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Nigerians thrill to their own stories

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LEVI OZOEMENA sits at his desk in the middle of Televentures, a small, one-room video rental shop in a rough part of this Nigerian city. Every inch of every wall is covered by Nigerian movies: the vast output of Nollywood. Outside, the middle-aged entrepreneur can see the motorcycles scream past his and all the other video shops that line the streets of the city. All day, mothers with children, young boys and girls and people getting off work come in and out, asking for the latest films by Genevieve Nnaji or RMD (Richard Mofe-Damijo) or Lillian Bach or Jim Iyke.

These are Africa's newest and biggest movie stars, products of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry which, in terms of sheer numbers of movies made, has grown bigger than either Hollywood or Bollywood — with estimates of 500 to 1,500 new films being shot each year.

The size of the industry is a matter of some dispute. But even conservative figures point to a massive Nigerian film sector that barely existed 15 years ago.

"It's gigantic," says Jonathan Haynes, author of "Nigerian Video Films," the first book on the industry. "By the mid-'90s, they were making 500 films a year, which seems jaw-dropping. It's more than twice that now."

The number is less surprising when you consider that most films are made in two weeks with no sets on budgets ranging from $10,000 to $40,000. Most are family melodramas, comedies, cultural epics or the quintessential Nigerian films usually called "horror" by the West, but which Haynes says are more occult-witchcraft melodrama.

Despite their small scale, all these productions add up to something much bigger. Jahman Anikulapo is the arts editor of the Guardian newspaper, and he sees it as a sign of a larger cultural revival in Nigeria, in literature, in theater, in music and in the visual arts. But Nollywood films are by far the biggest industry. Anikulapo says it generates around 30 billion naira per year, or about $236 million.

"I doubt if there is any other business that has come up in that time — except telecom, mobile phones — which generates 30 billion naira per year," Anikulapo says. "And it comes from these films that are not high quality. Some of them are very poor. But they are telling the stories people want to see."

Nigeria has a keen, if relatively new, obsession with home-grown movies — almost exclusively shot on digital and available only on video. The few remaining traditional cinemas specialize in Hollywood, Bollywood or European fare. In rural areas, where poverty is high, Nollywood films are shown at video parlors, a jury-rigged version of a movie theater — little more than someone with a TV and a generator. But in Lagos and the cities, where most people either have a VCD player (video CD) or VCR, or know someone who does, they watch at home.

The films are usually made quickly with skeletal scripts and a lot of improvised dialogue, then rushed to market and promoted with overblown (and badly spelled) trailers such as "The Resurrection's": "Explosive! Intriguing! Engaging!" or "Super Love's": "What will happen in these [sic] explosive mind blowing thrilling romantic movie?"

Ozoemena quit journalism five years ago to get into the video rental business, where he and his competitors typically rent movies for about 39 cents. When he doesn't have a title, he'll send his patrons on to Debic Video up the street, where teenage boys hang around watching the latest hits. Every Monday, Ozoemena heads down to Idumota Market on Lagos Island: a long street packed with video vendors, home to Nollywood's infamous "marketers" vying for control of the industry. There, in the morning chaos, Ozoemena will buy the new films — English one week, Yoruba the next. Last week, he bought 18 Yoruba films. But there are always too many English releases.

"Tomorrow," Ozoemena, says, "I can go to the market and find out that there are, maybe, 44 new ones. One of the problems with the English films is that they release too many films. Forty-four? It's too much."

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'For the people, by the people'SYLVESTER OGBECHIE is a professor of African art at UC Santa Barbara who recently formed the Nollywood Foundation to forge links between Nollywood and Hollywood.

"This is easily a quarter of a billion dollar industry," he says. "Very, very easily." That is even more surprising, he says, because it started as a way to unload blank videotapes.

"In 1992," says Ogbechie, "a trader bought a huge supply of videotapes from Taiwan, and he was trying to sell the video tapes. Well, the empty videotapes weren't selling very well. So he decided the tapes would sell better if they had something on them. So he got his friends together, got a standard video camera, and shot this film called 'Living in Bondage.' He dubbed it onto the videos, and he sold about a million copies. That was how this thing started."

It is precisely this ground-up approach to the whole filmmaking process that has made Nollywood so successful.

"Nollywood is an industry for the people by the people," says Nigerian superstar Nnaji. "We tell our own stories. That's why a lot of Africans can relate to it, and understand and laugh about it and learn lessons. So the industry does play a huge role in our lives, and that's why it's been so widely accepted."

Nnaji's career is a testament to the rise of Nollywood. In the seven years that she's been making movies, she has completed more than 60 films, and she can't go anywhere in Africa without being recognized.

But Nnaji's success has also triggered conflict with Idumota's powerful marketers, who produce and distribute the films. In an attempt to drive down actors' salaries, they organized a boycott of the actress and several other Nollywood stars that ended last year in something of a standoff. Limos disappeared, the club scene cooled, actors went public to bemoan the ban. Some filled the time putting out albums, others went into TV, and for a while, the glut of films eased. Ultimately the ban was lifted and most everyone returned to business as usual, though Anikulapo says it's still a bit quieter on Movie Lane.

Aside from actors, Nollywood has also produced a stream of directors including Amaka Igwe, Jeta Amata and Tunde Kelani. But even here, the industry is showing its growing pains: Kelani reportedly might move to nearby Benin because of problems with the marketers, another indication of just how much is at stake.

Nollywood's rise is very much tied to the types of stories that filmmakers are telling — showing African audiences life and struggles they recognize. "This is the first time there is a cinema that has very local content, that has not tried to pretend to be intellectual, or have some grand political agenda like the Francophone films had about decolonization," says Onookome Okome, who teaches African literature and cinema at the University of Alberta.

At the same time, local stories have broad regional appeal, Ogbechie says.

"We think the industry has created the first true mass medium on the continent, which cuts across race and culture and the Anglophone/Francophone divide and everything you can think of. And that's completely new."

The old ways also are featured in Nollywood film. "No matter where the story is set, there is always an element of tradition versus modernity," says Okome. "They believe in the modern world, with the rational thinking that comes from the European Enlightenment, and the idea of progress. But on the other hand, when everything else fails, they move to the other extreme of the occult."

Those elements of witchcraft and fetishism may limit the appeal to Western audiences. "I hope some of the Nollywood talents will manage to cross over and get picked up by international cinema," says Haynes. "But the basic product, because of the budgets, because of the cultural values, I don't think it's going far."

Nnaji, the actress, is more optimistic.

"We still have stories to tell," says Nnaji. "So if Hollywood is running out of stories, they might as well come to Nollywood and borrow some."

Meanwhile, other African countries have shown interest in the Nollywood filmmaking model. There are emerging film scenes in Ghana and Kenya.

There is little question that Nollywood is here to stay. At Levi Ozoemena's Televentures, for example, there are no more American movies to rent.

"Before," Ozoemena says, "I made a place for foreign movies. But in the end, I found that I was just wasting my money. People prefer Nollywood."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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