[25 February 2010]
Movie lovers may have individually unique taste preferences, but they all enjoy stories of cinematic proliferation. Jamie Meltzer’s 2007 documentary Welcome to Nollywood, then, should be very popular among movie lovers. It’s not only a movie about the exciting adolescence of one particular movie industry, but also a movie about movies’ place in society.
In Nigeria, the business of making movies has gone from non-existent to thriving in two decades, and Nigeria’s Nollywood, based primarily in Lagos, is now the third largest producer of films in the world (behind India and the United States and surpassing China’s Hong Kong industry). Meltzer attacks the subject of of this explosive growth not like a historian attempting to trace the origins of the boom, but like an anthropologist working with a living, breathing entity. His movie is better for it.
Welcome to Nollywood identifies Chico “Mr. Prolific” Ejiro, Don Pedro Obaseki, Tunde Kelani and Izu Ojukwu as pillars of the young industry, and each man gets substantial screen time. More than a portrait of a few select directors, though, the picture brings viewers from an acting camp to the sets of movies to inside the Idumota Electronics Market, where the product is delivered to consumers. Nigerian features are almost always shot on video before being distributed on VHS tapes and video compact discs. While these movies don’t get big theatrical premieres, there’s no shortage of public enthusiasm. Ejiro tells the camera that 30 new features hit the Idumota marketplace every week.
Kelani thanks the video revolution for the democratization of means of production for the birth of Nollywood, and he says movies have given his country a voice, adding that the average Nigerian likes seeing a Nigerian movie more than a Hollywood blockbuster. What, then, are the characteristics of a Nigerian movie?
Meltzer shows us clips from a few of the industry’s most successful movies and has Nollywood directors explain that at first everybody was making movies about slavery. Then, movies about ritual killings were big. The cinema developed out of the culture’s most dramatic events. “We don’t do science-fiction,” says Ejiro, and Obaseki emphasizes, “We are telling African stories from an African perspective.” Almost all of the interviewees touch upon how young their industry is, though, and Kelani says the movie that best exemplifies Nollywood in spirit and style is yet to come.
On this cue, the film shifts gears to present the story of Izu Ojukwu. Meltzer takes us to Ojukwu’s family home, and as Ojukwu describes how he loved going to the movies as a child—he admits he wasn’t above stealing to get money for a ticket—and how he eventually built his own projector, we see him use a few modest tools to build another. He screens Indian films for neighborhood children. Their faces bring to life the feeling of wonder we look for each time we purchase a ticket.
Okujuwu is in the process of making Laviva, an epic war picture about Nigerian peacekeeping soldiers in Liberia during that country’s civil war. The movie has a cast of about 700 and is the first cinematic endeavor to get full cooperation from the Nigerian military. The director spent a year fundraising and researching for the movie, and he enlists former Liberian rebels and a Nigerian consultant nicknamed “Buffalo” to train his soldiers. His wild audition process is a joy to watch and reiterates widespread enthusiasm in Lagos for the motion picture industry.
During the production, Okujuwu keeps shooting after he’s gone bankrupt. The caterer refuses to work, and actors go all day without eating. With the special effects weapons, rugged environment, and desperate crew, these scenes recall a little bit Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. More importantly, these scenes suggest Okujuwu’s project, born out of so much strife, has the potential to be the breakout movie Nollywood has been looking for.
The story of Laviva’s creation is so captivating it’s tempting to think Meltzer would have been better off directing all of his energy to tell it, but Welcome to Nollywood is about a promising new industry on the global film scene. To either omit the scope of Okujuwu’s ambition or ignore the other moviemakers who are developing the nation’s voice would be a mistake. The movie is under an hour long, and Meltzer is efficient and just with the time he has to tell his story.
The director’s commentary on the DVD extras addresses some of the production challenges the documentary faced, and there are also trailers for five other movies.