Since the beginning of Kannywood – northern Nigeria’s film industry and their answer to Nollywood – in the 90s, there has never been any male on female contact. Let me say it again: there has never been contact between a male body and a female body in the thousands of films produced so far. And that’s on the good authority of Bashir Liman, the Kannywood expert and journalist.

One of its most famous actresses, Rahama Sadau was banned in September by the Kano branch of the Motion Pictures Association of Nigeria. Her crime? She appeared in a music video holding hands and hugging the singer. He was a man. This apparently violated the esteemed association’s code of conduct.

But despite its conservatism – or perhaps because of it – the film industry in the northern province of Nigeria is booming. Kano is the country’s most religious state (it has the highest population of muslims, imams and mosques) and Kannywood is gradually catching up as one of the continent’s top film industries. According to Kano State’s film censors’ Board Director General Ismail Afakallah over 1600 movies are produced per year and presented to the board every year.

A quiet revolution is taking place: the identity of northern Nigeria and an African and Muslim way of life is being portrayed on screen.

Out of Nigeria’s 36 states, 19 belong to north and most of the population is from the Hausa/Fulani tribe, which stretches into Niger, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and parts of North Africa. This gives a Kannywood a readily available market for its Hausa-language movies. The growing trend for English subtitles has further increased its reach.

Aisha Tsamiya on set of Light or Dark

A quiet revolution is taking place: the identity of northern Nigeria and an African and Muslim way of life is being portrayed on screen.

Kannywood movies are mostly about love and relationships. For example, Mujadala, one of the industry’s earlier films made in the 90s, featured a love triangle: two brothers fall in love with the same girl and each tries to prove he’s better suited. There are scenes where the three were shown singing and dancing together. It’s no coincidence Hausa people have a deep love for Bollywood movies (hence the Bollywood-like song interludes in Kannywood movies and similar plotlines).

Religious hardliners are insistent that Kannywood is aimed at corrupting the minds of people in the region.

But that’s as far as it goes. Even if a movie requires the father to save his drowning teenage daughter, or vice versa, the scene where he’s supposed to be shown holding her will be removed in order not to offend some people.

This continues to be a major challenge for the industry. Religious hardliners are insistent that Kannywood is aimed at corrupting the minds of people in the region. Over the years, there have been countless sermons condemning the industry and everything it stands for. Plans for a film village with studios for Kannywood were suspended after huge outcries by the state’s religious leaders.

But despite this, and despite its inauspicious beginnings, the industry continues to grow.

‘The truth is people like me never gave Kannywood a chance when it started,’ Abuja-based journalist Bashir Liman admitted. ‘In my mind I said, this will only last a year or two before crumbling considering the environment it was set to operate in.’

The ‘environment’ he refers to is certainly harsh. Preachers are a problem, certainly, but so are resources.

Rikadawa and Sadau get ready for their next scene

Rabiu Rikadawa is one of the pioneer actors of Kannywood. He appeared in its first hit Ki Yarda da Ni (Believe In Me) in 1994. ‘We started this journey when a lot were pessimistic about its long-term impact, at the time we had poor equipment and little training not forgetting continuous threats from religious extremists.’

But despite Rikadawa’s misgivings, the industry has now gone beyond Nigeria and into other countries as far as Asia and the Middle East where lots of Hausas are based.

‘At first we were only seen in Kano, then we started making inroads into neighbouring northern states, then came the big ones,’ the 54-year-old explained.

‘Countries like Ghana, Togo, Mali and Senegal were not only willing to see our films, they were inviting us to come and shoot in their countries or organise award shows on our behalf.’

Compared to Nollywood, the standard of filmmaking is still poor. One person (with little training) often handles two or three roles at the same time. On the set of the new film Haske ko Duhu (Light or Dark), which stars icon Maryam Booth, the make-up artist, Isah Jani, was also in charge of lighting and sounds. It feels like Nollywood a decade ago.

‘The truth is we still have a long way to go in some vital areas,’ the producer Aliyu Safna Moru cannot help but admit. ‘We are not only trying to catch up with our counterpart in the south, Nollywood, but have ambitions of overtaking them in the near future and making a serious impact on the world stage.’

It is not easy. There’s a lack of proper investment, scripting and editing challenges, a lack of available loans for filmmakers as well as a non-existent cinema culture. Piracy is one of Aliyu’s biggest problems. ‘There’s nothing as painful as seeing your work on the streets and on YouTube few days after the release.’

But things are looking up. Young people in northern Nigeria are getting better educated and are mingling more with people from outside their region. More high-profile figures are looking to change and challenge attitudes.

Booth is currently the biggest actress in Kannywood.

Maryam Booth, called by many ‘the queen of Kannywood’, is currently one of the highest-paid and most sought-after actress in Kannywood, having clinched several best actor awards for her performances over the years in hits like Gwarzan Shekara (Hero of the Year) in 2007 and Bani da Zabi (Without a Choice) in 2012. She’s faced it all.

‘Things like that don’t bring me down, the threats won’t stop because some people are either not well informed or just like creating unnecessary escalation of tension. I believe I’m on a mission and nothing of that nature will stop me.’

Booth on set

She’s currently on set for Haske ko Duhu. The film, expected to hit DVD shelves in stores by the end of this year, tells the story of a female English teacher (played by Booth) who is committed to educating young girls in her town. However she faces immense pressure from her conservative community who believe female children are better off being married off.

Northern Nigeria still holds one of the poorest school enrolment figures across the world for female children. The movie is close to Booth’s heart. ‘I’m a strong advocate of girl child education and also an ambassador for several non-governmental organisations.’

Many of the films she has made highlight women empowerment issues. Issues like rape, domestic and child abuse are also portrayed.

The actress has also proved her versatility with her debut in music, recently collaborating with popular musicians like Nazifi Asnanic and Bello Nagudu.

She added ‘I not only act movies but have a cosmetic shop, another one that deals with jewelries, a beauty parlor and a TV show.’ The female actors are role models for thousands of young girls across the Hausa community who hope one day to make the same impact as Booth and Sadau.

But there’s still a long way to go before Kannywood catches up with Nollywood which is far more racy.

After her ban, which many condemned, Rahama Sadau posted a remorseful letter on her Instagram page. The Kaduna-born actress begged for forgiveness anyone offended by her actions.

‘To those who I have offended in any way, shape or form and who I have caused any anxiety by featuring in the said music video, I sincerely apologise.’

‘I may have fallen short of some people’s expectations but it was never my intention. I make no excuses for my actions and I take full responsibility,’ Sadau wrote.

A Kannywood fan, Jamil Dogo, I spoke to, said he was shocked by her apology.

‘Imagine if there’s no holding hands by opposite sex or hugging in Hollywood movies, do you think they would have gotten this far?

‘I don’t think so, if Kannywood is to achieve its aim of conquering the world as it aims to do, a lot has to be changed starting from basic things such as holding hands and hugging.’