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Archive for the ‘Diaspora’ 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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The recent NYTimes piece, “Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net” (below), suggests that Nollywood producers are exploring binational co-productions as a means of reaching international audiences, which is true. But is it a misnomer to describe Tony Abulu’s forthcoming film, Doctor Bello, as a Nollywood production? Stephanie Okereke and Genevieve Nnaji are listed as cast on the Doctor Bello website, though Zack Orji and Desmond Elliot, who are also purported to appear, are not. Is it significant that the three lead roles are filled by American-based actors (Washington, Fox, and Jean-Louis)? Can the film claim the title of Nollywood by virtue of shooting a portion of the narrative on Nigerian soil? If the Nigerian government sponsors the production from its entertainment fund, does that make it more Nollywood or less, considering the notable financial independence of Nollywood in the past? Is a film still Nollywood if, before production begins, the filmmaker knows he wants to shoot a film for an international audience? I think in Abulu’s case there is an important distinction to be made between Nollywood and Diasporic Nigerian Cinema. However, I want to open the question up for comments by others. What today makes a production “Nollywood?”

Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net

Nollywood Seeks a Hit With ‘Doctor Bello’

Kirk Semple
Published: September 21, 2012

ON the surface the production that commandeered a few dormant rooms at the Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital on Roosevelt Island this year resembled many other low-budget film projects in New York City. Crew members were each handling multiple jobs. Those from out of town were spending their short nights on friends’ couches. The catering consisted of a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and a carton of coffee, both empty by late morning.

But despite the production’s humble appearance there was a lot riding on it. Its director and producer, Tony Abulu, and his financial backers say the film, “Doctor Bello,” has the potential to chart a new direction for the booming Nigerian film industry half a world away. That industry, known as Nollywood, is perhaps the world’s third-largest filmmaking industry in revenues, producing more than 1,000 titles every year. But the industry is known for churning out slapdash films with feeble story lines, amateurish acting and sloppy production values. Nearly all go straight to video and are soon forgotten.

In an effort to improve the quality, the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, pledged in 2010 to create a $200 million loan fund to help finance film projects. This past spring Mr. Abulu, a Nigerian who lives in Harlem, was chosen to receive the fund’s first loan, $250,000. His film’s premiere is scheduled for Thursday at the Kennedy Center in Washington. “The Nigerian government is saying, ‘Can somebody make a movie that will go to global mainstream theaters?’ ” Mr. Abulu said. “ ‘Can you make a film where someone in New York will go watch it and not walk out disgusted?’ ” He added, “They say I’m the one who can do it.”

Set in Nigeria and New York City, the film is about an African-American cancer specialist in New York, Dr. Michael Durant, who tries to save a young patient by seeking the help of an uncertified Nigerian doctor — Dr. Bello — an immigrant living in Brooklyn. Under the cover of night Bello slips the patient a secret African potion, helping him recover. But Durant’s solution is discovered, and he is suspended by his hospital while Bello is imprisoned for medical malpractice.

Soon, however, Bello himself falls critically ill, and it falls to Durant to save him by locating the secret elixir, which is found only in the “Garden of Life” on a mountain range in Nigeria. Hoping to steer his film away from the straight-to-oblivion route of most Nollywood films, Mr. Abulu has set his sights high by the industry’s standards.

“My aim is to introduce Africa to America and to Americans and to introduce Americans to Africans,” he said. He cast A-list Nollywood stars, including Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke. And with an eye to attracting an international mainstream audience, he brought in several Hollywood actors, including Isaiah Washington, best known for “Grey’s Anatomy”; Vivica A. Fox (“Kill Bill” and “Independence Day,” among many others); and Jimmy Jean-Louis (the NBC series “Heroes”).

During a break in filming in Brooklyn last spring Mr. Washington, who plays Durant (opposite Ms. Fox as his wife and Mr. Jean-Louis in the title role), said he signed on in part because he was drawn to the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” Hollywood and Nollywood. He also hoped his involvement might, in a way, help Nigeria, he said. “How can I bring value to destigmatize Nigeria and destigmatize Nollywood?” he said.

Mr. Abulu planned an ambitious filming schedule that straddled Nigeria and the United States, and he hired Americans for key creative positions, including his director of photography, Scott St. John. “This isn’t a Nollywood film where they edit it in two weeks, and it looks like it was cut by a 7-year-old,” Mr. St. John said.

While the budget was $1 million “on paper,” Mr. Abulu said, actual expenditures will likely top out around $500,000 — minuscule by Hollywood standards but enormous for Nollywood. He was able to cut costs, in part, by persuading many of the cast members, including the stars, to defer at least some of their payment on the promise of a share of profits, he said. The staff of his media company, Black Ivory Communications, agreed to forgo payment altogether for a percentage of profits. Mr. Abulu even took out a loan using his mother’s house as collateral. “And my mother’s 80,” he said. “I’m telling you, this is not a joke.”

