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I just found out that my article was published in The Guardian today without the original first paragraph or the last three paragraphs, making this a very different piece than I had intended. I have pasted the original article below in its full glory, or you can read the published version here.

 

Keith Shiri, Tunde Kelani, and Kunle Afolayan at FESPACO 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

 

FESPACO 2011: African cinema through Nollywood’s lens

Wednesday, 16 March 2011 00:00 By Bic Leu

From February 26 to March 5, 195 films were shown at the 22nd edition of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO), scattered across cinema halls and outdoor theaters in Burkina Faso’s capital city.

The event’s official newsletter declared an “opening under the sign of Panafricanism with a growing diversity of film productions from Africa and the Diaspora.” Yet despite this claim of unity, the Festival raised many debates regarding the definition of cinema and revealed divisions among countries with different colonial histories and the impact of those histories on the development of respective film industries. For example, official regulations excluded films not shot in 35 mm format from the main competition. Films shot in digital format were relegated to the TV & Video category, which included Nollywood’s only representatives – Mak Kusare’s Champions of our time (2010) and Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009). Ultimately, the lack of 35 mm projectors in most viewing centers rendered this rule moot, so films were screened in DVD format for Festival-goers.

The only movie by a Nigerian filmmaker to compete in the Feature Film category, Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless city (2010), was not shown to audiences. Several sources reported that the filmmaker was unexpectedly unable to attend and screen his film due to organizational mishap on the part of Festival managers. While this slight was unintentional, the incident did not help to ameliorate the rift between Nigerian filmmakers and their Francophone hosts. Nigeria’s already poor representation at FESPACO is disproportionate to the number of films that the country releases per year. (The National Film and Video Censors Board recorded 1,612 local movies submitted for classification in 2010).

Indeed, “African cinema” has been historically synonymous with Francophone African films, according to film curator and Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) jury member Keith Shiri. The primary source of funding for these movies is the French government, which allots an average budget of €500,000 to €2 million per film to its former colonies, thus allowing filmmakers to purchase and process pricey celluloid stock abroad at the cost of $400 to $500 per minute of film. These products are then distributed globally at film festivals and are seldom watched by their native audiences. Recent international attention has been directed at the robust volume of independently financed and lower budget productions from Nigeria and other Anglophone African countries.  These films are shot on much cheaper digital formats and are enthusiastically consumed by Africans, thus challenging the traditional concept of “African cinema”.

Director Tunde Kelani confronted FESPACO’s definition of film at the African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of New Technologies workshop organized during the Festival by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) on February 27 and 28. While he is listed as a “video-maker” in the workshop program, Kelani has worked with a variety of audiovisual media over his 30-year career: super 8; super 16; 8 mm; 16 mm; 35 mm; all video formats; and now digital format. He emphasized the false contradictions between cinema and video, stating that new technology allows digital cameras to use film lenses and for some digital formats to have higher resolutions than 35 mm film. Kelani forecasted that celluloid production will disappear in the near future due to cheaper digital alternatives to shooting high-resolution film, such as the RED ONE camera.

Kelani is not alone.  Chairman of the AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini privately conceded the need for FESPACO to adapt to technological changes: “They need to modify the rules to accommodate recent developments in technology. There shouldn’t be rules on making films in celluloid.”

Yet at the CODESRIA workshop, Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouedraogo countered Kelani and Husseini’s position by maintaining that a hierarchy exists between celluloid and video because “the beauty of the image is in the celluloid” and that video is unable to capture a wide range of contrast. He continued by asserting that movies made in Nigeria are more commerce than art, referring to Nollywood’s rapid production schedule as “business, not cinema”.

Director Kunle Afolayan tried to find common ground among these viewpoints at a Centre Culturel Français Ouagadougou screening of The Figurine on March 1. He emphasized his film’s self-sufficient financing and production structure as an advantage: “The film is self-funded and made entirely by Nigerians.” But he also stressed that collaboration between Anglophone and Francophone filmmakers is the key to take African cinema to the next level: “The camera knows no language…The sky is the limit if we come together as Africans.”

