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Nollywood, In a Starring Role

Nigeria's Thriving Film Industry Gets a Showcase at AFI Silver

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page C04

One of the rarest things to see in an American cineplex is a film by Africans, about Africans, starring Africans, with a script by Africans.

The Oscar contender "Hotel Rwanda," you say? Well, the director is Irish, the starring actors American or British (Sophie Okonedo is British), and the complicated financing mostly American.

In "Thunderbolt," above, Ngozi and Yinka play a couple split apart by rumors and magical curses. At right, Nkem Owoh in "Osuofia in London." (Courtesy Of Tunde Kelani)

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And so tomorrow night's debut of "Behind Closed Doors," a Nigerian made-and-produced melodrama at the AFI Silver, is altogether unique. The film kicks off the theater's month-long African Film Showcase, providing a rare -- and rough-hewn -- look at pop cinema in the world's most populous black nation.

The four films in the series are all from the chaotic hustle of "Nollywood," Nigeria's thriving straight-to-video film industry. Each year, more than 400 movies are slapped together, copied onto videocassettes and sold in open-air markets there for about $3. Almost all are shot for less than $15,000 in under two weeks, and they look like it.

But the birth of Nollywood, in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos, in the early 1990s represents the first mass-market films by and about Africans and marketed domestically. The raw energy of the movies -- and the flurry in which they are shot, filmed and sold -- is a kind of grass-roots creative revolution on a continent where stories have been told for generations but rarely committed to film.

"They're very imaginative, they're fast and loose and . . . there's a sense of joy and fun about it all," says Gabriel Wardell, the programmer at the AFI Silver who booked the series with the help of the media and entertainment company XXIV/VII Africa. "They can have some overtly slapstick humor or they can be overly dramatic, but they showcase some emerging talent."

African moviemaking is a difficult proposition by any standard. A few African directors, such as Senegal's Ousmane Sembene, make art-house films that are shown almost entirely in Western film festivals. But they are rarely seen in Africa, in part because venues for feature films are hard to come by. South Africa, Zimbabwe and a few other countries have movie theaters as nice or nicer than most in the United States, but they are not the norm.

Nigerian producers, directors and actors, frustrated by the lack of market for their wares, began to go straight to the people in the early 1990s by shooting on video (later with digital cameras) and selling their movies, cassette by cassette, in open-air stalls and markets.

In 1992, a straight-to-video film called "Living in Bondage," about human sacrifice, was filmed in English and became a huge hit.

"That was how the explosion started," says Richard Mofe-Damijo, 43, one of Nollywood's biggest heartthrobs and one of the stars of "Behind Closed Doors." "It just went crazy after that."

The films -- mostly broad comedies or melodramas in which magic and the supernatural featured prominently -- were shipped to other English-speaking countries in Africa and brought to Europe and North America by expatriates.

So many movies were being produced in 2002 -- as many as 50 in a week -- that everyone had to take four months off to clear the glut.

Today, the industry, centered in the Surulere district of Lagos, is worth at least $50 million annually.

"We have the stories to tell, thousands of them, but there's a lot to be done," says Charles Novia, a popular director who has 28 films to his credit. "We need to be more in tune with the new cinematic techniques across the world; we need courses in production techniques. But what is most striking is how popular our films are, not just among our fellow Nigerians, but across the continent. It's mind-blowing."

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