The story of Nigeria's home grown film industry, which is gaining recognition as a cultural and cinematic phenomenon.
First came Hollywood, then Bollywood and now Nollywood, Nigeria's booming film industry, which released 2000 feature features in 2006 alone. Where else can you shoot a full-length dramatic film for $10,000 in 7 days? Until recently little known outside its own country, THIS IS NOLLYWOOD explains why Nigerian video production is becoming recognized as a phenomenon with broad implications for the cultural and economic development of Africa.
The center of the Nigerian film industry is Lagos, a chaotic, sprawling metropolis of 15,000,000 people with a life expectancy of 51 years and average daily income under $1. Nollywood is a $250,000,000 year industry; each videodisk costs about $2 and sells an average of 50,000 copies (although a hit can reach hundreds of thousands of sales) with returns to the producers often seven to ten times the production costs. The industry is wholly self-sustaining, receiving no foreign or government assistance. Directors of these films are proud to admit that their intended audience is the average Nigerian not international film festivals. There are an amazing 55,000,000 video players in Nigeria reaching 90% of the population.
California Newsreel considered a number of recent films on Nigerian cinema before choosing THIS IS NOLLYWOOD because it offered the most intimate and accurate portrait of the technical, economic and social infrastructure of the industry. At the beginning, a crew member boasts that they will show us step by step how Africans can make movies without any outside help faster than anyone else in the world. The film follows a typical shoot from first day to last, while the director, producer, actors, crew members and notables from the industry, tell us how it all works, why they do it and why they believe locally produced media is essential for Africa.
Acclaimed director, Bond Emerwua, has a nine day schedule and $20,000 to film an action adventure, Check Point. Set in a village outside Lagos, it tells the story of two innocent men robbed and shot by rogue cops who are eventually brought to justice. The film was made against the backdrop of a campaign to clean up the notoriously corrupt Nigerian police force. Emerwua says he makes 'edutainment' because it entertains to get an audience and recoup its costs, but at the same time conveys a relevant social message. Nigerian films regularly involve such controversial issues as AIDS, women's rights, the occult and ethnic differences. Emerwua believes Nollywood films are the most effective way of reaching Nigeria's vast population of 140,000,000, Africa's largest.
Shooting conditions, we soon discover, are much more improvised and unpredictable than in the U.S., Hong Kong or Mumbai. Emerwua does not work in a studio but in the streets and countryside, while everyday life flows around him. Sometimes directors simply draft extras out of passing crowds. One day on location, a neighborhood mosque broadcasts non-stop prayers most of the day, bringing the production to a halt. A tropical downpour ruined another day's shooting. Frequent power outages require that every crew take along a generator. The lead actor, a current Nollywood star, arrived several days late and could devote only four days to the project; apparently, he had accepted roles in three films simultaneously.
The producer and director remain surprisingly calm during all these costly and unforeseen delays explaining that in Nigeria 'filmmaking is an economic adventure.' Emerwua reflects that 'In Nigeria, we do not count walls, we figure out ways to climb over them.' Among all the chaos, he maintains a professional and cooperative set, managing to shoot a remarkable 13 scenes in one day.
Industry veteran Immanuel France describes how this unique system of producing films grew in response to a crisis in the Nigerian film industry at the beginning of the 1990s. Because of civil unrest people stopped attending public theatres and many closed. Then Nigerian television started importing cheap Latin American telenovelas rather than supporting original local production. Nigerian filmmakers had no choice but to find a way to produce inexpensive films for a new market. Low cost video, an innovative technology for feature film production at the time, provided an answer and a new outlet: the VCR.
Before the rise of Nollywood, Nigerians saw mostly American Westerns, Hong Kong Kung Fu movies and Bollywood musicals. In contrast, Nollywood appeals to a hunger for indigenous stories with characters and situations audiences can easily relate to. The popularity of these films has spread across English-speaking Africa and their stars have become celebrities from Zambia to Ghana. Nollywood also provides a vital, constantly up-dated link between the vast Nigerian diaspora and their home culture. Thousands of Nigerian films are already available to immigrants to the United States both on DVD and over the internet.
The Nollywood phenomenon is doubtless an expression of the resourcefulness and vigor of Nigerian society. But it also raises questions about the potential social impact of commercial cinema, especially in the developing world. Does Nollywood in fact depict daily Nigerian life any more accurately or incisively than Hollywood portrays American society? Does it dare expose the kleptocracy which for forty years has kept its citizens impoverished by pocketing the nation:s immense oil wealth? As for cultural preservation, Nollywood narratives seem more influenced by international genres like the action thriller and the soap opera than Yoruba drama or Ibo folk tales. Can we reasonably hope that a cinematic Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka will emerge out of the frenetic deal-making of Lagos? Superstar Saint Obi optimistically predicts that "I believe very soon we are not only going to have better movies, we'll have that original Nigerian movie." For the time being, hard-pressed Nigerians are at least getting their own version of the vicarious excitement and undemanding escapism, which have become the prime commodities of the Information Age. For us, these films may give clearer insights into the apprehensions and aspirations of the average Nigerian than any documentary or political drama.
"This documentary film is a partial but intensely focused image from a dense picture: the current cinematic phenomenon in Nigeria which its title proclaims. With an admirable sense of humor, it captures the gritty and confounding optimism that keeps Nigeria going, against all rational expectations. In its innovative approach to narrative and the contingencies of production characteristic of the industry, This is Nollywood becomes the drama it seeks to document, without losing direction." - Akin Adesokan, Indiana University "Richly comprehensive in scope and insight, the film vividly captures the austere universe, entrepreneurial verve, hardy outlook, and production dynamics of Nollywood's creative ferment. The resilient voices of key practitioners blend with deft editorial touches to yield invaluable depth and dimensions to the complex relationship between this phenomenon, its generative society, and the search for viable models of African cinema." - Jude G. Akudinobi, PhD, UC Santa Barbara "Extraordinary in scope and profundity, the film succinctly renders, in engaging tones, the unique mixture of infrastructural limitations and originative wealth that characterize Nollywood's innovative, revolutionary approach to film-making." - Fr. Thomas Ebong, Ph. D., Independent Film Scholar The strategy of presenting the whole enormous Nigerian video phenomenon through one of its parts-the making of a single film-works brilliantly, vividly illustrating the extraordinary conditions under which the filmmakers work and evoking the personality of this film culture with quiet sympathy." - Jonathan Haynes, Long Island University "This is Nollywood captures the problems and dynamism of making movies in Nigeria while giving a vibrant introduction to this fast growing movie industry. Dealing with rainstorms, missing stars, and power cuts, we see the pressure on Nigerian moviemakers and the guerilla filmmaking they have invented to cope. As the director Bond Emeruwa says, 'In Nollywood we don't count the walls, we have learned ways to climb them'." - Brian Larkin, Barnard College; Columbia University
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