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Archive for the ‘Fulbright Award’ Category

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L-R: Ambassador Rick Barton, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Department of State; Jeffrey Hawkins, U.S. Consul General in Lagos; Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

It has been five years since the inception of this blog and everything has come full circle. This evening, I went to the U.S. Department of State to attend a screening of Dawn in the Creeks: A Niger Delta Legacy, a reality series directed by Jeta Amata. It was beyond serendipitous to witness this collaboration between my current employer and my past research passion.

Nigeria is important for its promise.” U.S. Consul General Jeffrey Hawkins cited Nigeria’s economic and population supremacy in Africa when he talked about the right time to address the “negative narrative that violence pays.” Dawn in the Creeks follows 21 Niger Delta youths – ranging from okada drivers to ex-militants – selected by Amata to go through filmmaking and leadership training to make movies on non-violent resolution. Per the State Department, “Their films tell true stories of non-violent transformation and challenge the narrative that violence is a predominant legacy for the Niger Delta.” This project was the result of a yearlong collaboration among the Bureau of African Affairs, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Amata, and the Niger Delta Legacy Board of Advisors.

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With Jeta Amata. © 2014 Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com

Amata was emphatic on the power of the film industry to change attitudes and affect lives: “Our problem in Nigeria is that we have no way of expressing ourselves, which builds up a lot of anger. I wanted to give [the youths] a way to tell their own stories and how best to send a message than Nollywood?”

Hawkins mentioned an unprecedented poll of 3,000 households in the Delta is being rolled out to monitor and evaluate the impact of the program in changing communities’ perspectives. However, the biggest measure of sustainability would be if the project could continue without the monetary support of the U.S. government – which brings the discussion back to the twin Nollywood conundrums of funding and distribution. Amata, who has already signed on for the second season, believes that the key to monetization lies in building the series’ brand, which is being strengthened daily by millions of Nigerians viewers across eight national TV channels.  On a personal note, I am impressed by the Department’s creative deployment of “soft diplomacy,” but it is unclear how the project can continue without USG funds.  What do you think – how can Dawn in the Creeks become self-sustainable?

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I am thrilled to revive FindingNollywood.com by introducing the blog’s new contributor: Connor Ryan. Connor will continue the blog’s fine tradition of Fulbright scholarship by exploring the burgeoning Yoruba film industry through documenting the impact of Tunde Kelani‘s Mainframe Productions studio has made upon Nollywood, giving special attention to its mobile cinema project. From October 2012 to August 2013, Connor will conduct research at The University of Ibadan’s National Archives and the Nollywood Studies Center (NSC) at the Pan-African University in Lagos.

Connor’s work in African literature and film originated at Michigan State University where he was awarded a FLAS fellowship in 2009 to study Yoruba. In 2010, he spent two months studying Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University – Ile-Ife with the Fulbright-Hays Yoruba Group Project Abroad. He had the good fortune to return to Nigeria in the summer of 2011 to build the NSC’s start-up website. It was during this period that he met Kelani, me, and developed the basis for this research project.

I cannot think of anyone more uniquely qualified to link people and resources in this continuing online inititative to broaden Nollywood research and scholarship.

Much love from Burma/Myanmar,
Bic

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I would like to thank culture journalist Derin Ajao for her very comprehensive profile of my work in the Daily Times last week, the publication of which marked more than 18 months since I first set foot in Nollywood. As I begin a new job next week, it seems to be the right time to retire this blog.  I hope that FindingNollywood.com continues to serve as a resource and a discussion platform for Nigerian cinema enthusiasts in the years to come.


A Nollywood adventure
Fulbright Scholar and film researcher Bic Leu talks to Aderinsola Ajao about finding and loving Nollywood.

ARTICLE | MARCH 2, 2012 – 6:21AM | BY ADERINSOLA AJAO

Stumbling on a Nigerian movie in Ghana set Bic Leu on an exploration to Nollywood. For the young American studying abroad, the films she saw back in 2005 would leave a lasting impression on her even after her graduation from Tufts University, where she studied Art History, Business and African Studies. The economic recession and a stint at the New York-based Museum of Modern Art would seal the inevitable return to Africa; this time to Nigeria, to find out more about the booming film industry.

“From what I knew of Nollywood, it was started by Nigerian entrepreneurs without any government support or any kind of international aid, or any type of formal sector intervention. I thought that was fascinating and I was just wondering at that moment – about 2008, 2009 – why it wasn’t getting the international recognition that it deserved. I really (wanted) to explore that more as an alternative mode of development and to move away from that traditional aid model and towards more sustainable market initiative,” Leu said.

Applying for and receiving a Fulbright grant was, for her, “the perfect way” to realise that dream. Leu hailed her mentors at Tufts as being “very knowledgeable” about Nigerian film and providing her with helpful information prior to her departure. With everything else in place, Leu contacted Duro Oni, Theatre Arts Professor and Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Lagos, who agreed to sponsor her.

TOUCHDOWN

In September 2010, Bic Leu arrived in Nigeria and Mission: Nollywood was well on its way.  “It was so much more than I expected,” enthused Leu, whose Nollywood adventure is recorded on the weblog ‘FindingNollywood.com’. “When I landed in Lagos, I didn’t know anybody. I was here because of that curiosity, that passion to discover how the film industry works. ‘I don’t actually have any plans in place! What am I going to do?!’” she thought.

It however proved a smooth ride for the inquisitive scholar as she was easily accepted on film sets. “The practitioners are so open to outsiders coming in and learning about it. The level of hospitality that I’ve been shown has been really overwhelming. I can’t go to Hollywood and knock on Stephen Spielberg’s door and say “Hi, I’m Bic, I’m a scholar and I would like to follow your set for a couple of weeks. I probably won’t even get that far; I’d probably meet with the assistant to an assistant to an assistant…” joked Leu.