In an interview the day after he wrapped principal photography in New York in May he revealed that he had exhausted his cash reserves. “It’s all gone, not a dime left,” he said. “I’ve got to go raise some more money.” Within days he was in Nigeria trying to attract more sponsorship from corporations there. “It’s one thing to get the film in the can,” he said by telephone. “It’s another thing to do postproduction.” He also needed money for marketing and was hustling to find a distributor for Europe and the United States. Since then he has taken several more trips to Nigeria, including this month, to try to raise financial support for the film.

His soaring ambitions are part of what helped to persuade the Nigerian government to back him with the inaugural loan from the new entertainment fund. Hope Yongo, an executive at the government-owned Nigerian Export-Import Bank, which is managing the fund, said the bank was impressed by Mr. Abulu’s conviction that his film would find an audience not only in Nigeria but also abroad.

“That gives us comfort that he will repay the loan,” Mr. Yongo said by telephone from Lagos. “His plan was very good.”

Mr. Abulu was born and raised in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. In New York he worked as a cultural impresario, organizing African music and dance performances and tours, then he ran a business magazine focusing on Africa.

In 1997 he released his first feature film, “Back to Africa,” which he made for about $100,000 and peddled door to door around the country, he said, selling it directly to video stores that specialized in African films. Two other films followed: “American Dream” in 2007 and “Crazy Like a Fox” in 2008.

Mr. Abulu, who has also collaborated with the American authorities in cracking down on the illegal trade in African films, is the most prominent member of a small, low-profile group of African filmmakers in New York City.

“What Tony is doing now is definitely like a new level of budget,” said Oliver Mbamara, a Nigerian-American filmmaker who is also a New York State administrative judge in Brooklyn. “We never get that kind of money for movies.”

Though Mr. Abulu sought to elevate “Doctor Bello” above other Nollywood fare, he still shot on a blindingly fast schedule, typical of Nigerian productions. He started filming in late April in Lagos. Within two weeks the production had shifted back to New York City, and principle photography was finished by mid-May.

The production moved quickly, wrapping scenes in no more than a few takes. It changed locations every day, sometimes several times a day, from a borrowed suite in the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South to the Coler- Goldwater Hospital to Wall Street to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

One afternoon it filmed at Buka, a Nigerian restaurant on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. But Mr. Abulu could not afford the cost of renting out the whole place, so he shot around paying customers, weathering the usual cacophony of a restaurant in full swing.

Some customers were asked to stop talking during takes. “Oh my God,” mumbled one diner to her companions as they picked gingerly at food, trying not to make noise with their forks. “The wrong day to come here.”

Mr. Abulu did not seem troubled by the imperfect conditions. He plowed through the shoot, remaining cool and issuing directions in a calm voice, and in short order he hustled his cast and crew to another location in Brooklyn. Filming would continue well into the night.

He said he was driven by the conviction that his project transcended moviemaking and had the potential to buoy his home country.“I don’t look at it as entertainment,” he said. “I look at it as a means of survival for Africans.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 23, 2012, on page AR14 of the New York edition with the headline: Of Nigeria, but Casting a Wider Net.

Accessed 9/25/12

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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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Director Andrew Donsunmu (in red) with the crew of 'Restless CIty' at the NYC premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. © Bic Leu and FindingNollywood.com, 2011

After missing the Restless City screening at FESPACO in March, I was pleased to be invited by New York African Film Festival director, Mahen Bonetti, to view the film at its New York premiere on May 29.

First-time director Andrew Dosunmu premiered the film at Sundance this year.  The movie follows Djibril, a young Senegalese immigrant, as he navigates the urban jungles of New York City. Per Dosunmu during the Q&A session, he wanted to portray the nuances of “universal displacement” in Djibril’s self-exile.

A film still from 'Restless City'. © Jenny Baptiste, 2011

As a New Yorker, I found the film exquisite. Director of Photography Bradford Young captured images of Manhattan in ways that I had never seen during the 18-day shoot. There is a scene in which the M1 bus (my former preferred commute) repeatedly threatens to overtake Djibril on his moped – an apt visual metaphor for the City’s voracious appetite to swallow you whole.

As a Lagosian, I was bored. After spending the past nine months watching Nollywood films, Restless City’s sparse dialogue and silent close-ups didn’t resonate with the “aesthetics of outrage” that media anthropologist Brian Larkin (2008) coined to describe the melodramatic plot lines and overwrought acting that characterize Nigerian cinema.  While there was plenty of drama in Restless City’s storyline, I thought its visual language was too “nuanced” to capture a popular African audience.

Dosunmu mentioned that after taking the film on the international festival circuit, he planned to release the film in Nigerian cinemas. I couldn’t help wondering how Restless City would be received by Lagosian movie-goers next to the current Silverbird offerings like Aramotu and The Hangover, Part II.