Afolayan’s appeal for intracontinental cooperation may be coming true: three films nominated for the Nigerian-produced AMAA also competed at FESPACO: A small town called Descent (South Africa, 2010), Zebu and the photo fish (Kenya, 2010), and Dina (Mozambique, 2010). In addition, FESPACO awarded Champions of our time the second prize in the TV & Video category, fueling expectations that more Nigerian directors will be recognized in future editions.

In the end, FESPACO 2011 was defined by a missed opportunity to unite filmmakers across the continent regardless of production format, budget, or colonial histories. Shiri observes an excitement surrounding the “new wave of directors from Nigeria who understand the importance of aesthetics, sound, pacing, and the strength of the story.”  As Nigerian and other Anglophone cinema cultures gain global prominence, FESPACO’s continued alienation of them over politics of production will be detrimental to the Festival’s standing as the preeminent place on the continent to view and discuss African cinema.

Bic Leu is a US Fulbright Fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.

 

 

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Siege du FESPACO. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

While I wait for my impression of FESPACO to be published in the Thursday issue of The Guardian, my intrepid FESPACO travel partner, former Fulbrighter, and Kannywood expert–Carmen McCain–has published her own very thoughtful account of the festival. I’ve pasted the text below, but you can also read the original here.

FESPACO: Politics of video and Afolayan’s The Figurine

Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00 Carmen McCain

I write from a backless bench in a dark open air theatre on the outskirts of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, where I’m waiting with director, producer, and actor Kunle Afolayan for the second screening of his film The Figurine. It is far from the city centre where it seems Ouagadougou, with its roundabout monument shaped like a ciné camera, and film fliers at every hotel, has been entirely modified to accommodate the FESPACO.(Festival Panafricaine du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) film festival. This is my first time in Burkina Faso’s capitol city, which is perhaps best known outside the region for this biennial festival, now in it’s 22nd incarnation. During the festival, one wanders from cinema to cinema, from film to film, from lunch to party, with people who talk about aesthetics and history and cuisine and the politics of film in Africa. In the city centre, this morning, women cycled past on their bicycles and motorbikes. European tourists wandered in gaggles. Street musicians with loudspeakers provided a distant soundtrack. I jumped with startled delight when suddenly the familiar sound of P-Square’s “Do Me, I Do you” filled the air.

Here at Cine Patte Doie, the electricity goes off and comes back on two minutes later. The stars are bright overhead. “This reminds me of growing up, in the cinemas,” Kunle says, remembering his father Adeyemi Afolayan, one of the early Yoruba filmmakers who translated travelling theatre to the screen. Dead Weight, the Ethiopian film scheduled before The Figurine plays in jumps and starts. I tell the Burkinabe man beside me in French that the electricity is worse in Nigeria but that everyone has backup generators. “We are a poor country,” he tells me. “We can’t afford generators. We get our electricity from Cote D’ivoire, but with the war, it has gotten worse….”

The first two days of the festival, I attended the Pan-African social research organization CODESRIA’s workshop, “African Film, Video, and the Social Impact of the New Technologies” attended by scholars of African cinema, video, and filmmakers. Much of the symposium was spent in discussions of the relationship of African cinema to the growth of Nollywood, which is challenging old assumptions about how and why African films should be made. While Nollywood scholars like Onookome Okome celebrate how Nollywood reflects the imaginary of ordinary people, telling the stories of the streets, other scholars, particularly Ethiopian scholar Professor Salem Mekuria, currently at Wellesley College, MA, in the United States, were dismissive of the phenomenon. Though she had only seen a few “bad examples” of Nollywood, Professor Mekuria thought the symposium spent too much time talking about Nigerian films. Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge mentioned to me that though she was very interested in Nollywood, especially in its relation to the Kenyan video film industry Riverwood, she thought that too much clichéd rhetoric about Nollywood dominated the discussion. The discussions seemed to revolve around the same old arguments about Nollywood: the rituals in films are giving Nigeria a bad name, the sex in Ghanaian films is getting out of control, the quality isn’t high, people shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide they can be a filmmaker. Even renowned playwright Professor Femi Osofisan didn’t add anything new to the discussion as he repeated his regularly stated concern about the potential harmfulness of Nollywood, although I did enjoy his witty conclusion that the name “Nollywood” was apt because Nigerians traditionally sent bad things to the evil forest—here the “wood” of Nolly. There was little discussion of the internal variances in Nollywood films, and almost no mention of films made in Nigerian languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and smaller languages, such as Nupe and Itsekeri. Though most of the perspectives at the symposium were scholarly, it was refreshing to hear the perspectives of actual filmmakers, particularly Nigerian director and producer Tunde Kelani, who spoke of his frustration at being identified as a video maker when Francophone directors also working in a digital medium were listed as filmmakers.

