The Making of Nigeria's Film Empire
"The stories are amazing."
Stepping off the plane from Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, onto the tarmac of the small airport in Jos was like taking off a pair of damp socks. The air was clear and cool. Hills and rock formations punctuated the landscape, which was dotted with herds of white cows, cattle egrets, and goats. The light was golden in the late afternoon, the dirt reddish brown.
I traveled to Jos to meet Okey Ogunjiofor, the actor who, more than two decades ago, had co-written, produced, and played a character in Living in Bondage, the story of a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult in exchange for a lifetime of riches. It was the first hit in Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry, the second biggest in the world behind Bollywood. Now, after a long hiatus from the movies, he was producing his first film in years.
Financed with a loan from a government fund set up to nurture Nollywood, the movie was a biopic about Amina, a storied warrior queen who ruled what is now northern Nigeria in the 16th century. The movie's director, Izu Ojukwu, was one of the most promising names of the new generation of movie directors, and he was shooting with a high-end digital camera. If successful, Queen Amina could represent a bridge in time, a connection between the low-budget video movie that birthed the industry and the cinematic potential of the present.
A member of the crew met me at the airport. We drove along highways that were empty compared with the gridlock of Lagos. Along the way, we picked up the set's horse trainer, who had been stranded by the side of the road in a keke with a flat tire. Then we drove on a ring road on the outskirts of Jos, pulling off eventually on a dirt road surrounded by irrigated tomato farms and dried-up stalks of corn and sorghum.
The sets of Queen Amina, a historical epic, had to be in places with no traces of modernity, in this case a scenic cow pasture. Evening was not far off when we arrived, and the crew was scrambling to finish shooting a scene before nightfall. I was quickly introduced to the producer and director, then given a Styrofoam container of okra stew, a plastic bottle of water, and a chair next to Ojukwu, who was watching the scene on a monitor. Ojukwu was a calm man with an aversion to raising his voice. It helped, under the circumstances, to be a calm person.
They were shooting a death scene—before us one of Queen Amina's many lovers was laid out on a pallet made of wood beneath a small dead tree. Amina, played by actress Lucy Ameh, was to approach his deathbed flanked by her troops, including her personal bodyguard, a wild-looking Amazonian figure who wore a leopard pelt over her shoulders and her hair in a Mohawk. Ojukwu was ordering the ranks of soldiers carrying shields, spears, and flags to disperse more widely across the fields.
Amina approached the corpse and delivered her lines.
"He died like a hero," she said, dropping to her knees to embrace his corpse. "He sacrificed his soul to save my life."
She stopped. The script called for the dead lover's necklace to be yanked off, but the necklace wasn't there. Members of the props team began rushing around. Ojukwu looked up from his seat before the monitor in disbelief. "We have less than 30 minutes of light, and now a necklace will hold us ransom?"
"I'm sorry," he said. "I see the ants are stressing you guys." The soldiers appeared to be on the verge of mutiny. "I need water!" pleaded one.
They set up another shot.
"Your cousin will be avenged," Amina said to another character, an estranged childhood playmate. "I weep for you, Amina," the former friend replied coldly. "Now you are the monster we always knew you would become."
The camera panned down to the body. Amina softened. "I loved him," she said quietly.
The soundman, a German named Peter, ripped off his headphones and looked around, glaring. "It sounds like a discotheque," he said.
Through his loudspeaker, the assistant director called for silence. The soundman took a reading, then shook his head again.
"Babies," he said.
Some locals who had come to sell sugarcane and watch the shoot under a nearby tree were asked to silence their children.
"Action!" said Ojukwu. "He died like a hero—" started Amina. A cellphone rang.
A collective groan went up. "Drinks on him tonight," said Peter. The assistant director spoke into his megaphone: "Please, crew members, remember to turn off your cellphones and call your mothers and fathers." Another take.
