Tufts Magazine — my alumni publication — ran a recap of my year in Nollywood in their Fall 2011 issue, which you can access here. However, much of the published article was edited for length, so I’ve taken the liberty of including the original version below.
NEXT STOP: NOLLYWOOD
Nigeria’s Booming Movie Industry
By: Bic Leu, A07
“I think that if you all are half as fast as I am, we can be done in no time!” is director Desmond Elliott’s rallying call to cast and crew in the midst of a grueling shooting schedule that packs two feature-length movies into eleven days. With such speed and arguable efficiency, it is no wonder that Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is popularly known, was recognized by UNESCO in 2009 as the second largest film industry in the world in terms of production volume–almost on par with Bollywood and far eclipsing Hollywood.
I arrived in Lagos, the heart of Nollywood production, in September 2010 on a Fulbright grant to research the industry’s social impact. This marked my return to West Africa, where I have frequented since the age of 19 – first as an exchange student at the University of Ghana and then as a participant in a Tufts-organized research trip to investigate corporate social responsibility in the Ghanaian gold mining industry. However, this most recent immersion in Sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous megacity – home to at least 15 million inhabitants – proved to be more stimulating and challenging than any of my previous experiences in the region.
Over the next ten months, I followed four Nollywood productions–Tunde Kelani’s Ma’ami, Muhydeen Ayinde’s The Return of Jenifa, Elliott’s Midnight Whisper, and Daniel Ademinokan’s Ghetto Dreamz– through the filming, post-production, and marketing stages in order to track the transactions first hand. I had hoped that my on-the-ground observations would demystify the size of the industry by showing me the process and parts needed to produce a film, total unit sales and revenue, as well as the long-term effects on the lives of Nigerians, such as job creation and poverty reduction. I discovered that Nollywood’s impact goes beyond what could be measured by numbers.
The industry’s commercially accessible format distinguishes it from other African cinema cultures–in particular that of the Francophone countries, where filmmakers produce highly stylized “art films” driven by socio-political messages. Francophone African films are primarily funded (and thus shaped) by the French government and distributed internationally to film festivals and other noncommercial channels. Nollywood films are self-financed, with historically little government subsidy or foreign aid. While African audiences rarely see most of the Francophone products, their Nigerian counterparts are characterized by a capacity to transcend local ethnic and national boundaries to be voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across the continent, the Diaspora, and everywhere else in between.
Nollywood’s emergence in the late eighties coincided with a national economic crisis that depleted filmmakers’ access to expensive celluloid film stock. This led Yoruba traveling theater artists to record their live performances on videocassettes, which were sold by electronics dealers in the markets. One such dealer wrote and funded a feature film shot entirely with a VHS camera. The result was “Living in Bondage” (1992), Nollywood’s first blockbuster, with sales of more than 750,000 copies. Today the independently financed movies continue on VCD and DVD, with an increasing number of cinema releases. The predominantly straight-to-video release format allows films to be produced cheaply, for $USD 30,000 to $USD 200,000, and quickly, with shoots lasting three to four weeks. They retail for a mere $USD 1.50 to $USD 3.50 and are voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across both the African continent and the diaspora.
Since the industry’s humble beginnings, production volume has reached epic proportions. The Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board, the federal regulator of the industry, received 1,612 local films for censorship classification in 2010, which averages an astounding 31 new releases per week. Given filmmakers and marketers’ disregard for government regulation, this number does not include the scores of “un-authorized” films that bypass the Censors Board on their way to market release.
The set of legendary director Tunde Kelani’s Ma’ami was my first opportunity to jump in at the ground level. I joined Kelani and his crew on location in Abeokuta, about 100 km north of Lagos, for the three-week shoot of his eighteenth feature film in October 2010. Since establishing Mainframe Productions in 1992, Kelani has consistently released movies like Thunderbolt and Saworoide, which have cemented his reputation as the most celebrated director in Nigeria and have become favorites in Yoruba households across Africa, Europe, and the Americas. After pirates cut in the profits of his last film, Arugbá (2010), by selling illegal copies a few days after its release, Kelani resolved to tackle this copyright infringement by releasing Ma’ami only in theaters—a surprising move given Nollywood’s distinction as a video film industry and given the focus of its distribution networks on home entertainment consumption.
On the Ma’ami set, I was also struck by the widespread extortion that exists in movie-making in Nigeria. Kelani concedes that he keeps a budget line titled “community relations” for such occasions as when Nigerian Railways Corporation officials halted production to demand to see film permits, though the railroad tracks on which the scene was set had not functioned in decades and at that moment were covered by a bustling market. The demand was resolved after some crew members accompanied the officials to the local police station, where further “negotiations” were made to secure appropriate shooting rights to the train tracks. The community relations dilemma continued when our exit from the train station was blocked by a crowd of “area boys” (gangs of under-employed street youths) who demanded more “dash” (i.e. bribes) for shooting rights as well as the chance to meet the female lead, Funke Akindele, who is widely considered to be the biggest star in the Yoruba language film genre. I breathed a sigh of relief (and disbelief) when the Production Manager negotiated our safe passage for a paltry N1,500 ($USD 10), which was distributed among approximately 20 area boys after a nearly hour-long stand-off.
On The Return of Jenifa set in Lagos in November to December 2010, this shadow fund came into play when local area boys again stopped the equipment truck and demanded N20,000 (USD $134) per car to enter the private housing estate where we had planned to shoot a scene. Determined to continue the shooting schedule, director Muhydeen Ayinde and director of photography DJ Tee changed locations to a nearby hotel. The boys followed us to the hotel, where as day turned into night and as the pile of their discarded beer bottles swelled, they grew increasingly insistent in their demands for more money. This disruption escalated into a rowdy fight and delayed production until midnight.