This problematic discourse referring to Nigerian popular video vs.Francophone art cinema ran throughout much of the festival, with the snickers from a largely European audience at a Nollywood-style Senegalese short film involving a mammy water spirit, to the listing of Kunle Afolayan’s stunning thriller, The Figurine, shot on a digital camera with cinema lenses, under the television and video competition rather than the main film competition, because it was not submitted on a 35 millimeter print. Ironically, all the films I saw in the main competition were projected from dvd, rather than from the film prints that were supposed to have been submitted. The director of the Toronto International Film Festival told me that other than FESPACO very few film festivals around the world differentiate between films shot on digital and film anymore. Apparently, the transportation of fragile 35 millimeter film prints are usually the most expensive parts of film festivals, and more and more festivals are moving to digital film projection, just as more and more filmmakers are going digital.

Although many Nigerian films reflect the “lives and struggles of Third World peoples,” and although the Nollywood industry began as a grassroots initiative, “managed, operated and run for and by the people,” both aspects of the “combative phase of third world cinema” formulated by theorist Teshome Gabriel, the Nigerian video films have long been dismissed by many Francophone African filmmakers and their critics, as “subpar” productions “concerned only with making money.” However, there are ironies in this critique considering most Francophone African films are seen mostly at festivals attended by a mostly Western and Western-trained elite, have very little accessibility to popular audiences in Africa, and make hardly any money. They are thus unsustainable and have seemingly little responsibility to the preferences of their audiences. African film scholars Manthia Diawara and Roy Armes have pointed out that Francophone African filmmakers often had the topics and style in which they made their films strongly directed from France, where they received their funding, and by the European crews which shot and edited the films. At the workshop it was also pointed out that many French technicians and film graduates who had little working experience in France were pointed to Africa as a place to improve their skills while working on African films. Ironically, with a few exceptions, many of the Francophone films that self consciously responded to imperialism or proudly presented “African culture” were mediated through the aesthetic and thematic preferences of their funders in France. While the filmmakers often subtly subverted outside expectations, it still strikes me as incongruous that despite all the lofty ideals of “cinema” filmmakers, their films often have more relevance to elite festival audience than to the mass viewing public of Africa.

Although Kunle Afolayan’s film The Figurine was shunted by FESPACO organizers to a premier on a small screen at the Institute Francaise and a later screening at the open air theatre with the epileptic electricity, rather than one of the larger theatres, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud when Afolayan introduced his film saying that “The film was shot, produced, edited, […] all the members of crew […]are all Nigerian. Everything was done in Nigeria by Nigerians.” I remembered the stunned feeling I had after first watching the film at the Zuma Film Festival, realizing, as I watched the closing credits that almost every name there was Nigerian. The Figurine takes the certain genre elements developed by Nollywood, the ritual horror, the family drama and love triangle, the glamour of wealth, and pushes it to the next level. It is seen at its best in the cinema, as most Hollywood and European films are, but it is a film that stands on its own. It inserts itself, an unapologetic commercial film made in Yoruba, English, and pidgin, defiantly into the artsy programme FESPACO. It doesn’t need validation from the West or European art critics to be a good movie. Though not perfect, the Figurine has an aesthetic integrity that provides the best role model I’ve yet seen for Nigerian filmmakers, and whether FESPACO film critics agree with me or not, I would say that Kunle Afolayan is not just one of the best upcoming Nigerian filmmakers but one of the best upcoming African filmmakers

In the end we leave the theatre early. There are only about twenty people there, sitting in the dark under the stars. But before we leave, a man stands up and introduces his wife, telling Kunle, “This is a very good film. I can tell from even just the beginning.” At the FESPACO premiere, Kenyan documentary filmmaker Judy Kibinge stood up at the end and said, “I’m from Kenya, but I’m as proud of this film as if I were Nigerian.” She didn’t know it but she was echoing an earlier statement of the great Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who told Kunle, “I stand tall as an African, when I see this film.”

