Column: Nollywood Brings African Stories to the World
Here's some global movie trivia for you: What's the world's largest film producer outside of Hollywood and India's Bollywood?
Ever heard of Nollywood?
That's "Nolly" for Nigeria, the African country with the continent's largest population. And if you're looking at the sheer number of films made, Nollywood and Bollywood both regularly out-produce Hollywood.
But, as an actress in the captivating 52-minute documentary "Jimmy Goes to Nollywood," available on Netflix, chuckles, "Just because you attach 'wood' doesn't make it Hollywood!"
You can't really compare it to Bollywood either, film director Leila Djansi insists in "Jimmy," because in Nollywood, "there's no industry and there's no structure."
It's fair to say that Nollywood to date has been characterized as generating more quantity than quality. (Then again, some critique modern-day Hollywood for the same...)
That may all change as Nollywood comes of age and its filmmakers strive to create more professional movies for international audiences.
Against the Odds
The launch of the boom known as Nollywood is widely attributed to the success of a businessman who in 1992 discovered he could turn a fast profit by filming and then selling cheap videos, starting with the title "Living in Bondage," about a down-and-out businessman using witchcraft to get ahead.
Over the next couple of decades, Nigerians followed his lead, to the tune of 1,000 to 2,000 or more movies per year. That's 20 to 40 movies a week! Compare this to Hollywood's average 600 per year, and 200 or less in major European territories.
The bulk of these movies have been low-budget, straight-to-video affairs shot on the fly, edited and then sold on streets, often in a matter of days. And all despite obstacles of almost laughable proportions, from minuscule budgets to unmanageable piracy, a general lack of on-set infrastructure and some seriously crazy traffic.
We're introduced to this seat-of-your-pants style in the first three minutes of the documentary "Jimmy Goes to Nollywood" when narrator-star, Jimmy Jean-Louis (the Haitian actor of "Heroes" fame), is invited to Lagos to host the Africa Movie Academy Awards, but can't seem to pin down the organizers on exactly which flight he's supposed to catch the next morning.
As he later muses, zipping across a busy Lagos street on foot to demonstrate how a chase scene might be filmed on a production that can't afford to shut down traffic: "This is how a strong will and initiative have written the history of Nigerian cinema."
Nollywood movies are massively popular, with single titles reportedly selling tens of thousands of copies before going on to long lives on satellite TV and video, including pirated DVDs.
They're characterized by soap opera-esque melodramas of crossed lovers and feuding families set to a backdrop laden with religious rituals and latent social commentary on everyday life in Nigeria.
The stories clearly resonate with audiences across Africa and the African diaspora. "Ivorian rebels in the bush stop fighting when a shipment of DVDs arrives from Lagos," explains the 2010 article "Lights, Camera, Africa" in The Economist. "Zambian mothers say their children talk with accents learnt from Nigerian television."
Jimmy interviews people who swear their African American and Caribbean friends stockpile Nigerian movies too. It helps that they're largely shot in English, Nigeria's official language, a sticking point for other countries trying to promote their "foreign-language" films.
The website NollywoodReinvented.com offers a Texas-based "Nolly Swap" for fans to exchange previously watched DVDs. There's no shortage of Nollywood films to stream online, including around 20 titles on Netflix (where "Nollywood Movies" has its own subgenre tag).
Nollywood has become both a mecca and a launching pad for aspiring actors and filmmakers from across the continent, and inspired other African industries, like Ghana's "Gollywood."
But popularity can have its downsides, as The Economist article illustrated, citing African "elites" outwardly hostile to histrionic Nollywood fare ("They are veritably poisoning our culture”) and governments in other countries anxious to stem the "'Nigerianisation' of Africa."
"New Nollywood" - Broadening Horizons
In recent years, some Nigerian filmmakers have tried to reverse the quantity-over-quality equation, making more expensive, more professional films hoping for theatrical release and international audiences. The movement has been called the "New Nollywood," or the "New Wave" of Nigerian cinema.
"Half of a Yellow Sun," the $9m movie said to be the most expensive Nigerian film ever made, was a defining moment in 2013. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, the film had the backing of the British Film Institute and played the Toronto International Film Festival.
This professionalization may well be a response to the times. A 2014 Al Jazeera story, "Hooray for Nollywood," described how filmmakers have "watched shrinking investments and rampant piracy hobble their industry." Now, they're "gambling that big-budget, big-screen blockbusters will breathe fresh life into Nollywood."
So long as they continue to bring African stories to the world.
This column originally ran in The Daily Record.