Toronto, Canada – Nigerian filmmakers, producers and actors are hoping a spotlight on Lagos at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will open Nollywood up to the world.
But equally important, the filmmakers say, is maintaining the originality and fresh storytelling that has made the well-established Nigerian film industry such a national and regional success over the past two decades.
“Our stories are original. That’s what makes us stand out,” said Omoni Oboli, the filmmaker, producer and actress, whose movie Okafor’s Law had its world premiere at the festival this year.
“I feel like the audiences are bored. Hollywood is churning out the same thing over and over again … We have fresh stories. It’s original,” Oboli said at a press conference in Toronto. “If they’re bored, they should look to us – look to Nollywood.”
Oboli’s film is among eight Nigerian features being screened as part of the festival’s annual City-to-City programme, which shines a light on filmmaking in cities around the world. In previous years, this section has shone a light on Seoul, London, Athens, Mumbai, and Istanbul, among other places.
Cameron Bailey, the film festival’s artistic director, told Al Jazeera that he took “a leap of faith” when he made the decision to focus on Lagos this year, but he said he believed the timing was right.
“In addition to the very commercial films that have been coming out of Lagos for many years, there’s a new generation that has a new Nollywood cinema that is working at higher budget levels, taking more time with their productions, greater technical quality and also just greater artistic ambition,” Bailey said.
“We’re beginning to see new kinds of films come out that I think can work very well on the festival circuit and in the rest of the film industry, so that’s why I wanted to do it now.”
The eight Nigerian films at the festival explore an array of storylines and genres, from the comedic capers of a Lagos cabbie in Daniel Emeke Oriahi’s Oko Ashewo (Taxi Driver), to a drama about Lagos’ successful battle against an outbreak of Ebola in 93 Days, directed by Steve Gukas.
In 76, Izu Ojukwu looks at the impact of a failed coup attempt in Nigeria in 1976, while director Uduak-Obong Patrick has made a youthful crime-comedy with a Lagos backdrop in Just Not Married.
The Wedding Party, meanwhile, invites audiences in to experience the joy and traditions of a Nigerian wedding – complete with all the drama and complications that may arise.
“What makes a Nigerian wedding party so different? You have to experience it first hand to be able to understand it. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before: the colours, the attire, the people … It’s a remarkable experience,” said director Kemi Adetiba about the film, her first feature.
“The stories I think will resonate with all audiences,” Bailey said, “but what you get to learn about, is how the storytellers shape their films in a very distinct way.”
The Nigerian film industry is second only to India’s Bollywood in terms of the number of films produced, which is estimated at around 200 a month, according to an entertainment and media report by PricewaterhouseCoopers for 2014-2018 (PDF).
In 2014, the Nigerian government estimated that Nollywood was a $3.3bn industry, with 1,844 movies produced in 2013, Fortune magazine reported. The industry brings in $600m to the Nigerian economy annually, according to 2014 figures put out by the US International Trade Commission.
To date, Nigerian films have been cheap to produce and shoots generally last less than a month. “This enables a quick financial turnaround: A movie can be profitable within two to three weeks of release,” the PwC report stated.
But most Nigerian films are watched on DVD and pirating is widespread: Nine pirated copies of a film are sold for every legitimate one, according to the World Bank (PDF).
According to Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, who starred in 2013’s Half of a Yellow Sun, the higher production values of recent Nigerian films demonstrate that Nollywood is ready for greater international collaborations.
“We need to invite more audience. We need to be more open with even our storylines and with collaborations. Right now, that’s kind of the focus, which is why we’re glad we’re here,” she told Al Jazeera at the festival.
Tapping into where the cinemas are is also important to build an audience, the actress said.
Despite having a population of more than 180 million people, Nigeria lacks cinemas: The filmmakers and producers at TIFF put the number of cinemas across Nigeria at 29, meaning the country has a total of only about 100 screens.
Many in the industry wonder if Nigerian filmmakers should really be focused on appealing to an international audience, rather than making better films to satisfy their already expansive fan base.
According to Niyi Akinmolayan, director of The Arbitration, it is less about seeking validation from the United States or Hollywood, and more so wanting “to make films good enough for anyone anywhere to watch our movies”.
“And, hopefully, we’ll get some recognition,” he said.
The Arbitration is largely set in a meeting room in Lagos, where a woman has accused a Nigerian IT company’s chief executive – her former lover and boss – of rape. Though the film is partly a peak into the growing Nigerian hi-tech industry, its main themes – sexual harassment, power dynamics, and gender roles – are universal.
“I felt this is a perfect opportunity to polarise the audience and make them ask important questions. And in this case, we’re defining sexual harassment, we’re defining rape, we’re defining the place of a woman in society … I always feel there’s a lot of beauty and truth when you get people to ask questions,” Akinmolayan said.
According to film festival’s artistic director, Bailey, a desire to reach global audiences while also maintaining the distinctive style that appeals to people at home is something that has been witnessed in the film industries of South Korea, China, India and even France in recent years.
“I think Nigeria can do both,” Bailey said. “Not everybody working in Nollywood is going to want, for instance, to try to set up a co-production with an American company or a European company, but some will. And I think the ones that will, will do well with it.”
David Oyelowo, the Nigerian-British actor who has starred in Hollywood films Selma and Five Nights in Maine, said the TIFF spotlight “is the start of something absolutely fantastic” for Nigerian talent.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time – telling stories traditionally, filmically, poetically. We are storytellers by nature,” Oyelowo said in Toronto, where he is promoting his latest film, Queen of Katwe.
And it is those stories – uniquely Nigerian, but open to the world – that will propel Nollywood forward into its third decade, says young Nigerian director Abba Makama.
Makama was in Toronto to screen Green White Green, a coming-of-age story about three soon-to-be university students who set out to make a film and in the process learn who they are personally and within the mosaic of Nigerian cultures.
Bailey described the film as reminiscent of an early Spike Lee Joint, or even of American director Richard Linklater’s work.
“The whole idea came about when I was studying in New York, and I would get the most ignorant questions about where I came from,” Makama says. “I said, ‘I need to go back home, and I’m going to show them where I’m from, what I’m doing, what I’m all about.'”
“It’s my own way to say how much I love film, but I also wanted to give the western audience a crash course on what it means to be Nigerian. There isn’t one archetype. There are facets. There are layers.”