OK, Hollywood hotshots, try this — you've got nine days to complete a direct-to-video action film, shot entirely on location. You've got one camera, two lights and a small crew to feed and shelter. Sometimes the electricity goes out and you've got to crank up a gasoline-fueled generator to power your equipment. Your lead actor doesn't show up because he's got another job scheduled for the same week. And the vehicle you need for a key scene disappeared because its owner had a wedding to attend. But don't worry, compared to other enterprises this is a well-funded production — you've got a whole $20,000 to spend, and you'd better not go over budget by the week's end. Such is the nature of filmmaking in Nigeria's newly exploding film industry, a multimillion-dollar operation cheekily dubbed "Nollywood."
"This was the incredible thing about Nollywood," says filmmaker Franco Sacchi in a phone call from his home in Boston. The Zambian-born director recently completed the documentary This Is Nollywood as an exploration of the exponential growth of Nigerian cinema. "Movies are made in five days with a budget of $10,000. And they sell a million copies." Their wild popularity isn't confined only to their country of origin, but has spread to other African nations and even to immigrant communities overseas.
"So many Africans watch these films abroad," Sacchi insists. "Jamaicans are watching these films. Every West African in America is totally into these films, but they don't tell anybody."
It's impossible to know the final count for certain, but Sacchi estimates that Nigeria releases approximately 3,000 features a year, making it the third most prolific film industry in the world (outpaced only by United States and India). Not bad for a $250 million enterprise without any box office revenue: All Nollywood movies are released directly to videotape or DVD, a precedent established by the pioneering feature Living in Bondage, a witchcraft-themed potboiler released in 1992 by electronics dealers who figured their supply of blank VHS tapes might sell faster if they were pre-recorded with something entertaining.
"There are 55 million VCRs in Nigeria," points out Sacchi, underlining the Third World ingenuity that's spawned the new enterprise. "And the country has 130 million people. There's a VCR for every three people."
And while Nollywood films are most commonly made in English, other titles in Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa dialects are also popular, especially since DVD subtitling in English increases their audience. "The beautiful thing is these `movies` cut across cultures," observes Sacchi. "That's very positive."
All of this added up to a case study Sacchi couldn't overlook. "I teach at the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University," says Sacchi by way of explaining his fascination with the growing film trade. "We research these kinds of things — how digital technology is empowering people to tell their stories — because it's the core of what we're interested in. People are trying to understand how low-cost cameras and editing systems are impacting filmmakers. The thing is, African filmmakers are completely unaware of this new trend. They just did it! So, filmmaker to filmmaker, let's see what we can learn."
After receiving funding from his employer, Sacchi, co-producer Robert Caputo and associate producer Aimee Corrigan ventured to Nigeria to make their documentary. Their goal was not only to document a burgeoning phenomenon but to present a resourceful, self-sufficient and hopeful depiction of modern-day Africa. "We all had a great passion for Africa, to tell a story that was not about famine or horror or war, or `to tell` one of the stories where the white man goes there and saves," says Sacchi. "Caputo covered Africa for 30 years for National Geographic, Life, many magazines, and he told me, ‘This is the first time I've covered a story that's so positive.'"
This Is Nollywood follows prominent Nigerian director Bond Emeruwa as he completes his latest production, the "action cop movie" Check Point. The crew's first order of business is a group prayer blessing the production ahead, and it's immediately clear they need the benefaction. With almost comic regularity, one obstacle after another interrupts their progress, such as the day shooting at one location is delayed because a nearby mosque is broadcasting Ramadan prayers to the neighborhood at earsplitting volume. A key chase scene is shot near a real parkway, with only a hastily scribbled sign to warn motorists away from accidentally hitting the actors, and the special effects "technician" protects an actor from the exploding squib masking-taped to his chest with a square of scavenged cardboard. While the end result isn't more technically impressive than that of some gifted kids fooling around with a camcorder, there's an exhilarating, vivacious quality to their run-and-gun technique. It will easily remind jaded audiences that cinema in its natural state is vital, free, open to all people.
"This is an industry that was born without investment from a government," says Sacchi, delight and astonishment apparent in his voice. "It's a real grass-roots industry. It's created thousands and thousands of jobs and created a whole economy of scale. There are distributors, actors, rental houses. Makeup artists are paid, catering companies work with these crews. They've created a whole system without any assistance from Western agencies or foreign investment."
In addition to This Is Nollywood's DVD release in September by documentary house California Newsreel, Sacchi's discoveries have attracted so much attention he was invited to speak at the 2007 TED conference, the prestigious lecture series championing innovation in the arts and sciences. "Not because I'm this important person, but because the topic is important. People who are interested in Africa know that Nollywood is the most interesting thing that has happened in Africa for a long time. This could be the spark of Africans looking at themselves in a different way."
It may also be the beginning of the world looking at Africa in a fresh light. Just as English subtitles on Igbo films bridge the gap between tribes, Nigeria's forays into the moving image — the common tongue of the information age — will expand Western understanding of Africa's concerns. While Nollywood films may now be crude and rudimentary, at a pace of 3,000 films a year it's only a matter of time before practice makes perfect.
"One of these years," predicts Sacchi, "there will be a really smart kid in Nigeria who will make an excellent movie."firstname.lastname@example.org