Hollywood Dreams

Film industry booms in Nigeria _ on home video

August 10, 2001


LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ The film set is somebody's living room, rented out for the day. There are stains on the rug, beer bottles on the table, and three actors on the couch, sweating in the afternoon heat.

Somewhere outside a generator is sputtering away, struggling to provide electricity to a camcorder and two bright stage lights that keep growing dim.

"We had to hire a generator, but as you can see, it's not quite in order," 32-year-old producer Larry Agoha notes grimly before leaning into the ear of a friend to ask for help.

"Hey, if you've got electricity, can we can we shoot some scenes at your house tomorrow?"

Despite power outages, low budgets and ailing equipment, the art of filmmaking is booming in the West African nation of Nigeria _ but not up on the big screen.

With only a few dozen movie theaters in a country of 120 million _ and none in the commercial capital, Lagos, Africa's largest city, filmmakers are reaching audiences the only way they can: on home video.

"We don't have any multiplex cinemas, so if you want to watch a movie here, you've got to watch it on video cassette," says director Mahmood Ali-Balogun.

Nigerians give different reasons for the country's poor cinematic infrastructure.

Some say a 1970s government plan to encourage Nigerian films _ by discouraging imports _ inadvertently killed many theaters. Others say the proliferation of VCRs simply provided a cheap alternative to big movie houses.

For filmmakers in Nigeria today, that's just as well. Few can afford to shoot on the costly 35 mm film normally shown at large cinemas, preferring digital video cameras instead that are relatively cheap and simple to operate.

"You don't need any special skills to work a camcorder. Anybody can just pick one up and start shooting," Ali-Balogun says.

And a lot of people have.

Hordes of fledgling producers have tried their hands at the trade, filling video store shelves with low-budget Nigerian dramas on everything from prostitution to politics.

Most movies are shown only on VCRs _ sold, rarely rented, for a few dollars each. Others screen in what passes for public cinemas: dirt-floored rooms equipped with a TV, a VCR and wooden benches.

The quality of most films, though, is mediocre: Special effects are poor, music tracks are sometimes performed on cheap electronic keyboards and scenes can drag on ... and on.

But the appetite for new movies _ new Nigerian movies _ is voracious.

"There used to be nothing to watch except foreign stuff, American films, Indian films," Ali-Balogun says. "But now we are making so many Nigerian movies, that's all people want to watch. We've killed the foreign market."

Video store owner Ani Emeka agrees.

About 80 percent of his profits come from local films, the 42-year-old says, squatting on a small wooden stool at his shop in a Lagos suburb. "Nigerians love Nigerian movies."

And some other countries do too: The films have found their way into video stores all over Africa. Some have been distributed as far away as London.

Last year alone, 650 movies were produced in Nigeria, up from 205 in 1995, according to the National Film and Video Censors Board.

The films cater mostly to the three big language families in Nigeria: English, Hausa and Yoruba. A handful of smaller languages and pidgin English account for the rest.

Typical films cost $30,000-50,000 to produce _ a large sum in a country where most people earn just a few dollars a day.

Agoha, the living-room producer, was lucky to find a Lagos businessman willing to invest $10,000 in his second low-budget movie, "Catapult".

The true-life script, written by Agoha's wife, tells the story of an orphaned boy who grows up to be a pastor _ and discovers later his real father is not only alive, but a pastor in the same church.

Agoha's work will largely be over after just one week of shooting and a second week of editing.

The finished product will then be copied on 50,000 to 100,000 video cassettes and distributed through central markets.

But distribution takes many forms. Producers say piracy is a major problem, and one the government is doing little to stop.

"If we release 50,000 videos, then somebody somewhere is releasing the same amount of pirated copies," says director Zeb Ejiro, who's been in the business a decade. As a result, he says, the industry loses millions each year.

Ejiro says the industry, worth at least $50 million a year, is one of Nigeria's largest employers, giving jobs to armies of actors, producers, directors, cameramen, soundmen and clerks at some 30,000 video clubs.

He'd like to see the industry graduate into 35 mm. But creating a Nigerian Hollywood would take government help, he says _ and that's not a priority in soccer-mad Nigeria.

"The government should be building cinemas in every town, but instead they're building stadiums," Ejiro says. "We have just one national theater in the country ... and they want to sell

Copyright 2001 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.