Within two weeks of her arrival, Leu was in touch with Nollywood scholar and professor, Onookome Okome, who was doing a sabbatical at the Pan African University in Lagos. Okome linked her up with ace filmmaker, Tunde Kelani, who was then shooting Maami. “That was a great start,” said Leu, of her first location visit. “Once you got on TK’s set… everybody’s so connected and open, so willing to introduce you to their colleagues.” From Kelani’s set, she moved to Funke Akindele’s Jenifa set, to Emem Isong’s and Desmond Elliot’s for Kiss and Tell and to Daniel Ademinokan’s for the DaGrin biopic, Ghetto Dreamz, getting the chance to observe, interview and record as the months passed by. “That was such a great introduction to the film industry,” Leu reminisced. Her exploits on these sets were not limited to research though. Her presence incurred a few acting roles: a spot in the Jenifa trailer, her hair makes an appearance somewhere in Ghetto Dreamz and, “I believe my wakapass in Maami is on the cutting room floor somewhere,” Leu said.

IMPROVING NOLLYWOOD

Work on these sets was also very professional and punctuality was not to be messed with, she said. Leu initially thought it was “complicated” for Elliot and Isong to be shooting two films simultaneously. That impression soon changed. “In reality it was like this machine; some days we pumped out like 40 scenes a day, which is insane. And it worked!” This time it sounded like a confident boast.

For Leu, the productions she tracked were far better than her first Nollywood encounter in Ghana back in 2005. “This is much better. When I came on TK’s set, he was very excited about mounting a RED camera, which allowed him to shoot digital images that were indistinguishable from celluloid pictures and of course at a much cheaper cost and much more accessible in post-production.” It was an epiphany. “That was when I realised that this is really not the Nollywood of the low-budget production: the guerrilla filmmaking that I’d been reading of. This is really the start of this revolution to increase capacity in the industry and look at different re-distribution methods.”

With the conversation tilting towards distribution, the issue of piracy reared its head. “In terms of distribution, I think the way a lot of filmmakers have been able to tackle that is through cinema-only release,” Leu replied, referencing the newfound love for premieres and cinema screenings. “As soon as they release their films straight to DVD then the pirates will illegally duplicate them.”

More cinemas will lead to better quality films; a standard that will help the industry’s international image and also boost employment, Leu argued. In her words, Akindele’s intention to upgrade production quality influenced the hiring of DJ Tee as director on the third Jenifa installment. “She really wanted to improve her production value, show at cinemas and probably at film festivals. The downside to this is that there really aren’t that many cinemas in Nigeria. I think maybe nine or ten, and for a population of a hundred and fifty million people; that doesn’t cover the demand that’s out there and also the cost of access.

ALL GOOD IN NOLLYWOOD

Despite the many challenges on film locations, I couldn’t resist asking if Leu and her research questions didn’t end up an unnecessary nuisance for the cast and crew.

“I would just wait in between takes,” she said. “Basically I tried really hard not to be a distraction.” Working out what times would best be suited for questions also helped. “100% of the time they were super happy to enlighten me about what was going on in between takes,” Leu said gleefully.

A number of things stand out for her, especially the on-set professionalism and quality of output in Nollywood in spite of the same challenges referred to earlier. “What stood out to me was that in spite of the challenges of filming in Nigeria, the cast and crew just really bound together to make it work. My few challenges were pretty standard throughout all of the productions,” she said, listing disruptions from area boys, extra-long scenes, generators and corrupt district officials as challenges unique to Nigeria’s film sector. “For them to exist here and for us to be one of the most productive film industries in the world, that’s absolutely fascinating to me. (The practitioners) not only surpass them but also produce such work that captures the imagination in Nigeria and anywhere else.”

For a much-disparaged industry, Leu’s praise for Nollywood is hugely encouraging. She defends the industry even in relation to other African films, especially at festivals like FESPACO.

“The more I saw of FESPACO; obviously the African films that were shown were very different from the Nollywood films that were shown. In terms of production quality, their history is very different than in the Nollywood films. They showed like maybe three Nigerian films (at FESPACO); Kunle Afolayan’s film (The Figurine) was the only one I watched and didn’t fall asleep,” Leu said with a short laugh.

“I feel like (the films’ improved quality) really speaks to the level of audience engagement that Nollywood has been able to cultivate. Everybody has this mindset that they’ve really come up with a few movies that people actually want to watch.” According to Leu, the storylines were also “solid”, making special mention of Kelani’s collaboration with Nigerian playwrights Akinwumi Isola and Femi Osofisan.

And the relevance of these stories to the audience?

“I would say that the Nollywood films that I’ve seen have really portrayed society’s reaction to certain socio-political conditions that have happened. It certainly shows that our filmmakers and our creative professionals are definitely aware of the nuances and what’s going on in politics and the socio-political environment and are able to translate that very articulately on film.”

WORK IN PROGRESS

Are these nuances apparent in the productions, I ask, especially with the overuse of words rather than non-verbal hints in the plot. “I believe it’s something that they’re working on. The film industry has its roots in the Yoruba tradition, which is a lot of talk, so I don’t think it’s bad as long as it’s portrayed in a way that’s also visually engaging, that moves the story along. I believe that the roots of why the Nollywood films are talky have a very valid and cultural reason,” she argued.

During her stay in Lagos, Leu coordinated Nollywood-themed seminars both within and outside the academia. She commented on the probable disconnect between Nollywood as theory and Nollywood as practice. “I don’t see the link as particularly strong just because we don’t have any formal film studies programme at the universities here. A lot of these professors who are speaking about Nollywood are coming from either the English departments or the Theatre Arts department, so I feel like maybe the film practitioners feel it’s not speaking directly to them. Not to take anything away from the point that we’re making, the industry hasn’t been established long enough for there to be a very established culture of film criticism. As you know, many newspaper articles about Nollywood, it’s not really like an in-depth article, it’s mostly gossip.”

