Nigeria on-screen: 'Nollywood' films' popularity rising among emigres
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.' "
© 2003 Washington Post