x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dawn of a golden age

Feature The rapid rise of Nollywood, Nigeria's ubiquitous, low-budget film industry, is nevertheless a bright spot in a country known for more bad news than good.

While driven more by commerce than creativity, the rapid rise of Nollywood, Nigeria's ubiquitous, low-budget film industry, is nevertheless a bright spot in a country known for more bad news than good. By Luke Jerod Kummer. Photographs by Guy Calaf.

Everybody wants to be in Nollywood," says Stephanie Okereke, the sultry, 28-year-old It-girl of Nigeria's film industry, still sprawled across her hotel bed at 3pm. "They want to be a star. I don't know why." The 5ft 11in actress and screenwriter is nominated for two honours at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs) to be held in a few hours here in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta. The area is also where insurgents kidnap people and blow up oil pipelines. If she's nervous about either the ceremony or security, then her pretty face tells a great lie. Instead, she grips the edge of a white duvet, wittingly or not, evoking Milton H Greene's famous bedroom photo shoot of Marilyn Monroe. Her eyes peer across the room at a pair of dresses draped over an easy chair, weighing whether to go with the revealing purple one from Mon Ami, a top designer in Nigeria, or the blue strapless evening gown she bought in Beverly Hills.

The former beauty contestant recently went to Los Angeles to premiere a Nigerian film, Through The Glass, and her BlackBerry is ringing like it has come down with incurable hiccups; it seems every paper in Lagos is trying to score an interview. Many people there think Okereke is going to be the first star to cross over to Hollywood. It would be just the sort of recognition Nollywood, as Nigeria's film industry is sometimes called, aspires to attain.

Creating the AMAAs can also be seen as Nigeria trying to announce its arrival on the international film scene. In a country known more for bad news than good, Nollywood is a bright spot, growing to become the third largest film industry in the world in terms of production behind Hollywood and Bollywood. Understandably, Nigeria would rather shine a spotlight on this success than on a history of corruption and a succession of military coups.

But the industry's future is uncertain. The take-the-money-and-run approach to filmmaking that has made Nollywood an interesting story has hindered its quest for legitimacy. For most of its existence, Nollywood's reputation has been akin to that of fast food - cheap, ubiquitous and salty. As the money has poured in, however, a culture of glamour has been wrapped like fancy packaging around an industry whose origins are humble, whose technical aspects can be shaky and whose working-day realities are harsh. If Nollywood manages to mature past the proclivities that have shaped it so far, then maybe today's celebrities will one day be viewed with the nostalgia western film buffs have for the early stars of the silver screen. If not, then Nollywood is likely to go the way of vaudeville: a colourful and important idiom for its time that ultimately was short-lived.

there's no doubt Nollywood is a major force shaping popular culture in Nigeria. Its devotees are hooked on the latest gossip in tabloids and on hundreds of websites; Nollywood stars party in clubs while fans click snapshots from behind velvet ropes. But what makes this possible are the vendors selling the DVDs for $2 to $3 (Dh7 to Dh11) at market stalls or by knocking on windows of cars stalled in Lagos's traffic jams.

In a country of 150 million people and one proper cinema, which opened in 2004, home videos are big business. The business model has been to target the middle and lower classes in Nigeria with sensational storylines and to make a quick turnover by flooding them with a thousand movies per year. From the beginning, creativity has been driven by commerce and art has come in second to the hustle. What quickly became an African success story must also rank among the greatest achievements in do-it-yourself. In 1992, Ken Nnebue, a merchant at one of Nigeria's sprawling marketplaces, decided to record his own movie, Living In Bondage, and sell it beside his usual piles of video cassettes and second-hand electronics. This rough-hewn morality tale of tribal chiefs and black magic made on ageing equipment and with virtually no budget appealed to the masses. It sold half a million copies and launched Nollywood.

The model became even easier with the advent of inexpensive digital video, and it has been such a money maker - the industry generates about $250 million per year - that filmmaking today is one of the country's biggest employers: the Actors Guild of Nigeria alone represents around 20,000 members. But, despite some attempts at reform, the industry is still run by businessmen-cum-merchants who now control a business where films are financed single-handedly, thrown together in no time and put into hawkers' hands. Compared to Hollywood, the touts are far closer to the creative process.