"He died like a hero—"
"Ali, you're breathing!" yelled the director to Ali Nuhu, a megastar of Nollywood's Hausa-language industry who was supposed to be dead on the pallet.
But finally the scene was done. The golden necklace, which was found after a 20-minute search, was ripped from the dead man's neck. In the last rays of the setting sun, the amassed troops received their heartbroken warrior queen. Then the light was gone, and it was a wrap.
We drove back to Jos in a caravan. We passed a floodlit preacher delivering an outdoor sermon to an audience seated in plastic chairs, shouting to be heard over the generator. We stopped at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of town. They waved us through after looking in the trunk. We drove through obscured streets, shadows walking on the sidewalks, the darkness broken only by kerosene lanterns and the occasional generator-powered storefront. The electricity was out; and the streets of Jos were very dark. The following day was a day off from shooting, when Ogunjiofor, Ojukwu, and their crew would recuperate and plan the production schedule for the weeks to come. In the meantime, I toured the production's headquarters with Ogunjiofor.
The cast and crew had taken over the Hill Station Hotel, a decaying grand hotel with a colonial legacy that was apparent in its name. The Hill Station was a famous place—the actor Pierce Brosnan had once slept there, and the British prime minister John Major. Now its swimming pool was empty and cracked, and when the first members of the film crew had arrived two months before, the lawns were overgrown with weeds.
In the decades in which Nigerians could no longer go to the movies in the cinema, pirated home videos of foreign films from Hollywood, Bollywood, and Hong Kong had filled the entertainment vacuum.
As part of its touristic legacy, Jos had a wildlife park, which was said to be more of a depressing kind of zoo, and while I was there, its sole lion escaped and was shot. I followed the national newspaper coverage in the days that followed, where officers responded to queries about the lion's escape with statements such as, "We are somewhere, cannot talk to anyone." This evasion caused lively debate, with readers writing comments like, "This is wickedness to a poor, old, harmless cat," and "I am disappointed that the so called joint task force do not have tranquilizers or tasers to use on the Lion than to kill it." They also questioned the keepers' claims that the lion was 43 years old, with one reader claiming "a Lion cannot live more than twenty years in a cage."
Okey Ogunjiofor had been involved in Nollywood since the beginning, which was to say since Living in Bondage. At the time I met him, I had not yet watched the movie. "I was dashing," said Ogunjiofor, smiling. "You'll love me! You'll wish I wasn't married when you watch it."
I met with him in his suite of rooms at the Hill Station, which were powder blue. He was slight and spry, with sharp features. He was a charismatic storyteller and an unfailing optimist, despite all the obstacles and inconveniences of shooting movies in Nigeria. Since Ojukwu was a more taciturn and soft-spoken figure, it was Ogunjiofor's energy that carried the production. He had a streak of Puritanism to him that his crew found amusing. He would often refuse food ("I don't want to age so fast," he said. "Food ages. The more you eat, the more you age.") and would complain when the production left their locations strewn with the plastic bags that had held their water and the pastel-colored Styrofoam containers that had held their lunches. He made a point of walking (or "trekking," as Nigerians say) to locations to show he did not put on airs. In a country where a certain severity is often tolerated from people in positions of authority, Ogunjiofor was a shrewd and kindly figure. "What's wrong with you?" he would demand to anyone who looked a little morose, eliciting a smile, or an ashamed confession about a headache. He was a man of faith and had allied himself with a megachurch and a celebrity preacher. ("Pastor Tunde Bakare. Google him. He's an enigma. Some say he's controversial.")
Now in his early 50s, Ogunjiofor had graduated from the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Television College in Jos in 1987. He left college with a record of good grades and a letter of recommendation to the national broadcaster, the NTA, but the late 1980s was not a time of abundance in Nigeria, especially not for an aspiring television producer. Equipment was scarce, and funding for the television stations had withered to almost nothing. When Ogunjiofor showed up at the NTA with his letter, he was told there was an embargo on hiring, but a director took pity and helped him get a job as a video producer for a Nigerian wrestler named Power Mike. Power Mike (his real name was Michael Okpala) was a retired heavyweight champion with a touring wrestling show similar to the WWE. When Power Mike decided to retire, return to his village, and open a gym, Ogunjiofor stayed in Lagos. From 1988 to 1992, he worked as a street hawker, selling women's beauty products.
