The Nigerian movie industry is outproducing both Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of sheer numbers, with its films being shown not just throughout Africa, but also in European and American cities with African immigrant populations.
“Our film sector is facing a great future,” Emeka Mba, director-general of Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors’ Board, told dpa.
The Nigerian daily National Mirror even trumpets that Nollywood – the term given to Nigeria’s home-grown dream factory – is set “to conquer the world.”
Much of the low-cost production is given over to melodrama, with love, power and treachery as the main themes. Television channels like Africa Magic broadcast Nigerian productions round the clock – much like the telenovelas in Brazil.
However, to make the leap to international success, Nigeria’s cheap mass-produced films would need a large cash injection and improved production conditions.
In 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to provide government funding worth 200 million dollars to promote the entertainment sector.
That sum could give Nollywood a much-needed boost, but filmmakers complain that the lofty promises have yet to be followed by deeds.
Nigerians may compare their film industry with Hollywood and Bollywood, but in reality, they are in a different league.
Nollywood may churn out between 1,000 and 2,000 films a year. But the annual turnover of the entire Nigerian film industry is only around 250 million dollars, according to Mba. That is about the same as the budget of a single Harry Potter or Spiderman movie.
Observers love to praise the “promising grassroots movement of African film,” as Italian filmmaker Franco Sacchi put it. Nigerian films regularly take prizes at African film festivals, with plots based on themes like the clash between African tradition and post-colonial modernism.
But Nollywood has had little success at international events. This is largely down to the quality of the movies that are often sold by street traders or through video clubs for viewing in private homes or cafes.
There are perhaps only two dozen proper cinemas in Nigeria, and even fewer in many other African countries.
The films are shot largely with simple digital cameras over a period of a few weeks, sometimes just days. There are no film studios in the country. The budget for most movies lies between 10,000 and 30,000 dollars to cover costs for film crew, actors, costumes, backdrops, transport and technical effects.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Western viewers find the films thin and even unintentionally funny. Nigerian media expert Emeka Okoli is critical of this amateurism.
“We have bastardized the profession to the point that we just make sure the films are coming out. Once you do that, you compromise quality,” the professor says.
Yet the themes prevailing in Nollywood movies appeal to African viewers, whose reality they reflect.
A brothel owner attempts to lure a trusting girl from the countryside into prostitution by offering her a job as a waitress. A witch’s curse poisons relations between the families of a married couple. A swindler uses underhand means to destroy a shopkeeper’s business and seduces his wife with a magic potion.
Witchcraft and conspiracy, corruption and scandal – all tend to play an important role in the plots, which are characterized by simple settings and static scenes.
The need to cut costs means there is little by way of action, even if violence – particularly domestic violence – is often present.
Even the better-known actors, who may earn up to 10,000 dollars per movie, often come across as amateurs to Western viewers. Streams of artificial blood and poor-quality computer animations do little to raise the quality for international audiences.
Many of the films portray women as victims of violent lovers or cruel husbands. “Unfortunately, that frequently reflects a sad reality,” Mba says.
In addition to other financial constraints, Nollywood faces the problem of piracy. Within weeks of a film being released, copies appear, undercutting the market.
“We lose millions through piracy… It’s a nightmare,” Nollywood star Ngozi Ezenu told the National Mirror.
Peter Rorvik, director of the Durban International Film Festival, a South African cinema showcase, says promising films have been made in Nigeria. “Quantity will shift to quality” at some point, he told dpa.
Rorvik terms the Nigerian film industry a “fantastic example for Africa,” which will eventually make an international breakthrough.