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Nollywood's Female Pioneer Aims For Global Audience

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In the huge Nigerian film industry known as Nollywood, producer and writer Emem Isong is a standout. She's one of the few powerful women who can get a movie made. She is trying to forge ties with filmmakers around the world to make Nigerian films part of the global cinema industry.

Let's go to West Africa, now, to explore one of the world's great centers of filmmaking. We hear more about Hollywood in California or Bollywood in India's Bombay - or Mumbai - then there's Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry which is one of the world's largest film industries. Nollywood DVDs are sold throughout Africa, Europe, North America and the Caribbean.

These films are generally made in English, on a low budget, and they have a huge female fan base. Most of the powerful players, however, are men. There's one major exception. That's writer and producer Emem Isong. Reporter Wills Glasspiegel caught up with her in Lagos.

WILLS GLASSPIEGEL, BYLINE: Emem Isong is a Nollywood powerhouse. She's written 60 movies and produced 15. She got her start when she quit a job in banking to write movie scripts.

EMEM ISONG: So many Africans want to hear their voices. So many Nigerians want to see their people, they want to see people like them going through what they are going through. And we tell a lot of human stories.

GLASSPIEGEL: In the mid '90s, Isong made her first blockbuster for about $300 U.S. dollars. Back then, most Nollywood movies dealt with darker themes - crime, corruption, failed marriage and the occult.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the gods have closed their ears. Seasons change, but only gods know why.

GLASSPIEGEL: With her movies, Emem Isong brought levity to Nollywood, and a new genre: twist-of-fate love stories and romantic comedies.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Relationship, dating, marriage. I'm what you'd call SSS: Single and Seriously Searching.

GLASSPIEGEL: Romantic-comedies like this caught on, today it's the most popular genre in Nollywood.

ISONG: At that time, I was being accused of being a little bit too Westernized, but I said, well, we are not living in the villages. I'm living in contemporary Lagos. So I'm going to write about what I'm used to, what I know, how I live.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Majid) Do you know what the most attractive part of a woman?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Genevieve) What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Majid) Her brain, I find that very attractive and I want to know you more.

GLASSPIEGEL: That's "Bursting Out," Emem Isong's movie about a scruffy bike messenger who falls in love with a wealthy businesswoman. Nollywood's fans - who are predominately women - identify with the stories in Isong's movies, and with Isong, because she's a pioneer in a male-dominated industry.

ISONG: Male producers in Nigeria like to portray women as weaklings, and I don't think the African woman is a weakling. The African woman is strong and the African woman can hold her own in any way.

Nollywood's Female Pioneer Aims For Global Audience : NPR
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