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Nollywood Rising

With an epic movie boasting a Hollywood cast and a Hollywood-style budget, the Nigerian film industry is looking to both transcend and elevate African cinema

Author Ilan Greenberg Photography Sasha Arutyunova

nollywood

It’s Friday evening at the 21st annual African Film Festival, and photographers are taking their spots along the red carpet inside Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The festival, held earlier this year,  is a showcase for more than 40 new feature films from across Africa. But much—really, nearly all—of the buzz has been building for one particular screening: the New York premiere of Half of a Yellow Sun, a lyrical movie from Nigeria set 40 years ago, during that country’s sectarian civil war—a true epic.

The actors begin to pose and give television interviews at the head of the red carpet. “African film isn’t offering very good opportunities for actors globally, but I see it now changing,” says a Paris-based actor to a TV reporter, in reference to Half of a Yellow Sun as some sort of harbinger. Just then, one of the festival’s organizers jogs over to an executive producer of the film with good news: The scheduled screening has sold out, a second showing has been immediately added, and that, too, is selling out fast. The producer, an investment banker from Lagos named Yewande Sadiku, lets loose an exuberant fist-pump.

Indeed, Sadiku, one of the film’s financial backers, has a lot at stake: Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaptation of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated 2006 novel of the same name, is by far Nigeria’s costliest film production to date (approximately $10 million). The movie took months to film and edit, instead of the 10 days to two weeks typical for a Nigerian production, and features Hollywood stalwarts like Anika Noni Rose and Thandie Newton, as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor, who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination earlier this year for 12 Years a Slave. With its big budget and pedigreed cast and crew, Half of a Yellow Sun signals nothing less than the Nigerian film industry’s ambition to transcend the African market—and to transcend the perception of “Nollywood” as an assembly line churning out low-budget, straight-to-video fare.

“Our business model was not by any means vintage Nollywood,” says Biyi Bandele, the director and screenwriter of Half of a Yellow Sun, citing the funding the film received from more than a dozen Nigerian financiers outside the traditional Nollywood system, as well as from overseas film organizations. “Most Nollywood films are put together by a ‘marketeer,’ who tends to be one individual who puts up the money and sometimes even directs it and sells the DVDs to the public.”

Rose, who starred alongside Beyoncé Knowles and Jamie Foxx in the Academy Award–winning film Dreamgirls, says she was thrilled to have her name attached to Half of a Yellow Sun. “I’m hoping this is their wave and their time,” she tells me from the red carpet. “Shooting this film, it was a beautiful thing to see these young people get a taste of something bigger, and I can’t wait to see how it sticks to them.”

By most measures, Nollywood is already an astonishing success story, estimated to directly and indirectly employ more than 1 million Nigerians. Second only to India’s Bollywood in number of films made (more than 1,000 per year), the industry reliably brings in about $250 million a year, mostly in DVD sales and distribution rights sold to pan-African satellite television channels. The films are incredibly popular from Sudan to South Africa, as well as in overseas markets like the Caribbean. But one marker of success has remained elusive for Nollywood: recognition in the international film community as a hotbed of quality cinema.

WHEN I VISITED LAGOS earlier this year to see the Nollywood film industry up close, I was taken aback by how visible it is on the street. On any given weekday you can see directors scouting locations in isolated parking lots throughout the Mainland District of the city, or an actual film shoot on one of Lagos’ many twisty side streets. In a neighborhood called Computer Village, for example, I happened across a shoot for an action movie: They were hand-shooting with digital camcorders and using weak fluorescent contraptions to augment the outdoor lighting. The low-tech, guerrilla nature of the shoot was what one might expect of Nollywood, but it was nothing short of professional. The wardrobe and makeup people deftly disappeared into the background as the director shouted “Action,” after which the actors moved gracefully with the script. “Very good,” said the frenetic, 20-something director at the end of a scene, “but let’s go once more to make sure we’ve got everyone expressing themselves just right.”

Later that day, I met with Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, perhaps Nollywood’s most popular and prolific actor. She also has a music career sideline and a very popular reality show, and in the past year she has become a player in the nascent development of high-end entertainment complexes offering movie theaters, gaming centers and shopping. “I can’t just be an actor,” she told me as we sat in her office, which is in a trailer-like building in the Mainland District. “There is a responsibility from the Nollywood community to make a broader contribution to Nigeria’s development.”

Movie theaters, which had all but disappeared from Nigeria’s major cities during the 1990s because of competition from DVDs, have begun to reopen in air-conditioned malls, showcasing both Hollywood movies and homegrown films. In the last few years, theaters have been inculcating an emerging “cinema culture” that has helped seed demand for domestic films like Half of a Yellow Sun. They have become so novel that many mall cineplexes employ a full-time photographer to take photos of patrons so they can memorialize the excursion.

Ekeinde’s career has paralleled Nollywood’s ascent. At 36 years old, with more than 300 film credits to her name, she’s one of the most recognizable faces in Nigeria (and beyond: She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2013). But when Ekeinde began her acting career in 1995, “Nollywood was not something parents wanted their children to join,” she told me, referring to the industry’s historical reputation for trafficking in seedy themes, trivial and escapist tropes, and canned soap operas. “Back then we acted for the love of it.”

In Ekeinde’s telling, the quality of Nigerian film really started to take off during the 2000s, and then, in 2010, “a game-changer was a film I was in called Ijé.” A cautionary tale about chasing the “American Dream,” the film tells the story of a Nigerian woman who endeavors to save her sister from a murder conviction in the United States. A far cry from Nollywood’s usual scope, Ijé set a new dramatic tone for the industry and began a trend of moviegoers seeking out certain actors and directors known for creating higher-quality films. “We came to the realization, quite frankly, that we were pushing the envelope, and we can’t stop now.”

Tunde Kelani, the celebrated Nigerian auteur who has been involved in films about Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage for more than 40 years, sees Half of a Yellow Sun not as the first serious movie to come out of the African nation, but as merely the first one with mass appeal. “While the film’s production budget redefines what Nollywood can be, Nollywood has always had a future as a cinema of diversity,” he told me while editing his latest film, a drama called (in English) Dazzling Mirage, which centers on characters coming to terms with sickle cell anemia.

Nevertheless, Kelani welcomes the success of Half of a Yellow Sun, seeing it as a clarion call for “an ascendancy of Nollywood film” based on Nigerian historical narrative and native dramatic themes. As Kelani spoke to me in his office in one of the Mainland District’s unassuming neighborhoods of one-story homes and small businesses, several assistants, including an American Ph.D. student, worked on a tablet app for viewing his films. “There are 19 million Nigerians with smartphones, and we should produce film for them,” he said when noticing my attention to the computer work, and then mentioned that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, had recently swung by his office to talk technology.

Kelani is in some ways the director whose work prefigured Half of a Yellow Sun. Although his films have been less commercially ambitious, he has insisted on working with Nigerian themes, and he shoots only in Nigeria. “I’ve thought that too many celebrated African filmmakers abroad do not feel the pulse of the culture. African audiences have been alienated by them.” Kelani, with very few exceptions, refuses to make movies in English, or to shoot his films at a Nollywood pace, or to bend his film subjects to trends captivating directors outside Nigeria. He studied film in the 1970s at the London International Film School (now called the London Film School), then a hothouse of subversive film theory, and draws his influences from Nigerian writers like Wole Soyinka and the Yoruba village theater from his youth. Kelani’s filmmaking career has been in many ways a harsh critique of the shoddy production values and shallow plots of Nollywood, but he likes the way the industry’s arc is bending with the hype around Half of a Yellow Sun.

“Now that Nollywood is more than a subculture, and no longer just low-quality, cheaply made films,” he said, “the interesting task is to define what Nollywood is. Having found our success at home, having found a place for our own classically trained theater, it’s time for Nigerians to produce global cinema.”

Ekeinde agrees with Kelani that Half of a Yellow Sun should underscore not only what the country’s movie industry is capable of exporting but also what Nollywood should create for its increasingly sophisticated domestic audiences. She wants Nigerian filmmakers to be more confident about the appetites of Nigerian audiences. “Nigeria suffers from a kind of Third World syndrome that makes us crave acceptance from others, and that’s a big problem for our development. We have to recognize that we have the talent in a new generation. In music and fine art and a lot of other areas, Nigeria is experiencing a kind of general cultural momentum. I think Nollywood should get a lot of the credit.”

JERE RAE-MANSFIELD, a managing partner at Monterey Films, the American distributor of Half of a Yellow Sun, agrees that Nollywood is at an exciting juncture and is poised to enter the global cinematic conversation. “Nigerian directors are at the point where they can touch international audiences in really profound ways,” she told me at the New York premiere.

In addition to Half of a Yellow Sun, the African Film Festival features movies from all across the continent, ranging from hard-hitting political documentaries to piquant animation features to character-driven dramas. Many of the producers on hand speak about championing an individual director or wanting to encourage attention to a particular social issue or cause. Among the Nigerian films, however, there seems to be an awakening of a larger storyline: how Nigeria has navigated its 20th-century national traumas to arrive at an uncertain but more confident present. It’s a theme likely to be revisited again and again as Nollywood steps up to a new level of filmmaking.

Meanwhile, as the cast of Half of a Yellow Sun walks the red carpet, an American TV reporter grabs the arm of one of the actors. “What’s your next Nollywood film?” she asks. “The rest of the world is waiting to see it.”

For his next career, freelance writer Ilan Greenberg would like to become a Nigerian filmmaker.

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