AN AFRICAN academic with a coiffed mane is sipping coffee in a Ghanaian airport when he spots a pulpy Nigerian film on an overhead screen. “A travesty, a grave crime,” he splutters. “Such imbecile images should never be shown in this country. They are veritably poisoning our culture.”
It is hard to avoid Nigerian films in Africa. Public buses show them, as do many restaurants and hotels. Nollywood, as the business is known, churns out about 50 full-length features a week, making it the world’s second most prolific film industry after 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.
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. Jean Rouch, a champion of indigenous art in Niger, has compared Nollywood to the AIDS virus. 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. Five decades after much of Africa gained independence, its elites fear being re-colonised, this time from within the continent. “The Nigerians will eat everything we have,” says a former official at the Ghanaian ministry of chieftaincy and culture.
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.”
The history of cinema in Africa is bound up with colonialism. The continent’s first films were imported by European rulers and shown in grand viewing halls with columned porticos. The aim was to entertain expatriates, but also to impress and cow locals. John Obago, a retired teacher, was eight when he saw his first moving picture in 1930s Kenya. “Oh, the elders did not like it,” he remembers. “But we just loved it. We were fascinated sitting there on the clean floor and seeing these white people get in and out of restaurants and buses.”
|Who are you calling a ham?|
American and European directors were soon visiting the continent. They enthusiastically filmed elephant hunts, vividly coloured parrots and dutiful but dim native porters. They produced some classics. “The African Queen”, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and shot on location in Uganda and Congo, has aged particularly well. But many “jungle epics” were greeted with charges of racism. In the heated era of independence they came to be seen as tools of foreign domination.
The first true Nollywood film resulted from an ill-advised business venture. In 1992 Kenneth Nnebue, a trader, ordered a large consignment of blank videotapes from Taiwan. Finding them hard to sell, he hired a theatre director to make a cheap film and copied it onto the tapes to boost their appeal. “Living in Bondage”, the story of a farmer in a big city who loses his wife and is haunted by her ghost, sold more than half a million copies.
Many Nigerians still remember the first time they saw “Living in Bondage”. Odion, a drug addict with a toothless smirk on a street corner in central Lagos, says, “All of us kids at the time, even the under-tens, watched it and we just had to have more. I tell you, I tried many things since then. None is as addictive.”
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.
Desmond Akudinobi, a small man with darting eyes, runs a stall the size of a double bed. He opened it in 1999. By 2005 he had raised $20,000 to finance his first film. It was called “Without Apology” and made a small profit. Since then he has produced 10 more films. Every six months or so he buys a script from one of the many itinerant writers trawling the market, and hires a producer and crew. He prints discs in Alaba, another Lagos market. Some go onto his grimy shelves; many others are exported.
As soon as a film is released, copyright thieves rip it off. It takes the pirates just two weeks to copy a new film and distribute it across Africa. The merchants must take their money during that fortnight, known as the “mating season”, before their discs become commodities. As soon as the mating season is over they start thinking about the next film.
The merchants curse the pirates, but in a way they are a blessing. Pirate gangs were probably Nollywood’s first exporters. They knew how to cross tricky borders and distribute goods across a disparate continent where vast tracts of land are inaccessible. Sometimes they filled empty bags with films when returning from an arms delivery. Often they used films to bribe bored guards at remote borders. The pirates created the pan-African market Mr Akudinobi now feeds.
Other African countries made films long before Nollywood. Senegal in particular produced many movies featuring traditional songs and dances. Critics referred to such products as “embassy films” after their mostly diplomatic financiers (notably the French foreign ministry). Many catered to the sensibilities of their European sponsors. Scenes were laboriously captured on celluloid, at great expense. By contrast, Nollywood is cheap and nimble. Films are shot on digital videocameras. Scripts are improvised. Camera work can be shoddy and editing slapdash. But the sheer volume of output—a response to the piracy problem—eventually overwhelmed the embassy films.
Several things have aided Nollywood’s growth. Atrocious state-run television and slow internet connections mean there is little competition for entertainment. A steady decline in the price of digital cameras and a rise in average incomes makes for healthy profit margins. Yet the same conditions exist in many developing-world countries that have not created vibrant film industries. Three other ingredients are crucial to Nollywood’s formula: language, casting and plotting.
In Europe films intended for export are often dubbed or subtitled. In Africa the former is too expensive and the latter pointless since many viewers are illiterate. The actors in Mr Akudinobi’s films speak English, rather than one of Nigeria’s 521 native tongues. This helps their prospects abroad. Large parts of the continent are familiar with English thanks to colonialism, and Nollywood’s influence is spreading the language more widely.
Clever casting is as important as the choice of language. Producers routinely hire actors from target countries to broaden their films’ appeal. A Kenyan might be cast to aid a marketing campaign in Kenya; a South African will be cast to appeal to South Africans. “I need a known face in each market,” explains a veteran producer.
