Inside Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry

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Reuters photographer Akintunde Akinleye talks about his struggle to bring the story of Nigeria’s film industry to life.

I wasn’t sure if my pictures of Nigeria’s film industry, or “Nollywood” as it is fondly called, would ever make it to publication.

As I spent time stringing the project together, I met barrier after barrier. Lots of my appointments with producers and other contacts fell through. In cases where it seemed like I would be given the green light to take pictures, the location of shootings would change without notice. Getting access to the new luxurious cinemas in the metropolis of Lagos was hellish. But slowly, I managed to make headway.

Long before I started working on this assignment, I had thought about exploring the story of Nollywood. I first hit on the idea at the beginning of 2008 when a friend, who is a model and actress, suggested taking a trip to India to shoot a collaborative movie between Nigerian and Bollywood actors on location. Unfortunately, the trip never happened.

Recently, however, I had the chance to rejuvenate my idea through Reuters’ Wider Image desk, which commissions in-depth photo stories. I wanted to explore the reasons why Nigeria’s Nollywood has been so successful in a continent where conflict and poverty are rife.

Millions across Africa watch Nigerian films. They are as popular abroad as they are at home. I remember taking a shuttle bus while on holiday in Gabon a couple years ago and as I settled down in my seat, the screen started playing a movie. It was an export from Nigeria.

Nollywood has generated a great deal of money, not just for those directly involved in the movies, but also in other areas like advertising and corporate sponsorship. Thousands of movies are produced on shoestring budgets for different media formats, and they have fed emerging digital television channels for decades.

At an academic forum at the University of Lagos, a friend told me recently that Nigerian film has also played an important role in downplaying the political tensions in Nigeria. She argued that Nollywood movies soothed the nation, and had even helped prevent civil war.

I cannot really agree — I think the movies are mostly just entertainment. But after seeing the works of Nigerian film producers like Kunle Afolayan and his older counterpart Tunde Kelani, whose ingenious filmmaking incorporates political and satirical themes, you can see the importance of Nollywood in political communication.

Nigerian entertainment has changed a great deal since the 1950s and 60s, when theatre groups would travel between communities and villages in lorries and set up their stages. Now the film industry is so powerful that Unesco reported in 2009 that it had overtaken America’s Hollywood in the number of films it produced, and its output was only surpassed by India’s Bollywood.

Last August I spent four days in the rainforest in Nigeria’s south-west, watching in amazement as cameras, lights, shadows, smoke, and a group of talented people, from electricians to costumiers, worked together to create one example of the media that is so influential across Africa and its diaspora.

The film, titled “October 1,” was set during a key moment of Nigerian history, just before independence, and shot by Kunle Afolayan.

Shortly before that, in July, I went to Abeokuta, also in Nigeria’s south-west, and spent another four days on-location to see the filming of “Ake”. The movie was an adaptation of a childhood memoir by Nigerian Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, and produced by Dapo Adeniyi.

Many people have dismissed Nollywood as cheap and sensationalist. Others have argued that Nollywood has provided a much-needed platform for Africans to tell African stories.

Whichever side of the argument you stand on, the story of Nollywood is one power and bright lights. I intend to follow it wherever it leads.

* Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters