Pretty much the entire world can tell you that Hollywood is the most profitable film capitol in the world, thanks to the historically high quality of the work produced and, um, a shitload of cultural imperialism. Most people who claim any interest in film should be able to guess that the Indian industry, serving as it does a huge, movie-loving population in addition to the international market, would come in a close second. In a random poll though, few would know that Nigeria, particularly its most populous city, Lagos, follows as the third most lucrative film production hub in the world. France, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and others may have a higher critical profile, but the upstart Nollywood, as it’s known, is putting up the numbers, even out-producing Tinsel Town in terms of movies made per year. Why that is, and why the average Western viewer remains largely unaware of it, is a complicated tale of economics and art, of politics and religion, which only makes films like 2002’s Sharon Stone, and its breakout star Genevieve Nnaji,all the more fascinating.
The introduction of home video was a game changer for the industry around the world, but it was particularly drastic in Nigeria, where, in the early 1980s, rapidly falling oil prices and rampant corruption effectively crippled the central African nation’s economy, making going to the theatre prohibitively expensive except for the privileged few, and when they stayed home for fear of being robbed on the way, brick-and-mortar cinemas rapidly shut down. But while the norm had become to watch films in homes or small gatherings, what they were watching was still mostly imported (and likely pirated), either from America, India or China, until 1992, when, if you believe the legend, an electronics dealer named Kenneth Nnebue, saddled with some slow-moving blank tapes, slapped together a hasty, low-budget film, Living in Bondage, dubbed the videos, and found himself with an unexpected local hit on his hands. Reflecting distinctly Nigerian sensibilities, the tape was doing brisk business, and being endlessly copied, on the streets of Lagos’ crowded, destitute slums, so naturally every ambitious entrepreneur (and auteur) copied Nnebue’s serendipitous business model and presto, Nollywood was born.
All the elements for a revolution seemed to be in place at the outset. The market was certainly there; not only were Lagos’ lower classes already reliant on poor quality home video, they were eager to see characters and stories they identified with, which was no problem for filmmakers from the same neighborhoods, so as long as directors could get the movies made cheaply and quickly enough to make copies affordable and satisfy the demand, there were staggering potential fortunes to be made in this one city alone. This particular set of circumstances has lent a distinctive character to the actual films being made, a combination of esoteric local color and amazingly low production values, which, to an outsider’s perspective usually sits somewhere between surreal, hilarious and compelling. Nigeria is a very devout country, where both Christianity and local traditional religions, often containing a magical component, exert a powerful influence, which to an American eye means plenty of what-the-fuck moments, that, combined with the acting ability of amateurs plucked from cattle-call auditions and filmmakers trying to deliver a finished product in a matter of days, can lead to something resembling African Ed Wood (for an excellent look inside the entire process from script to screen, check out the excellent 2008 documentary Nollywood Babylon).
Lacking any sorcery or anything like that, the aforementioned Sharon Stone is not the most outrageous example of the genre, but it’s an extremely popular one, and provides a good grounding in the basics of Nollywood. The film knows its audience well; Lagos’ religious lower class is understandably particularly fond of escapist melodramas, as well as stories where the greedy and evil get punished, and the relatively simple tale of the titular Sharon, a loose woman who strings along three rich, powerful men until all the lies come crashing down on her, hits all those notes. Also true to form, the film is a technical abomination. It’s clearly shot on a single digital video camera, without so much as a boom mike, and there was apparently not enough time or money to create more than two musical cues, which repeat hypnotically, maddeningly throughout the film’s 95 minutes. It’s extremely telling that the director, Adim Williams, found the time to get a sequel out that very same year, before going on to complete 58 other features by 2008. That’s more films in six years than Woody Allen’s made in a lifetime, but in Nigeria that’s just what you have to do to stay competitive.
What set’s Sharon Stone (there’s no connection to the actual Sharon Stone by the way,except for clever marketing, one supposes) apart from the rest of the ever growing pack is the presence of Genevieve Nnaji who’s gone on to become one of Nollywood’s highest paid actresses and the face of Nigerian cinema abroad, and it’s easy to see why; the former child soap opera star has a definite star quality, especially in comparison to the rest of the wooden cast. Though Nollywood films are enjoyed throughout the continent and the wide African diaspora, the industry has always been focused on the local, not the global, it’s simply not their target market, but in Nnaji, they have an unlikely ambassador to the rest of world, who lends a glamorous personality to these eccentric, cheapie movies. That’s good news for the more artistically inclined among the Nigerian filmmakers, who seem to crave the kind of art house legitimacy that’s been afforded Chinese, French or German films, even if, at the moment, those desires are being thwarted by skeptical investors and bootleggers who begin to devalue the films the moment they’re released. More money and more creative freedom can’t be a bad thing, but it might not be wise to mess with success too much. After all, if Lagos is already nipping at Hollywood’s heels after some two decades, who knows what the rest of the 20th century will bring.