We both agree here and I ask if the academy is not trying too hard to intellectualise the popular. For Leu, such international exposure can only be helpful to sustaining Nollywood’s growth. “There’s a whole field of scholarship talking about popular arts. So, for me to take modern Nigerian cinema and to have it taken seriously on the international stage, you do need people to intellectualise it. You need to do more academic papers published in reputable international journals to speak intelligently about what’s going on in these industries. You need these papers to be cited in doctoral theses that are written all over the world. And you need this scholarship to come from Nigeria.”

Such scholarship need not be overly critical, though. “Constructive criticism is really important to any industry. It’s just that that discourse needs to be encouraged. The more that literary discourse is encouraged and is publicised, the more the industry will be respected internationally.”

THE END?

Leu’s research year ended in July 2011 and she was swiftly snapped up as Head of International Relations and Project Management at Del-York International, a media and communications company with a focus on capacity building for economic development and international branding of Nollywood. She described this experience as “really exceptional” for Nollywood scholars, who usually have no chance to test their research findings. The Del-York experience was specifically helpful to Leu, whose interest was in how Nollywood directly or indirectly provides employment across different professions. “I was going to take that to Del-York and truly implement this job creation model.” As part of the outfit’s training curriculum for aspiring media practitioners, Leu also introduced a weekly roundtable called ‘Filmmaking in Nigeria’, inviting Nigerian practitioners to discuss the history of Nollywood, distribution and piracy, entrepreneurship, on-set challenges and the like.

By the end of her research period, Bic Leu had come full circle from the stuttering newcomer to a fulfilled researcher with positive impact on the lives of aspiring filmmakers. “It’s great to be a part of that and not to just look on as a scholar,” she said with pride.

In November 2011, Leu co-curated the first Nollywood film Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Aimed at bringing Nollywood deeper into an international audience’s consciousness and titled ‘Bemvindo a Nollywood’, the festival featured discussion panels around the Nigerian Video Film sector. Nine Tunde Kelani films were screened during the event. “For me, it’s interesting seeing how Nollywood films are seen abroad and to form this partnership, this really shared cultural exchange, it’s awesome!” she gushed.

Bic Leu is currently in South-East Asia preparing for a new job back in the United States. There is little doubt though that her love for Nollywood will someday bring her back to Nigeria.

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Nollywood fever has finally hit The New York Times Magazine. The odyssey began in March 2011 when Andrew Rice, the reporter, contacted me through this blog to gather preliminary research for the article. I was happy to host him for his subsequent research trip to Lagos in July/August 2011, during which I introduced him to director Kunle Afolayan – who became the protagonist in the article. After almost a year, the finished product has been published (I’m also quoted in the piece).

This is the kind of in-depth journalism that Nollywood deserves on the global stage. (The article clocks in at over 4,500 words, which makes it longer any other news coverage on the subject, ever). At this point in its history, discourse about the industry needs to be more sophisticated than glorifying it as a low-cost novelty in guerilla filmmaking. Rice elevates the industry by comparing its origins to that of Hollywood, and thus establishes Nollywood as a world cinema culture. Unlike The Economist, Rice goes beyond macro-level analysis by using Afolayan to portray the current trends in production, distribution and infrastructure.

Kunle Afolayan. © 2012 Andrea Frazzetta for The New York Times

A Scorsese in Lagos

The Making of Nigeria’s Film Industry

By: Andrew Rice
Published: February 23, 2012

Kunle Afolayan wants to scare you, he wants to thrill you, he wants to make you laugh, but most of all, he would like you to suspend your disbelief — in his plots, yes, which tend to be over the top, but also about what is possible in Africa. He bristles if you call him an “African filmmaker” — a phrase redolent of art-house cinema, which his work assuredly is not. He wants to make huge, explosive, American-style blockbusters, and he wants to make them where he lives — in Nigeria. His ambitions may sound implausible. Nigeria lacks even a reliable supply of electricity. But it does contain a chaotic creative energy that has made it the world’s most prolific producer of films.

Twenty years after bursting from the grungy street markets of Lagos, the $500 million Nigerian movie business churns out more than a thousand titles a year on average, and trails only Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of revenues. The films are hastily shot and then burned onto video CDs, a cheap alternative to DVDs. They are seldom seen in the developed world, but all over Africa consumers snap up the latest releases from video peddlers for a dollar or two. And so while Afolayan’s name is unknown outside Africa, at home, the actor-director is one of the most famous faces in the exploding entertainment scene known — inevitably — as “Nollywood.”

On a continent where economies usually depend on extracting natural resources or on charity, moviemaking is now one of Nigeria’s largest sources of private-sector employment. Walls around Lagos are plastered with posters reading, “Actors/Actresses Wanted.” Nollywood stars are everywhere, from billboards to glossy tabloids filled with pictures of red-carpet events. The African Movie Academy Awards, held each year in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, have become a lavish spectacle, drawing visitors like Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has recruited Nollywood stars to campaign with him, while Afolayan and others have lent prominent support to a protest movement called “Occupy Nigeria.”

And yet most of the movies themselves are awful, marred by slapdash production, melodramatic acting and ludicrous plots. Afolayan, who is 37, is one of a group of upstart directors trying to transcend those rote formulas and low expectations. His breakthrough film, the 2009 thriller “The Figurine,” was an aesthetic leap: while no viewer would confuse it with “Citizen Kane,” to Nigerians it announced the arrival of a swaggering talent keen to upset an immature industry. Unlike most Nollywood fare, “The Figurine” was released in actual theaters, not on cheap discs, playing to packed houses next to Hollywood features. “Many observers,” Jonathan Haynes, a scholar of Nollywood, recently wrote, “have been waiting a long time for this kind of filmmaking, which can take its place in the international arena proudly and on equal terms.”