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iREP 2011 was a whirlwind of insightful films and thought-provoking discussions. See below for a list of highlights from the last several days:

Deji Adesanya, Toyin Akinosho, Tunde Adegbola, Busola Holloway, and Mahmood Ali-Balogun at the symposium, "African in Self-conversation: Documentary and Democracy", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Symposium: African in self-conversation: Documentary and democracy
According to moderator Professor Tunde Adegbola (University of Ibadan), Nigeria’s position as an “oral society” makes the population receptive to interpreting documentary films as “instruments for the promotion of democracy”.

Busola Holloway and Mahmood Ali-Balogun at the symposium, "African in Self-conversation: Documentary and Democracy", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Busola Holloway, President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria, defined documentaries as “cinéma vérité: You’re trying to tell the truth; you’re trying to say what is happening at that time.”

He also warned that conflicts of interests created by sources of funding detract from film makers’ ability to tell the truth: “Who pays the pipers dictates the tunes. Now, documentaries are usually produced for propaganda purposes in democracies by sitting powers. I would rather be an independent film maker to tell the truth.”

Film: The Manuscripts of Timbuktu, Zola Maseko (South Africa, 2009)
Zola Maseko
uncovers the history behind Timbuktu’s medieval manuscripts–numbering in the hundreds of thousands–through dramatizations of the life of Ahmed Baba, the West African medieval scholar who authored more than 40 books. This film made me want to curl up with a cup of coffee and browse through the 18,000 manuscripts stored in the Ahmed Baba Institute, the only public library in Timbuktu.

Sola Olorunyomi, Onookome Okome, Tunde Babawale, and Awam Amkpa at the round-table discussion, "Motifs of black consciousness in African documentary films", iREP 2011. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Round-table Discussion: Motifs of black consciousness in African documentary films
Professor Onookome Okome (University of Alberta) criticized existing documentaries about Nollywood for their failure to reflect the black consciousness:

All of documentaries about Nollywood–’Nollywood Babylon’, ‘This is Nollywood’, ‘Welcome to Nollywood’–are from the outside and they just tell me one thing: They hammer on the very, very grotesque. They hammer on the idea of fetish practices and if you read those ideas in terms of the rationality of modernity, what it means is that those people who are making these films are still living in the crude era of cinema and in the crude era of cultural articulation.

Okome identified the need to change the frame of reference in looking at Nollywood:

Once we begin to understand that Nollywood is popular art and it is not ideologically located in any premise, then we will begin to understand what Nollywood is all about. Let me troubleshoot a little bit. We must understand that the phrase ‘black consciousness’ is a way of speaking and it’s a way of speaking to something else: another discourse, or another set of discourses, one of which is racism, slavery, blackness versus whiteness…it simply means that black consciousness itself may just lose its temperament because it still speaks to something else without defining itself. You cannot tie your narrative to another narrative and say that your narrative is independent. So if you say ‘black consciousness’, what are you responding to? A white consciousness? A blue one? A green one? Until we make that clear, it becomes something that we need to talk about.

Okome concluded by defining Nollywood as a form of “spontaneous, grassroots” Pan-Africanism:

Nollywood is consciously imitated in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana. Nollywood film producers and directors are doing co-productions everywhere on the continent–and what is more Pan-African than that? It is Pan-Africanism from the people, for the people, by the people.

On another note, Professor Awam Amkpa (NYU) emphasized the potential role of Nigeria as a leader in documentary film making:

We have a highly visually literate population–something that Nollywood has produced–and a very highly literate way of reading images on the screen, so we don’t have to persuade people to watch these things. So the challenge for film makers is how to diversify their story-telling so that they can move from fictional to the documentary process, and by that process they’re retooling and retraining themselves as well as creating new publics for their work.

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Last week, The Economist printed an interesting article which likened Nollywood’s transnational influence to a form of modern-day cultural colonization. To decide for yourself, I’ve pasted the text below, or you can read the original article here.

