You probably know that India and the United States produce the most feature movies per year of any national film industry, but do you know what country sits in third place? China? They’ve got a few people there, but no. Mexico? Telenovelas are big, but that’s not it either.
Nigeria was your next guess, wasn’t it? If so, you’re right. Actually, by one estimate Nigeria has now passed the U.S. as the second most prolific national cinema in the world, though they’ve got a ways to go before catching India. We can call into question the counting methods. If all the independent DIY features in America or perhaps China were counted, the rankings might change but the point is still the same. Nigeria is cranking out movies at a furious pace, and they are finding an enthusiastic audience.
Like most national cinemas, the Nigerian industry both opposes and imitates Hollywood, making the moniker “Nollywood” a natural one. Unlike India’s Bollywood, though, the Nigerian cinema is a very new one, starting virtually from ground zero 20 years ago to become the local juggernaut it is today. The democratization of cinema by means of cheap video and digital production has been one of the most significant paradigm-shifters in the history of film and Nigeria provides one of the most vivid examples of this sea change.
Nigerian filmmakers produce more than 30 movies per week, shot on video and now HD for budgets averaging $15-$20,000 apiece. The features are then distributed directly to the home video market through local vendors. In Nigeria, as in most countries now, movies are experienced at home. Desktop editing suites have also made it possible in some cases for a film to go from initial production to video in a month or less.
Jamie Meltzer’s documentary “Welcome to Nollywood” introduces us to a few of the movers and shakers of the Nigerian film industry. Chico Ejiro, known as “Mr. Prolific,” brags that he can wrap a movie in three days. By his own estimate, he directed over 80 films in a five year period and he has mentored many of the also-prolific directors who dominate the industry today.
Most of the Nigerian films featured in the documentary are quickie melodramas with what appear to be simple, straightforward storylines of good vs. evil with a good dose of nationalistic pride tossed in. While it’s unfair to judge just from the clips in the documentary, it’s fair to say that many viewers would see these as amateurish efforts with overwrought acting and mediocre production values. Regardless, they are wildly popular, and home grown films now outsell Hollywood in Nigeria and a few other African countries, making for an inspirational story of a national cinema’s ability to resist Hollywood hegemony.
Meltzer’s documentary is at its most interesting in the early parts when it provides more of an overview of Hollywood. In the less successful second half, he focuses exclusively on the production of an ambitious historical epic by Ejiro protégé Izu Ojukwu, one of Nigeria’s most successful action directors. Meltzer chronicles Ojukwu’s efforts to film “Laviva,” a war epic about Nigerian peacekeepers in the Liberian civil war. In contrast to the typical Nollywood, the production has hundreds of extras and a budget well into six figure territory.
The rest of the documentary plays out as a “Burden of Dreams”-like record of staggering ambition, logistical nightmares and a series of near-disasters. Unfortunately the production of “Laviva” doesn’t offer nearly as much drama as Herzog’s legendary four-year struggle on “Fitzcarraldo.” Not being able to pay your hotel bill and struggling to keep hungry actors motivates are tough challenges, but not quite on the same level as trying to drag a ship over a mountain while partisans burn down your jungle production base. This segment has its highlights, including the constant problems with a wonky generator which often result in “Lights, Camera, Acti… damn it” moments, but there are too few of them to propel the movie into its stretch run. It feels like a separate film from the more journalistic first half and though it’s understandable that Meltzer would want to narrow his focus to a specific example, it ultimately leaves too much of the broader Nollywood story untold.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 ratio. The interlaced transfer is mediocre, but the documentary isn’t exactly a lavish production in its own right. It’s sufficient.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. Optional Subtitles support the mostly English audio.
The only extra is a commentary track by the director.
The Nollywood industry is fighting the good fight against Hollywood cultural imperialism. Nigerian films may not be a threat to appear on American screens any time soon, but they’ve already captured the lion’s share of the home market and that’s a very happy thought. “Welcome to Nollywood” tells some of this inspiring story, but not enough to be fully satisfying.