In contrast to Nollywood’s chiseled leading men, Afolayan is stout, speaks with a laid-back drawl and has a noticeable scar on one side of his face from a car accident. But he has undeniable charisma — a quality his admirers say he inherited from his father, an actor and legendary playboy. One sticky August night, I accompanied Afolayan on a prowl through Lagos, weaving through the metropolis in his monstrous pickup truck. We ended up at an open-air nightclub called King Sized, where heads turned as he made his entrance with a boisterous entourage. In West Africa, a famous presence demands recognition, so the resident highlife band swiftly shifted into an impromptu praise song. “Kunle Afolayan,” the vocalist began to trill, “Kunle Afolayan is here!”

As the singer celebrated his name, Afolayan nonchalantly sipped from a sweaty beer bottle. This was a scripted ritual; the entertainment didn’t come free. The chorus reached a crescendo as Afolayan, dressed in faded jeans and bursting from a sheer white shirt, came forward with a huge stack of Nigerian banknotes. He began to dance, shaking his hips and moving his feet, casting off bills with fluid flicks of his wrist — a tribute Nigerians call “spraying.” A band member crawled around, scooping up cash, while Afolayan delighted in the adulation.

When I visited Lagos, Afolayan was preparing to start shooting his follow-up to “The Figurine.” He told me he hoped to emulate his hero, Mel Gibson, another actor-director from a remote English-speaking land with outsize appetites and ambitions. “It’s sad,” Afolayan said of Gibson’s recent self-destruction. “I love Mel and I’m such a fan of his work.” He was quick to distance himself from Nollywood and its streetwise art of “guerrilla filmmaking.” “Their mind-set,” Afolayan said, “is totally different than mine.”

For all of Afolayan’s grandiose talk, however, the economic realities of African filmmaking conspire against an improvement in quality. The consumer base is huge — there are more than a billion Africans, 155 million of them in Nigeria alone. But access to those buyers is controlled by the clannish merchants who congregate on the outskirts of Lagos at the Alaba International Market, the distribution hub of the African movie business.

To visit Alaba is to catch a glimpse of entertainment in its Hobbesian state, where few laws restrain profiteers, piracy is rampant and all creative calculations yield to the lowest denominator. The market’s cramped concrete stalls are piled high with video CDs packaged in garish paper envelopes. Men pulling carts laden with boxes jostle through unpaved alleyways, passing under flapping banners advertising new releases like “Mama’s Girls” and “Demonic Attack.” Castoff plastic discs, the detritus of digital replication, litter the muddy ground like seashells.

This may not be quite what Jean-Luc Godard had in mind when he recently declared that with digital cameras, “everyone is now an auteur.” But it certainly represents a vision of what the future could hold — and not just for Nigeria — if the practice of making entertainment ceases to be rewarding to professionals. Even as Afolayan tossed off cash for his song, he faced a vexing challenge in making his next film: who was going to pay for his work? When everyone is an auteur, who values artistry?

On a Saturday afternoon, in the last hour of precious daylight, Osita Iheme was ready to work. A dwarf popularly known as Paw Paw, and the star of a string of politically incorrect hits with titles like “Baby Police,” Iheme is one of Nollywood’s most bankable actors. In his latest film, an ensemble comedy set in cramped slum housing, he was playing the lecherous son of a landlord. The director, working with a single Sony digital camera, watched the scene unfold on a beat-up TV monitor. It involved a scatological sight gag, a confrontation with a gaggle of female tenants and lots of screaming. Iheme set his face in an exaggerated glower as the actor playing the landlord wagged his finger and bellowed, “You have turned my place into a market square for madwomen!”

Nollywood’s bawdy humor — or fright or fantasy — appeals to a public seeking escape from depressing living conditions. The industry itself was born out of economic desperation during the early 1990s, a period of military dictatorship, low prices for Nigeria’s oil and Western-mandated “structural adjustment” of its economy. Actors and cameramen were out of work because of budget cuts at the national television station. Movie theaters were closed because no one wanted to venture into the dangerous streets at night. According to legend, the first Nollywood movie was made by a small-time electronics trader named Kenneth Nnebue, who, stuck with a large shipment of blank videotapes, decided to unload them by making a movie about a man who sells his soul for wealth. That movie, “Living in Bondage,” sold hundreds of thousands of copies and established Nollywood’s archetypal plot elements: martial discord, greed, a conflict between Christianity and juju, as the occult is called in West Africa. From these accidental origins, a cultural phenomenon emerged.

Other merchants, overwhelmingly members of Nnebue’s ethnic group, the Igbo, followed him into business. They literally made things up as they went, shooting movies in just a few days, based on vague scenarios instead of scripts. Directors approximated tracking shots by pushing their cameramen around in wheelchairs. Quality was shaky, but the buying public didn’t care. Between 1994 and 2005, production in Nigeria went from a handful of feature movies a year to more than 2,500.

“We watch these Africa films like ‘Blood Diamond’ and ‘The Last King of Scotland’ — they’re always from the perspective of the Europeans,” says Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who has directed more than 160 features. He was the subject of a documentary called “Nollywood Babylon,” which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and he told me that when he went to the festival, he was shocked to discover that some American directors had been working for years to make just one movie.

Kenneth Nnebue quit Nollywood a few years ago, retiring to his village to devote his life to preaching the Bible. But the industry he established remains tightly controlled by the same group of Igbo businessmen, an insular guild sometimes called the Alaba cartel.

Afolayan’s father, known as Ade Love, was a leading man in the Nigerian film scene of the 1970s, until it was ruined by economic collapse. Up to his death in 1996, he warned his son away from show business, pushing him into a stable career in banking, and although Afolayan eventually went against his father’s wishes, he absorbed the bitter lesson that artistic aspirations mean little without a sustainable business model. As things stand now, moviemakers must sell a huge volume of discs, very quickly, in order to turn a profit. Pirates — taking advantage of the same mass-replication technology that made Nollywood possible in the first place — almost immediately rip off any popular new release. So the black market effectively sets everyone’s prices.

