Nigeria’s scrappy film biz not quite ready for close-up

Nigeria movies Just after 10 a.m., with the sun still rising overhead, film director Ikechukwu Onyeka stood on a honking street corner and considered his accumulating problems.

His lead actress was more than an hour late. The owners of the restaurant where he’d planned to shoot had suddenly refused to allow it, and by day’s end he needed to get through that scene and more than a dozen others. The production had stretched into its 18th day, a marathon by Nigerian standards, and Onyeka was due on another set the following week.

“We’ve had a lot of setbacks,” said Onyeka, a trim man with a neat gray goatee. “This is how it is in Nollywood.”

Forget the slick cinematic tricks and big-money excesses of Hollywood; this is Nigeria’s scrappy young movie industry, known to everyone here as Nollywood. The budgets are meager, the plotlines fantastical, the performances hammy and the breakneck shooting schedules an affront to logic and the elements.

Yet Nollywood is staggeringly prolific. Using digital video cameras and desktop editing software, Nigeria churns out more than two feature-length films every day ? nearly twice as many as the United States does ? and has become the world’s second-biggest movie-making country, trailing only India, according to United Nations statistics.

In less than two decades, Nollywood’s straight-to-video artists have built a $250 million industry with fans throughout Africa, a continent with few multiplexes and limited disposable income.

The movies are shot in the streets of Lagos and elsewhere in West Africa, lightly edited, burned onto DVDs by the tens of thousands and hawked for $2 apiece on street corners or beamed by satellite into homes across the continent. The films have spawned imitators from Ghana to Kenya, seemingly confirming the cultural reach of Africa’s most populous country.

Behind the scenes, however, the twists and turns of a Nollywood production reflect nothing so much as the nature of life in Nigeria itself: chaotic, whimsical, sometimes verging on violence, swamped in an endless sea of delays and breakdowns, yet ultimately a triumph of will over experience.

“The movies remind people of reality,” said Ini Edo, one of Nigeria’s best-known actresses, who claims more than 100 film credits. In Onyeka’s new movie, the curvy, long-lashed 27-year-old stars as a college student who falls in with a female cult called the Jezebels, which uses its powers to seduce rich men.

“Reality” probably isn’t the best description for a film about campus witches, but Nollywood films do follow an appealingly earthy formula. Family bonds are strong. Tribal chieftains are wise. The forces of evil, often represented by philandering husbands and demonic cults, eventually are punished ? or find Christianity.

Stories set on college campuses are also popular, Edo explained, because they usually mean pretty girls and a generous shot of sexuality. Her career has included roles in “Sleek Ladies,” “Ghetto Queen,” “Slave to Lust” and “Fatal Seduction,” and on the last day of shooting for Onyeka’s as-yet-untitled film Edo didn’t perform so much as prowl about the set, all nail polish and neckline.

The film would be an easy sell. Making it, however, proved more challenging.

One actress showed up nine days late because her previous job ran long. This is common, Onyeka explained. The average Nigerian movie budget is about $25,000, meaning that even an A-list actor’s paycheck is rarely more than $4,000. Most movies are shot within about 10 days, so casts and crew members cram their schedules with as many jobs as they can get.

Onyeka (“Throne of Tears,” “My Everlasting Love,” “Tomorrow Must Wait”) does about 25 films a year, and after this one wrapped he was heading immediately for another shoot. It doesn’t leave much time for rehearsal, but in Nollywood, everyone improvises.

Onyeka, whose crew travels with a generator in case one of Nigeria’s frequent power outages strikes, shrugged off the loss of the restaurant and moved on to a backup location in a nearby hotel. Shortly before noon, the lone camera rolled on the first scene of the day. After one take and a couple of close-ups, they were finished.

“We don’t really rehearse. We start practicing the lines 10 minutes before we get on set,” said Halima Abubakar, a petite 26-year-old actress (“Area Mama,” “Sin No More”) with almond eyes and long, dyed brown hair.

In the next scene, Abubakar and Edo livened up some clunky dialogue with a few alluringly wicked laughs. Their unfamiliarity with the script showed, however: “Conrad” came out as “comrade,” “waltzed” became “whilst” and “archenemy” was pronounced “ark enemy.”

It’s easy to nitpick, but the man known as the “father of Nollywood” says the business is still in its infancy.

In 1992, Okechukwu Ogunjiofor made the movie that launched the industry, “Living in Bondage,” a VHS hit about a husband who’s forced to sacrifice his wife to appease a cult. As discs have replaced tapes, Ogunjiofor said, sound and picture quality have improved steadily.

With so many films flooding the market, however, few producers make real profits. Surging sales of pirated discs, which go for less than half-price, also are cutting into Nollywood’s business as producers complain that authorities would rather take bribes than crack down on copyright violators.

“People make these movies for love, and for survival,” Ogunjiofor said. “If there was no Nollywood, there would be even more poverty, unemployment, mischief and violence.”

The films certainly play up Nigeria’s seamier side, with shady businessmen sharing screen time with violent thugs. Onyeka’s film, set in the ramshackle Lagos suburb of Festac, called for an armed robbery, but when the time came to film it, the prop gun was missing.

Oluchukwu Onwuzulike, the 27-year-old props director, sheepishly acknowledged that the man who’d rented him the gun had taken it back because the producers hadn’t paid his fee, about $25. Onwuzulike produced his best alternative: a small knife, dull, rust-stained and not very menacing.

Across the street a school had let out for the day, and as a small group of children watched, a shouting match broke out among the crew. For a moment it looked as if someone might level the slender Onwuzulike.

“This is rubbish!” the production manager yelled.

Onyeka, with the cool demeanor of a veteran quarterback, called for the next scene. When they’d finished that, it was nearly 5 p.m. The production manager fished a tattered page from his shoulder bag and said they had eight more scenes to shoot.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.