Nigeria's Silver Screen Nollywood's Film Industry Second only to Bollywood in Scale

Guy Calaf / AG. FOCUS

By Dialika Krahe

Part 3: Giving Nigerians a Voice


Nollywood's success began in 1992, with the film "Living in Bondage." At the time, after years of recurring military coups, someone finally had the courage to address the subjects that related to ordinary people. The film is about a man who falls under the influence of a religious cult, and about money and black magic. At the same time, the film also suggests that the new wealth in Nigeria is the result of demonic practices -- and the source of inequality in the country and the suffering of too many people. "Living in Bondage" was liberating for people in Nigeria, because it meant that suddenly they had a voice. Hardly anyone in Nigeria today isn't familiar with the film.

Instead of showing their film in expensive cinemas, the producers distributed it as a so-called home video, which gave them access to a completely new market. Suddenly families could hold film evenings, with entire neighborhoods gathering around a single television set as if it were a campfire.

At its height, shortly after the end of the military dictatorship in 1999, Nollywood was flooding the African market with up to 2,000 films a year, and Surulere, the nightlife district in Lagos, became its creative center.

The road to Surulere leads down a four-lane highway exit, from which traffic is dispersed into smaller streets. A cacophony of car hors, shouting and failing engines fills the air. Surulere is a loud, Dionysian place, where actors, costume designers and screenwriters live, work and party. It's a place where actors are cast, a place to see and be seen -- and a street known as Winnies is something of a stage for it all.

Winnies was originally a simple guesthouse, a hangout for actors and filmmakers in the early days of Nollywood. Now the place is so popular that the entire street is called Winnies. Casting notices are pinned to the walls, specifying what the directors are looking for: "If you are fat, tall and speak various Nigerian languages fluently, call us. We are looking for a film production." Or: "Huge simultaneous casting call for 9 films."

Actors as Day Laborers

The street is narrow and the air smells of a mixture of exhaust fumes and the strawberry perfume of young actresses standing on the sidewalk, waiting to be discovered -- like young Victoria. Every morning, the young actors who hope to become famous stand in front of Winnies, like day laborers, waiting to be taken to the sets on the location buses of film producers like Mr. Divine.

He is standing in the guarded parking lot of a hotel, as a minibus reels toward him, swerving to avoid the potholes. The bus is rusty, dented and covered with colorful film posters. Divine steps to the side. "The show goes on," he says. "We don't have any time."

The bus is a Mercedes, but for Divine it's much more than that. "What's inside that bus is Nollywood," he says, "my entire film, everything inside that thing." The thing slows down and comes to a stop next to him, and then his film squeezes itself out through a sliding door: 15 young actors and assistants, loaded onto the bus at Winnies and booked for two weeks. It also contains an HD camera, a cameraman, a director, two plastic bowls filled with cassava porridge and spicy chicken, three lights, a microphone, an Adidas bag full of costumes, a few bottles of Guinness and the generator. And three stars. "It all comes to $38,000," says Mr. Divine, pointing out that that's the trick, "making films with next to nothing."

Mr. Divine, the head of Divine Touch Productions Limited, has a real name: Emeka Ejofor. Stage names are good for business. The film he is currently shooting will be called "Strippers." It's about three young women and a suitcase full of money. The actresses are wearing very high heels and very little clothing, their fingernails are as long as colorful as candy canes, and they seem drunk -- and maybe they are drunk.

'Nollywood in Crisis'

The film will look like all Nollywood films. Seen through the eyes of Nigerians, it will be glamorous, exciting and well-acted. Seen through the eyes of the West, it'll be trashy but charming, and somehow unintentionally funny. The film will be a big seller, because there will be many stars on the cover. It will remain unknown beyond Africa's borders.

Dickson Iroegbu, the filmmaker, also has his office in Surulere. It is the day after his car was rigged to crash, and his two mobile phones are ringing every five minutes. The callers want to know what he was thinking, crashing the filmmakers' event the day before. Iroegbu, normally a quiet, polite man, becomes agitated and raises his voice. "Nollywood is in a crisis," he shouts into his phone. "It can't go on like this."

He takes a sip from a glass of red wine, even though it's only noon. A gold-framed portrait of Martin Luther King hangs on the wall above his desk, next to a picture of US President Barack Obama. The prizes he has already won with his films are displayed on a cabinet. Iroegbu has been in the business for a long time. He was a teenager when he wrote his first screenplay.

Next to the oil industry, Nollywood is the second-largest employer in Nigeria. It has its own stars and its own red carpets, even its own version of the Oscars: the African Movie Academy Awards. Hundreds of thousands of the home videos it produces are displayed on dealers' shelves, in the form of VCDs and DVDs, and the films are also broadcast on television channels like Africa Magic. Hollywood films play almost no role at all in this country.

Iroegbu punches his fist into his left hand, and then he says that he has made a decision: "I won't make another film until I've raised $2 million." He says that he has a fantastic script, a project called "Child Soldier," which twins a story about Africa with the story of a child soldier. Iroegbu dreams the dream of unexpected success, like the success enjoyed by the science fiction film "District 9," a low budget project from South Africa, which was filmed in only two months, became a box-office hit in the United States and was even nominated for four Oscars this year.

Iroegbu says that he knows that he has made enemies with his idea. He also knows that they will still try to sabotage his car and ambush him at night. "It makes me afraid," he says, but he adds that it's worth it, because he hopes to win an Oscar for Nollywood with his film.

"If all goes well," he says, "my film will be a 'Slumdog Millionaire'."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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