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A night in Nollywood

One of the best purchases I made in Tanzania a few weeks back was a collection of recent Nollywood films, including such gems as “Abuja Connection”, “Bigger Boys” and “Final African World Cup” – all of which are included on a single DVD, along with their sequels. This evening, I’ve been watching “Bigger Boys”, the story of a well-meaning patsy who gives all his money to an evil girlfriend, who leaves him penniless, homeless and unwed. Fortunately, he finds Christ, which suggests that everything might work out in the sequel.

Nollywood has become the third largest film industry in the world, behind Hollywood and Bombay. But you probably shouldn’t go looking for Bigger Boys on Netflix. It’s pretty incomprehensible unless you are familiar with West African accents, and even if you are, the dialog is usually buried deep under a synthpop soundtrack. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s not a very good film.

But if you’ve lived in West Africa, there’s something deeply exciting about seeing actual, real scenes from Africa on a movie screen. Instead of idealized dusty villages and starving people, we see the stores, homes and streets of contemporary Africa. The Africans are the heroes, not background figures to complement Leo DiCaprio. There are no sets – the films are shot on locations throughout Lagos… and so the details are right, from the ubiquitous plastic chairs, to the enormous sound systems to the plastic jugs of palm wine.

I got addicted to Ghanaian films years ago, heading to Ghana Films Theatre or Executive Theater House in Accra for the latest releases on a Friday night. Good chunks of these films were totally incomprehensible to me, either begause I didn’t speak very good Twi, because I didn’t understand all the references to juju (witchcraft) and basically, because I wasn’t Ghanaian. The fun of seeing the films was asking my seatmates what was going on in the film. I can rent Ghanaian films these days from the Ghanaian market in Pittsfield – and yes, there is a Ghanaian market in Pittsfield – but it’s not the same thing, since there’s no one to help translate the bits I otherwise wouldn’t get.

Filmmaker Franco Saachi is making a documentary about Nollywood – he presented a bit of his work at TED Global, showing dozens of people involved with the film industry talking about what films they’re trying to make, and why. One notes, “We’re making films for people who make a dollar a day.” While I’m not the intended audience for Bigger Boys, it gives a window into contemporary Nigerian life – both reality and aspiration – that’s hard to find through any other media.

A few years ago, flying from Nairobi to Amsterdam on Kenya Airways, I was surprised and thrilled to find Bollywood films as part of the in-flight entertainment. A few years later, it’s pretty common to see Bollywood on most international flights. I wonder how long before I see Nollywood flicks when I’m flying from Boston to Delhi.

There’s a new service called Igozn Movies which lets users stream Nollywood films to their computers. Igozn advertises a collection of over 1,000 films, which you can rent for $1.99 each, or $19.99 for unlimited downloads. It’s lots cheaper than flying to Lagos…

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