And it shows. lagos's upscale neighbourhoods resemble Baghdad's Green Zone, with coils of razor wire crowning towering fortress-like compounds. At their entrances, guards with AK-47s huddle around armoured vehicles. My hired driver pulls up to a set location in one such neighbourhood known as Lekki, and I spot in the middle of the road a lawnmower-sized diesel generator. Its patched-together electrical cord winds through high iron gates into the Anna Maria Hospital, past patients in the lobby seated beside actors rehearsing lines and fanning themselves with scripts. It terminates in a doctor's office and feeds four light banks. The main generator died earlier, and there's no AC during Lagos's midday swelter. Actors are crisping like French fries beneath heat lamps.

"Dab! Dab!" shouts Ikechukwu Onyeka, the heavy-browed director stripped to his soaking, sleeveless undershirt. A gaffer mops the sweat beading on the lead actor's face and a couple of actresses touch up their own make-up. "Rock it!", calls the director. "Roll it", responds the cameraman, hoping the cast's perspiration won't ruin another take and further extend the 12-hour shoot. Welcome to movie magic far from either the backlot pampering or the red tape of filming on location in the US. For this production - the title is The Darkest Link, about a man who receives a heart transplant endowing him with a murderer's soul - the location manager simply walked into the hospital one day and said she wanted to make a movie here. For a small sum the crew took over the doctor's office with its authentic props left in place, down to a rack of glass vials marked "malaria" on the desk.

During a brief pause in the action I ask one of the actresses, Mercy Johnson, who's also up for an AMAA, what scene's next. "We're going to break for a few hours," she says. "Really?" I ask gullibly. "Are you crazy?" she snaps. "They won't let us take a 10-minute break. I came to the set one time so sick I was shaking. After 10 hours they said, 'Let's finish early so Mercy can get some rest'." Most films are made in about a week. Budgets average $15,000 (Dh55,000). Aside from glamorous interludes such as the AMAAs, actresses such as Stephanie or Mercy can only afford evening gowns by working tirelessly. In 2005, Stephanie made 23 films, and that was with a near-fatal car accident that year. Quality is hard to cultivate at these volumes.

From an outside perspective, the plots and aesthetics are outrageous, the films watchable only if one appreciates camp. One Nollywood subgenre is set in traditional villages with storylines revolving around supernatural powers, often presented on screen by bolts of lightning that look like they have been drawn on the frame using a crayon. As one Nigerian woman who had been educated abroad said to me in a Lagos cafe, "Why would I want to watch a movie where it's 'zap' and then a human being turns into a goat?"

Another type of film portrays Lagos's corrupt high society with shoot-em-up action using firecrackers and packets of paint inserted into the actors' clothes to simulate on-screen gunshots. Little time is spent on crafting dialogue. Despite Nollywood's slapdash standards, the industry is doing something that was previously unheard of: black Africans are telling their own stories on a grand scale using the primary entertainment medium of the world.

"People are watching themselves," says Asantewa Olantunji, an African-American woman who is one of the AMAA judges. She has been coming to Nigeria for about 10 years, and I found her relaxing at an art gallery a few days before the AMAAs. "When you see yourself illuminated on screen then you become important. If it's just Europeans, then it's like they're important and I'm not." Nigerians once had to be content with western films. But thanks to Nollywood's success, locally made movies now outsell foreign ones. Neighbouring countries such as Ghana and Cameroon have also developed nascent film industries based on the Nollywood model.

"One of the things Hollywood propagated was that it takes millions of dollars to make a film," Olantunji explains. "Nollywood came along and said, 'Hey, you've got $10,000? Make a film.' Nollywood showed that there was an internal market and money to be made by creating movies for this audience. It's a whole new frontier that changes who's making the imagery and putting it out there." Before the awards in Yenagoa, I ride in a Land Cruiser with Stephanie, who's wearing oversized Dior sunglasses, as she goes to pay respects to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former state governor. We pass an LED-screen billboard displaying Stephanie's image near a shanty settlement of rusty corrugated metal roofs. She must understand why so many people in Nigeria want to be a star. Gruelling as Nollywood may be, it provides perks afforded to few in this country whose per capita GDP is $2,300 (Dh8,448).

At the mansion of the former governor, a servant guides us into the foyer where everything that can be gilded is. On the bar top a statue of a gold-painted lion stands guard. Alamieyeseigha is curled up within arm's reach of a gigantic flat-screen TV tuned to an American televangelism programme. He looks around the huge room and remarks, "Is this too small? This is too small," he confirms. "Let's go someplace bigger."

