towards a furniture store, where another couple sketches a choreography in front of a shelf full of plates. As often, the film being shot evokes a love triangle whose plot will be resolved in music.

In the early 1990s, the pioneers of Hausa-language cinema were inspired by what they knew best: Bollywood films, which local television channels broadcast day and night. “Indian films have been very successful in northern Nigeria, thanks to their similarities to our culture. They show women with their heads covered, often shy, and they reproduce the family space dear to Hausa culture ”, underlines Professor Abdallah Uba Adamu, sitting in his office at the Kano Faculty of Communication.

Excerpt from a film shot in the large shopping center of Kano, in 2020.

The Nigerian film industry first developed in the north of the country, he says, but “With less visibility than in the south, due to the Islamic culture”. Moreover, the name Kannywood was coined in 1999 by a native of Kano, three years before the famous term Nollywood appeared for the first time in an article in the New York Times referring to the spectacular growth of the film industry in southern Nigeria.

Nollywood has since overtaken Hollywood, becoming the world’s second largest producer of films after Bollywood. The development of Kannywood, on the other hand, came to a screeching halt in the early 2000s, following the introduction of Sharia – Islamic law – in eleven Muslim-majority states in the north of the country.

A regional censorship committee

Irritated by the swaying actresses, the authorities in Kano first outright ban filming, before a compromise is found: henceforth, cultural production in the Hausa language will be filtered by a regional censorship committee.

“We do not want our values ​​to be damaged by people who are inspired by a foreign culture”, summarizes Ismail Na’abba Afakallah in an affable tone. The executive secretary of the Kano State censorship committee opens the creaking doors of the screening room where films are systematically viewed and redacted.

Filming in a Kano police station, May 29, 2021.

“Kano is the center of the northern cultural industry and Kannywood was born here. We cannot allow the dissemination of obscene scenes which risk destroying our beautiful culture and our religion ”, he explains. The slightest physical contact between a man and a woman on the screen is thus totally prohibited. “A scene was cut in one of my films because of a hip movement considered vulgar”, Ali Nuhu admits with a hint of bitterness.

Now 47, he was the first Hausa star to break into Nollywood. “It’s true that with celebrity, some have suggested that I drop Kannywood to devote myself to cinema in English, smiles the actor, also successful director and producer. I always said no. To last, you have to know how to keep your roots. ” When he receives a script for a shoot in Lagos, Ali Nuhu makes sure that no scene violates the standards in his area.


A rule that he applies to the letter since the famous actress Rahama Sadau was at the heart of a resounding scandal. In 2016, the young woman was permanently banned from the screens in Kannywood for participating in a music video in which we saw her hold the hand of the Nigerian rapper ClassiQ and hug him.

The 27-year-old star was able to continue her career in English, but she came under attack again for “Blasphemy” in November 2020 after appearing in a low-back dress on her Instagram account.

Read also Nigeria’s Politics Inspires Nollywood Directors

So, like Ali Nuhu, producers and directors have made up their minds. “There is inherent self-censorship in Kannywood”, notes the American academic Carmen Maccain who wrote a thesis on the subject. “When President Muhammadu Buhari came to power, he launched a project to build a movie village in Kano, she recalls. Except that everything had to be abandoned after a virulent campaign by religious leaders who felt that it would promote immorality.It’s In the region. “

No need to shock conservative audiences when Kannywood’s films are already struggling to find markets. “There is no more market” is a well-known and repeated tune along Zoo Road. With the entry into the digital age, it has become more and more difficult to make money making movies.

La plate-forme Northflix

“It all depends on the actors, the location… A film generally costs around 10,000 euros. Up to 20,000 euros for large budgets ”, says Mansoor Saddiq, himself an actor, director and producer.

In an attempt to monetize their content, many players in the sector have opened a YouYube channel and Mansoor Saddiq ensures that his brother manages, for example, to release “8,000 euros per month” by showing the episodes of the miniseries he produced. As local television channels cannot absorb all of Kannywood’s production (between seven to ten films per month), the association of film professionals (Moppan) also collaborates with the 2,000 to 3,000 screening rooms which broadcast the matches. football stadium through Kano town.

Read also Behind the success of Nollywood and afropop, the harsh realities of the Nigerian cultural industry

Two years ago, Jamilu Abdussalam launched his streaming platform entirely dedicated to Hausa cinema. The Abuja-based entrepreneur named it Northflix, which earned him some bickering with US giant Netflix. “The idea is to solve the three major problems encountered by Hausa cinema today, he declares. It is necessary both to avoid piracy and to guarantee the accessibility of the content. Sometimes the quality is not there either, especially on YouTube. “

However, there is no question of circumventing the rules in force in the north. The films offered to Northflix must all have received permission to film from the Kano censorship committee, “To be sure that this content remains family-friendly and in accordance with morality”.

African cinemas

The World Africa and his correspondents went to meet African cinemas. Those of a lost golden age as in Ivory Coast or Algeria where, a few decades ago, we thronged in the dark rooms to discover the latest action films or rediscover the classics of national creation.

“Cinemas did not survive the switch from analog to digital” of the early 2000s, regrets the Ivorian film critic Yacouba Sangaré. There as elsewhere, the seventh art had to take side roads to continue to reach its audience. Video stores – from VHS tapes to DVDs – have nurtured a generation of moviegoers.

Some today are trying to revive mythical venues and their demanding programming, as in Morocco or Burkina Faso. Others see in the series a new mode of fertile creation. From fans of the Tangier film library to the conservative cinema of Kannywood, in northern Nigeria, they make African cinema today.

Episode 1 Ivory Coast: in Abidjan, on the trail of old cinemas
Episode 2 In northern Nigeria, the conservative Kannywood cinema