I was invited to join The Return of Jenifa set by Funke Akindele, who I met on the location of Kelani’s Ma’ami. After honing her craft on hundreds of movie sets over the last decade, Akindele’s career exploded in 2008 after the release of Jenifa. She wrote, produced, and starred in the Yoruba-language comedy chronicling the title character’s misadventures when she leaves her provincial village life behind to attend university in Lagos. The low-budget movie took the country by storm, selling approximately one million copies and introducing such catch phrases as “bigz girls”–Jenifa’s backwoods terminology to describe the “in-crowd” on campus–to the Nigerian popular vernacular. The movie’s popularity can be measured in the culture of celebrity that surrounds Akindele wherever she goes. On location, her every step was echoed by screams of “Jenifa!” from adoring fans. Crowds in the dozens gathered to intently watch, discuss and document Akindele’s every move as she performed the most mundane tasks in between takes–from napping to eating lunch.
In The Return of Jenifa, the much-anticipated third installment in the blockbuster Jenifa trilogy, Akindele hopes to use the momentum behind her celebrity to go beyond the sales success of the original. Akindele aspires to turn Jenifa into a franchise and a cult figure, much like Tyler Perry’s Madea. A self-described “youth ambassador”, Akindele plans to use Jenifa the character to reach out to young people living with such challenges as teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS on a future Jenifa-hosted talk show. In addition, plans are in the work for a Jenifa sitcom, followed by the establishment of a Jenifa Foundation to support youth with showbiz ambitions.
This celebrity culture followed me to the set of Ghetto Dreamz in late February 2011. The movie chronicles the meteoric rise and tragic death of Da Grin, the wildly popular 23 year-old rapper whose life was cut short by a car accident; some mythologize him as Nigeria’s own Tupac. By the time that I arrived on set, the entertainment blogosphere had been buzzing for weeks about the last-minute crew changes. Avid Da Grin fans were highly critical of executive producer Ope Banwo’s abrupt departure from the original director and his decision to recruit the relatively less experienced Daniel Ademinokan to direct and to write the script. Fans also disapproved of the acceleration of the production schedule to meet the April 2011 theatrical release date, which was designed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Da Grin’s untimely death. Ademinokan completed the casting process in January; shot the film over three weeks in February and finished post-production in March.
Like Ghetto Dreamz, Desmond Elliott’s Midnight Whisper had an equally ambitious shooting schedule. The drama marks the first time that two language versions of the same film were shot at the same time: English and Ibibio. Producer Emem Isong aims to target the Ibibio-speaking people in her home state in the eastern region of Akwa-Ibom, while still making a commercially viable product for the rest of Nigeria. The two versions will be packaged as two separate films and will be released at different times in different markets. When I visited the set in early February 2011, the production schedule covered 246 scenes (123 scenes for each version of the film) over an eleven-day period. Despite the grueling timetable, the set was a lesson in efficiency. Elliott–one of Nollywood’s most popular actors-turned-directors–allotted two takes per scene per language. First, he shot a scene in English in two takes: one wide-angle and one close-up. Then, the Ibibio-speaking actors rotated in and he shot the same scene, again in two takes. Despite frequent power outages and the interference of generator noise with the on-set sound level, the cast and crew maximized this system to the extent that they were able to shoot an astonishing 40 scenes in one day. The intense work pace continued beyond the completion of principal photography as Elliott began production on his subsequent feature the very next day.
It is hard not to get excited about Nollywood. Since its inception two decades ago, the Nigerian film industry has grown beyond a novelty in guerrilla film making into a sophisticated industry grappling with growing pains of piracy, quality control, celebrity culture and doing business in the informal economy. I set out to measure the social impact of the industry and found that Nollywood’s reach may be impossible to quantify with mere numbers. My fieldwork revealed the industry’s substantial capacity to create jobs and alleviate poverty, which addresses the critical issues of unemployment and income disparity in Nigeria. A standard movie directly employs 50-100 people, but its overall job creation is several times this amount due to the linkages with collateral industries created to provide services during filming and post-production, such as the yam vendors who supply the set caterer and the DVD manufacturing plants that fabricate movie copies. Per the government’s conservative estimate that 1,612 local films are released per year, I calculate that Nollywood supports hundreds of thousands of jobs annually–which present significant development potential for a country that the World Bank has estimated to have a 25% youth unemployment rate.
Since my Fulbright grant ended in July, I have been given the opportunity to leverage my research to affect change in Nollywood. What started as an intellectual pursuit has grown into a passion project, powered by the amazing individuals that I have encountered over the last year. I presently serve as the Project Manager for Del-York International, a media and communications company that is partnering with the New York Film Academy for the second straight year to facilitate a month-long training program in media production in August in Lagos. I have helped raise scholarships for close to 250 Nigerian students to get trained in such courses as Filmmaking and Broadcast Journalism. The Niger Delta Development Commission and Edo State Government are sponsoring students in recognition of the Training Program’s approach to curbing civil unrest and spurring job creation in oil-rich, but socially troubled Southeastern Nigeria by teaching employable skills to vulnerable youth.
Furthermore, I have introduced a weekly roundtable to the Training Program curriculum, Filmmaking in Nigeria, in which Nollywood practitioners discuss the local challenges of filmmaking, thus empowering a new generation of media professionals who possess both the technical and practical skills to succeed in the country. Last Saturday during the inaugural session focused on the history of the film industry, my good friend Tunde Kelani educated the students on the influence of Yoruba culture on his work – using many examples from the Ma’ami set to illustrate his points. In a way, Kelani’s lecture demonstrated how my year in Nollywood has come full circle. Despite intermittent power supply and harassment from external forces, Kelani, like many Nigerian filmmakers, innovate with limited budgets and tight production schedules to produce content that holds the rapt attention of audiences across the African continent and beyond.