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By Chika Anoliefo


Wednesday, 15 October 2008.


From behind the counter at Brooklyn’s Odyssey African Market, Stanley Orji is describing his stock: bags of pounded yam, dried fish, palm oil, imported African food and beauty products –-plus his consistent bestseller, Nigerian movies on DVD.


The films are packaged in glossy covers featuring casts of African actors, and cost $3 to $8. They’re cheaper than DVDs of Hollywood films, both because of their smaller budgets, and because the copies are often pirated. Nigerian-born Orji has customers from Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Guinea. Like the food he sells, these movies offer a taste of the culture and lifestyle of Africa.


Over the past decade, the emergence of “Nollywood” cinema has solidified Nigeria’s position as a power in the global film market. Behind Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, it’s the third largest film industry in the world, netting about $250 million a year and producing more than 1,000 films, according to the Nollywood Foundation, of Oxnard, CA. And it’s making quick inroads among Africans in the United States.


Most Nollywood films are in English, and cover predictable themes: romance, family drama, religious strife, corruption—and sometimes witchcraft. While most are seen in Nigeria, they’re also exported around Anglophone Africa, and overseas.


Many people mark the birth of Nollywood with the release of the 1992 film “Living in Bondage,” by Chris Obi Rapu, a former director for the Nigerian Television Authority. The movie focused on family corruption and greed, and featured black magic — later signature Nollywood themes.


“The stories are home-based,” said Orji. “They deal with life experiences and relate to what’s happening in Nigeria.” Fans say Nollywood movies provide a missing link between Nigeria and their lives in the United States, sometimes bridging cultural and generational divides. One fan said that watching Nollywood movies had become a family activity.


Lore Dada, a 22-year-old Nigerian from New Jersey, said she appreciates the humor and pathos of the characters as they try to adopt aspects of American culture. Often characters wear a head-turning mix of traditional African attire and trendy Western clothing.


Striving for wealth, success and social mobility—sometimes to an absurd degree—is a big Nollywood theme. Houses might be palatial, with elegant cars parked in the driveways. Characters stepping out in the finest traditional clothing often feel their outfits are not complete without a diamond watch or flashy sunglasses. This blend seems to bring new meaning to the idea of cultural attire.


“Millionaire’s Daughter” is about the necessity of wealth, especially when it comes to marriage. Though such themes might seem superficial, Dada says that the movies can be flattering for Nigerians because “they usually depict people living well.”


Rashidah Suleiman, 22, a Nigerian student at New York University, said she appreciated the films’ homegrown feeling. The actors’ dress, accents and mannerisms bring her a sense of Nigerian culture. They “make me laugh at how close to home it feels when I hear sayings that my family uses,” she said.


The humor of exaggerated acting is another big part of the appeal.


“I like watching Nigerian films because they are usually hilarious, even when they are not supposed to be,” said Dada. “I think the inappropriate sound effects, the over-acting, and the drawn-out scenes give Nollywood movies their character.” But it would be a mistake to take Nollywood films too seriously, added Dada, who more often watches American action movies and romantic dramas. “I see them as guilty pleasures,” she said.


Ehi Uwa, the 22-year-old son of Nigerians, said that, while comical, the movies are realistic. “I laugh because the exaggerated acting is very lifelike,” he said. “It is a great portrayal of Nigerians. We have an exaggerated culture.” At cultural events, for example, attendees might attempt to outdo one another by wearing the most colorful outfit.


Nigerian-born New York City filmmaker Oliver Mbamara, who makes his living as a lawyer, said a new wave of non-Africans are growing interested in African culture. He said that, plus improving production quality, accounts for Nollywood’s burgeoning popularity . His film, “This America,” shot in Nigeria and released on 2005, tells the story of immigrant life in the United States in the 18th century. Nollywood “tells African stories that are otherwise ignored,” he said.


J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising agencies in the United States, put Nollywood 49th on its list of “Eighty Things to Watch in 2008.”

Though Nollywood has problem with the buying and selling of pirated copies, Mbamara sees this as a minor issue. “We’ll catch up with
Hollywood,” he said. “It’s just a question of time.”


Chika Anoliefo is a journalism student at New York University and can be reached at coa208@nyu.edu.


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