Africans, camera, action: 'Nollywood' catches world's eye

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hurtling out of his chair into the faces of two actors, a top Nigerian movie director yells, "Cut, cut! That's not good acting. It's terrible."

It's 6 p.m. on the set of Adim Williams's new political thriller. No one has had lunch. The crew is cranky. The actors keep flubbing the scene.

With its $40,000 budget and two-week shoot, this movie is typical of "Nollywood," Nigeria's slapdash industry, where quantity has long trumped quality. But Mr. Williams's films are increasingly being seen worldwide, and he's adamant this one be top-notch. Lunch can wait.

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After years as the snickered-at stepchild of global movie industries, Nollywood is blossoming. Bringing in as much as $100 million a year, it's third behind Hollywood and India's Bollywood in revenues. But more important, Nollywood's rise represents a unique cultural moment, people here say: African stories are finally being told by Africans themselves.

"These are our stories about Africa, not someone else's," exults Joke Silva, doyenne of Nollywood actors.

She cites 1997's "Amistad" as typical of Hollywood's handling of Africa: "It was a really strong story with a slave actually being the catalyst for his freedom, but somehow the Anthony Hopkins character [who played John Quincy Adams] ends up being the hero," she laments. "That was unforgivable."

Likewise, the run of Africa-oriented movies in US theaters recently - mostly notably "Hotel Rwanda" - have featured American stars or characters in lead roles.

But with Nollywood films being appreciated more widely, changes are afoot:

• Nollywood directors such as Williams are in demand across Africa. He recently got $5,000 - and red-carpet and motorcade treatment - just to schmoozein Uganda.

• Americans are also intrigued. Wesley Snipes scouted dealmaking opportunities here in September. And a team of independent American marketers sealed a deal recently with Williams for his first US release, "Joshua," a comedy that will come out on DVD this month.

• Works by Tunde Kelani, the Francis Ford Coppola of Nollywood, and others, are increasingly touring international film festivals. The Montreal, Berlin, and Cannes festivals had Nollywood events and screenings this year.

• Hot young director Jeta Amata just finished his first 35 millimeter, theater-quality movie, a historical epic called "Amazing Grace" about the iconic song, the tune of which apparently originated in Africa. Mr. Amata and investors are confident the film will be a cross-over hit with both Western and African audiences. He has a South African distributor, NuMetro, and is currently in talks with an American distributor.

• Nollywood's influence is so strong across Africa that there's been a backlash against Nigerian movies in nearby Ghana, where police have reportedly been raiding shops selling Nollywood videos, though it's not clear what laws have been breached. "They're struggling not to be colonized by Nigerian movies," Williams says, laughing. Other countries are just hustling to copy Nigeria: Uganda is trying to jumpstart "Ugandawood."

The basic Nollywood formula is that cheaply made films are rushed straight to videotapes and DVDs - then often pirated endlessly. Producers and directors don't see much of the money their films make, which causes much hand-wringing - and calls for more-secure distribution channels.

The films themselves often involve zany plots designed to teach a lesson, with many including black magic and dire consequences for evildoers.

Nollywood's stories are "very black and white" compared with Hollywood, Ms. Silva says - and that explains their appeal across Africa, where religion-based moralistic strains are popular. A "Hallelujah" sub-genre even involves timely interventions by Jesus Christ in daily affairs.

But Nollywood is tackling tough social and political issues, too.

Williams's film centers on a power play between a president and vice president - who, shockingly, discover they have the same mother, which helps bridge the divide between them. Coincidentally, there's currently a real-life power struggle between Nigeria's president and vice president over 2007 elections. "No relevance at all" to current events, says Williams with a smile.

And there's the recent "Women's Cot," starring Ms. Silva, which centers on a cultural practice whereby a man's family grabs all his property when he dies, leaving his widow destitute. Silva's character and other widows form a powerful group to prevent the practice. But they become corrupt.

The message: Traditional norms may be flawed, "but be wary of women if they get too much power," Silva says. It's part of Nigeria's national debate over tradition versus modernity, which resonates across Africa.

Even as Nollywood gains global respect, though, it has much further to go, says Mr. Amata, sipping a drink at a ritzy Lagos hotel. He's riled up about the side-show treatment that Africa's film industry got at Cannes this year.

With Hollywood facing declining box-office revenues, Nollywood can teach it some lessons, he insists, such as how to make cheaper films.

He also speaks of the benefits of the less-rigid, more improvisational style employed by Nollywood directors.

"We have things to learn from them, but there's a lot they can learn from us."

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