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How we make Nigerian movies

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Staff member
By Francis Onwochei (moved here from it 2004 discontinued section)

When the name Nigeria hits one's consciousness, the three most common things that come to the mind of the foreign observer, depending on your social level, perspective and exposure are:

(1) it is a very rich oil-producing nation
(2) it is a nation of fraudsters
(3) it is a promising football nation. However, very interestingly, in the last couple of years, the Nigerian nation has added another Icon i.e. it is an emerging movie-producing nation albeit in the digital realm.

The art and business of filmmaking worldwide is very expensive, influential and a prestigious profession. With very high income generating potentials, in some cases the industry is one of the highest revenue generating sources for some national economies.

The greatest desire of a student filmmaker is to end up making films. Unfortunately this desire sometimes never comes to pass, because of the obvious difficulties and complexities of acquiring appropriate finance to make films as a beginner. Such dreams will come true in the shortest possible time, with the smallest possible means and the most minimal experience if you live and work in Nigeria.

On the Nigerian scenario, having discovered the near impossibility of catching up with the internationally acceptable format of the 35mm utilized by the rest of the world, film practitioners have stumbled on a novel format: the Direct-to-Video model. This model has continued to serve as building the blocks for what is being perfected as a whole new dimension and direction for emerging and fast developing movie industry. It has provided a new vista of hope for young and aspiring producers as well as movie practitioners generally. Though less prestigious, it is an obviously well embraced format that has come to stay in Nigeria. It has been internationally recognized as Nollywood (This is in correlation with Hollywood in America and Bollywood in India) and that is in obvious reference to our peculiar Direct-to-Video model.

Everyday, a conservative average of 3 films are released into the Nigerian market. It is intriguing that these films are shot in an average of less than 10 days with a budget of about $20,000. I must state clearly that a few of the films are definitely more expensive and take longer time to produce. But we are working with the average for this presentation. Reportedly, according to New York Times, other local and foreign media, the Nigerian model is the most prolific in the world.

This phenomenon referred to as Nollywood, is the main point of discourse at this occasion. The mission really is to make a presentation on storytelling in the video movie industry in Nigeria.

With training and experience spanning 19 years, Francis Onwochei has practiced in the theatre and movie industry as an actor, writer, producer and director, with several productions to his credit, and in the last 2 years, he has made numerous presentations which discussed, analyzed, and sought to educate the various audiences on the many interesting subjects relating to the Motion Picture Industry in Nigeria.

So far he has engaged in critical analysis of the operations of the Nigerian model, severally at the yearly Sithengi film market and international film festival in Cape Town South Africa; The forum of New cinema at the prestigious Berlin International film festival, the New York African film festival; and most recently at the Durban International film festival in South Africa.

The reason for this growing interest is simple. The 1992 production of a language film Living in Bondage recorded in various parts of Lagos by Kenneth Nnebue a Nigerian trader, dealing in blank tapes and sale of foreign films flung open the otherwise moribund entertainment circuit in Nigeria. Resultantly, from various contributions of other trailblazers in Nigeria, subsequent productions were to exhibit the energetic enterprise, sheer creativity, and unrivalled ingenuity that are peculiarly Nigerian. According to a respected Nigerian poet and writer, Odia Ofeimun: the home video Industry in Nigeria has created its own medium of corroboration, self-affirmation and self-recreation.

Various accounts lend credence to the assertion that film was introduced to Nigeria by the British colonial imperialists with the agenda of propagating British ethos, values and norms. This they did largely through the exhibition of documentaries and newsreels, thus impacting tremendous influence on the target populace. The details of that influence and how it has affected the growth or lack of it, of the Nigerian motion picture industry and indeed other aspects of our national life could be a subject for discussion at another forum It is pertinent to note that the first film shown in Nigeria was at Glover Memorial hall in Lagos in 1903. The same Glover Hall stands tall today, refurbished and decently managed. The Hall hosts lots of stage performances, seminars, conferences and various cultural events.

Interesting also is the record of Nigeria's film hero Pa Orlando Martins who in the 1935 production of Edgar Rice Borough's Sanders of the River, starred alongside the highly respected American actor Paul Roberson, and went down in history as the first film that had a Nigerian actor. Parts of the said film were shot in Nigeria. I will for time constraints skip most of the developmental processes of our film history and engage in the critical elements that will lead us to the storytelling technique and the present boom of the Nigerian motion picture industry.