To make the more costly kind of films he envisions, Afolayan has been compelled to devise a strategy that goes around Alaba. “They’re just businesspeople,” Afolayan says dismissively. “They could not really care less about content.” In an evolutionary inversion, his strategy depends on theaters, which have returned to Nigeria along with democracy and the global oil boom. Movie tickets have become a fashionable indulgence for Lagos’s expanding population of prosperous professionals. It is in this privileged world — not the slums — that Afolayan’s movie “The Figurine” takes place. Since its sensational release, people have begun to speak of an emerging movement — New Nollywood — that has captivated a new generation of would-be filmmakers.

My visit coincided with a monthlong program, conducted by the New York Film Academy, that was training 250 Nigerian students in the rudiments of professional technique. I sat in on a shoot for “Awakening,” being made by some earlier graduates of the program, well-educated strivers in their 20s, some of whom had quit good jobs at banks or telecommunications companies to devote themselves to the project. The director, James Omokwe, said that he had seen “The Figurine” twice and wanted to follow its lead into the theaters. “We don’t have the money to finish the movie,” Omokwe added, cheerfully. “But we will definitely do it somehow.”

Many established Nigerian directors are also making big plans for the big screen, with big budgets, and they all seem to have a part for Danny Glover. One night I took a glass elevator up to the Silverbird Cinema, an American-style mall multiplex in a nouveau riche section of Lagos. After paying about $7 — an exorbitant sum in Nigeria — I watched “The Mirror Boy,” a hot New Nollywood release. It was about an African boy, raised in Britain, who returns home and ends up on a long quest through the jungle, accompanied by a ghostly guide, played by Osita Iheme. The production values were far superior to anything I had seen on video, but the movie still climaxed in Nollywood’s customary blaze of sorcery, inspiring one audience member to shout out, “Africa!”

Nollywood movies, both old and new, often play on traditional African beliefs about magic and spirits. “The Figurine” is about two young university graduates — rivals for the same woman’s affections — who stumble on a shrine and uncover the statue of a god. The figurine is supposed to grant seven years of good luck, followed by seven of misfortune. Afolayan’s character brings it home to Lagos, wins the girl and great wealth, at which point the plot takes a horror-genre turn.

“That’s the figurine,” Afolayan said one day at his office, pointing to a carved wooden prop on his shelf. By this point, I was starting to wonder about the fortune it had brought Afolayan. His follow-up film, “Phone Swap,” was supposed to be shooting. But just a few days before, one of its stars, a beloved character actor named Sam Loco Efe, dropped dead while shooting another movie. The newspapers were filled with condolences, as well as speculation that the veteran actor might have been killed by overwork.

“Phone Swap” was supposed to be a humorous and commercially appealing diversion. Instead it was threatening to become a debacle. As usual, Afolayan had to contend with the absence of vital equipment, decent roads, reliable electricity. He had abruptly dropped his leading man for cantankerous behavior. Now came the untimely death of Sam Loco. “I was just so devastated,” Afolayan said, telling me that the day before he had quit work early to curl up and watch romantic comedies.

Afolayan also handles the financial side of his productions, and “Phone Swap” was conceived with an eye toward product placement, though the cellphone company originally involved had backed out. The story involves a pair of opposites, a free-spirited single girl from the country and a serious Lagos businessman who end up enmeshed in each other’s lives after they mix up their phones. The plot was made to appeal to Nigeria’s new elite, for whom the BlackBerry is a totem as powerful as any figurine. Sam Loco was supposed to play the female lead’s father, an Igbo farmer.

One morning, while he considered replacements for Sam Loco, Afolayan assembled his key crew members to scout locations in the town of Badagry, near the Benin border. We left before dawn to avoid Lagos’s paralyzing traffic jams. Badagry sits along a route often used by smugglers, and there were police roadblocks along the way. But Afolayan blew right through them in his big truck, shouting, “Are you crazy?” at one cop who tried to step in front. The town, an old slaving port, was meant to stand in for an Igbo village. From the back seat, the art director Pat Nebo, an Igbo, gave a lecture on the group’s customs and agricultural practices, lots of painstaking talk about palm oil and kola nuts. “Don’t forget this is a comedy film,” Afolayan gently reminded him.

We came to the small concrete house that would serve as the set of the farm. “It’s so dirty,” Afolayan said happily. Everyone walked through its dank main hallway, which smelled of smoke and fish, into a sandy backyard where laundry flapped in the wind. “Fantastic, this is brilliant,” said the cinematographer Yinka Edward, as he began conceptualizing an ambitious crane shot.

“The house becomes a major character of the film,” Nebo pronounced, before heading off to scout for appropriate livestock.

Afolayan’s budget for “Phone Swap,” around $500,000, was tiny by Hollywood standards but Spielberg-size for Nigeria. Before embarking on the project, Afolayan went to potential investors with a 29-page business plan, discussing everything from plot details to the fees for equipment rentals and actors. He managed to entice an investor to pledge $1.5 million, enough to finance his next three films. But as deadlines neared, the money still had not appeared. He handed over his BlackBerry so I could read a series of progressively more frustrated e-mail messages. “Most of these investors, they just think business,” Afolayan said. “They don’t really understand the ethic of production.”

Of course, profit motives drove the development of the medium long before pretensions of artistry. The first American movies were disdained by respectable society, but the price of admission — 5 cents, hence the term “nickelodeon” — made them popular with working-class audiences. One day in 1906, an unemployed clothing merchant named Carl Laemmle, who was thinking about starting a five-and-dime, happened to walk into a packed Chicago nickelodeon. “It was evident that the basic idea of motion pictures and Mr. Woolworth’s innovation were identical,” Laemmle later wrote, “small-price commodity in tremendous quantities.” Laemmle started his own theater, and eventually expanded into producing content, founding Universal Pictures.

