Hollywood Bollywood Nollywood

It is late afternoon, and the crew and cast of a film called American Dream are on location in an office block in suburban Lagos, Nigeria. The crew was meant to have wrapped the scenes up by midday and the director, Tony Abulu, is anxious. “We don’t have much time,” he says.
“We’ve only got an hour and then we have to get out of here.” In a country where movies are made on shoestring budgets and cracked out in an average of 10 days, slips in the schedule can be disastrous.

Nigeria is home to one of the world’s youngest film industries, but it is booming. In just 13 years it has gone from nothing to estimated earnings of $200-million a year—making it the world’s third biggest film industry after that of the United States and India. The films are made on the cheap, but they are big box office.

Except that there is no box office. In Nollywood, as it has inevitably been dubbed, movies are shot on video and copied straight on to tapes or DVDs and then sold from thousands of street stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops, not just in Nigeria, but across the continent and to the African diaspora via markets in the West.

“They sell a lot of our films in Peckham and in Dalston market [in London],” says Paul Obazele, the veteran producer on American Dream, who has already turned out four movies this year and plans a US cinema opening for this latest effort. “But Peckham is becoming too small for us. We have decided to take on the world.”

There are signs that the world is taking an interest. Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes came to check out investment opportunities last September. You might argue that Nollywood needs to do something about its hackneyed plots, hammy acting and appalling sound quality if it is to become a real rival to Hollywood, but, for African audiences, Nollywood films have one unique selling point. If Hollywood’s forte is jaw-dropping spectacle and Bollywood’s is heart-warming musical slush, then Nollywood’s special draw is a genre that might be described as the voodoo horror flick: films that revolve around witchcraft and demonic possession.

Most observers agree that it all began in 1992 with Living in Bondage, a cautionary tale about a man who gets sucked into a cult that demands the sacrifice of his wife in exchange for riches. The title refers to spiritual bondage. Since then, the genre has gone from strength to strength.

The movies can be read as fantasies; they allow the powerless to feel vicariously powerful. The stories tell of poor men getting rich, of errant husbands who find their penises shrinking, of love rivals who go blind or crazy and end up running naked and shrieking into the streets.

There is the occasional humorous twist. One classic features a controlling girlfriend who miniaturises her man and traps him inside a bottle. But the films always end with the practitioners of witchcraft being punished (although sometimes they are redeemed by finding Jesus) and the virtuous being rewarded. One of the reasons this is such a powerful draw is that, in Nigeria, Christianity lies like a veneer over much older beliefs. The occult movies give people a chance to thrill once again to the power of the old religion, but then celebrate the victory of the new faith as the credits roll.

“The average human being wants to see that which is hidden,” says Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, producer of Living in Bondage. “But we didn’t glamorise it. We made people sit down and think, and opened up their minds. After that film came out, a lot of people left these [witchcraft] cults.”

The power of the genre is evident during a visit to one of Nigeria’s improvised backstreet cinemas, which are essentially grimy concrete shelters with a billy goat tied up by the door. Inside, a dozen or so men and women are watching a Nollywood video on a small TV. The crowd sway and click their fingers during musical interludes, and giggle and shove each other during comic passages. But they watch enthralled when a woman in the grip of an occult mania is exorcised by a man in a giant blue turban and flowing robe.

Back on the set of American Dream, make-up artist Benjamin Ejimnkeonye finishes powdering the noses of two mountainous henchmen and passes around photos from voodoo thrillers he has worked on.

One of the pictures shows women made up as witches, their hair wild, white clay smeared on their faces and circles of red lipstick around their lips and eyes. “I like occult films,” says Ejimnkeonye, who goes by the trade-name Oben Imaginations. “When you watch an occult film, you wonder, wow, is that really happening? That’s when I like my job.”

Not all Nollywood movies are about the occult. As well as these and gangster movies, another popular genre involves straightforward aspirational tales. American Dream is typical. It’s the story of a driven advertising executive who falls in love with an American woman, and then jeopardises his high-flying career with increasingly desperate attempts to get a visa for the US.

