Nigeria’s Booming Film Industry Redefines African Life
By Norimitsu Onishi
ASABA, Nigeria — Sitting on a blue plastic stool in the sweltering heat, Ugezu J. Ugezu, one of Nigeria’s top filmmakers, was furiously rewriting his script as the cameras prepared to roll. “Cut!” he shouted after wrapping up a key scene, a confrontation between the two leading characters. Then, under his breath, he added, “Good as it gets.”
This was the seventh — and last — day of shooting in a village near here for “Beyond the Dance,” Mr. Ugezu’s story of an African prince’s choice of a bride, and the production had been conducted at a breakneck pace.
“In Nollywood, you don’t waste time,” he said. “It’s not the technical depth that has made our films so popular. It’s because of the story. We tell African stories.”
The stories told by Nigeria’s booming film industry, known as Nollywood, have emerged as a cultural phenomenon across Africa, the vanguard of the country’s growing influence across the continent in music, comedy, fashion and even religion.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, overtook its rival, South Africa, as the continent’s largest economy two years ago, thanks in part to the film industry’s explosive growth. Nollywood — a term I helped coin with a 2002 article when Nigeria’s movies were just starting to gain popularity outside the country — is an expression of boundless Nigerian entrepreneurialism and the nation’s self-perception as the natural leader of Africa, the one destined to speak on the continent’s behalf.
“The Nigerian movies are very, very popular in Tanzania, and, culturally, they’ve affected a lot of people,” said Songa wa Songa, a Tanzanian journalist. “A lot of people now speak with a Nigerian accent here very well thanks to Nollywood. Nigerians have succeeded through Nollywood to export who they are, their culture, their lifestyle, everything.”
Nollywood generates about 2,500 movies a year, making it the second-biggest producer after Bollywood in India, and its films have displaced American, Indian and Chinese ones on the televisions that are ubiquitous in bars, hair salons, airport lounges and homes across Africa.
The industry employs a million people — second only to farming — in Nigeria, pumping $600 million annually into the national economy, according to a 2014 report by the United States International Trade Commission. In 2002, it made 400 movies and $45 million.