But he had an idea. He was an Igbo, he said, an ethnic group he described as "the entrepreneurs of the country, the entrepreneurs of the world, the risk-takers." (During the Biafran War, when an attempted secession by the Igbo-dominated eastern half of the country resulted in 1 million deaths in the late 1960s, the Nigerian government maligned the Igbo as a socially privileged group. Their characterization as a high-achieving minority, along with their persecution on ethnic grounds, led to at least one Biafra-era news article stereotyping them as "the Jews of West Africa.") Ogunjiofor had noticed that many Igbos owned VCRs, on which they watched cassettes of pirated foreign films. One day it occurred to him that he could use the electronic news-gathering cameras with which he had been trained in television school to tell a fictional story in Igbo that would appeal more directly to the VCR owners of Nigeria. But he didn't have the camera or the money to make the movie. Then a friend at the National Theater referred Ogunjiofor to a man who imported videocassettes from abroad and sold them with pirated foreign movies on them. His name was Kenneth Nnebue.
Nnebue is generally credited as being the father of Nollywood movies. He began shooting Yoruba-language theater productions onto video in the late 1980s. Nnebue's name is in the credits for Living in Bondage, but Ogunjiofor claims the idea for the story was originally his. The director was Chris Obi-Rapu, who did not want to jeopardize his job at the NTA with a side project, and therefore is credited as Vic Mordi (Mordi was his wife's maiden name).
Ogunjiofor, Obi-Rapu, and Nnebue have each been called the creative mind behind Living in Bondage, but the truth seems to be that it was a collaborative effort. I called Nnebue several times to hear his take, but he told me he no longer discusses Nollywood, a chapter of the past that he renounced after finding Jesus. He hasn't left the business completely. When I looked at it, the Facebook page of Brother Kenneth Nnebue Film Evangelism invited viewers to share the "GOOD NEWS!": "unlimited films that will not only touch your soul but will soak you in the living water of the spirit of God where you will hunger and thirst no more, where your never ending questions will be answered, and spiritual mysteries will be revealed unto you." In 2015, Nnebue sold the rights to Living in Bondage for an English-language remake starring the megastar Ramsey Nouah.
The story of a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult in exchange for a lifetime of riches was inspired, said Ogunjiofor, by the kinds of rumors that circulated at the time, as well as his own encounters with a fraternal organization called the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity.
"In the village, before we came to town, we had always heard the story of people who became rich because they joined this occult group, and they used someone within their family to make the rituals so that they become rich," he said.
Living in Bondage was a huge success. Numbers are difficult to come by in Nollywood, but when I went to Alaba Market, it was still available on the shelves of a stall, 23 years after its original release. Ogunjiofor is still sometimes referred to in the news as "Paulo," the name of the cultist businessman he played in the movie. More important, it inspired an industry.
In the decades in which Nigerians could no longer go to the movies in the cinema, pirated home videos of foreign films from Hollywood, Bollywood, and Hong Kong had filled the entertainment vacuum. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Nigerians watched these pirated VHS tapes, but they also watched the output of the NTA. Even after the network lost its government funding after structural economic adjustment, corporate brands continued to sponsor the production of popular soap operas. By the 1990s, these experienced Nigerian television producers had work, a broadcast outlet, and huge audiences, but not a stable living—they had to cobble together the funding to buy their own airtime and earned no profit commensurate to the sizes of their audiences. When the success of Living in Bondage indicated to the television producers that they could directly profit from their audience via sales of videotapes, they teamed up with marketers and began producing movies independently instead of for television.