We are led to a room three times the size containing a plush oriental rug, a marble fountain and, somehow, more gold. The servant fetches bottles of Dom Perignon. In 2005, as Stephanie was driving to the first AMAAs, a car crash broke her femur and left scars she bears today. Alamieyeseigha, who was in part responsible for bringing the awards to his state, visited the hospital and ensured she received the best possible care.

Later that year, Alamieyeseigha was arrested in London on charges of money laundering; he is suspected of stealing millions of dollars while in office. He jumped bail in the UK, allegedly by donning a wig and a dress and using a fake passport, and fled to Nigeria where he pleaded guilty to misusing state money. He was soon released from jail and returned to a cushy private life. During Alamieyeseigha's term, Bayelsa remained Nigeria's wealthiest yet least developed state. Widespread poverty rings the capital, which is filled with newly constructed hotels and manicured grass.

This is Nigeria's reality, and Nollywood's own story cannot be separated. From the corrupt politicians who siphon off the nation's wealth, to the country's infamous internet scams, to the police who stop drivers in Lagos at checkpoints demanding bribes, Nigeria is a place where quick money is king. In many ways this same principle can be blamed for Nollywood's scant production values. One can only imagine what films would be like if, instead of making 1,000 per year, industry leaders decided to make only 100 with 10 times the budget.

At about 6.30pm, Stephanie's 4x4 rolls through the gates of the Gloryland Cultural Centre. The auditorium hosting the AMAAs is surrounded by a high fence holding back thousands of screaming fans. Actors in tuxedos and actresses in sequinned gowns are stopped every few steps along the red carpet by TV crews. A Mohawked correspondent from Nigeria's version of MTV tells Stephanie she looks stunning in her blue dress. Flashbulbs dazzle; reporters stand on the sidelines taking notes. It's a lot like the Oscars, except just out of the cameras' view hundreds of members of the military and police are gripping machine guns to ensure everything goes smoothly after fears of terrorism dogged previous AMAAs in Yenagoa.

Chaos brews 50 metres away. A lorry hauling a portable satellite dish has shown up hours late. It needs to make it through the fence's gate to beam the event live. But if that barrier is broken then the excited crowd will rush in. The gates open part way and the lorry literally scrapes by. Men in fatigues and berets fight back the fans. The current governor, Timipre Sylva, arrived a few moments ago in a caravan of black SUVs, and they are under orders to keep the premises sealed. This means, however, latecomers to the event are stuck outside in the melee. Wearing gowns and jackets, they have their passes held high and are pleading with the guards.

One man in a cravat battles his way inside the fence, but his wife is stranded behind. A soldier mists the crowd with pepper spray. When the guests are finally allowed inside, their eyes are streaming ahead of any Sally Fields-like acceptance speech. Stephanie doesn't win either Best Actress or Best Screenplay. Mercy wins Best Supporting Actress, but she couldn't attend the event because the director wouldn't give her time off.

After the ceremony I feel a creeping cynicism as I wonder if Nollywood has only adopted the trappings of big-time Hollywood moviemaking while remaining a momentary phenomenon with little chance of transcending Nigeria's inherited chaos. On my last day in Nigeria I visit Ojez's, a hangout in Lagos for members of the actors guild. It is a bar and Chinese restaurant on the second floor of a national football stadium that is no longer in use.

At one of the tables I find Chuma Onwudiwe, an actor and a special adviser to the guild's president. He chimes on about how the artists in the industry are trying to wrestle control from the distributors and form a centralised body that will oversee how films get financed based on adherence to western standards. After almost two weeks of watching the way films are actually made and sold here, and after a draining awards ceremony, I am sceptical. He senses my trepidation.

"When some people look at Nollywood, they don't look at it from the point of view as an emerging industry where the structures are still being put in place," Onwudiwe says. "In terms of epochs, this one is fledgling." I sip a yogurt drink and think about this statement in the context of what I know about the film industry in the US. In 1910 DW Griffith shot the first Hollywood film: In Old California, a western. That was 19 years before Hollywood hosted the first Oscars and 29 years before it made the iconic western, Stagecoach. And that was in a country that had already been independent for more than two centuries, not for just a couple of generations as with Nigeria.

Certainly, Nollywood has a way to go. But it has already come far and shown potential to unseat a western artistic tradition for an African one. With continued recognition, proper investment, the will to improve and a departure from the easy-money mindset, its Golden Age may well be yet to come. Thinking back to watching Stephanie prepare ahead of the big awards night, I become a little selfish. One day I want to say I got up close to a Nollywood legend.