In the early days of Nigerian cinema, directors and actors wandered cities and tribal lands shooting movies straight to VHS tapes that were sold in kiosks and bartered in villages.
Those times of on-the-fly editing and pocket-change financing have since grown into one of the largest film industries in the world, a quicksilver business that is as attuned to juju priests as it is to the love affairs and nightclubs of the new rich.
The reach of what is known as Nollywood often strikes Kemi Adetiba, one of its most acclaimed directors, when she’s in Jamaica or New York. A taxi driver will invariably say, “Oh, God, I love Nigerian films” while waxing on about how those stories connect him to ancestors who centuries before had been uprooted from Africa by slavery and colonialism.
“Nollywood is the way a lot of the black diaspora understand their history,” said Ose Oyamendan, a filmmaker and founder of the Nollywood in Hollywood film festival, which opens Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. “Even in Brazil, they are so into Nollywood films because that’s how they know where their families came from. I’ve been to places in the Caribbean where you walk past houses and people are watching Nollywood films.”
Nollywood symbolizes a nation discovering and deciphering itself through film. Making about 1,600 movies a year, it ranks with Hollywood and India’s Bollywood as a top film producer. There are few precise statistics, but a 2014 U.S government report estimated that the Nigerian film industry, which has since grown significantly, employed about 1 million people and generated more than $600 million for the economy. The quality of films has improved since the VHS era of the 1980s; Netflix this year began streaming “Lionheart,” the first original Nollywood movie acquired by the company.
“Filmmaking in Africa is exploding,” said Banky W., a Nigerian rapper, singer and actor. “Nollywood, in terms of popularity, is leading the charge, but we’re seeing amazing films coming out of east Africa, South Africa, and even Ghana has its own impressive business. I hope this generation of Nigerians and Africans and filmmakers, artists and creators is the one that finally turns the fortunes of the continent around.”
The films at the Nollywood in Hollywood festival speak to a Nigeria balancing oil wealth, persistent poverty, Islamic militants and a cosmopolitan millennial class. “Lionheart” is the feminist tale of a woman’s takeover of her father’s bus company; “King of Boys,” directed by Adetiba, is a political thriller that explores corruption; “Up North” is a story of a young man’s moral awakening and the empowerment of girls in a northern region dominated by Islam and tradition.
“Nollywood has a global spread, but when you talk to people about it in Hollywood, you get a blank stare,” said Oyamendan. “But I feel what Nigeria is culturally, socially and even geopolitically is important to bring here. Let the industry see and decide for itself what a huge market Nollywood is.”
Roughly twice the size of California, Nigeria — where 44% of the population of 190 million lives on less than $2 a day— has only about 200 movie screens. The film industry is a vast landscape of opportunists, auteurs and video pirates. Most Nollywood movies are shot in fewer than three weeks, and budgets range from $20,000 to $130,000. Many are made for less. The country’s highest-grossing movie, “The Wedding Party,” directed by Adetiba, brought in $1.3 million.
“It’s not like in America, where people just decide on a movie and go. It’s a very special occasion in Nigeria.”
Nigeria’s oil wealth and its film industry are indications that the vestiges of colonialism — the country was ruled by the British until 1960 — are giving way to new realities. This is the story of much of Africa, as countries from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo navigate corruption and strife against the backdrops of globalization and unsteady politics.
“Nollywood is Nigerians telling Nigerian stories,” said Banky W., who stars in “Up North” and will be attending the festival with Adetiba. “Nigerians in the south don’t know much about life in the north. All we hear are the bad things: terrorism, Boko Haram. The 200 girls kidnapped by terrorists. These horror stories happened in the north, but there’s also beauty there. There’s culture, peace, tradition. We need more films like this [‘Up North’] talking about the things that matter in Africa.”
Speaking by phone from Nigeria on the day the military turned out in force to prevent violence during state elections, Banky W. added: “Africans themselves will be what rescues Africa. We’ve had bad leadership and all of that, but it is a continent with so much promise.”
It is also one with sly humor and unabashed marketing. Shortly after “Black Panther” opened around the world and celebrated the fictional land of Wakanda, Nollywood’s “Wakanda Forever” — Seasons 1 and 2 — appeared on YouTube in all their campy glory.
Much of Nollywood’s history consisted of drawing from folklore and spinning stories from superstitions and infidelities that marked the fascinations and fears of a middle class venturing beyond village life. Pictures like “Lionheart” are the next iteration, representing the aspirations of the young and well traveled, including actors and filmmakers.
The movie’s star and director, Genevieve Nnaji, has 1.6 million Twitter followers and has been called the Julia Roberts of Africa by Oprah Winfrey. Banky W., a leading rap and R&B musician with nearly 3 million Twitter followers, was raised in Nigeria and the U.S. Adetiba was a radio presenter and television personality before enrolling in the New York Film Academy.
A conventional comedy, “Lionheart” examines women’s rights and capitalism through Adaeze’s (Nnaji) rise to succeed her father as head of the family company. The story twists modernism with tradition, a lesson that the homespun virtues of the village are relevant when discerning temptation and the trappings of wealth. The picture was acquired by Netflix before its 2018 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The deal was viewed as a sign of Nollywood’s ascension and a chance for Nigerian filmmakers to increase profits.
Netflix buying worldwide rights to “Lionheart” was “something people were very proud of,” said Oyamendan, who has a master’s degree in film/television from USC and is making a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It shows that Netflix — and by extension Hollywood — is interested in what Nollywood has to offer.”
In a statement about films and TV shows it has recently picked up from Nigeria and South Africa, Netflix said: “We are committed to giving passionate local content creators a worldwide platform to share their vision, and offering consumers around the world unique and diverse stories… This is just the beginning of our investment in Africa. ”
Netflix plays to “Nollywood’s advantage, because nationwide, we have maybe just over 200 cinemas, so that means no matter how your film does, it can only do so well,” said Adetiba, whose “Wedding Party” is playing on the streaming service. “Having Netflix gives us an alternative avenue to making money back. You can go through the cinema route and after sell it to Netflix.”
Netflix’s push into Nigeria and other African countries will have to overcome poor internet quality, corrupt officials, tribal sensibilities, uneven production standards, poverty and a population accustomed to DVDs. “We have the internet, but it’s not the best, and it’s very expensive,” said Adetiba. “And the average man cannot afford a Netflix subscription.”
But Nollywood is far from the days of one if its earliest hits, “Living in Bondage,” the 1992 saga of a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult to win riches that ultimately curse him. The film first appeared on VHS tapes, circulating through city markets and village outposts as metaphor for a nation facing political and economic uncertainty. Nigeria has since opened many more movie houses, but going out to a film in a land of widespread poverty — and an elite that skims above it all — is not taken lightly.
“It’s not like in America, where people just decide on a movie and go,” said Adetiba. “It’s a very special occasion in Nigeria.”
Nollywood in Hollywood
March 22: “Up North” — 7:30 p.m. Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood
March 23: “Lionheart” — 4 p.m. Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre Complex at USC. Followed by “King of Boys” at 6:30 p.m.
Cost: Screenings are free, but you must RSVP. See website for details.