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In Nigerian cinemas for the first time audiences are choosing African films above big budget foreign offerings. A new generation of award-winning film-makers is making it happen
Credited with breaking the stranglehold of Hollywood and Bollywood over African audiences, Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, is the second largest in the world according to UNESCO figures. But local and international critics decry it for the poor quality of the films it churns out each year, most of which are produced only as DVDs and sold directly to local vendors.
Now a new generation of film-makers, focused on better production values, is challenging those preconceptions. Often born of the cross-fertilisation of a Nigerian upbringing and North American film training, these young directors have dared to take Nigerian films to the multiplexes and reaped financial rewards at home, while collecting prizes from the critics abroad.
Nigerian-born Chineze Anyaene is founder and CEO of Xandria Productions. Last year her directorial debut, Ijé: The Journey, became the highest grossing Nigerian film of all time, chalking up an amazing N52m ($341,000) in its 17-week run from July 2010. Perhaps even more impressive is that it was second only to Avatar, the highest grossing film worldwide, in Nigerian cinemas, showing that this audience is more than ready to forgo Hollywood stars in favour of quality native cinema.
Six months earlier, Ijé had set off on a world tour of international film festivals and gathered an impressive bouquet of awards, including the Silver Ace in Las Vegas, the Golden Palm in Mexico, the Melvin Van Peebles Award at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and the Excellence in Filmmaking prizes in Canada and Hawaii.
So what gave Ijé its universal appeal? Shot on location in Nigeria and the US, the film is an immigrant’s tale that explores themes of identity, belonging and the pursuit of the American dream. Anyaene says her passion for film-making “stems from everyday life. My ability to tell a story and do it genuinely is what drives me. I don’t look at film-making as a money-earning device but as a mission. I use this medium, not only to entertain, but to deliver a message.” ?
Kunle Afolayan is another young film-maker who has managed to combine commercial success with critical acclaim. His 2009 feature The Figurine was Nigerian cinema’s highest-grossing film until Ijé knocked it off its perch. The film is a modern-day folk tale that explores the themes of culture and traditional beliefs. Afolayan defends his decision to make a film that explores the supernatural, a common theme in Nollywood films, saying, “Whatever story you tell must be worthy of itself. Make it as believable as possible even if it’s not real. The story of The Figurine is fiction, but it was believable because the acting was real, the audio was great and different from an average Nigerian film.”
Like Anyaene, Afolayan is a graduate of the New York Film Academy. He directed, produced and acted in The Figurine, which premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January 2009. It was nominated in 10 categories at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs) and went home with five awards, including best picture and best cinematography.
Afolayan believes his film has done well because it is more than just a folk tale. “The Figurine is a blend of art and commercial style of film-making. It’s travelling because it doesn’t just cut across with Nigerians, Africans and Africans in the diaspora, but also average film-lovers all around the world.”
?The Tenant, another film that put Nigeria on the international cinema map, had its London premiere in May 2010. Directed, produced and starred in by Lucky Ejim, it also explores the experience of Africans in the diaspora, though this was not Ejim’s original idea. In 2005, he and writer/producer Jude Idada had gone to Nigeria in search of money for a script “tailor-made for a Nigerian audience” but potential backers had baulked at spending 10 times the budget for a regular Nollywood production on one film. Realigning his objectives, Ejim says his goal was to “make a film with a crossover appeal that would stand on its own against other films around the world.” It worked. The Tenantwon Best Feature Film awards at Moving Image Film Festival and Hollywood Black Film Festival.
The new film-makers each have their own relationship with the idea of Nollywood, raising the question of whether it should be defined by its content or its form. Afolayan says, “Your product is what differentiates you. If you go out there with a film which is the same low quality film as everybody’s, then people will still see you as Nollywood. I don’t go out and say I’m not Nollywood, my work speaks for me.”?
Keke Bongos, 30, is a first-time producer. Based in the US, she recently produced the first musical made in Nigeria, Inale. Directed by Jeta Amata, it is a folk story set in Benue State that explores questions of family, tradition and betrayal. Bongos said the aim of the film was to show the world that Nigeria’s “culture is beautiful. We hear so many negative stories about Nigeria, but we can tell our stories and positive stories, even through song.” ?
Is the film Nollywood? “Yes,” says Bongos, “it’s a film shot in Nigeria by Nigerians.” But she maintains that “we who worked on this project are advocates of doing a job and leaving behind all the mediocrity that we Nigerians in some cases have become so accustomed to.” ?
Nollywood’s success has long been attributed to its ability to tell stories that are a reflection of Nigeria and the wider African community, demystifying the one dimensional image of Africans propagated by the media and Hollywood. Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama, a Paris-based Cameroonian filmmaker, says, “I don’t know why we believed all these years that Africans would be happy to watch Julia Roberts.” ?
But, critically, for Nollywood to develop it has to balance the need to make profit with production values. Afolayan says the role of the producer is key: “Most of the people who are executive producers of Nigerian films are mere distributors and marketers. They have little or no knowledge about film-making or what creativity is about. [For them] it’s about making money and once that’s done, they throw that master copy into the trash and move on to the next project.”?
Bongos believes Nollywood is evolving and her hopes are shared by the others who say it is on the verge of a major change as more people aspire to redefine the industry. Ejim says, “It’s evident that Nigerian film-makers are beginning to realise the competition is about to get intense, and so a lot of them are going back to school to learn more about the craft.” Afolayan believes the inception of the AMAAs, now in their sixth year, gives film-makers new hope.
Behind these film-makers is another generation ready to take on the task. Niyi Akinmolayan, 28, is the founder and CEO of Anthill Multimedia. Unlike Anyaene, Ejim and Afolayan, he has no formal education in film-making, but learnt by working with others in the industry. His first feature film, Kajola, which he describes as an action drama set in the future, is hailed as the first science-fiction movie made in Nigeria. “Visual effects and animation are new in Nigeria. One of the reasons why it was hard to get funding,” he says.
If producers get behind cutting-edge directors like Akinmolayan, Nollywood can turn a fresh new page.
This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of The Africa Report.
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