Like in Europe, Asia and America, prior to what is today termed the video industry in Nigeria, with the popular appellation Nollywood, lots of pioneer Nigerian filmmakers produced films in the then revered 16mm film format albeit with foreign technical assistance.

Prominent among the trailblazers in this genre in Nigeria is the first African Nobel Laureate for literature Prof Wole Soyinka who in 1970 made a film on one of his plays Kongi`s Harvest. The film was based on the struggle for power between traditional kingship institution and military adventurism. Another remarkable pioneer is Dr. Ola Balogun who made the film Amadi on Nigeria's post civil war experiences and peculiarities. Hubert Ogunde and his well renowned Traveling Theatre made a popular film Aiye which brought to the fore the celebrated specter of witchcraft in the Nigerian culture. Following suit in the trailblazing attempts was a film Bisi! Daughter of the River by Cina Ventures, which with enthusiasm drew attention to the reverence of African legends. I will hasten to add that Ladi Ladebo, Sanya Dosunmu, Wole Amele, Eddie Ugbomah, Afolabi Adesanya, Adamu Halilu, Shaihu Umah and a host of others were amongst the never-to- be-forgotten intrepid progenitors of our motion picture history.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned films did not enjoy adequate distribution, no thanks to the Lebanese- dominated distribution networks in Nigeria, which propelled the lie of audience resistance and non-appreciation of local Nigerian films. Security of lives and property was also an issue that confronted the film going audience and by extension the producers. What was to seal the fate of Nigerian filmmakers of the old brigade was the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of 1986 that the Nigerian Military government introduced as an economic policy. This policy translated into drastic and woeful reduction of the value and strength of the exchange rate of the Nigerian Naira to other major foreign currencies in an apparent move to increase international demand for our local products.

With the devaluation of the currency, sourcing foreign exchange for production and post- production costs marked the beginning of the end of the celluloid project in Nigeria. During this period as well, especially in Lagos, a lot of attention was drawn to the very vibrant stage productions, which had consistent support from multinationals and corporate organizations as well as dedicated agencies of some foreign missions such as The Goethe Institute of Germany, The British Council of the United Kingdom and the French Cultural Center of France.

At some point, television became the "in-thing". Lola Fani-Kayode, Amaka Igwe, Zeb Ejiro, Tade Ogidan, all very highly respected Nigerian professionals, with illustrious careers in TV production fell back to their primary areas of specialization with the introduction of new, exciting TV soaps running on the major Nigerian network channel: Mirror In The sun; Checkmate; Ripples and Village Headmaster respectively. For some business-related reasons however, the government owned major TV network came up with a series of regulations, which took the sail off the burst of enthusiasm of the fledgling independent producers, and several others alike that had programmes on Nigerian TV channels. They were roundly frustrated out of their regular weekly entertainment schedules on TV! The populace became hungry for some form of visual entertainment. As nature abhors a vacuum, something had to happen.

At this time in 1992, after several unsuccessful productions in the Yoruba language film genre, Kenneth Nnebue as mentioned earlier, utilizing the stars that had been created by the soap operas made the film, Living in Bondage - a film in Igbo language. That film was to change the face of the Nigerian Motion Picture environment. Nnebue followed shortly and in quick succession with Glamour Girls, his very first film ever in the English genre. Today, the Nigerian home video has invaded the living rooms of the high and low in our society in a never-thought-of pervasive manner.

Today, these productions have created jobs for thousands of Nigerians across various professional strata. Many graduates of theatre and the creative arts in addition to naturally talented individuals have found full expression in the unraveling opportunities in the Direct-to-Video movie-making format across the country. Today, Nigerians and Africans in Diaspora have found an engaging pastime to identify with, in the now celebrated video films. Nigerian filmmakers have defined a medium that has successfully fought back the erstwhile foreign dominance of Indian, Chinese, European and American Films.

The film releases numbering about 1200 titles a year, with an average cost of production put at 20,000 US dollars. If one now computes the average sale of 50,000 copies per title which is sold at a retail price of 2.5US dollars, a mind boggling home video industry worth over 3billion US dollars will be starring you in the face…2.5 x50,000 x 20,000 x 1200.

And this is not computing the residual rights sale of the titles and further income and expenditure from ancillary departments of posters and jackets printing, importation of blank tapes and CDs, dubbing, publicity, and marketing distribution costs.

In the foreseeable future therefore, discovery of the home video model, unarguably a product of necessity, has challenged the creative enterprise and dug up the "never say die" fighting spirit, peculiarly Nigerian and will continue to dominate Nigeria, and indeed the African film landscape for a long time to come.

