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African Writing Archives


Maxim Uzo Uzoatu

Uzo Maxim Uzoatu

Uzoatu (b 1960) directed his first play Doctor of Football in 1979. He was the 1989 Distinguished Visitor at The Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Satan's Story, A Play of Ghosts, The Missing Link, and God of Poetry. He is currently writing the text for photographer Owen Logan's caricature of Michael Jackson in a Nigerian adventure entitled Masquerade. Educated at universities in Ife and Lagos, he is married with four children and lives in Lagos, Nigeria. His short story Cemetery of Life was recently published in Wasafiri. He has also published poetry and criticism in the literary press.


 The Nollywood Revolution

The Nigerian national football team, the Super Eagles, was in 2005 having a pulsating match with the Zimbabwean national team in Harare, and the Zimbabwean supporters had one big banner in the stands on which was written in bold red: “Nigeria – Good only for Films!” For the many men and women of Zimbabwe, the prowess of Nigeria in the football pitch was not as great as the accomplishment of the country in the film industry. The Zimbabweans are not alone, for across the length and breadth of the African continent the Nigerian home movies are all the rage. The phenomenon has extended to the frontiers of Europe, North America and Asia with throngs of foreigners making the frequent pilgrimage to Nigeria to have a feel of the revolution known as Nollywood, which accounts for the third place in worldwide film production after America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

Professor Jude Akudinobi who teaches film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says: “What Nigeria has in Nollywood is a global brand. I am always being consulted from all over the globe about the workings of the Nigerian home movie industry. The government has a goldmine in the industry if properly managed with the requisite technical competence.” Akudinobi has in the past many years made many trips from his base in California to Abuja and Lagos to facilitate Nollywood projects undertaken by Emeka Mba’s National Film and Film Censors Board (NFVCB) and Amaka Igwe’s Best of the Best African Film and Television Programmes Market, aka BOBTV.

Film luminaries who have shown profound interest in Nollywood range from the top Hollywood director Bill Duke to the respected acting coach Ms Adilah Barnes, the international copyright expert Ms Avalyn Pitts and the Paul Robeson Award director Prof Shade Turnipseed.

In the words of Alder, “The revenue generated by sales and rentals of movies in Lagos State is N804 million per week.” This adds up to an estimated N33.5 billion per annum. Demand for broadcast content in Nigeria averages 836,580 hours of programming per year valued at N250 billion. Uptake of CDs at Alaba International Market, Lagos alone is estimated at 700,000 discs per day. Alder submits finally that “the market potential of the movie industry in Nigeria relative to the size of each state’s economy is at least N522 billion per annum.”

World Bank President and former Nigerian Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had at a seminar on “Global Imperatives for the Nigerian Movie Industry in 2005” said that the “Government expects the industry to generate about US 250 dollars in foreign exchange.”

The Nollywood phenomenon being celebrated globally today started most inauspiciously. A few Nigerian dramatists and comedians in Lagos and Onitsha had recorded and sold some of their plays via the VHS format until the advent of the Igbo language home movie Living in Bondage which launched forth the revolution. At the heart of the making of that breakthrough film is the story and tenacity of one young man known as Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, popularly known as Paulo, after the character he played in Living in Bondage. Okey, that is short for Okechukwu, needs to be quoted at length on how Living in Bondage came about.

Here is Okey’s story: “I would want to start by saying that when I left TV College, Jos in 1987, one of the challenges I had then was that my parents were confused as to what I went to do in the university. I went to Jos because I had admission to study law. That year, on October 1st, we had a very terrible accident that left me in the hospital for eight months. I broke my legs, and so I was in the hospital when the others matriculated and it never occurred to my parents and uncles to go and defer my admission.”

The young Okey got out of hospital only to see that his admission to the University of Jos had lapsed. He had to do the JAMB University exams all over, and could no longer pass the exams. It was against this background of incipient failure that his uncle advised him to take advantage of the advertised Nigerian Television (NTA) College course on Television Production “instead of staying and wasting away at home.” He found his niche in the course, but had to make do with hawking at National Theatre in Lagos on completion of the course.

Other theatre artistes such as Frank Vaughan, Ruth Osi and Wale Macauley who were rehearsing at the theatre could not understand why he should be hawking after his training. The personable Ruth Osi gave Okey a note to meet Kenneth Nnebue who was into the marketing of Yoruba movies on VHS.