Diverse casts can often be assembled without leaving Lagos. Actors from across the continent flock to the city’s Surulere district, hanging out in the muddy bars around Winis Hotel and at Ojez, a late-night restaurant with a band. Miriam, a gangly girl from Benin, is drinking beer in the afternoon. “I’m waiting for my first role,” she says. “We have so crazy many Nollywood films at home. They must want someone like me, right?”
The films’ plots too have strong pan-African appeal. They often revolve around the travails of new arrivals in big cities—an experience familiar across the continent. The epic film “One God One Nation” portrays a Muslim man and a Christian woman who struggle to marry. “Caught in the Act” shows a wife who is wrongly accused by her own mother-in-law of abducting a child. Nollywood films depict families whose faith has been shattered, whose certainties have been undermined. They show ordinary people struggling to make sense of a fast-changing, unkind world. Aspirations are dashed. Trust is forsaken. The overarching theme of Nollywood films is Africa’s troubled journey to modernity. Because Hollywood films tend to show people at the other end of that journey, they fail to resonate.
|Pampering the talent, Nollywood-style|
Plenty of juju and Jesus
African elites sneer at the frequent displays of witchcraft in Nigerian films. Traditional curses are imposed, spirits wander, juju blood flows. The tribulations of modern life are often shown to be the result of shadowy machinations. Murder and the occult are never far from the surface. “It is the Nollywood equivalent of the Hollywood horror movie,” says Ms Isong, the producer.
Yet tormented characters often find salvation by turning to Christ. A church scene is de rigueur in a Nollywood film. This is hardly surprising. Christianity is on the rise in Africa. The number of evangelicals has grown from some 17m four decades ago to more than 400m. In countries like Liberia and Zambia, Nigerian “owner-operated” churches preach the gospel. Many Nollywood stars are born-again Christians. Film credits usually end with the invocation: “To God Be the Glory”. Helen Ukpabio, who is a leading actress as well as a successful preacher, runs a decidedly religious production company called Liberty Films. “All the movies from our stable are means of spreading the gospel in preparation of rapture,” she explains.
Nigeria’s success in film-making has not just elicited carping from other African countries. It has fired their competitive instincts. South Africa, Tanzania and Cameroon are now producing hundreds of films a year. Kenya is beating Nigeria at its own awards ceremonies. Ghana and Liberia have christened their nascent dream factories “Ghallywood” and “Lolliwood”. They are rapidly winning back viewers in what has become a fiercely competitive market. “We hide no longer. We face the fight,” says John Dumelo, a Ghanaian star whose grin can be seen on posters across Accra, the capital.
Nollywood has been forced to raise its game in response. It has started making films outside Lagos to cut costs, mirroring the exodus of film-making from Los Angeles to cities like Toronto and Albuquerque—a process known as “runaway production”. Some producers are investing in better equipment. Others are trying to get their films onto the big screen. With a population of 15m, Lagos has just three working cinemas. But that number could soon rise to 30. “To bring in much-needed investors, the industry has to have physical assets,” says a banker.
Nollywood is also distributing its wares more widely. African diasporas in the West pay good money to see films from home. BSkyB, a British satellite broadcaster, and Odeon, a cinema chain, both show Nollywood classics. Consumer-goods companies offer sponsorship deals. “How much the industry has changed,” marvels Emeka Duru, a veteran Lagos producer. “Not long ago actors had to wear their own clothes on shoots.”
Film is now Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends. In Kenya, Nollywood has bred a taste for traditional Nigerian clothing. The prime minister, Raila Odinga, has been seen wearing a loosely flowing agbada in parliament.
Film also profoundly shapes how Africans see their own continent. Few have access to news channels. They derive many of their opinions on neighbouring countries from the movies. More than once your correspondent has heard Africans say they had not been to such-and-such a place but knew it from a film. That the films they watch are made by other Africans is a source of considerable satisfaction. For decades many Africans have complained that the Western media misrepresent their continent, showing only calamities like war, disease, corruption and famine. They have come to see film as an antidote. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” says Lancelot Idowu, one of the best-known Nigerian directors.
And African films are becoming more adventurous. “Somewhere in Africa,” a Nigerian-Ghanaian co-production to be released next year, charts the rise and fall of a fictitious military dictator. It is based on the life stories of Idi Amin, Charles Taylor and Sani Abacha, who respectively ruled Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria. Another recent film, “The President Must Not Die”, portrays a decent head of state who faces assassination, an occurrence still common in Africa yet rarely reported in state-controlled media. Political violence remains a taboo subject in many countries. Nollywood is tackling it with zest and flair.
Other Africans may complain about the cultural infiltration of their countries. But Nollywood is no modern-day colonialist. Nigerian films are made by private individuals who do not receive government funds. They are distributed by small companies who must overcome official barriers to trade. And they are bought by consenting (indeed, highly enthusiastic) consumers. As Irving Kristol, a conservative American commentator who died in 2009, said of Hollywood’s international success: “It happened because the world wanted it to happen.”
From PRINT EDITION | Christmas Specials - The Economist Magazine, December 18th, 2010