The model is straightforward. A producer acquires funding to shoot a film. Sometimes he doubles as the writer and director. After production, hands over his edited master copy to a marketer, who engages in mass-producing the master tape in thousands for the consumers. The producer would have made posters, and film jacket for the cassettes with the location pictures taken during shoot, these jackets are handed over to the marketer, and a tab is kept on the video sales of the film as the marketer will have to demand for jacket of the films from the producer, at the end of about 4 weeks maximum both parties (producer and marketer) sit together to settle account of sales.

In many instances, the producer demands for an upfront payment of the entire expected sum, with this, the producer is probably starting another film project while still expecting additional balance of payments from the last film. Except for the extremely successful ones, the actors themselves are usually supportive, as they sometimes work for the producers on credit basis. Unlike many other film making nations, predominantly the Nigerian model skips exhibition, pre-sale of TV rights, and pay per view channels. These opportunities are usually explored after the video releases. More than 95% of the films go directly to video. This, ladies and gentlemen is the obvious peculiarity of the Nigerian scenario.

Story telling in the Nigerian home Video environment has more than casual relationship with its half brother, African Literature. I shall discuss this by engaging the symbiotic relationship of the old motion picture to African Literature. It would naturally have been expected for filmmakers to continue to situate their motion picture themes on the natural habitat of narratives, which rests with literary arts; as exemplified by one of the most intrepid potentates and great pioneer of Nigerian Motion Picture and African Literature. I here refer to Prof. Wole Soyinka a poet, novelist, dramatist, a human rights crusader and the first African Nobel laureate for literature who sometime in 1970 made a film on 16mm format, based on his published drama piece Kongis's Harvest produced by Francis Oladele for Calpheny Nigeria Ltd. Although, a pioneering effort the film did not or could not get adequate distribution for reasons we had earlier discussed.

Whichever way the discussions that will follow henceforth may be interpreted, Western civilization had in times past heaped on Nigerians, nay Africans; imperialist encirclements with denigrating narratives in the form of stories and films, structured primarily to justify slavery and colonization with the hope of perpetuating the rape and exploitation of the African people.

Rather than dampen the mind, it only inspired us to invoke that unyielding spirit of self-discovery. Whereas we appreciate the Western storytelling abilities, we also recognise the yearnings, the realities the dreams of our people, practitioners have also discovered that these dreams of storytelling are not met by what we see being presented as our case. Mr. Ofeimun progressed on his earliar comment noting that it is better to re-tell your own stories even incompetently and badly than for it to be mistold by others.

Stories about the Africans have been mistold severally by foreigners, agreed that people whose stories are not told become invisible and disempowered but those whose stories are badly told, suffer a worse fate because they will continuously carry an identity, not theirs, but by which they are forever judged. This is a case therefore for the kind stories we tell.

Our stories, which we tell with nostalgia, have its allure hinged on originality and unique "homegrownness". The themes are varied, from power and politics, to communal clashes and conflicts amongst ethnic nationalities. To early missionary activities and the killing of twins, pre-colonial past to military adventurism, prostitution, drug abuse and the dreaded HIV/AIDS scourge. Child labor, abuse and slavery to the Osu cast system. Widowhood practices, witchcraft, ritual murder, female genital mutilation, religious values system, cultism and occult activities, adventures, comedy love and Romance the list is endless. It will be important at this point to interrogate our ways of storytelling and what triggers off the inspiration of what our audiences want to see. I will hasten to throw some light on a few of the aforementioned themes which our stories tend to lean on.

Widowhood practices - At the death of a woman's husband in most part of Africa, especially the Eastern part of Nigeria, the bereaved woman (widow) is made to pass through deeply agonizing moments of sorrow in the guise of showing proof that the woman is not responsible for her husbands death. The deep-rooted cultures of these rites of passage are so entrenched in our society and to say the least unimaginable. In several places where this outdated custom still hold sway, almost all the late husband's relatives will come against the said widow, sometimes as morbid as it sounds, a widow may be made to drink the water used to bathe the husbands corpse, when any attempt is made to protest or refuse, the woman is therefore guilty as charged and sentenced. This thematic expression appears to do very well in market as women, who account for the large patronage of home video hold unto a communal bond, as they may each suffer the same fate. I must confess that these traditional practices are gradually giving way to a more civilized form of paying last respect to the diseased.