The businessmen behind Nollywood have followed a similar path from upstart to mogul. In the absence of strong legal institutions, Nigeria’s movie marketers formed a guild to govern their industry, colluding to regulate supply and production costs. The guild has resisted all attempts by actors and producers to push for a larger share of revenue.

“We created the industry,” Gab Okoye, a marketer who goes by the name Gabosky, proudly said one afternoon. We were standing near the red carpet outside a Lagos banquet hall, where the local chapter of the guild was about to inaugurate new officers. To celebrate and pay homage, all of old Nollywood had turned out in its flashiest finery, lots of bright ankara cloth and dark sunglasses. Gabosky, who was wearing a hip-hop-inspired ensemble, told me he felt disrespected by the new filmmakers like Afolayan. He called them “houseboys” who had forgotten their place. “He’s started complaining about his master,” he said, “who was giving him a job yesterday.”

Inside, the powerful guild president, Emmanuel Isikaku, took the stage. “Nollywood is still alive,” he told the audience. “Nollywood is still great.” The defensive tenor of his declaration was indicative of the marketers’ mood. They had built an entertainment enterprise without precedent in Africa, and yet they felt unappreciated and besieged. The government was trying to crack down with increased fees and oversight. The event’s written program warned of the calamity of regulation and maligned Nigerian actors as “lazy.” When stars become too demanding, marketers deal with them ruthlessly. A few years ago, they put several prominent actors on a blacklist, and none were allowed to work, according to a guild official, until they begged forgiveness.

The marketers say they can’t afford the extravagances of talent. The production budget for a typical Nollywood movie ranges between $25,000 and $50,000, less than a tenth of what Afolayan was proposing for “Phone Swap.” The marketers contend that spending more would be foolish, because the low price of Nollywood movies is part of their appeal. “You must first identify who your primary market is,” Isikaku, a shrewd and sinewy operator, told me. “If your primary audience is the elites and the middle class, the people that can go to the cinema, fine, well and good. But there are some programs that are meant for the people on the street.”

Richmond Ezihe, the guild boss at Alaba market, tried to explain Nollywood economics to me. We met one afternoon in front of the stall that serves as the base for his company. Pasted to its metal door was a poster for a recent feature, “Palace of Blood.” When Ezihe, who is the financier and executive producer, comes up with the concept for a movie, he gives it to a couple of screenwriters he keeps on retainer and then hires a director to hurriedly shoot, having the film ready for sale on the Alaba market within a month or two.

Ezihe has a number of ways to monetize his product: there’s a satellite television station, an overseas DVD market catering to the African diaspora and even a Netflix-inspired Web site called Nollywood Love. But most revenues still come from physical sales. It costs less than 20 cents to burn a blank VCD and package it, but the wholesale price for movies is so cheap that a marketer might need to sell 100,000 copies just to make a decent return. The average Nollywood movie has a shelf life of about two weeks before the pirates get hold of it. In Nigeria, an estimated 5 to 10 illegal VCDs are sold for every legitimate one, and the police make no serious effort to deter the trade.

“It really has eaten deep into our finances,” Ezihe said, claiming — as did every other marketer I met — to be mystified about the identity of the troublesome scofflaws. “They’re hiding,” he said. In fact, clues as to the pirates’ whereabouts were strewed all around Alaba, where American movies and TV series, rap music and video games of doubtful provenance were selling next to the latest Nollywood hits. Many of the movie marketers originally got into the business by pirating Hollywood movies, a practice that continues to flourish. “Piracy is not a problem with the system,” said Jade Miller, an academic at Tulane University who has researched Nollywood’s economics. “It is the system, essentially.”

The legal and illegal industries continue to operate in parallel, within an opaque system of relationships and rules set by the Alaba cartel, Emeka Mba, head of Nigeria’s efforts to regulate the film industry, told me. “The pirates, they know them — it’s part of them,” he said. The marketers seldom use lawyers, accountants or written contracts; when they make a film, it is often unclear who even holds the copyright. When Mba’s agency tried to impose some legal order, for instance mandating that marketers register under a postal address, he met brutal resistance. Anti-piracy raids, though rare, have sparked violent uprisings at Alaba.

Isikaku did not deny that there were pirates in his membership’s midst, but he claimed that guild leaders were trying to confront them, sometimes physically, sometimes with persuasion. But the reality is that when everyone is stealing, you have to price like a pirate.

Carl Laemmle might have recognized the marketers’ situation. When he started Universal, he immediately came into conflict with Thomas Edison, who held patents on movie cameras and projectors. Edison had been waging a legal battle against “dupers,” unauthorized copyists who would take a film and redistribute it, often just snipping off the copyright frames. As Edison saw it, his intellectual property rights gave him a monopoly on all film production. He went after Laemmle, too, filing some 289 lawsuits against him and dispatching goons to break up his film shoots.

Laemmle responded by organizing some other “independents,” a handful of mostly Jewish movie producers who operated out of New York. In 1917, they defeated Edison in the Supreme Court. But by that time the independents had already moved en masse out to California, where they could shoot in sunny weather, away from the chill of legal scrutiny. “They were pirates!” says Bic Leu, a Fulbright fellow who has studied Nollywood. “They moved to L.A. to get away from Thomas Edison.”

One evening at a hotel bar, I happened to run into a Nigerian-born actor named Wale Ojo. We got to talking, and he said that after scraping by for years in London, he returned to try his luck back home. A few days thereafter, in a true Nollywood twist, I met Ojo a second time, when Afolayan introduced him to me as the new lead actor in “Phone Swap.” Afolayan had us over one Sunday evening to drink wine by his poolside, along with some friends from the industry and a couple of international film buffs.

“Black British actors are cheap right now,” Ojo said.

“Good,” Afolayan replied. “Because I don’t have the money to pay you.”

