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Photo: Bic Leu

Next Stop: Nollywood

Nigeria’s booming movie industry

The Nigerian film director Desmond Elliott recently issued a rallying cry to his cast and crew: “If you all are half as fast as I am, we can be done in no time!”—that as he raced to shoot two feature films in less than two weeks. With grueling schedules like this, it’s no wonder that UNESCO has deemed the modern Nigerian film industry, popularly known as Nollywood, the second most prolific in the world. Its production volume far eclipses that of Hollywood and almost matches that of India’s Bollywood. In 2010, the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board, the federal regulator of the industry, reviewed an eye-wearying 1,612 domestic releases. This official number doesn’t include scores of others that bypassed the board.

Intrigued by the phenomenon, I arrived in Lagos, the heart of Nollywood production, in September 2010 on a Fulbright grant that would allow me to spend ten months researching the social impact of the industry. Nollywood’s emergence in the early nineties coincided with a Nigerian economic crisis that reduced the availability of expensive celluloid film stock. A Lagos electronics dealer who needed to unload his surplus videocassette inventory stepped into the breach, funding a film shot entirely with a VHS camera. The result was Living in Bondage, Nollywood’s first blockbuster, which sold more than seven hundred fifty thousand copies. Today the independently financed megahits continue on disc, with an increasing number of cinema releases. The predominantly straight-to-video release format allows films to be produced cheaply, on $30,000 to $200,000 (U.S.), and quickly, with shoots lasting three to four weeks. They retail for a mere dollar-fifty to three-fifty and are voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across both the African continent and the diaspora.

To find out how such success has affected Nigeria, I decided to track several movies from filming to marketing, gathering on-the-ground observations. So I proceeded to the set of Ma’ami, a new movie by Tunde Kelani, one of Nigeria’s most celebrated directors. There I got a firsthand look at the extortion that pervades Nollywood. Kelani keeps a budget for “community relations,” and sure enough, he had to dip into it. During the shooting of a scene set on some railroad tracks, Nigerian Railways Corporation officials halted production. They asked to see film permits, even though the tracks in question had not functioned in decades and at that moment were covered by a bustling market. Crew members accompanied the officials to the local police station, where shooting rights were “negotiated.” The community relations dilemma continued when twenty or so “area boys” (underemployed street youths) blocked our exit from the train station. They demanded more “dash”—bribe money—for shooting rights, as well as a chance to meet Ma’ami’s female lead, Funke Akindele, who is one of Nollywood’s biggest stars. After an hour-long standoff, the production manager secured our safe passage for the equivalent of ten dollars.

Later, after I followed Akindele to the set of The Return of Jenifa, I witnessed more extortion, as another gang of area boys demanded the equivalent of $134 per car to enter the private housing estate where a scene was to be shot. The director of photography, DJ Tee, changed locations, but the boys followed. As day turned into night and the pile of their discarded beer bottles swelled, they grew increasingly insistent on collecting their payment. A rowdy fight ensued, delaying production until midnight.

The Return of Jenifa also introduced me to the celebrity culture Nollywood has spawned. The original Jenifa movie was a 2008 comedy chronicling the misadventures of a young woman who leaves her provincial village to attend university in Lagos. It took the country by storm, selling approximately a million copies and launching Funke Akindele into stardom. Now, on location with The Return of Jenifa, the much anticipated third installment in the Jenifa trilogy, Akindele could barely take a step without encountering screams of “Jenifa!” from adoring fans. Crowds gathered to watch, discuss, and document her every move as she engaged in such mundane between-takes activities as napping and eating lunch.

Celebrity worship was in full bloom during the shooting of Ghetto Dreamz, a movie about the wildly popular twenty-three-year-old rapper Da Grin, whose life was cut short by a car accident. Some mythologize Da Grin as Nigeria’s own Tupac, and by the time I arrived on set, the entertainment blogosphere had been buzzing for weeks. Da Grin fans took such a proprietary interest in the biopic that they lambasted the executive producer, Ope Banwo, for his choice of directors. And they complained about the production schedule, which had been accelerated so that the theatrical release date would coincide with the anniversary of Da Grin’s untimely death.

The production schedule for Ghetto Dreamz was leisurely next to that of Desmond Elliott’s Midnight Whisper, for which two language versions were shot at the same time—a Nollywood first. The producer, Emem Isong, wanted to target Ibibio-speaking people of southeastern Nigeria while still making a commercially viable English-language product for the rest of the country. When I visited the set, the schedule covered 246 scenes—123 for each version—over eleven days. Elliott allotted two takes per scene per language, one wide-angle and one close-up. Despite frequent power outages and the interference of generator noise, he knocked off forty scenes in one day.

As my stay in Nigeria drew to a close, I became more and more grateful for the opportunity I had had to meet so many amazing individuals and accumulate so many eye-opening experiences. I found I had also amassed evidence showing that Nigerian society has, by and large, benefited from Nollywood. I observed that a standard movie employs fifty to a hundred people and indirectly provides work for many others, thanks to collateral industries, from the yam vendors who supply the set caterer to the DVD manufacturing plants. At that rate, modern Nigerian cinema supports hundreds of thousands of jobs annually. That’s significant in a country that the World Bank estimates to have a 25 percent youth unemployment rate.

Despite growing pains—the celebrity mania, the breakneck shooting schedules, the challenges of an “informal” economy—Nollywood has grown from a novelty in guerilla filmmaking to a major force in addressing Nigeria’s critical economic issues.

Bic Leu, A07, is the project manager for Del-York International, a communications company that is helping to set up a media production training program in Lagos, Nigeria. She records her observations on the Nigerian film industry at findingnollywood.com.

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155