Nigeria: Lights, Camera, Action!
Nigeria’s movie industry is the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. They are budget, direct-to-video flicks - but Africa’s millions are demanding more, and they simply can’t get enough.
By Cindy-Lou Dale
When I first read of Nigeria’s movie business producing hundreds of feature-length films every year, using digital cameras, I found the subject interesting, but when I heard that producers shoot a movie in ten days or less, on a budget of a $20,000, I was compelled to investigate further.
My journey of discovery which beckoned with promise of adventure and mystery began on a red-powdered road in the dull light of a thick African sunset. The heat was so intense that the bush felt narrow, slender, barely able to hang on. Everything was still. The cattle I passed bleated weakly; their sounds dry and wispy, evaporating into the dust. Driving past dark mouthed huts I found myself wondering when the burnt flat savannah would ignite. I itched with sweat.
Heading towards Nigeria’s Abuja I stopped beside an open-air butchery where goat and cow carcasses swinging from trees, seethed with flies.
I bought some fruit from a vendor who had a child slung onto her soft ready hip. She enquired after my destination and asked if I could take her two little sisters home as it was on my way.
Near their village I came across people in the act of creating food, scratching in the red warm-smelling soil with hoes, spitting up fine paprika-coloured throat coating dust.
“Come, missy, you must come to our house and listen to our grandfather,” one of my passenger pleaded. “His stories are about to begin.”
One by one, gift bearing, sweat pasted members of the surrounding villages greeted the traditional medicine man, a fragile old soul, bent in the spine. The heat sighed up from the earth and curled around his legs. He had the lean bearing and far-off gaze of someone whose world was once the outdoors. He exuded wood smoke, the singe of charcoal-ironed clothes and an aroma of freshly tilled soil. His eyes were splintered with thin red veins.
Well after nightfall he slumped to his haunches and stretched out his hands to the fire, resting elbows on knees. He lit his pipe, indicative that a story was about to commence. A thick cloud of tobacco fog hung above his head. The crowd before him fell silent in anticipation. He regarded fifty pairs of bright eager eyes shining back at him in the firelight. The old man’s face becomes folded and deep.
“Not so long ago,” he begun in a silken tone, “we went to bed at dusk because we had no candles. Recall how our children went to school in rags? And when we felt the future’s only promise was that of hopelessness, poverty and disease? Do you recall how hard our parents prayed and how we prayed too?” His audience considered his statement solemnly.
His voice grew suitably dramatic and he pointed with the fingers holding his pipe. “Allah, the merciful one, heard our prayers and sent us a man who did not take pity on us, a man that did not drop a few coins into our begging bowls, who instead gave our children opportunity, a man that had faith in us when we once had none.
In his wisdom, this man showed us how to tell our ancestors tales – for a profit.” He paused for effect, taking a deep pull on his pipe. Wood smoke curled itself around my shoulders, lingering long enough to scent my hair and skin.
“And look - now we can buy candles for when it grows dark. We can now send our children and grandchildren to school dressed in smart uniforms, and our wives, they have new clothes for the Mosque.” There was much reflective nodding and agreeable whispers.
“We all know of the farmer who would much rather sit in the sunshine and get drunk on his misery. He will call to us to join him and say our sons and daughters with the cameras must stop wasting time with the work,” he paused, his lion-like gaze studying the intent faces before him.
“But he sees that through their hard work their children will finish school, he sees too that their women are happy, and that some of us now have bicycles; and he will wonder what it is that we do.” He relit his pipe and continued talking.
“Our future, she changed at a time when Africa’s cities faced a plague of crime and insecurity. Like the locusts when they come onto our fields. The locusts, they destroyed lives.” He wiped his face with the flattened palm of his hand; a gesture of a person not accustomed to the conveniences of napkins or tissues. “Our people, they did not want to go out when the darkness came.” He went on to explain that business, like cinemas, began to close and that home video viewing imported from the West and India was substituted for in-house entertainment instead.
In 1992 an entrepreneur saw an opportunity to fill the void. Using several thousand excess video cassettes he needed to offload, he created the hugely successful and instant hit – Living in Bondage, which told of a man who was enticed into a cult that required that he sacrifice his wife in exchange for riches. The sensation this movie created started the ball rolling and soon other home videos in this genre were being produced.
The rise of digital cinema has resulted in a growing video film industry. In Nigerian it’s informally known as Nollywood and has become the third-largest in the world after that in the United States and India.
According to CNN, Nigeria has a $590-million movie industry, churning out some 200 home videos every month - second only to India’s Bollywood and more than Hollywood. But this number continually grows as the latest estimate is that somewhere around three thousand movies will be produced this year alone.
