Out of Africa: Nigerian Cinema Goes Global
Nigerian film is beginning to make its way off the continent, after
a long period of microdistribution and straight-to-video. A few years
back, I had the privilege of attending the Cape Town International
Cinema Festival, and got to see firsthand the passion and ingenuity of
African filmmakers: their guerilla techniques make the average San
Francisco indie kid look like a caveman, delivering a big look and a
good edit on pocket change. Sadly, so few of these films see the light
of day beyond the region in which they were made. Meanwhile,
non-African filmmakers and studios continue to use Africa as a
location, which does indeed bring exposure and commerce to a given
location, along with some degree of work in "the industry". Vancouver
is going through a similar phase: "Hollywood North" gets used for many
American and European shoots, but the local talent and crew are vying
for lower-end work: never the headliner, never the crew leader. What
Nigerian filmmakers are doing here is trying to create a region of
industry pros, not a region of temps.
Nigerian helmer Jeta Amata's "The Amazing Grace" -- about how British slave trader John Newton's voyage to Nigeria in 1748 led to him writing the famous hymn -- has become the country's biggest-ever hit since its release last October.
The Nigerian film industry, dubbed Nollywood, produces up to 1,200 pics a year, although these tend to be ultra-low budget exploitation pics. Amata's film, boasting an unheard-of $400,000 budget, is the first Nollywood feature to be released theatrically in the country since 1979. With admissions of some 25,000 people, the pic earned nearly double the gross of previous box office champ "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
Then again, with only four cinemas serving a population of 140 million people -- a legacy of the devastation wrought on Nigeria's film industry during the brutal reign of military dictator Sani Abacha during the 1990s when many Nigerians feared venturing from the safety of their homes -- the largest market in the country for films remains DVD sales. Amata's film has moved close to a million units in Nigeria alone, easily recouping for investors, all of whom were private backers, including Donald Duke, the governor of Nigeria's Cross River State.
Amata has sold North America rights for film to U.S. distrib Rock City.
Ambitious multihyphenate, who has already helmed 40 features at the age of 32, has also inked a deal with South African-based distrib New Metro for the widest pan-African theatrical release ever for a Nigerian film.
Pic has been released in South Africa and Kenya with a further 10 prints, and is being dubbed in French for Francophone auds, and set to make its way around Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
"The film industry here is not used to writing applications to a film fund or asking the government for money," Amata says. "We're used to asking our next-door neighbor if they want to invest. But we're definitely growing, and we need more international co-productions. If we reduced the number of the films we make from 1,000 to 100, we could make bigger-budget and better-quality films."
Recent years have seen the establishment of a Nigerian film commission and a film school, as well as the announcement by the Nigerian government that it intends to launch a $40 million film fund. The Tinapa film studio, reputed to have cost $28 million and built by the Nigerian government in partnership with U.S.-based shingle and distrib Dream Entertainment, opened its doors in April.
Amata hopes the studio can become a one-stop shop for Nigerian and international helmers hoping to lens in the country. "Before, I had to go to the U.K. for my cameras and to do my post-production," Amata says. "It's so wonderful to think I can get everything I need in my own country. The studio is a huge complex with two sound stages."
Not that Nigerian helmers only want to tell Nigerian stories. In March this year, Nigerian helmer Newton Aduaka picked up the top prize at Burkina Faso's Fespaco film fest, the largest in Africa, for "Ezra," a Sierra Leone-set feature, which received its U.S. preem at Sundance and screened in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes. French sales agent Wide Management is handling foreign sales for the $2.1 million pic.