On meeting Kenneth Nnebue who would eventually provide the funding for Living in Bondage Okey said he needed N150,000 to be able to make the film. Kenneth told him that the amount was enough to make three Yoruba movies. The self-assured Okey instantly did an analysis of how Kenneth could quickly recoup his money on the investment. Kenneth then told Okey to bring along his certificate to prove that he was not some nobody. He went home and came back with his certificate. As Okey had said he was not willing to shoot on VHS, Kenneth told him he would make a trip to Japan to procure cameras.

Kenneth then told him to put the story together while he made the trip to Japan. Okey went back to the National Theatre, and began rehearsals without any script whatsoever. Okey who had been under the tutelage of the ace director in the NTA Chris Obi-Rapu could not but bring the great man into the project. Since Chris was still in the employ of the NTA he could not append his real name to the project.

According to Chris Obi-Rapu, “What made the Nigeria home video industry to take-off was the input from Okey Ogunjiofor and my direction. Nobody had wanted to do anything in Igbo or Yoruba among television producers around then because they felt it was degrading. There had been some shootings of Yoruba and Igbo videos. Mike Orihedimma recorded Igbo home videos in Onitsha, while NEK (Kenneth Nnebue) was recording and marketing Yoruba videos in Lagos. They were poorly produced and directed. It is a known fact in filmmaking that it is the direction that makes the film. If I had not shot Living in Bondage and Taboo there could not have been any Nollywood. This film business really took off because Living in Bondage was well shot as at that time. If I had not stood my grounds the financier could have influenced the production and direction in a negative way. I resisted him because I knew that he lacked the knowledge of filmmaking. It was a deliberate directorial effort that brought about the home video revolution. It was not accidental.”

The making of Living in Bondage, according to Okey Ogunjiofor, marked “the first time some people were paid in thousands of naira to act on a film. I got N500 because I had not made a film then. People like Bob-Manuel (Udokwu) and others were paid a thousand naira. As a producer and an actor, what I got was only N500.”

Okey stresses that the formula that pushed him on was that unlike in the western part of Nigeria where the Yorubas always went to the theatres to watch movies the easterners, especially the Igbo needed the movies to be brought to their homes. For whatever it is worth, the young man’s dream has materialized into a phenomenon that now holds the entire world in thrall.

The words flow almost childlike from Okey’s mouth: “I had some stories and something to share but I am looking into bringing something into film for people to buy because I had thought that since the Eastern part of this country does not have cinema culture, and all of them are rich enough to have video machines in their homes, why don’t I take the film to their home so that they can watch it?” He adds the following words of fulfillment: “Since after we shot that film (Living in Bondage) the only happiness I have is that God used that opportunity to lift the celluloid era. And what we said was let’s bring the current format of celluloid film into digital and let’s create jobs for people and today we can imagine the number of thousands of people that are feeding from film.”

The movies have since proliferated in the major languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa as well as in Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio etc. The English language films are seen as welding the diverse ethnic groups together. Major players in the English language films include the producers Zeb Ejiro and his brother Chico Ejiro, Amaka Igwe, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Tade Ogidan, Andy Amenechi, Opa Williams, Kingsley Ogoro, Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Don Pedro Obaseki; marketers-cum-producers Ken Nnebue, Rob Eze (Reemy Jes), Ossy Affason, Gabosky Okoye, Azubuike Udensi, Arinze Ezeanyaeche, Ugo Emmanuel and Alex Okeke (Emmalex) etc.

Actors who used to earn peanuts while hanging around the NTA premises are now worth their weight in gold, notably Richard Mofe-Damijo, Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie, Bob-Manuel Udokwu, Sam Loco, Justus Esiri, Enebeli Elebuwa, Ejike Asiegbu, Saint Obi, Jim Iyke, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Clem Ohameze, Emeka Ike, Segun Arinze, Ramsey Noah, Emeka Enyocha, Nkem Owoh, Mr. Ibu, Hanks Anuku etc. The equally distinguished ladies of the klieg lights compete with the men in the earning front, and the list is made up of Amazons such as Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Chioma Chukwuka, Sandra Achums, Stephanie Okereke, Liz Benson, Joke Silva, Ebube Nwagbo, Rita Dominic Nkiru Sylvanus etc

The making of Glamour Girls by Kenneth Nnebue shortly after the making of Living in Bondage showed that movies made in English language could make good returns on investment. Actors and actresses such as Zack Orji and Eucharia Anunobi shot into limelight, if not notoriety.