Living in Bondage had more in common with popular television soap operas like Ripples or Checkmate, but the VHS format allowed producers to profit directly from their viewers. The veteran actors and producers of the diminished NTA saw their own possibilities and made their own movies, now included in the classic Nollywood pantheon. Initially these movies tried to imitate the ingredients of Living in Bondage's success, which means they were in Igbo, but it soon became clear that movies in English, Yoruba, and Hausa could do well too (and were often subtitled in another language to reach even wider audiences). Despite their shoddy production values, the movies soon competed easily against the foreign movies also being sold on VHS.
"This storytelling quality of Africans is huge," explained Ogunjiofor. "Everything is storytelling. We are all storytellers. And the stories are amazing."
He compared a Nigerian movie to a Hollywood blockbuster, "which starts with destruction and ends with destruction. It's nothing. Voom, voom, voom—effects! Rah, rah, rah, bring things down and bring them up again. Blah, blah, blah, aliens are fighting and eating rubbish. What do you learn from it? Just that it was able to hold you and you're watching like this? And then you say, 'What happened?' Nothing. Here you get a moral, something touches your soul, something touches your spirit, it's like preaching a message," he said. "We celebrate those things: family values, communal living, and then our lifestyles, our hairdos, and all these things. We are really into them and want to see them."
After Living in Bondage, Ogunjiofor made other movies, some of them huge hits: Ashes of Hatred, Nneka the Pretty Serpent, Brotherhood of Darkness, When Flowers Turn Black. But Nollywood changed. In the mid 1990s, it was ruled, said Ogunjiofor, by the experienced NTA producers, who had some commitment to quality. "Before they made a film, they made sure that the film had the technical values that a story must have in order to entertain the audience and bring in money to the investors," he said.
"We're going to churn out movies in Nigeria, by Nigerians, but for the world. And then Nigerian films, called Nollywood, will take the stage globally," Okey Ogunjiofor said.
This promising phase only lasted until 1998. The marketers, who copied and distributed the VHS tapes to the streets, decided to try to cut out the middlemen and make movies themselves, or to hire the cheapest purveyor. The quality of the movies declined.
"Too many films were coming out every week," said Ogunjiofor. The content was mediocre; the production values were bad. "It was now the moment where they began to say that the Nigerian products were damaged."
The rise of Nollywood-dedicated cable channels and the return of cinema-going culture to Nigeria in the mid 2000s offered new financial incentives for quality. The government's Bank of Industry set up a fund dedicated to filmmaking. "It was at that moment that people began to talk about the New Nollywood and the Old Nollywood," said Ogunjiofor, "which is as a concept nonsense." Ogunjiofor saw the whole industry being uplifted.
"We're going to churn out movies in Nigeria, by Nigerians, but for the world. And then Nigerian films, called Nollywood, will take the stage globally," he said. "Look where we have gone, with the trash we are producing! When big money comes here, the type of talent, the type of environment that we have, the beautiful sceneries everywhere, the topography, the creative ingenuity, and the pleasure we take to do so much with little is here." He laughed. "So," he said, "that is why you are here."
When Ogunjiofor went to examine the historic record for the biography of Queen Amina of Zazzau, he found her reputation to be corrupted. Ogunjiofor wanted to make a movie about female empowerment and dedicate it to the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram from the northern Nigerian village of Chibok in 2014. He wanted to install Queen Amina in the pantheon of mythic female Africans, allow her to assume her rightful place alongside the Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia, Cleopatra and Nefertiti of Egypt, and Queen Nzinga of Angola. He also wanted to make a movie that broke down the division between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and its Christian south. The cultural division is reflected in Nollywood too, with movies made in its Hausa-language northern epicenter, Kano, rarely finding audiences in the south and east of the country, and vice versa.