Afolayan had also come up with an actor to take Sam Loco’s role, so everything was in place for “Phone Swap” — except the financing, which remained frustratingly elusive. The director kept offering self-confident assurances that his backer would come through. But anyone could tell that, all quips aside, he was anxious.

Perversely, the rise of video, which had given Afolayan the ability to practice his father’s craft, had also robbed it of its value. His career represents a possibly rash wager: that even in the most lawless marketplace, talent is still worth a premium. When he started to make “The Figurine,” announcing on Facebook that he planned to spend 50 million naira, roughly $350,000, the universal reaction was incredulity. Afolayan told me: “Everybody started writing, saying, ‘How will you make your money? You want to commit suicide?’ ” To pay for “The Figurine,” Afolayan took out a bank loan for half the budget, pledging his house as collateral, and subsidized another third of the movie through product placement.

“Kunle was out to make a statement, that it was possible to make a good film in this country using local hands,” Yinka Edward said. When he ran out of money at one point, stalling production, Afolayan borrowed from family and friends and asked his cast and crew to keep working on good faith.

His efforts appeared to receive vindication in the box-office performance of “The Figurine.” But the triumphal narrative breaks down when you examine the financials. For all its acclaim, Afolayan said that “The Figurine” had yet to turn a substantial profit. The movie showed to packed houses, but there are just seven major theaters in Nigeria, and it grossed only around $200,000 in its initial release, not enough to cover Afolayan’s investment.

To maximize revenues, Afolayan made a deal with an independent entertainment company that was having encrypted DVDs of “The Figurine” shipped in from China for mass distribution. The executive handling the project told me that his plan was to simultaneously release a huge number of copies across the country, so as not to create scarcity, which encourages piracy. Then he drew a diagram of his network, each strand of which ended with some regional marketer. There was just no way to circumvent the unyielding force of the cartel. Emeka Mba, the government regulator, told me that he saw Afolayan’s efforts to devise a new distribution system as an inspirational experiment. “Here’s a guy who wants to do things differently,” he said. “Here is a guy who is brave.”

After weeks of waiting for his nervous investor, Afolayan called his editor and sidekick, Steve Sodiya, into his office and said he had decided to move forward. “I want to start with my own money,” Afolayan told him. “We have to start the shoot. I’ve been making a backup plan.” It involved some financing from product placement, and a large personal endorsement contract — from a cellphone company. His production company’s office, sleepy for days, was suddenly abuzz with frantic preparation: costumes, casting, equipment rentals. Afolayan spent an afternoon in last-minute negotiations to knock down everyone’s fees. “You think I am not resourceful?” he shouted at one resistant crew member.

In the final week of August, “Phone Swap” finally began shooting in Badagry. Afolayan presided over the shoot from a canvas director’s chair. The week before, local meteorologists warned of an epic rainstorm, but this time luck was with him. One evening, on the shabby farmhouse set, Wale Ojo, who was playing the uncomfortable city slicker, positioned himself for his first scene, and Afolayan shouted, “Action!”

Weeks later, after shooting wrapped, Afolayan e-mailed me a clip of the rushes and informed me that he was “dead broke.” A trailer, featuring a scene in an airplane cabin painstakingly recreated by Pat Nebo, built anticipation when it hit YouTube in November. The movie is scheduled to have its premiere over the next two months in Lagos, Accra and London. Already, though, Afolayan is planning his next film, which he calls a passion project. He told me something about it while I was in Lagos. Sitting in his unlit office one rainy day, he excitedly explained that it would be about a dead man who walks the earth, refusing to admit his condition. He said he hoped to land Danny Glover for a big part. “I’m creating two worlds,” Afolayan told me. “The land of the dead and the land of the living.” It seemed impolite to interrupt to ask when the office’s electricity might return.

Andrew Rice is a contributing writer and the author of “The Teeth May Smile, but the Heart Does Not Forget.”
Editor: Vera Titunik

 

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After a 20-hour journey from Lagos via Johannesburg, we arrived in São Paulo, Brazil on Thursday 17 November 2011 to celebrate the inaugural edition of the Bem-vindo a Nollywood Film Festival – honoring the works of veteran director Tunde Kelani. The Nigerian delegation consisted of me, Kelani, Ma’ami production manager Jamiu Shoyode, and Arugba and Ma’ami associate producer Hakeem Adenekan. Nollywood expert Prof. Jonathan Haynes graciously paused his Guggenheim Fellowship work to join us from New York.

Arriving at the Cine Olido, the main site of the "Bem-vindo a Nollywood" Film Festival in São Paulo, Brazil. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

The Brazilian coordinators (counterclockwise): Vanessa Lopes, Roberta Astolfi, Alex Andrade at the welcome dinner. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Olusegun Michael Akinruli, founder of the Instituto de Arte e Cultura Yoruba, met us at the airport and became our knowledgeable guide for the first few hours in São Paulo. From the beginning, the trip was meticulously orchestrated by my Brazilian co-curator, Alex Andrade of Kinopedia Ltd, and his associates, Vanessa Lopes and Roberta Astolfi.

Meeting with José Roberto Sadek, Secretary of Culture of the City of São Paulo. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

José Roberto Sadek, Secretary of Culture of the City of São Paulo, displays his gift from Kelani of Mainframe classics. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

The next morning, we met with José Roberto Sadek, the Secretary of Culture of the City of São Paulo. Along with the Cine Olido – the Festival’s main venue – he also oversees 12 theaters, 60 libraries, and approximately 600 cultural programs per month. Sadek applauded the Nollywood financing model for its “accountability to the audience”. Since most Brazilian films receive government funding, filmmakers don’t feel the need to make a profit and follow popular tastes.