Diverse themes were explored along the line, from traditional practices such as the Osu caste system (Taboo) and prostitution as in Zeb Ejiro’s high-grossing Domitilla. Some of the films were shot outside the shores of Nigeria like Kingsley Ogoro’s record-breaking Osuofia in London acted with requisite mastery by the inimitable Nkem Owoh. Comedy films have over the years proved to be winners with the actors Nkem Owoh, Mr Ibu, and the diminutive duo Aki and Pawpaw acquitting themselves as the masters of the genre.

The banks have started to show interest with Ecobank funding the films of Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Chico Ejiro, Fred Duker etc. The actors are fast gaining recognition in the national honours list with such eminent recent honorees as Pete Edochie, Justus Esiri, Lere Paimo, Eddy Ugbomah, Zeb Ejiro etc.

Schools and agencies are springing up for the training of the new talents from scriptwriting through directing and marketing. Leading the charge are such schooled eminences as Wale Adenuga, Muritala Sule, Victor Okhai etc.

51 Iweka Road, Onitsha retains its top spot as a major market for the home movies. It would appear that any film that comes out of Nollywood must bear the imprimatur of the ubiquitous 51 Upper Iweka Road, the most famous address in Nollywood. It used to be a place for electronic merchants who have since abandoned there trade for the making f home movies. That famous address is an old building, about 60 metres in length, and made up of three storeys of a thousand and more shops owned by the Modebe family of Onitsha.

The Yoruba film setup continues to draw the crowds to the film theatres in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and so on. A major player in Nollywood is obviously Tunde Kelani who is almost always invited to all the major film festivals across the globe. He is almost 60 years of age but he still talks film with the passion of youth. He started out as a cameraman and literally knows all the nooks and crannies of the film world. The maker of such masterpieces as Thunderbolt, Saworide, Agogo Eewo etc says, “I think the journey to become a cinematographer is a long one and it could as well be a lifetime.”

The indomitable Hausa film world is tagged Kannywood, and Sanni Muazu who produces films in Kano stresses: “We may not produce tapes or cameras but we have a product: films. So we do have an industry.” Ali Nuhu is arguably the most highly rated actor out of Kannywood having acted in about 100 Hausa films. Mama Hajara on her part has acted in well over 100 films in her 20-odd-year career. The industry currently employs about 15,000 talents working as directors, producers, scriptwriters, engineers and costume designers. Ibrahim Mandawari doubles as a leading actor and director, saying: “You cannot expect filmmakers to have a free ride. Custodians of society’s heritage, clerics and conservative elite will react, stressing the need for social responsibility in the kind of themes we display.”

The relevance of Nollywood in the cultural renaissance of Nigeria cannot be gainsaid. It is getting obvious by the day that Nigeria can indeed conquer the world through the reach of film just as the Americans did through the exploits of Hollywood. Through training and re-training such as the annual SHOOT! Workshops organized at the National Film Institute, Jos by the Afolabi Adesanya-led Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) in association with Refuge Island Media, Nigerian movie makers are breaking bolder grounds. For instance, producers can now upgrade movies shot on video to the world-class 35mm celluloid format. The technology is readily available, and Nigerian producers can avail themselves of the breakthrough to push their works into the mainstream of world cinema. This way, Nigerian filmmakers will no longer only serve as observers or as idle bystanders in the many film festivals all over the world.

Peace Anyiam-Fiberisimma who organizes the annual AMAA awards says, “When a man wants to make up with his wife, he comes home with ten video cassettes. If he wants to go out without her, the same thing – that way, she won’t want to come with him!”

Nollywood has become an integral feature of the life of every Nigerian, and the joy is that the phenomenon has spread through the Diaspora, blazing through all of Africa. The hotel rooms of the major cities across the East and West coasts of Africa beam to the guests from all over the world films featuring such Nigerian celebrated stars as RMD, Genevieve Nnaji and the redoubtable diminutive ones known as Aki and Pawpaw. Little wonder there was a riot in Sierra Leone when some conmen duped a mammoth crowd about bringing the Aki and Pawpaw duo to the stadium!

Now that President Umaru Musa Yar-Adua is poised on the 2020 dream of pushing Nigeria to the front of a fast-changing world, the exploits of the champions of Nollywood can only readily stand him in good stead.

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