Amina inherited the throne in 16th-century Nigeria from her father. "If you read her history on the internet, she's painted as a wicked woman who doesn't like men, who sleeps with them and kills them in the morning because she doesn't want anyone to see her nakedness," said Ogunjiofor. When I looked it up, I discovered this was true. One website described her as taking "a temporary husband from the legions of vanquished foes after every battle." Ogunjiofor offered a revisionist history of Amina's romantic problems: She had simply been surrounded by plotting usurpers who planted rivals as her suitors. "So no matter how ferociously Amina fell in love with them, she falls out of love the moment she understands they are traitors," explained Ogunjiofor. "And then like the absolute ruler she was, those men were executed."
Amina, he told me, was the progenitor of the principles of democracy under which the people of Zaria live today. She opened up the trade routes. She provided for widows and orphans. She was a military strategist. She knew how to use "bows and arrows, javelins, spears, cutlasses, and machetes." He said she "devised the idea of using poisonous herbs with snake venoms" and rubbing them on the tips of her weapons so she didn't have to kill her enemies; they would die slow, agonizing deaths after the merest scratch. "So the legend spread: Once you go to war, anybody who will encounter her will die." She ruled for 34 years.
Ogunjiofor started researching his movie on Queen Amina 20 years ago, after the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. "Amina represents all the women in the world who are downtrodden and whose rights have been maligned," he said. After the kidnappings in Chibok, he saw a parallel: that "the same fate that the custodians of tradition of 500 years ago meted out to Amina are what the Chibok girls are suffering now in the name of education." He saw Amina's story not as a northern Nigerian story but a global one. He decided to shoot the movie with high sound and picture quality, and to do so in Jos, the gateway city to northern Nigeria, with a cast of stars from Kannywood, as Nollywood's Hausa-language industry, based in Kano, is called.
The director of Queen Amina, Izu Ojukwu, is considered one of the most promising of the contemporary Nollywood filmmakers. He grew up here in Jos, which maintained a movie theater into the mid 80s. Ojukwu would hang out there, cleaning the hall in exchange for admission and watching the Chinese and Indian films that were the cinema's repertoire. He learned how to load a projector and eventually built one himself. He would screen discarded 16mm Bollywood prints in his father's garage for the neighborhood kids with no sound.
He shot his first movie in 1992, a religious movie called Ichabod: The Glory Has Departed from Israel commissioned by the Catholic Biblical Movement. By the time Ogunjiofor called Ojukwu to see if he was interested in making Queen Amina he had made more than 16 movies. His most recent, '76, a drama set amid the turmoil that followed the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed, was a labor of love, shot on 16mm film, which meant that it took him five years to make. Ojukwu had planned to take a break after wrapping '76, but he received a text from Ogunjiofor about Amina, took three days off, and began the work.
He told me he joined with Ogunjiofor: "Being a pioneer in the movie industry I just said to myself whatever this man wants I'm going to be involved with it because it's somebody I respect so much."
Many of the crew belonged to what might be called the freshman class of Nollywood. I met Millicent Jack, whom Ogunjiofor described as "the first costume designer in the country." A former student of theater arts, she found her way into the industry in 1993. She has since done costumes for more than 100 Nollywood movies. On a tablet computer, she showed me archival images she had used in researching the 15th-century Hausa costumes in Queen Amina—the babariga worn by the emirs, the ya-chiki (shirt), the wondo (trousers), and the alkeba, a cloak. Crossed ropes held the tunics of the warriors in place. Her hotel room was also the wardrobe, and she slept surrounded by costumes on hangers, piles of jewelry, rows of shoes, fake fur pelts, and garments of suede. "It gladdens my heart to dress people," she said.