Dec 16th 2010 | ABUJA, ACCRA AND LAGOS | from PRINT EDITION

AN AFRICAN academic with a coiffed mane is sipping coffee in a Ghanaian airport when he spots a pulpy Nigerian film on an overhead screen. “A travesty, a grave crime,” he splutters. “Such imbecile images should never be shown in this country. They are veritably poisoning our culture.”

It is hard to avoid Nigerian films in Africa. Public buses show them, as do many restaurants and hotels. Nollywood, as the business is known, churns out about 50 full-length features a week, making it the world’s second most prolific film industry after India’s Bollywood. The Nigerian business capital, Lagos, is said by locals to have produced more films than there are stars in the sky. The streets are flooded with camera crews shooting on location. Only the government employs more people.

Nigerian films are as popular abroad as they are at home. Ivorian rebels in the bush stop fighting when a shipment of DVDs arrives from Lagos. Zambian mothers say their children talk with accents learnt from Nigerian television. When the president of Sierra Leone asked Genevieve Nnaji, a Lagosian screen goddess, to join him on the campaign trail he attracted record crowds at rallies. Millions of Africans watch Nigerian films every day, many more than see American fare. And yet Africans have mixed feelings about Nollywood.

Among Africa’s elites, hostility is almost uniform. Jean Rouch, a champion of indigenous art in Niger, has compared Nollywood to the AIDS virus. Cultural critics complain about “macabre scenes full of sorcery” in the films. The more alarmist describe Nigerian directors and producers as voodoo priests casting malign spells over audiences in other countries. They talk of the “Nigerianisation” of Africa, worrying that the whole continent has come to “snap its fingers the Nigerian way”.

Governments can be hostile, too. Several have brought in protectionist measures, including spurious production fees. In July Ghana started demanding $1,000 from visiting actors and $5,000 from producers and directors. The Democratic Republic of Congo has tried to ban Nigerian films altogether. Five decades after much of Africa gained independence, its elites fear being re-colonised, this time from within the continent. “The Nigerians will eat everything we have,” says a former official at the Ghanaian ministry of chieftaincy and culture.

Nollywood’s moguls make no attempt to deny their influence over the continent—they just regard it as a thoroughly good thing. “We give Africa development and knowledge,” says Ernest Obi, head of the Lagos actors’ guild, during a break from auditioning a gaggle of teenage girls dressed in ball gowns. “We teach people things. If they call us colonial masters, too bad.”

Picking up the colonists’ tools

The history of cinema in Africa is bound up with colonialism. The continent’s first films were imported by European rulers and shown in grand viewing halls with columned porticos. The aim was to entertain expatriates, but also to impress and cow locals. John Obago, a retired teacher, was eight when he saw his first moving picture in 1930s Kenya. “Oh, the elders did not like it,” he remembers. “But we just loved it. We were fascinated sitting there on the clean floor and seeing these white people get in and out of restaurants and buses.”

American and European directors were soon visiting the continent. They enthusiastically filmed elephant hunts, vividly coloured parrots and dutiful but dim native porters. They produced some classics. “The African Queen”, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and shot on location in Uganda and Congo, has aged particularly well. But many “jungle epics” were greeted with charges of racism. In the heated era of independence they came to be seen as tools of foreign domination.

The first true Nollywood film resulted from an ill-advised business venture. In 1992 Kenneth Nnebue, a trader, ordered a large consignment of blank videotapes from Taiwan. Finding them hard to sell, he hired a theatre director to make a cheap film and copied it onto the tapes to boost their appeal. “Living in Bondage”, the story of a farmer in a big city who loses his wife and is haunted by her ghost, sold more than half a million copies.

Many Nigerians still remember the first time they saw “Living in Bondage”. Odion, a drug addict with a toothless smirk on a street corner in central Lagos, says, “All of us kids at the time, even the under-tens, watched it and we just had to have more. I tell you, I tried many things since then. None is as addictive.”

The market traders control Nollywood to this day. They make films for home consumption rather than for the cinema—a place few can afford, or reach easily. DVD discs sell for a dollar. Print runs can reach a million. Studios, both in the physical and the corporate sense of the term, are unknown. There are no lots, no sound stages and no trailers for the stars. “Films are made on the run, sometimes literally,” says Emem Isong, one of Nigeria’s few female producers, during a shoot. “Some of the guys are hiding from the police.”