Rituals. As you may have been reading in the newspapers, ritual killing and murder up till this present moment still pervades our cultural landscape, these unforgivable acts are carried out to perform some charms and sacrifices either to acquire a lot of wealth, or ostensibly to increase ones lifespan. Some perpetrators accuse Europeans, and Asians, who lure them with scarce foreign currencies that these human parts are, required for scientific purposes, in their science laboratories. The greedy impoverished and illiterate perpetrators will persistently search for human parts to sell to the ready European market. The stories of these ritual killings in time past pervaded the Nigerian landscape. These kinds of themes usually succeed in the local market, as audiences will want to be conversant with the realities. May I also quickly mention a similar occurrence in some parts of Southern Africa, where young girls are daily raped, on account of the misinformed perception that having sexual activities with a virgin girl can cure an infected HIV/AIDS positive patient? How very untrue!

The feeling of desire, the feeling of want, care, love, intensity of pleasure and pleasurable activities are also found in our techniques of storytelling. A certain ardent Nigerian movie addict once explained her love for stories with theme of romance. There are too many troubles and problems in the land, one should watch films that can bring in hope, and happiness through emotionally gripping love stories Watching these films teach us how to love she says, and loving is living.

The film that currently holds the record of highest selling production in Nigeria comes from this genre. Till date more than 400,000 copies of Osuofia In London has been sold and this does not include the residual right sales.(Released in 2004,the producer, Kingsley Ogoro is proudly smiling to the banks on a continuous basis) Although films hardly recorded this high sale figure in the last couple of years, this example confirms that with the right kind of material, the right kind of publicity and the right kind packaging, there is no reason, for a film not to sell more than a million copies in Nigeria. Films with this theme have become very fashionable in our Motion Picture circuit. The tilt is usually derived from a lampoon kind of scenario where we make jest of our realities, the people, who would have come from a very tiring day at work will like to relax with a film from this genre, and laugh their hearts out, especially if the lead player is popular and a people's favorite.

From daily occurrences in Nigeria both past, present and the future, the Nigerian filmmaker has bottomless pit of reserve in terms of ideas, because as it would appear aside from happenings that daily confront us as a people, there are countless literary texts begging to be made into films. One of such is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart which has been made into Television serial by the Nigerian Television Authority and was extremely successful; the text itself has been translated into over 35 foreign languages. There are others, Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana's Daughter, which will make a great film as it describes and dwells on the beautiful city of Lagos in the early 1950s. One would not also forget the literary texts of late Ken Saro Wiwa, a poet, human rights activist and environmentalist who was hanged by the Abacha led Nigerian Military junta in 1995 on the trumped-up charges of inciting fellow Ogonis towards self determination. His material Sozaboy strikes one as a topical relevant Nigerian novel begging to be turned into a film.

The issue really is that if we talk about great literary masterpieces, which will make successful film projects, or stories that are within our purview, we are certainly and most assuredly not in short supply.

In spite of the ostensible success of the peculiar Nigerian model, the practice suffers its own share of problems, which has continued to hamper its growth and optimum development. Some of these are low technical and entrepreneurial skills, large number of unskilled debutants, monotonous storylines and lack of long-term projections.

Censorship irregularities and regulators lack of adequate information on the industry and most of all piracy, which is the singular most potent down side of the video Industry in Nigeria. As soon as a title is released today, in less than 48hrs, the film would have found its way to the international communities, without a corresponding income to the producer.

There is also the largely untapped distribution network and most minimal government support since the sector is still struggling with the basics of film administration. I must comment that like the global system for mobile communication recently introduced to Nigeria and which, in the last 3 years has created a honey well of financial discovery for wise investors, the Motion Picture Circuit in Nigeria especially its distribution, has very huge capacity to generate large income, with the tremendous unconventional direct - to - video storytelling capabilities

The Nigerian moviemaker holds tenaciously to the direct-to-Video phenomenon, with well told stories which may help us appreciate, understand, criticize and interrogate our society and value system.

As the largest black content entertainment provider in the world, we know the stories we tell are about our dreams, and realities. We are not shy about holding tightly with passion, zeal and enthusiasm what we know and believe to be our own. Our stars are our idols, we love them, we appreciate them and we value their efforts by patronizing their art.

Like it or hate it, the video film phenomenon, has become a peculiar distinctive Nigerian way of rendering through motion picture, a collective mind that has refused to be cowed by the many problems, indignities and distractions that it encounters.
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