In the adjacent room was the workshop of Sele O. Sele, the prop master, a tall man with long dreadlocks. He also found his way to the industry in the mid 1990s and had worked on major Nollywood productions like Invasion 1897 about the invasion of the kingdom of Benin and a movie called Up Creek Without a Paddle about the struggle over oil in the Niger Delta. His room was filled with shields meant to look like they had been made from animal skins and bows and arrows. He showed me a set of manacles and chains he had sent to be made, to be worn by Amina's captured prisoners. Amina, he said, "was obsessed with gold." On this production, he had three assistants. He had a bandage on his toe, and I noticed an envelope of x-rays stuck between his bed frame and the wall. Later, as he trimmed the wicks of some homemade torches for an evening shoot, we chatted outside. It turned out he had been driving at night with the car full of props and been waylaid by robbers. He had floored the accelerator, he said, and the bandits had shot him in the foot.
The head of the hair and makeup department went by a single name: Gabazzini. He told he me had done makeup for "well over 300 to 500 movies."
I couldn't meet the set designer, who had had to leave production to attend his father's funeral, but Ogunjiofor took me to see the mud palace they had built a few blocks from the Hill Station Hotel. We went on foot, trekking the three blocks to the set.
"This is where Amina and her father reigned supreme over 13 emirates," said Ogunjiofor, when we arrived at the impressive terra-cotta palace. "It's not home video," he said of the movie. "We want to be sure that this is different."
The palace was built of mud on the site of a ruin and took six months to construct. During the rainy season, it had collapsed twice, but now it had stopped raining for the winter, and the walls were holding firm. He showed me the gladiatorial arena, the stocks where slaves were held, the throne from which Queen Amina ruled. The movie, he said proudly, had a cast and crew of 450 people. "It's not been done before." He told me of fight scenes with more than 200 people, some on horseback. They had hired choreographers and sword fighters, who trained the actors for two months in the hotel. They had trailers of horses and handlers. They had drones to record epic battle scenes from above "with anything any film crew can have."
"It's a hit movie," said Ogunjiofor. "We don't intend to spare costs. We don't intend to spare quality." The color grading will be done in England. "We need to prove a point," he said. "We will stand toe to toe with any movie that's been done in Africa."
On December 1, the weather changed. The temperature dropped to the low 70s. A dry wind began to blow, and the air was filled with a dust that reddened the eyes and parched the throat. This was the harmattan, the seasonal trade wind that blows from the Sahara over West Africa in the winter months, disrupting air travel and halving the time it takes to dry a freshly laundered T-shirt on a clothesline.
The drop in temperature coincided with an all-night shoot for the cast and crew of Queen Amina. They gathered in the parking lot of the Hill Station Hotel in the late afternoon to await transportation to the set, prepared for a plunge in temperature into the low 60s, maybe even 50s, in an extraordinary array of rarely used cold-weather clothing: a varsity jacket, a hunting fleece patterned with deer, an Inspector Gadget–style khaki trench coat.
We arrived at the cow pasture around 5 PM. Bonfires were lit against the cold night. They prepared for a scene in which a group of assassins dressed like ninjas steal into a hut and murder Amina's lover, then a scene where Amina discovers the killing: "You first let out a scream," Ojukwu told Amina. "Then a wail."
A crowd of women and children from a nearby neighborhood gathered under a tree to watch, bundled in blankets. As the crew set up the first shot, a party-like atmosphere emerged, with production members roasting corn around their campfire and singing songs. A line producer played Candy Crush on her phone. The warrior princess with the Mohawk stood to one side and practiced her lines. The shoot was delayed by problems with the sound—the truck with the generator had to park too close to the set because the production didn't have the cables to run the lights—and the lighting—and bulbs kept shattering because of power surges from a frayed cord. It was 10 PM before they shot a scene of Amina in sword combat with a band of invaders dressed like the ninjas in Mortal Kombat—red turbans that revealed only their eyes and blue pajamas.
Nollywood moviemakers were used to setbacks, so the shoot would continue. A few weeks later, Queen Amina was in the can and expected to be released by late 2017. I returned to Lagos the following afternoon. The harmattan had reached here, too. The humidity had broken, and a brown haze hung in the sky.
Excerpted from Emily Witt's upcoming book, Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire , out next month from Columbia Global Reports.