Eder Mazine (far right), President of the São Paulo Film Commission, presents gifts to Hakeem Adenekan and Tunde Kelani. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

L-R: Hakeem Adenekan, Tunde Kelani, Eder Mazine, Jamiu Shoyode, Bic Leu, Jonathan Haynes, Film Commission rep, Alex Andrade at the Cine Olido. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Next, we encountered Eder Mazine, the President of the São Paulo Film Commission. Mazine emphasized the need to attract more foreign productions, such as Nollywood, to the city as film shoots engender economic growth by creating widespread employment.

Tour of the Cinemateca Brasileira. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Tour of the Cinemateca Brasileira. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

After that, we were treated to a comprehensive tour of the Cinemateca Brasileira, the second Festival venue and the largest film archive and audiovisual conservation center in Latin America. The Cinemateca is housed in the renovated municipal slaughterhouse, where specialists conserve and restore foreign and national films produced since 1895. The institution is home to an astounding 250,000 rolls of film and 35,000 titles; its library boasts over 23,000 items. To my Nigerian colleagues, the most amazing discovery was that the public could access everything that the Cinemateca offers for free in perpetuity.

With Tunde Kelani at the cinema inside the Cinemateca Brasileira. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

The tour of the Cinemateca confirmed to me that all I have done has been worthwhile. I may not be rich in the material sense, but I now realize the importance of going back to rescue what I have done and what the [Nigerian film] industry has done. — Tunde Kelani

At the premiere of "Ma'ami" at the Cine Olio. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Tunde Kelani with filmmaker Abel Success Erebe (far left) at the premiere of "Ma'ami" at the Cine Olido. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

The evening ended with the official Brazilian premiere of Ma’ami, hosted by our friends at the Secretary of Culture at the Cine Olido. Prominent Nigerian-Brazilians attended to pay respect to Kelani, including Abel Success Ebere, director of Black Night in South America (2007).

L-R: Jonathan Haynes, Jamiu Shoyode, Bic Leu, Hakeem Adenekan, Tunde Kelani. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

The second day began with me moderating a roundtable discussion on current issues in Nollywood at the Cine Olido – featuring Kelani, Haynes, Shoyode and Adenakan. The topics ranged from funding and distribution to location management and international diffusion of Nollywood films.

Festival co-curator, Alex Andrade, poses a question on Nigerian film preservation. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

One of the most thought-provoking questions came from my co-curator, Alex Andrade, who asked about the preservation efforts of Nigerian films and “what we can do to ensure that we see the movies that you make.” Kelani and Haynes both agreed that an ideal Brazilian-Nigerian partnership would consist of the Cinemateca Brasileira managing the technical training of archiving and preservation and a private sector player, such as oil and gas giant Petrobras, providing the funding. Perhaps this initiative will get kick started by the next annual edition of the Festival.

A performance by the Orquestra de Berimbaus at the Centro Cultural da Juventude. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

View of São Paulo at night from the Centro Cultural da Juventude. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

After the discussion, the delegation took a break to enjoy a performance by the Orquestra de Berimbaus at the Centro Cultural da Juventude.

National Black Consciousness Day celebration at the Museu Afro Brasil. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Our last full day on 20th November coincided with the National Black Consciousness Day (Dia da Consciência Negra). As such, we visited the Museu Afro Brasil, where a full-fledged celebration featured a food festival and a live concert, which eventually invaded the pristine halls of the Museum.

"Metrópolis" interviews Kelani outside the Polo Cultural de Heliópolis. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

"Metrópolis" interviews Kelani outside the Polo Cultural de Heliópolis. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Community leaders lead us on a tour of the Heliópolis favela. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Community leaders lead us on a tour of the Heliópolis favela. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

With Heliópolis community leaders. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Later on that afternoon, we toured Heliópolis, the largest favela (or shantytown) in Brazil – home to 190,000 people. Rising above its poverty and infrastructural challenges, Heliópolis is a success story of community organization. In 2007, community leaders successfully petitioned the Municipality of São Paulo and the State Government to fund the construction of an education and cultural center (and the third venue of the Festival). Built by renowned architect Ruy Othake, the center includes a gallery, a theater, and classrooms for over 2,000 students.

Heliópolis community leader (right) presents Kelani with a gift. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

Touched by the perseverance of the Heliópolis residents and community leaders, Kelani declared the tour of the favela and the subsequent screening of Ma’ami in the community theater as “the happiest moments of my life.”

With my Brazilian co-curator, Alex Andrade, at the Polo Cultural de Heliópolis. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

At the end of our tour of the Heliópolis favela. © 2011 Mainframe Film & TV Productions

I feel extremely fortunate that my Nollywood immersion has come full circle. After being introduced to Nigerian cinema in Jonathan HaynesLong Island University office, my education was cemented on the set of Tunde Kelani’s Ma’ami in Abeokuta in October 2010 – just two weeks after my arrival in Nigeria on the Fulbright grant. I am so honored to complete my Nollywood research with these two amazing individuals, as well as be joined by new friends who have supported me along the way – Alex Andrade, Jamiu Shoyode and Hakeem Adenekan.


***

Press coverage (Nigeria):

Press coverage (Brazil):

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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.

A video shop at the Nigerian Film Market in Surulere, Lagos. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

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 Maami, 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. 

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Hurray!

I found out yesterday that I have been selected as a recipient of the Fulbright award for Nigeria. This means that I will be able to pursue the research project that is the subject of this blog from October 2010 to August 2011 in Lagos. I am grateful and ecstatic, but more importantly, I am humbled by this opportunity to join the 300,000 past grantees spanning 60 years of the program’s history (including 40 Nobel Prize Laureates).

Huge thank-yous to Ms. Nackman for your editorial prowess, Ms. Mitchell for your design expertise and the lovely bouquet, Ms. Leven for your uplifting company, and the StartingBloc community for being such an inspiration.

Update | April 14: I just received the save the date for the mandatory pre-departure orientation in DC  on June 21-23. It’s official!

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