LAGOS, NIGERIA — Chief Ekela is haunted by his secret past as a bank robber. His wife, Sophie, a well-respected Lagos boutique owner, was once a prostitute upcountry. And the couple's three European-educated children are about to find out that the chief is not their biological father.
But this is not the end of the troubles, no. The house girl has cast a voodoo spell on them and wants to cut off their heads.
A dysfunctional family? Actually, a fairly typical one on Nigeria's small screen. They're the colorful characters in the juicy plot of "Sweet and Sour," the latest entry into the thriving video industry here.
Nigeria has become the unchallenged African king of videos. Some 650 new titles were churned out last year as many as 250 more than Hollywood put up on the big screen.
The tapes find their way to rental clubs, markets, and bootleg syndicates across West Africa and further, to the large Nigerian diaspora worldwide. Some here say the industry is ready to take on Tinsel Town itself.
Auditions for "Sweet and Sour" are a madhouse. Wannabe stars of all shapes and sizes line up to read for a part, certain they will make the perfect chief or the classic voodoo devil. Production assistants feverishly handcopy scripts (the electricity for the copy machine is down), and Zeb Ejiro, the grand homme of the movie industry, is sitting happily on his director's chair, sipping mineral water and taking down pretty girls' phone numbers. Filming starts next Monday.
"You could say we are like what India is to Asia, and what Hollywood is to the world," says Tony Anih, managing director of his own production company, Africa Mega Entertainment. "We are the beating heart of the home-video world."
It wasn't always this way. "In the old days, traveling theaters used to put on shows about the God of Thunder, Ogun that was nice," says Iyabo Olowokande, head of the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Film Cooperation. "But then we discovered the movies."
Surprisingly, perhaps, in a country where more than 50 percent of the population is living in shacks or slums on less than a dollar a day, a vast majority of people have TV sets or a neighbor with one.
"People might not have a roof, but they will get a TV, even if it's third-hand and half broken," says Andy Aminichi, a top producer. "Life is hard and everyone wants to be entertained."
The national movie obsession began here in early 1980s, with the advent of the local version of soap opera.
Megahits like Mr. Ejiro's "Ripples" hooked viewers every Friday at 8:30 p.m. (give or take half an hour). They would watch the latest exploits of business magnate Melvin Dehinele Phillips, his beautiful wife, Mimi, and his illegitimate child, Elo.
"Ripples" ran for a record-breaking five years, its thrilling plot outlasting and some say outdoing the often colorful and dramatic antics of then-military dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
The next two Ejiro soap-opera blockbusters, "Fortunes" and "Candlelight," tantalized viewers throughout the repressive years of the next military dictator, Sani Abacha, right through yet another military dictatorship, and into the democratic period of current President Olusegun Obasanjo.
But there were problems with the world of soap operas in the days of political repression, and freedom of expression wasn't the chief concern; the feeble electrical power system was the real issue. Corruption and mismanagement had so wrecked the infrastructure of this oil-rich country that receiving a constant electric current became as much a fantasy as the soap plots. Fans found themselves sitting in the dark, missing all the crucial twists and turns.
Meanwhile, soaring crime rates kept people at home at night, which decimated the fledgling big-screen movie industry.
"Home video was the clear answer," says Mr. Aminichi.
The number of videos released each year is growing steadily to such an extent that the market is saturated and financial returns have been diminished.
Two months ago, the directors' guild called for a three month movie-making hiatus in which to push out "artistic pretenders" and regulate the field. Ghana recently said it would restrict imports of Nigerian movies in order to allow its own budding industry to grow, while Gambia asked some of industry leaders here to come and help them launch their own operation.
While the names of many of these videos such as "Silent Killer Women Riot," "Innocent Soul Returns," or "The Prostitute (I, II, and III)" seem to be ripoffs of American B-film titles, the themes portrayed are often very much Nigerian and original.
Videos typically touch upon topical matters urban or ethnic violence, oil wealth, and political corruption as well as on more traditional issues female circumcision, prostitution, and witchcraft.
"We are creating something distinctly Nigerian," says Ejiro. "Of course we deal with universal topics like love and family, but we also try to recreate typical Nigerian ones that people here care about."
The industry, of course, comes complete with a "scene." There are superstars in dark sunglasses and cowboy boots who demand $3,000 to $4,000 a picture; angst-ridden script writers; boisterous big-ego directors; adoring fans; three specialized movie magazines; and two glittering award-night ceremonies.
"We really have everything. There is love, tears, happiness, betrayals. It's a normal movie universe," says Austin Mcfair, assistant editor of "Glamour Trends" magazine.
"We don't go out for cappuccinos, because we don't have those here," says Franca Brown, a 1980s soap opera starlet who is now a leading female director.
The epicenter of this Nigerian Hollywood is a place called "Winis International Guesthouse" a small white building in the rundown neighborhood of Surulere, near where most of the movie offices are located.
Out-of-town directors sleep here, or hold power lunches over fried bean cakes. Actors play snooker in the back room. Gossip columnists lurk with sodas at the bar, and aspiring starlets lounge around, painting their nails provocatively.
There are some things lacking in this universe, however. Studios, for example. With a typical budget of $10,000 to $60,000 per movie, most are shot on location in friend's houses, under various public trees or, if sponsors can be found, in their houses or under their trees.
Fan mail, meanwhile, is also rare because of the lack of a functioning postal service. "Once we get P. O. boxes and mailmen, I think the fan mail will grow substantially," suggests screenwriter and producer Victor Okhai.
"But what we are most lacking," says Ms. Brown, "is international recognition of the home-video art form and our unique work here." Hollywood, she claims, has run out of good ideas and they, the video movie makers of Nigeria, can help.
"There is a dearth of stories in Hollywood, they keep repeating themselves," she argues.
"Over here we have too much to offer. We have too many ideas."