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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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Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Tina Mba, and Joseph Benjamin at the 'Tango with Me' press preview, Ozone Cinemas. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Today, I witnessed the first forty minutes of Mahmood Ali-Balogun’s eagerly-anticipated film, Tango with Me, at the press screening at Ozone Cinemas in Yaba. The film has been on Nollywood’s radar for months given Ali-Balogun’s astonishing investment of nearly N100 million into the production budget. The director shot on 35mm, hired equipment and crew from Los Angeles, and spent weeks in post-production in Bulgaria.

The film is fraught with tension as it documents the disintegration of a marriage between two newlyweds, played by Genevieve Nnaji and Joseph Benjamin. Other actors include Joke Silva, Ahmed Yerima, and Tina Mba.

Tango with Me is scheduled to open on April 22 in multiplexes in Lagos (Silverbird, Genesis, and Ozone), Abuja (Silverbird and Ceddi Plaza), and Port Harcourt (Silverbird).

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Since the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has delayed the presidential election from April 9 until April 16, voters now have more time to enjoy campaign ads. The one above is funded by the Gesi Asamaowei Foundation and is produced by Del-York International Productions. It features Genevieve Nnaji, Ramsey Noah, Olu Jacobs, and Stephanie Okereke.

Who will you vote for?

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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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