Accessibility links

Nigerian Film Industry Undergoes Constant Change - 2003-12-15

In Nigeria, a thriving national film industry is producing several thousand feature films on video every year, making it one of the most prolific in the world. The industry is undergoing constant change as it strives to produce not just quantity, but also better quality movies.

On the set of The Masked Man, actors often need just one take to deliver their lines. The crew works quickly with digital equipment imported from Europe and Asia.

The plot is typical of Nigerian movie fare - gangsters, betrayal, corruption and a love story. The pace is fast, full of action and movement.

The movie will be shot and produced in less than two weeks. It will come out on a Monday in stores and on street stalls for about $2. Two formats will be available, videotape or video CD. Because they are watched at home, these films are called home videos.

More than 70 percent of Nigerian urban households have television sets and video players, making cheap video films a main source of entertainment in Africa's most populous nation. The first successful such home video was Living in Bondage, released in 1992, with more than 100,000 units sold.

The rise of home videos has coincided with the decline of traditional movie making for cinema theaters, which ended during the late 1980s. Since then, most cinema theaters have closed.

It is estimated 3,000 movies for video came out this year, with average sales for each of 10,000 copies, or jackets, as they say here.

Many of the movies fictionalize news and history. Some also promote cults or feature politicians wanting to become famous. But most are about sex, violence and rituals.

At the Idumota market in Lagos, movie buyers look for the latest movie they saw advertised on one of the many posters plastered throughout the city. Time to Kill, Nasty Girls or Extreme Measures are some of the recent titles.

The director and producer of The Masked Man, Elvis Chuks, says he believes so many home videos are being made that the good ones are being drowned in what he calls a sea of mediocrity. "Too many people produce what I say are haphazard films, and bring them out in the market. Sometimes we have a release of 35 movies in Nigeria each Monday, and I will say categorically that in that 35 movies only two or three could be the nice one among them, so it's sad news," he says.

But industry insiders say that even though many Nigerian movies are low budget and some are of poor taste, showing gore, voodoo rituals, gangsters and prostitutes, most are profitable.

The home videos are so successful that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently asked filmmakers to instill messages for the good of public policy, such as fighting corruption and AIDS.

Nigerian home videos are also becoming popular across Africa, from rebel-held areas in Liberia to homes in Ghana and public theaters in Kenya.

One of the pioneers of Nigeria's home video industry, Emmanuel Erioby, says filmmakers are ready to help the government but that the government should also be helpful to the moviemakers. "The government is not encouraging the producers, that is the only problem we have today. They look as if they don't know what we are doing. But in other ways we've been helping society by creating labor for people. We have thousands of people that are supposed to be on the streets, but because of these movies they have something to do today and they earn big money," he says.

Besides a censorship board, which rates most home videos not suitable for broadcast on television, the government has had little interaction with the booming industry.

Mr. Erioby, who now runs the production house Infinity Merchants, would like to see new intellectual property laws passed and better protection against piracy, which remains a problem, even though most movies are literally here today and gone tomorrow. He says Nigeria's government should also subsidize its film industry because it is becoming an important vector of its image abroad.

Many industry insiders locate the possible rebirth of Nigerian cinema in a quiet part of the Suru-Lere district of Lagos. Here, a group of about 60 filmmakers has set up a cooperative to produce, sell and distribute their movies under a collective banner called the Nigerian Film Market.

Actor, producer, director and treasurer of the cooperative Paul Obazele says the group's filmmakers are now trying to distinguish themselves through quality rather than quantity. "Our drive, what our watchword has been, is content. No matter how much it is, if people see the quality in what we have it will drive them to come in here, and so far it's been working for us," he says.

Mr. Obazele has even heeded calls by the government to instill messages against corruption. In Walls Have Ears, he denounced a recent police embezzlement case.

He says that before the movie was released he was beaten up by policemen angry at what he was disclosing. But he says he didn't mind that too much because, he says, it made for great publicity.