There are no studios and no film lots. Market traders double as financiers

All scenes are shot on location and with a shoestring budget of no more than $100,000. Most of the financiers are based in a vast, chaotic market called Idumota. It is a maze within a labyrinth. Crowds push through narrow, covered alleys. The sound of honking motorbikes is drowned out by blaring television sets showing film trailers. The flickering screens light up dim stalls lined with thousands of DVDs on narrow wooden shelves.

Desmond Akudinobi, a small man with darting eyes, runs a stall the size of a double bed. He opened it in 1999. By 2005 he had raised $20,000 to finance his first film. It was called “Without Apology” and made a small profit. Since then he has produced 10 more films. Every six months or so he buys a script from one of the many itinerant writers trawling the market, and hires a producer and crew. He prints discs in Alaba, another Lagos market. Some go onto his grimy shelves; many others are exported.

Bandit impresarios

As soon as a film is released, copyright thieves rip it off. It takes the pirates just two weeks to copy a new film and distribute it across Africa. The merchants must take their money during that fortnight, known as the “mating season”, before their discs become commodities. As soon as the mating season is over they start thinking about the next film.

The merchants curse the pirates, but in a way they are a blessing. Pirate gangs were probably Nollywood’s first exporters. They knew how to cross tricky borders and distribute goods across a disparate continent where vast tracts of land are inaccessible. Sometimes they filled empty bags with films when returning from an arms delivery. Often they used films to bribe bored guards at remote borders. The pirates created the pan-African market Mr Akudinobi now feeds.

Other African countries made films long before Nollywood. Senegal in particular produced many movies featuring traditional songs and dances. Critics referred to such products as “embassy films” after their mostly diplomatic financiers (notably the French foreign ministry). Many catered to the sensibilities of their European sponsors. Scenes were laboriously captured on celluloid, at great expense. By contrast, Nollywood is cheap and nimble. Films are shot on digital videocameras. Scripts are improvised. Camera work can be shoddy and editing slapdash. But the sheer volume of output—a response to the piracy problem—eventually overwhelmed the embassy films.

Several things have aided Nollywood’s growth. Atrocious state-run television and slow internet connections mean there is little competition for entertainment. A steady decline in the price of digital cameras and a rise in average incomes makes for healthy profit margins. Yet the same conditions exist in many developing-world countries that have not created vibrant film industries. Three other ingredients are crucial to Nollywood’s formula: language, casting and plotting.

The triumph of English

In Europe films intended for export are often dubbed or subtitled. In Africa the former is too expensive and the latter pointless since many viewers are illiterate. The actors in Mr Akudinobi’s films speak English, rather than one of Nigeria’s 521 native tongues. This helps their prospects abroad. Large parts of the continent are familiar with English thanks to colonialism, and Nollywood’s influence is spreading the language more widely.

Clever casting is as important as the choice of language. Producers routinely hire actors from target countries to broaden their films’ appeal. A Kenyan might be cast to aid a marketing campaign in Kenya; a South African will be cast to appeal to South Africans. “I need a known face in each market,” explains a veteran producer.

Diverse casts can often be assembled without leaving Lagos. Actors from across the continent flock to the city’s Surulere district, hanging out in the muddy bars around Winis Hotel and at Ojez, a late-night restaurant with a band. Miriam, a gangly girl from Benin, is drinking beer in the afternoon. “I’m waiting for my first role,” she says. “We have so crazy many Nollywood films at home. They must want someone like me, right?”

The films’ plots too have strong pan-African appeal. They often revolve around the travails of new arrivals in big cities—an experience familiar across the continent. The epic film “One God One Nation” portrays a Muslim man and a Christian woman who struggle to marry. “Caught in the Act” shows a wife who is wrongly accused by her own mother-in-law of abducting a child. Nollywood films depict families whose faith has been shattered, whose certainties have been undermined. They show ordinary people struggling to make sense of a fast-changing, unkind world. Aspirations are dashed. Trust is forsaken. The overarching theme of Nollywood films is Africa’s troubled journey to modernity. Because Hollywood films tend to show people at the other end of that journey, they fail to resonate.

Plenty of juju and Jesus

African elites sneer at the frequent displays of witchcraft in Nigerian films. Traditional curses are imposed, spirits wander, juju blood flows. The tribulations of modern life are often shown to be the result of shadowy machinations. Murder and the occult are never far from the surface. “It is the Nollywood equivalent of the Hollywood horror movie,” says Ms Isong, the producer.

Yet tormented characters often find salvation by turning to Christ. A church scene is de rigueur in a Nollywood film. This is hardly surprising. Christianity is on the rise in Africa. The number of evangelicals has grown from some 17m four decades ago to more than 400m. In countries like Liberia and Zambia, Nigerian “owner-operated” churches preach the gospel. Many Nollywood stars are born-again Christians. Film credits usually end with the invocation: “To God Be the Glory”. Helen Ukpabio, who is a leading actress as well as a successful preacher, runs a decidedly religious production company called Liberty Films. “All the movies from our stable are means of spreading the gospel in preparation of rapture,” she explains.

Nigeria’s success in film-making has not just elicited carping from other African countries. It has fired their competitive instincts. South Africa, Tanzania and Cameroon are now producing hundreds of films a year. Kenya is beating Nigeria at its own awards ceremonies. Ghana and Liberia have christened their nascent dream factories “Ghallywood” and “Lolliwood”. They are rapidly winning back viewers in what has become a fiercely competitive market. “We hide no longer. We face the fight,” says John Dumelo, a Ghanaian star whose grin can be seen on posters across Accra, the capital.

Nollywood has been forced to raise its game in response. It has started making films outside Lagos to cut costs, mirroring the exodus of film-making from Los Angeles to cities like Toronto and Albuquerque—a process known as “runaway production”. Some producers are investing in better equipment. Others are trying to get their films onto the big screen. With a population of 15m, Lagos has just three working cinemas. But that number could soon rise to 30. “To bring in much-needed investors, the industry has to have physical assets,” says a banker.

Nollywood is also distributing its wares more widely. African diasporas in the West pay good money to see films from home. BSkyB, a British satellite broadcaster, and Odeon, a cinema chain, both show Nollywood classics. Consumer-goods companies offer sponsorship deals. “How much the industry has changed,” marvels Emeka Duru, a veteran Lagos producer. “Not long ago actors had to wear their own clothes on shoots.”

Film is now Africa’s dominant medium, replacing music and dance. It links distant societies, fosters the exchange of ideas and drives fashion trends. In Kenya, Nollywood has bred a taste for traditional Nigerian clothing. The prime minister, Raila Odinga, has been seen wearing a loosely flowing agbada in parliament.

The power of images

Film also profoundly shapes how Africans see their own continent. Few have access to news channels. They derive many of their opinions on neighbouring countries from the movies. More than once your correspondent has heard Africans say they had not been to such-and-such a place but knew it from a film. That the films they watch are made by other Africans is a source of considerable satisfaction. For decades many Africans have complained that the Western media misrepresent their continent, showing only calamities like war, disease, corruption and famine. They have come to see film as an antidote. “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN,” says Lancelot Idowu, one of the best-known Nigerian directors.

And African films are becoming more adventurous. “Somewhere in Africa,” a Nigerian-Ghanaian co-production to be released next year, charts the rise and fall of a fictitious military dictator. It is based on the life stories of Idi Amin, Charles Taylor and Sani Abacha, who respectively ruled Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria. Another recent film, “The President Must Not Die”, portrays a decent head of state who faces assassination, an occurrence still common in Africa yet rarely reported in state-controlled media. Political violence remains a taboo subject in many countries. Nollywood is tackling it with zest and flair.

Other Africans may complain about the cultural infiltration of their countries. But Nollywood is no modern-day colonialist. Nigerian films are made by private individuals who do not receive government funds. They are distributed by small companies who must overcome official barriers to trade. And they are bought by consenting (indeed, highly enthusiastic) consumers. As Irving Kristol, a conservative American commentator who died in 2009, said of Hollywood’s international success: “It happened because the world wanted it to happen.”

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