Nollywood: An African dream factory

Movies are uniting a disparate continent, and dividing it too, reports The Economist

It all started by accident in 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue, a Nigerian trader based in Onitsha, was trying to sell a large stock of blank videocassettes he had bought from Taiwan. He decided that they would sell better with something recorded on them, so he shot a film called “Living in Bondage” about a man who achieves power and wealth by killing his wife in a ritualistic murder, only to repent later when she haunts him. The film sold more than 750,000 copies, and prompted legions of imitators.

Nollywood, as Nigeria’s film industry is known, now makes over 2,000 low-budget films a year, about two-thirds of them in English. That is more than either Hollywood or India’s Bollywood. The Nigerian business capital, Lagos, is said by locals to have produced more films than there are stars in the sky. The streets are flooded with camera crews shooting on location. Only the government employs more people.

The market traders control Nollywood to this day. They make films for home consumption rather than for the cinema—a place few can afford, or reach easily. DVD discs sell for a dollar. Print runs can reach a million. Studios, both in the physical and the corporate sense of the term, are unknown. There are no lots, no sound stages and no trailers for the stars. “Films are made on the run, sometimes literally,” says Emem Isong, one of Nigeria’s few female producers, during a shoot. “Some of the guys are hiding from the police.” All scenes are shot on location and with a shoestring budget of no more than $100,000.

Most of the financiers are based in a vast, chaotic market called Idumota. It is a maze within a labyrinth. Crowds push through narrow, covered alleys. The sound of honking motorbikes is drowned out by blaring television sets showing film trailers. The flickering screens light up dim stalls lined with thousands of DVDs on narrow wooden shelves.

Nigerian films are as popular abroad as they are at home. Ivorian rebels in the bush stop fighting when a shipment of DVDs arrives from Lagos. Zambian mothers say their children talk with accents learnt from Nigerian television. When the president of Sierra Leone asked Genevieve Nnaji, a Lagosian screen goddess, to join him on the campaign trail he attracted record crowds at rallies.

Millions of Africans watch Nigerian films every day, many more than see American fare. And yet Africans have mixed feelings about Nollywood. Among Africa’s elites, hostility is almost uniform. Cultural critics complain about “macabre scenes full of sorcery” in the films. The more alarmist describe Nigerian directors and producers as voodoo priests casting malign spells over audiences in other countries. They talk of the “Nigerianisation” of Africa, worrying that the whole continent has come to “snap its fingers the Nigerian way”.

Governments can be hostile, too. Several have brought in protectionist measures, including spurious production fees. In July Ghana started demanding $1,000 from visiting actors and $5,000 from producers and directors. The Democratic Republic of Congo has tried to ban Nigerian films altogether. Nollywood’s moguls make no attempt to deny their influence over the continent—they just regard it as a thoroughly good thing. “We give Africa development and knowledge,” says Ernest Obi, head of the Lagos actors’ guild, during a break from auditioning a gaggle of teenage girls dressed in ball gowns. “We teach people things. If they call us colonial masters, too bad.”

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