From Bob Caputo
The Nigerian film industry, inevitably called Nollywood, isn’t very well known outside Africa, but it’s astounding. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, ten days, and about $15,000, Nigerian filmmakers are turning out around 2,000 feature-length movies a year. The movies go straight onto disk and sell in markets, alongside stands of fruit and vegetables, for two dollars, an affordable sum even in impoverished Africa. More importantly, Nigerian audiences (and those in other parts of English-speaking Africa) are no longer forced to watch Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise in stories and settings that have no meaning for them.
Nigerians are telling their own stories in their own voices. Urbanization and modernization have almost killed the long and cherished tradition of African storytelling. Ironically, the egalitarian promise of digital technology has saved it. Nigerian directors have done this completely on their own, and face obstacles (extortion from street thugs and corrupt cops, frequent electricity failures) unimaginable in big-brothers Hollywood and Bollywood.
But, as Bond Emeruwa says, “In Nigeria we don’t count the walls. We learn ways to climb them.” The filmmakers are highly conscious of their social responsibilities, and feel an obligation to “put a message in there.” Many movies deal with HIV/AIDS, corruption, tribalism, and other pressing problems. The $250 million industry employs thousands of people, but most importantly has given millions of Africans all over the continent new heroes, a sense of hope, and something to dream on.
Those dreams are increasingly important as Africa suffers one calamity after another. Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur, the Congo—these places leap into the headlines and tear at our heartstrings. Less well known are the constant grinds of poverty and hopelessness that underlie the tragedies. The post-election violence in Kenya surprised everyone. But it shouldn’t have. The subsurface tensions have been there for decades—it was a tinderbox waiting for a spark. But no one was paying attention or trying to do much about it. Those same conditions exist in many other parts of the continent.
When I was in Nigeria making a documentary about Nollywood, I was greatly impressed with the directors’ desire to use their films not only to entertain but to educate as well. They understand the power and the reach of their medium. But they also understand the limits of their self-taught skills. They know that they have gone as far as they can, and all of them talked to me about the great need for training if they are to take their filmmaking to a higher level. Unfortunately, this training is not available in Africa. From these discussions, the idea for the Nollywood Workshops was born.
There’s an old adage in the aid community about the relative merits of giving a person a fish so he can eat for a day as opposed to teaching him how to fish so he can eat his whole life. The Nollywood Workshops are about sharing the most valuable asset professionals have—not money, but their knowledge and experience. We will take directors, directors of photography, editors, production designers, sound recorders, writers, and other skilled professionals to Nigeria for one-week workshops with small groups of their Nigerian counterparts. We will introduce producers and writers to state-of-the-art edutainment methods, and help to build connections with organizations working to solve health problems, promote good governance and democracy, and help reverse the many social ills that plague the region.
These men and women will then pass along what they learn to others in Nollywood and so create a snowball effect that will help them get over their moviemaking hump. The ideas and the storytelling desire are there—they just need a bit of help with technique.
The main idea behind the Nollywood Workshops is prevention. We in the West tend to hear about Africa only when some horror befalls it, and by the time we stir ourselves to action it is often too late—as in Rwanda. Or we just can’t manage to stir ourselves at all, as in Darfur. How much more valuable to take action before the headlines, to help prevent communal violence by giving people the tools that enable them to sort out their conflicts peaceably. Nigeria has lots of problems—corruption, violence in the oil-rich delta, tensions between Moslem north and Christian south among them.
There is no better remedy for sorting out problems than open airing of them, and there is no medium in Nigeria that reaches more people across more ethnic and economic lines than the films produced in Nollywood. Even the smallest villages have diesel generators and a television where everyone gathers to watch. We can help the filmmakers make better films, get their messages across more compellingly. Kenya has recently proved what can happen when underlying conditions are ignored. We can help Nigeria stay out of the headlines.
For those who think the situation in Nigeria—in Africa—is too dire, that there’s not much that can be done to make it better, I would like to relate an encounter I had with Father Grol, a Catholic priest who’d been working for eight years in the slums of Nairobi. His friends were pressuring him to leave that awful place. They said there was no hope of improving the lives of the people there, that the problem was too big. “What you are doing is only a drop in the ocean,” they told him. Father Grol replied, “The ocean is nothing more than a lot of drops.”