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Confessions of a B-list Nigerian movie star
LAGOS, Nigeria — Shile 'Raymond' Bagara is one of Nigeria’s movie stars. Handsome, fit and a natural in front of the camera, he is constantly moving from one film set to another playing villains, lovers and best friends. He has friends in all the right places, and his three mobile phones vibrate with incoming text messages day and night.
But things aren't all glitz and glamor for a working actor in Nigeria's movie industry, which has rapidly become one of the fastest growing in the world. No project lasts longer than two weeks, and whether working on a melodrama, action flick or a comedy, Bagara's paycheck is always small.
"Things are tough," Bagara said recently over a lunch of meat stew and fried plantains. "We don't get paid well. I'm thinking about moving down to South Africa. You can get good jobs there and make a lot of money."
Bagara is not alone in his ambitions or his struggle. Every day thousands of aspiring actors, directors and producers begin a Nigerian version of Hollywood’s hustle, only with more chaos and traffic and less plastic surgery.
Established just twenty years ago, Nigeria's film industry — now known as Nollywood — has quickly grown into a thriving hub of activity complete with its own A-list stars, celebrity gossip and 'it' nightspots. While its more famous forebears in Los Angeles and Bombay regularly roll out big-budget blockbusters, Nollywood operates on shoestring funds and minimal production quality.
Nigeria's film industry has rocketed to become the world's third largest, churning out 2,400 films a year. Most are made on budgets ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. They go straight to DVD and are shipped off to marketers and street-side stalls throughout Nigeria and West Africa where they sell for about $3. Across Africa, the movies earn an estimated $290 million annually.
Producers expect the films to be wrapped in less than two weeks and, remarkably, they usually are. If corners need to be cut in production value or editing, they're cut. As long as there is a healthy dose of melodrama, a few recognizable actors on the covers and a catchy title, the movie should sell.
The lightning quick growth of Nollywood has in many ways mirrored the breakneck speed with which Nigeria’s oil-rich economy has doubled over the past two decades to a gross domestic product of $300 billion. Corruption, however, has hampered development in most areas and has left more than 50 percent of the population living in poverty. Many Nigerians feel that with better political governance fortunes could turn around quickly for Africa's most populous country, which has more than 150 million people. Most feel the same is true for Nollywood.
I can attest to the industry's speed and resourcefulness and to its inherent liabilities. Over the past year I've been cast in several straight-to-DVD movies and one television soap opera. In my first two movies I played a moralizing Catholic priest and a sap of a businessman robbed at knifepoint. Neither movie had a script, an actual set or wages for the cast and crew. It was guerrilla-style filmmaking by necessity. Actors were required to provide their own wardrobes and transportation. The director had to make sure that he had several back-up plans for the inevitable power outage or traffic jam.
The television show, in which I was cast as a snide, sleazy lawyer, was financed by a South African company and had a much bigger budget. There were several professionally-designed sets, costume and make-up staff, and everyone was paid well. None of this changed the aesthetic of the plot, which consisted of forbidden love affairs, duplicitous business partners, and lots of pregnant pauses and meaningful stares.
Nollywood has yet to make an impact on American shores, for its torrid romances and black magic-filled morality tales are rife with technical errors that would scare away most western audiences. But locals happily ignore the mistakes in order to experience something that resembles their own lives and characters that speak their own language and act out familiar cultural mannerisms. No one minds the out of sync sound or ill-placed boom mikes.
So while Nigeria is known to Americans largely for its vast oil reserves, corruption and notorious email scammers, the country has become the chief exporter of locally-produced movies for most of the African continent.
And if the pace at which Nollywood has grown since its birth continues, there is reason to be optimistic about the industry's future.
"There are bad movies and good movies, bad soaps and good soaps, but directors and producers have the technical expertise nowadays to make professional quality movies," said Rogers Ofime, a former stage actor who has steadily worked his way up over the years to become a chief producer on several big budget TV soap operas and reality shows. He thinks it is only a matter a time before Nigeria is on par with Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of production quality and eventually, revenue. "Things are going well. People are still buying movies and the TV dramas have large audiences."
Sam Boye, a director and secretary of the Director's Guild of Nigeria, agrees. "Nollywood has improved drastically," he said. "White people think we're just people in trees, killing each other every day. They need to see more African content."