Nollywood blasted foreign media films off the shelves and became Africa’s new roaring lion of industry, marketed across the Dark Continent and around the world. The clever use of English rather than local languages assisted the promotion still further and assertive marketing using posters, trailers, and television advertising played a vital role in Nollywood’s success.
This Nollywood wonder was made achievable by two main ingredients: Nigeria’s free enterprise and digital technology. All it required was a few thousand dollars, digital cameras equipment, some lights, and wham, Nigerian directors were fast on their way to becoming one of the world’s largest producer of films – not to mention the thousands of jobs that went along with it, as well as a sense of hope.
In an underprivileged community, where movies are produced with little fiscal backing, on shoestring budgets, and released on average within ten days, slight delays in the schedule can be disastrous.
Nigerian directors implement new technologies as soon as they are priced within their means. Cumbersome video cameras evolved to digital, which are now being replaced by HD cameras.
Computer-based systems do the editing, music, and most of the post-production work. The films go straight to DVD and VCD discs and are distributed to Nigerian stores and market stands weekly, where an average film sells around 50,000 copies. A hit may sell three times as many. Discs sell for a couple of dollars each, which is within the means of most Nigerians, and presents good takings for the producers.
Several hundred movie producers whip out films at an astonishing rate, resulting in Nigerian productions outselling Western action-adventures or Bollywood musicals as they provide little that is pertinent to life in African ghettos or remote villages.
“Our new storytellers are speaking of Nigeria. Of Africa,” said the medicine man through steepled fingers. His eyes
burned bright and sharp, like those of an old rooster. “They cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what this story is but the white man he tells me his story in his picture films. Now we see Nigeria’s stories.”
To date, not much about Nollywood would make its opposite number in California envious. The horn-blaring motionless traffic jams, the eyes aching smog, litter, crumbling roads, regular power cuts, street thugs demanding protection money, all the while racing against an incredibly tight schedule - complications which would be inconceivable in California.
Evidently Nigerian’s don’t count the hurdles; they learn to climb over them. Yet Nollywood producers are focussed; they know they have stumbled across a money-spinning and long ignored enterprise. And they’re cashing in on films that put forward characters the locals can relate to, told in stories that depict circumstances that Africans understand and confront daily. Nollywood stars are native Nigerians who act in movies set in familiar locations, loaded with obligatory messages to society. These messages aim to educate their audiences as their movies deal with romance and AIDS, the occult and superstition, corruption and comedy, prostitution and crooked cops.
Until now, Nollywood has been made-up of low budget films, shot on location all over Nigeria with hotels, homes and offices often rented out by their owners. What the films lack in quality, they make up in quantity as Nollywood is big business in Africa.
The unique and recent addition of Tinapa Movie Studios has provided a platform for the production of films that will be shot in Africa. As such, Nollywood will cease to remain a concept but find a domicile in the same manner that its peers in Hollywood and Bollywood have done.
Tinapa Movie Studios in Calabar in the south-east of the country is set to become Africa’s prime feature film and television drama production location. (Possibly this was the investment opportunity Wesley Snipes recently checked out in Nigeria.) Apart from becoming a tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over the world who will be able to learn how movies are made, it will be the home of Nollywood and the venue for annual film festivals reminiscent of the Cannes Festival in France.
The force behind Nollywood is not merely about making a profit; Nollywood is telling their own stories in their unique Nigerian way, the African way.
The old medicine man said in conclusion, “Our traditional role of storytelling is strong. Even if our children do not tell of it around the fire to their children and their children’s children, like we do now, it is passed to many more. Just in another way.”
He took a mouthful of bread his daughter had presented to him earlier and a sip of tea from an enamel mug, mixing the two together in his mouth, like a concrete mixer. He seemed to be thinking then said, “I can now sit under my acacia tree and watch my goats and my wives working in the field. Our children have secured the future of our past. And the story of our people will be told well.” Minutes later the old medicine man had nodded off into a broken chicken-neck sleep.
When to go
Nigeria’s climate is a mixed bag, with the coastal regions getting the rains in the winter, and the northern plains attracting precipitation during the summer months. Temperatures cool down between November and February.
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Cindy-Lou Dale originates from a small farming community in Southern Africa and has a nomadic lifestyle that moves her around the world. Currently she lives in a picture postcard village in south-east England, surrounded by rolling green hills, ancient parish churches and designer sheep farms. Cindy has been featured in international publications around the world, including GoNOMAD, TIME and National Geographic Traveller.