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Nigeria goes Hollywood

Posted by By Paul Salopek, Tribune foreign correspondent on 2005/11/27 | Views: 1629 |

Nigeria goes Hollywood

Plagued by technical glitches, filming had dragged into its third week--an eternity by Nigerian standards.

The country has become Africa's hottest ticket for cheap, quick B-movies

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Chike Bryan, the hapless director of "The Last Sacrifice," had named his movie well.

Plagued by technical glitches, filming had dragged into its third week--an eternity by Nigerian standards. The unpaid cast and crew were holding the executive producer for ransom in his stuffy hotel room. (Grips and makeup artists hunched sullenly on the bed while their hostage, holed up in the toilet, begged for extra funds on his cell phone.) And now one of the movie's megastars, a 3-foot-tall actor stage-named Pawpaw, had abandoned the set.

He was last seen commandeering a visitor's car. Apparently, he went to look for a gold neck chain lost at a fast-food restaurant.

"I've got one scene left to shoot, then this happens," said Bryan, the haggard director, sighing and rubbing his fatigue-reddened eyes. "That's show business, right?"

At least Nigeria's scrappy version of it.

A wellspring of some 50 new films a week, home to a unique genre that might be called "romantic voodoo," and a cinematic assembly line that churns out blockbusters for as little as $8,000 apiece, bustling, turbulent Nigeria has emerged as the hottest new movie mecca in Africa.

According to industry analysts, the country's brash young film industry -- inevitably dubbed "Nollywood"--is raking in at least $200 million a year, making it the third-largest box office in the world after the United States and India.

Titles flood video stores

Shot mainly in English with hand-held video cameras, then copied endlessly onto cheap compact discs, Nigerian titles have flooded video stores and dusty village markets across Africa, from Uganda to South Africa and beyond. Their popularity has even toppled the biggest obstacle to moviemaking on the polyglot continent: Nigerian films are in such high demand that they are being subtitled and watched in French-speaking Africa.

"We know we can't beat Hollywood on production values--not yet," said Cyprain Chukwunta, a producer with more than 40 movies, none of which took longer than a week to film, under his belt.

"But our quality is constantly improving," Chukwunta said. "I predict that one day we won't just dominate Africa but the world. By 2010 we will be No. 2, minimum."

Such swagger embodies Nollywood, which is booming amid the grubby commercial sprawl of Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's largest, noisiest and arguably most anarchic metropolis.

Here, hundreds of film distributors have set up shop in cramped offices and mom-and-pop storefronts. Exhaust-grimed banners advertising the latest films hang in the sweaty air above the vast Idumota street market, where truckloads of new video releases are snapped up by hordes of cinema fans every weekend. And dented vans marked "Movie Crew" can be spotted trolling the city for shooting locations. The usual protocol: knock on somebody's door and ask to shoot scenes in their living room.

"Most agree on the spot," said Adim Williams, who was directing a political thriller on the muddy back streets of a neighborhood studded with walled mansions--stand-ins for ministers' palaces.

"We pay nothing to shoot in private homes," Williams explained. "Nigerians are just happy to see their houses featured in a movie."

Industry started in 1990s

Born out of hardship, Nollywood got its start in the early 1990s, when Nigeria's economic crisis choked off the importation of Western action flicks and Asian kung fu movies.

To fill the vacuum of escapist entertainment, local directors picked up a cheap new technology--video cameras. And a national experiment in grass-roots cinema began.

"We're not talking about works of art crafted for the Berlin Film Festival," said Jude Akudinobi, an African film expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "We're talking about movies for the masses. For the first time ever, local talent is giving Hollywood a run for its money. It's a real breakthrough for African audiences."

Indeed, Nigeria's offerings are quietly supplanting the B-grade vehicles of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone that once monopolized African movie screens.

One reason: cost. A typical video CD produced in Nigeria--say, "Oh! Woman" or "The Color of Emotions"--sells for $3 at local markets. Numberless pirated editions are even cheaper.

But Nollywood's biggest draw, many experts agree, is its African story lines. Love, romance, fidelity and family cohesiveness are recurring themes in Nigerian scripts. A whole new genre called "epics," set far in the tribal past, also taps into urban nostalgia for simpler, pre-colonial times.

Meanwhile, Africa's oral storytelling traditions also stamp Nollywood's outlook. Many films feature extremely long patches of dialogue. Even Nigerian rip-offs of American blaxploitation pictures can seem, to Western viewers, like an odd cross between the ultraviolence of "Shaft" and the gabbiness of "My Dinner with Andre."

Finally, an obsession with juju, or black magic, pervades many Nollywood plotlines--as witnessed at a recent showing of "Hidden Murder 2." Screened in a palm-thatched theater on Nigeria's remote southern coast, the movie featured a villain who won love and wealth by tapping the occult powers of ritual murder.

Moths smacked against the theater's glowing TV screen. The village audience horsed around through much of the show. But whenever the zombielike victims appeared onscreen, the crowd watched raptly.

"We've been criticized for focusing too much on witchcraft and the lives of the rich," said Chinedu Ikedieze, the star of one of Nigeria's unique subgenres, which features diminutive actors.

"But we're just giving the public what it wants. It's part of our culture."

Ikedieze had recently returned from a symposium on Nigerian filmmaking organized in Los Angeles. While there, he'd shaken the hand of actor Eddie Murphy. Still dazzled, he spoke in raptures of the acting skills of Danny DeVito.

"Our next step is collaboration," he said, dreamily sipping on a beer while his frequent co-star, Osita Iheme, better-known as Pawpaw, nodded eagerly nearby.

"'With our talent and Hollywood's technical abilities," Ikedieze declared, "we can go global."

$3,000 paycheck

But first, the two stars had yet another film to wrap--one of 2,000 that will gush this year from Nigeria.

For paychecks of about $3,000 each, the acting duo shared top billing on "The Last Sacrifice" --the problem-haunted occult thriller that was giving director Bryan ulcers.

The executive producer had finally been freed from his room; he managed to scrape together more cash from Nigerian businessmen. But shooting was still delayed.

Now, it was the director of photography who had gone missing. Bryan was last seen sprawled on the hood of his gold Mercedes, staring balefully into the dusk over Lagos.


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