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Banner welcoming AMAA guests to the Bayelsa Tourism Development and Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Chairman of AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini with the AMAA Jury at the March 26 press briefing at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

On March 26-27th, I was fortunate to be invited to the 7th annual African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) hosted in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. The event is promoted by AMAA CEO Peace Anyiam-Osigwe as the “first and only award system for African cinema“. According to Chairman of the AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini, 320 films (consisting of 180 features and 140 shorts) were submitted all over the world for consideration in 25 categories. These submissions were narrowed down to the 30 nominated works, which Shaibu felt were “truly representative of African cinema in 2010“.

With Best Diaspora Short nominee Temi Ojo and Carmen McCain at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

With Best Diaspora Short Film nominee Sowande Tichawonna and Best Diaspora Feature winner Laquita Cleare at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

Best Diaspora Feature double-nominee Wayne Saunders getting interviewed at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

With Best Short Film nominee Mak Kusare at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Along with Hausa cultural advocate Carmen McCain, I was part of the 500 guests that were flown in from three different continents for the ceremony, which included 154 nominees and 45 members of the press. As the event’s major sponsor, the Bayelsa State Government hosted many of the pre-ceremony activities–including the press briefing and meals for invited guests–at the Bayelsa State Tourism Development & Publicity Bureau.

[Update April 3] To read Carmen McCain‘s detailed account of the awards in her Weekly Trust column, please click here.

Best Young Actor winner Edward Kagutuzi and 'Inale' actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

With actor Razaaq Adoti, Carmen McCain, and 'Inale' actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim pre-ceremony. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

With Carmen McCain, Best Short Film nominee Zipporah Nyaruri, Best Diaspora Short nominee Temi Ojo, and Best Diaspora Feature winner Laquita Cleare on the AMAA red carpet. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

With Chairman of the AMAA Selection Committee Shaibu Husseini on the AMAA red carpet. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

AMAA CEO Peace Anyiam-Osigwe on the red carpet. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

Majid Michel on the AMAA red carpet. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

Carmen McCain and Kunle Afolayan. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

AMAA co-hosts Jim Iyke and Nse Ikpe-Etim (in Wanger Ayu) on-stage at the Gloryland Cultural Centre. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

At the March 27 ceremony at Gloryland Cultural Centre, the Congolese gangster movie, Viva Riva!, swept the awards by winning 6 statuettes, including Best Film, Best Actress In Supporting Role (Marlene Longage), Best Actor In Supporting Role (Hoji Fortuna), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Director (Djo Tunda Wa Munga). The Nigerian productions that received awards were Aramotu (Best Costume Design and Best Nigerian Film), Inale (Best Soundtrack), and Mirror Boy (Best Young Actor). Click here for the complete list of nominees and winners.

The event also featured performances from Wande Coal and Dr. Sid.

Best Diaspora Feature winner Laquita Cleare with Olu Jacobs post-ceremony. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

After the six-hour long ceremony culminated at 2AM, Bayelsa State Governor Chief Timipre Sylva and his wife, Mrs. Alanyingi Sylva, hosted invited guests at an opulent after-party at the Governor’s Mansion.

AMAA After-party at the Governor's Mansion. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

Our table at the AMAA After-party boasted 2 awards. Photo © 2011 Carmen McCain

 

 

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A few weeks ago, I attended Jonathan Haynes’s lecture at Tufts University on the themes most commonly found in Nollywood films produced outside of Nigeria.  As a pioneer of the academic discourse surrounding Nollywood, Haynes has closely followed the industry since its origin in the early 1990s.  In his lecture, he noted that foreign filming locations have become increasingly popular in Nollywood after Osuofia in London (2003) became the highest grossing movie in the industry’s history.

The most striking features of these films are their consistent alignment with the Nollywood style and their “complete lack of interest in the foreign,” despite their cross-continental settings. Because these “foreign” films are ultimately distributed in Nigerian markets, they must maintain the same costs as domestic productions. This economy is made possible with the support of local Nigerian expatriate communities, which often provide funding for the production and housing for the cast and crew during the shoot. As a result, we notice frequent scenes of characters eating in Nigerian restaurants and patronizing Nigerian businesses in films set throughout Europe. Even the establishing shots contribute little toward an atmosphere of travel.  The tall buildings seen in the background of these scenes can be transposed to any continent.

Even in dual productions between Nollywood and Hollywood, we find no sense of cultural hybridity. The plot of Close Enemies (2008), the first Nollywood film shot entirely in Los Angeles, revolves around the popular Nigerian themes of fertility and patriarchal anxieties. The same topics also dominate the Dangerous Twins franchise, which was shot in London and Lagos.

What should this tell us about the genre? That no matter how well Nollywood becomes integrated into mainstream culture–an inevitability–it will still retain its local flavor.

Dangerous Twins (2006) Trailer

*Thank you to Ms. Nackman for her editorial finesse.

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