Storytelling lies at the heart of African culture — and now it’s digital.
This Is Nollywood tells the story of the Nigerian film industry—a revolution enabling Africans with few resources to tell African stories to African audiences. Despite all odds, Nigerian directors produce between 500 and 1,000 movies a year. The disks sell wildly all over the continent—Nollywood actors have become stars from Ghana to Zambia.
We experience the world of Nollywood through acclaimed director Bond Emeruwa's quest to make a feature-length action film in just nine days. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, and about $20,000, Bond faces challenges unimaginable in Hollywood and Bollywood.
Electricity goes out. Street thugs demand extortion money. The lead actor doesn’t show. During one crucial scene, prayers blast from loudspeakers atop a nearby mosque, making shooting impossible. But, as Bond says, “In Nollywood we don’t count the walls. We learn how to climb them.”
In Nigeria’s teeming capital of Lagos, we attend an audition where hundreds of hopeful actors vie for their chance in the limelight. We meet some of the industry’s founding fathers who tell us of their responsibility to educate their massive audiences: many of the films deal with AIDS, corruption, women’s rights, and other topics of concern to ordinary Africans. The impetus behind Nollywood is not purely commercial; the traditional role of storytelling is still alive and well — just different.
This Is Nollywood shows how the egalitarian promise of digital technology has found realization in one of the world’s largest and poorest cities. And it shows the universal theme of people striving to fulfill their dreams.
“We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way,” Bond says. “I cannot tell the white man's story. I don't know what his story is all about. He tells me his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”
Nollywood, Nigeria's booming film industry, is the world's third largest producer of feature films. Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, however, Nollywood movies are made on shoe-string budgets of time and money. An average production takes just 10 days and costs approximately $15,000.
Yet in just 13 years, Nollywood has grown from nothing into a $250 million dollar-a-year industry that employs thousands of people. The Nollywood phenomenon was made possible by two main ingredients: Nigerian entrepreneurship and digital technology.
In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Lagos and other African cities faced growing epidemics of crime and insecurity. Movie theaters closed as people became reluctant to be out on the streets after dark. Videos for home viewing imported from the West and India were only mildly popular. Nigerians saw an opportunity to fill the void with products of their own.
Experts credit the birth of Nollywood to a businessman who needed to unload thousands of blank tapes and to the 1992 video release of Living in Bondage, a movie with a tale of the occult that was an instant and huge-selling success. It wasn't long before other would-be producers jumped on the bandwagon.
Currently, some 300 producers churn out movies at an astonishing rate—somewhere between 500 and 1,000 a year. Nigerian directors adopt new technologies as soon as they become affordable. Bulky videotape cameras gave way to their digital descendents, which are now being replaced by HD cameras. Editing, music, and other post-production work is done with common computer-based systems. The films go straight to DVD and VCD disks.
Thirty new titles are delivered to Nigerian shops and market stalls every week, where an average film sells 50,000 copies. A hit may sell several hundred thousand. Disks sell for two dollars each, making them affordable for most Nigerians and providing astounding returns for the producers.
Not much else about Nollywood would make Hollywood envious. Shooting is inevitably delayed by obstacles unimaginable in California. Lagos, home to 15 million people (expected to be 24 million by 2010), is a nightmare of snarled traffic, pollution, decaying infrastructure, and frequent power outages.
Star actors, often working on several films at once, frequently don't show up when they're supposed to. Location shooting is often delayed by local thugs, or "touts", who extort money for protection before they will allow filming to take place in their territories.
Yet Nollywood producers are undeterred. They know they have struck a lucrative and long-neglected market - movies that offer audiences characters they can identify with in stories that relate to their everyday lives. Western action-adventures and Bollywood musicals provide little that is relevant to life in African slums and remote villages.
Nollywood stars are native Nigerians. Nollywood settings are familiar. Nollywood plots depict situations that people understand and confront daily; romance, comedy, the occult, crooked cops, prostitution, and HIV/AIDS.
"We are telling our own stories in our own way," director Bond Emeruwa says. "That is the appeal both for the filmmakers and for the audience."
The appeal stretches far beyond Nigeria. Nollywood films are proving popular all over English-speaking Africa and have become a staple on M-NET, the South African based satellite television network. Nigerian stars have become household names from Ghana to Zambia and beyond. The last few years have seen the growing popularity of Nollywood films among African diaspora in both Europe and America.
"Look out, Hollywood," one exuberant Nigerian producer exclaims. "Here we come!"
When I first read about Nigerian directors producing hundreds of feature-length films with digital cameras, a week, and a few thousand dollars, I found the subject irresistible. Here was not only a rare positive story about Africa, but one that embodied the egalitarian promise of digital technology—anybody can make a movie. And Nollywood was virtually unknown.
When I approached the Center of Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University (where I teach) with the idea of producing a documentary film about Nollywood, the reaction was immediate. Nollywood is a perfect example of CDIA’s philosophy: embrace technology and don’t be afraid to tell stories that matter to you.
Aimee Corrigan, a young and talented photographer with a great passion for Africa, and Bob Caputo, who also teaches at CDIA, quickly signed on. Bob told me that in 30 years of covering Africa for Time and National Geographic as a writer and photographer he had never come across a story so positive and full of hope.
The three of us set out for the Nigerian capital Lagos in October 2005. Just the ride in from the airport—two hours to go a few miles in utterly snarled horn-blaring traffic, eyes aching from the smog—gave us a small taste of the conditions Nollywood directors face daily. Our admiration for their determination began at that moment.
We agreed immediately that African actors, directors, and producers should tell their own story in our film without commentary from us or other westerners. Of course, we filmed and edited the Nollywood story with our own sensibilities but our greatest hope is that the authentic voices of the Nigerian filmmakers will be heard.
Nollywood filmmakers are conscious of the responsibility they have toward their society—director Bond Emeruwa says they feel an obligation to “put a message in there.” But the production of each movie is also an adventure—overcoming hurdles unimaginable in the West, racing against an impossibly short clock.
In the end, the film we made, This Is Nollywood, is about more than a fascinating and unheralded movie industry. It’s about people surmounting obstacles to achieve their dreams.
~ Franco Sacchi