'Nollywood' Films' Popularity Rising Among Emigres

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Nigeria On-Screen
'Nollywood' Films' Popularity Rising Among Emigres
By Steven Gray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2003; Page E01

Simba International Records just can't keep enough Nigerian movies in stock
these days. Teenagers swarm into the Langley Park shop in baggy jeans and
T-shirts for the latest comedies. Middle-aged women usually want the romances.

In one of the more popular films, "Who Killed Okomfo Anokye," a wealthy,
born-again Christian shoos away his younger brother, a shanty-dwelling voodoo
priest, with a swift wave of the Bible, and a sharp verbal rebuke. "You are no
longer my brother," the older man declares. "He's evil!"

These English-language Nigerian movies are gaining popularity among the nation's
fast-growing African immigrant population, offering their very Americanized
children a glimpse of African life, particularly the clash of modernity and
traditionalism and the battle between fundamentalist Christian, Islamic and
tribal religions that is sweeping the African continent.

"They remind you of everyday life back home," Ziebono Nagabe, 26, originally of
Ivory Coast, said recently as he browsed Simba's collection of movies. In the
Nigerian movies, the Maryland resident observed, "there's always hope for
good-hearted people. They're going to win over the wicked."

Nearly five years after entering the U.S. market, movies made in Nigeria
constitute a multimillion-dollar industry, with about 600 made last year, triple
the number made in 1995, according to the Filmmakers Cooperative of Nigeria, a
Lagos-based consortium of 75 production companies. Generally recorded on
videotape, in many cases with a home video camera, one film typically costs as
little as $8,000 to make and takes as little as 10 days to produce.

Some have dubbed the films the Nollywood genre, a take-off on the popular
"Bollywood" films from India.

No one knows how many Nigerian movies are sold in the United States, but many
vendors say their sales are rising smartly. Three years ago, Bethels Agomah
barely sold 100 Nigerian films a year through his New York-based Web site,
www.africamovies.com. Last year, however, Agomah said he sold more than 10,000.
As proof of his belief that Nigerian movies are ready to appeal to the broader
public audience, Agomah plans to launch two more Web sites. He believes that
nearly 80 percent of his customers are non-African.

Simba sells at least 2,500 African DVDs and videotapes each year, most of them
Nigerian, far more than the few it began importing from Europe five years ago,
said Eric Gitukui, 24, who helps run the business his Kenyan-born father started
eight years ago in Adams Morgan.

But as DVDs and copying devices have become more widely available, pirated
Nigerian movies have flooded the market, cutting the shop's sales by as much as
30 percent. The films normally sell for around $15.99 for a DVD and $10 for a
videotape, while the pirated versions sell for as little as $4 each.

"I would be selling more if people weren't burning" the DVDs, Gitukui said.The
market for such products is expanding with the nation's African-born population,
which rose to about 900,000 in 2000 from roughly 364,000 in 1990, according to
the Census Bureau. In 2000, the average African-born person in the United States
lived in a household with an annual income of $42,900, not far below the average
of $49,075 for the general population, according to a recent analysis of 2000
Census data by the State University of New York at Albany.

Much of that money is being spent in small, African-owned shops and wholesale
markets that in the last decade have sprung up across the country, including
parts of New York, Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Many African immigrants cling to these Nigerian films because of small cultural
nuances, such as the tradition in some African cultures of children lowering
their heads in deference to their parents during conversation, or even spanking
as an accepted form of discipline.

"For us parents, it becomes a reference book," said Joy Oreke-Arungwa, a
Nigerian-born consultant now living in Laurel, who has written extensively on
the evolution of sub-Saharan African media. She recalled scenes in various
Nigerian movies she made a point of showing her own children. "Our kids, when
they get here, they get lost, too Americanized," she said. "These movies show
them the other side."

When Donna Oti began watching Nigerian movies with her Nigerian-born husband,
she was struck by the similar good-versus-evil themes often found in the Indian
Bollywood film genre she became fond of growing up in Guyana.

However, she also finds some aspects disturbing. In one Nigerian movie, she
recalled, the wife was blamed for infecting her husband with HIV, the virus that
causes AIDS. "What about the husband's promiscuity?" Oti recalled thinking. "For
me, it seemed to be giving the wrong message, trivializing HIV. It was a little
troubling," she said.

Many African intellectuals dismiss the movies for playing up witchcraft, which
they argue perpetuates negative Western stereotypes of Africans, said Onookome
Okome, an English professor at the University of Alberta and author of the
forthcoming book, "Anxiety of the Local: From Traveling Theatre to Popular Video
Films in Nigeria."

Some film experts remain skeptical that the Nigerian movies will penetrate the
broader U.S. market. Jonathan Haynes, a Long Island University professor and
author of the book, "Nigerian Video Films," noted the films' heavy emphasis on
the supernatural and said, "Culturally, they're from someplace else." In "Who
Killed Okomfo Anokye," for instance, the voodoo priest lashes a dead man's body
with oils and leaves, then chants in a tribal language. A woman prays in
tongues. Seconds later, the man rises. The woman praises the Lord, waving her
Bible.

"That can seem weird to Americans, especially if it's not being cast as part of
some traditional African past," Haynes said. "It's an acquired taste."

The Nigerian film industry emerged in the late 1970s, as the nation's economy
collapsed. Public funding of movies and original television programming
vanished, and crime made cinemas too dangerous to visit. European and American
shows soon dominated national television. But, disturbed by the absence of black
faces on Nigerian television, the country's fledgling filmmakers began spinning
vibrant tribal plays onto the screen. By the early 1990s, filming on celluloid
had become too expensive and production shifted to video.

Unlike African art films, which appear on the global film circuit and are
commonly financed by European investors, Nollywood films are backed by African
merchants. For instance, a merchant-investor could pay a director $10,000,
covering the production costs and procuring the film's distribution rights.
About two weeks later, the merchant-investor gets the film's master tape, then
sends it to one of many mass-dubbing centers in Nigeria. The movie is copied
onto a Video Compact Disc, known as a VCD and widely used across the developing
world. VCDs cost $1.50 to make and are usually sold to consumers at outdoor
markets in Nigeria for $3, or less.

Borrowing the style and structure of American soap operas and Bollywood films,
Nigerian movies had gained popularity across sub-Saharan Africa by the
mid-1990s, even in French-speaking countries. Soon, Nigerian expatriates were
stuffing their suitcases with videotapes and VCDs on trips back to Britain and,
eventually, the United States. Some of the films were passed on to relatives.
Others, however, wound up in the hands of distributors, who have copied an
unknown number of DVDs and sold them to stores or over the Internet.

International pirating of films is rampant. The Motion Picture Association of
America estimates that more than 20 million pirated video discs, and 4.5 million
pirated videotapes, were seized in 2000. Such pirating violates the
international laws that protect copyrighted works. But intellectual property law
experts noted that the pirating of Nigerian films will probably continue, in
part because the filmmakers can't afford the high legal costs of fighting it.

Pedro Agbonifo Obaseki, a Nigerian filmmaker who is president of the Filmmakers
Consortium of Nigeria, expressed outrage at the pirating. "For all the films
sold in the Bronx or Washington, not a dime comes to the Nigerian filmmaker, not
a dime," he said from Lagos, during a break from rehearsals for his latest
movie.

Back at Simba's, on a recent Saturday afternoon, women with babies on their hips
looked for African coffee. A throng of men lined the glass counter, headphones
pressed to each ear.

Eric Gitukui said that despite the pirating, customers still come for authentic
Nollywood films. He said that when they check out the inventory and ask for
more, "I tell them, 'That's all I have.' "
 
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