Characters are always dashing from the gym to the boardroom in chauffeur-driven cars, or ordering champagne in chic restaurants. Budgets usually dictate that the champagne bottle isn’t actually shown—film budgets typically range from $15 000 to $40 000, which means that star names only earn between $2 000 and $3 200 a film. Nonetheless, the movies generally manage to give an impression of glamour.

On the shoot, I talk to Segun Arinze, a portly veteran actor who has a key role in the scene to be shot today. “Nigerian producers and directors want to put people in a certain kind of role,” Arinze says. “Everybody knows me as the ‘bad boy’, always with the gun.” He cocks his fingers into a pistol shape. “This is different because I get to play the father figure here.”

A short while later, however, with impeccable professionalism, Arinze is cheerfully swaggering through an entirely different role—as an underworld loan shark. With this last-minute switch, there has been no time to learn his lines, and barely minutes to get into character. Most of his dialogue is improvised.

Such fluidity is commonplace. With little time to rehearse, the actors frequently read from scripts left open on the floor during filming, and most of the emphasis is placed on moving the plot forwards.

Nollywood directors are sanguine about long passages of improvisation, and the dialogue that results is a clunky and sometimes bizarre mix of Western movie clichés and Nigerian references.

Nigeria has perhaps the most distinguished literary tradition in Africa. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Ken Saro-Wiwa are the best-known writers, but it is clear that Nigeria’s home-video industry has no pretensions to high art. What it is all about is money. Nollywood movies were originally financed by importers of blank video tapes as a way of promoting sales of their product—and commerce remains king.

About 30 new titles arrive weekly at Lagos’s giant open-air markets, where canvas banners with gaudy portraits of movie stars flap above the hubbub. A new movie costs the equivalent of $3,20 to buy, and only about 47c to rent from a video club.

For the most part, Nigerians are proud of their movie industry, and other African nations are envious. “I think there are a lot of things that converge to make this possible in Nigeria,” says Femi Odugbemi, president of the Independent Television Producers’ Association. “By tradition, we’re a storytelling people. We have more than 230 languages, different cultures, all unique in themselves.”

Nigeria is an African giant. It is the continent’s most populous nation, with 133-million people. But it is also a country that appears to be constantly on the verge of a breakdown.

It is a British colonial creation, knitting together a Christian south and Muslim north, with scores of ethnic groups, and struggling to deal with festering discontent in the oil-rich delta region. That makes the film censor’s job a tricky one.

“Sometimes we have movies that caricature certain ethnic groups—which say that Igbos are only looking for money, or that people up north are not very educated,” says Emeka Mba, director general of the National Film and Video Censors Board. “Depending on the context, that can be passed, as long as the entire movie is not about that theme.”

“We have a very expressive culture and that affects our acting,” says Richard Mofe Damijo, a broad-shouldered actor with a greying goatee who is sometimes described as “the Denzel of Nollywood”.

“If I was working for a British director, I would play a lot calmer and internalise more. Here, the ability of an actor to portray emotion with tears is a plus. If you can’t cry at the drop of a hat, you’re seen as a bad actor.” Award plaques are stacked on the floor of Mofe Damijo’s office; he has collected dozens in the course of a 40-movie career. Nollywood may be largely ignored by Western film festivals, but it shows no hesitation in patting itself on the back.

On the American Dream shoot, filming has transferred to a poor quarter of Lagos. A crowd gathers as the female lead, played by Maryam Basir, teeters across a narrow wooden footbridge.

The male lead, Nigerian actor Karibi Fubara, is being filmed making a long-distance call to his girlfriend at a public booth, a wooden table where a handset offers a crackly connection.

When his allotted time runs out, he tries to hang on to the phone, squeezing in a few extra seconds and ignoring the impatient queue behind. This is the cue for a female extra in a luminous green dress to seize the handset and berate him with a string of Hausa swear words.

The woman’s tirade mingles with the hoots of a watching crowd of small boys and the growl of passing motorbike taxis. Almost miraculously, the production seems to be somehow coming together.

“Nollywood is only 13 years old,” says Ogunjiofor, producer of Living in Bondage, who is now making TV soap operas as well as preaching as an evangelical pastor. “If it’s a child, it’s not yet an adolescent. Wait until we’re an adult, and then those who criticise us will come back and learn from us.”—Â

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