Be bold, keep it real, make it quick: a lesson from Nollywood

In 2014, Brand South Africa’s Petrus de Kock sat down with Nigerian filmmaker Alex Eyengho to discuss Nollywood. Being the second largest film industry in the world, averaging 1 500 productions a year, and being third most valuable, generating over R130-billion, Nollywood presents South Africa with important lessons for success.

Alex-Eyengho Alex Eyengho is one of Nigeria’s most prominent filmmakers. Just two years ago he was elected vice president of International Federation of Film Producers Associations. (Images: Warri Mirror)

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Petrus de Kock

Until yesterday Nollywood was for me, like most people, the collective name of a unique Nigerian cinematic style. Today, however, as I write this, Nollywood has become a real experience, thanks to the warm words of wisdom a true Nollywood star shared with me.

I am in Nigeria to conduct research on the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria. But, as with any field research, one sometimes stumbles on a story that has to be told quickly, due to the special message it brings across.

In order to learn more about Nigeria’s booming creative industries (which in the country’s recently rebased GDP, accounts for about 1.3% of national production) I make my way through Lagos’ thronging Friday afternoon traffic to meet with Alex Eyengho, President of the Nollywood Association of Core Producers.

What was supposed to be an hour long interview turned into a whole afternoon’s conversation that meandered through many creative, cinematic, historical and contemporary Nigerian and African mindscapes.

Since its birth in the early 1990s, Nollywood has grown to become a multi-million dollar industry. Its success on the global stage is well recognised. Alex points out that today Nollywood producers, directors, and actors have become Nigeria’s true Brand Ambassadors.

I ask Alex to tell me what is the secret of the Nollywood film’s success? To this he smiles, stretches his arms wide as if to embrace the arrival of a very big idea, and says, ‘…it’s simple. We reflect, and mirror the Nigerian social and cultural reality.’

The art of telling Nigerian stories, it turns out, does not rely on multi-million dollar budgets and special effects. The Nollywood director’s camera captures and tells stories that people can identify with. The gritty organic reality of life is thus brought to the screen as products not of grandiose imagination, epic science fiction, or shoot-em-up action sequences a la Hollywood.

But, before I digress too much into the art of telling stories in Nollywood, let’s first ask, who is this man – Alex Eyengho?

Among his many accomplishments he is the first African to be elected as Vice President of the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. This is an accomplishment all Africans can be proud of.

Until yesterday Nollywood was for me, like most people, the collective name of a unique Nigerian cinematic style. Today, however, as I write this, Nollywood has become a real experience, thanks to the warm words of wisdom a true Nollywood star shared with me.

I am in Nigeria to conduct research on the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria. But, as with any field research, one sometimes stumbles on a story that has to be told quickly, due to the special message it brings across.

In order to learn more about Nigeria’s booming creative industries (which in the country’s recently rebased GDP, accounts for about 1.3% of national production) I make my way through Lagos’ thronging Friday afternoon traffic to meet with Alex Eyengho, President of the Nollywood Association of Core Producers.

What was supposed to be an hour long interview turned into a whole afternoon’s conversation that meandered through many creative, cinematic, historical and contemporary Nigerian and African mindscapes.

Since its birth in the early 1990s, Nollywood has grown to become a multi-million dollar industry. Its success on the global stage is well recognised. Alex points out that today Nollywood producers, directors, and actors have become Nigeria’s true Brand Ambassadors.

I ask Alex to tell me what is the secret of the Nollywood film’s success? To this he smiles, stretches his arms wide as if to embrace the arrival of a very big idea, and says, “It’s simple. We reflect, and mirror the Nigerian social and cultural reality.”

The art of telling Nigerian stories, it turns out, does not rely on multi-million dollar budgets and special effects. The Nollywood director’s camera captures and tells stories that people can identify with. The gritty organic reality of life is thus brought to the screen as products not of grandiose imagination, epic science fiction, or shoot-em-up action sequences a la Hollywood.

But, before I digress too much into the art of telling stories in Nollywood, let’s first ask, who is this man – Alex Eyengho?

Among his many accomplishments he is the first African to be elected as Vice President of the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. This is an accomplishment all Africans can be proud of.

It seems as if the art of speed in Nollywood production is a key to success, also meaning that the lesson is that one can achieve the seemingly impossible with minimal resources, and maximum commitment to one’s art. A lesson South Africans can surely take to heart.

However, Alex admits that the next level challenge for Nollywood producers and directors is to work on the quality of the products. Post-production facilities and expertise, but more importantly, the protection of copyright and distribution of Nollywood films are being addressed as a matter of urgency. On the 11th of September this year a new distribution system will be unveiled to protect the industry from ever-present pirates on the high seas of the film industry.

To this end he indicates that collaboration between South African film producers and Nigerian counterparts can help to boost quality. As he says this I think that while South Africa may be able to assist on that front, the one thing we can learn from Nollywood is not to obsess about Hollywood style slick (which takes mountains of money and years of production in some cases), but to get down and dirty to find a way of telling stories that are rooted in our own unique socio-cultural reality.

As the afternoon wears on and our conversation meanders between South Africa and Nigeria’s struggles for liberation, it becomes apparent that there are more unique features of Nollywood that may not be apparent.

Once again opening his arms wide in anticipation of the arrival of a big idea Alex argues that ‘We tell stories in their raw form’. This means that there is no need for embellishment, bling, bang and pretension.

We discuss his first film at length. This film is based on the script he wrote as a student and came to the screen under the title No Obligation. In it Alex tells a partly true life story rooted in the Yoruba cultural belief in reincarnation. No Obligation tells a story that reflects on the belief that if a person’s life is cut short unexpectedly through accident or by way of evil machinations, that person reincarnates somewhere else in exactly the same bodily form to live out his or her destiny.

This means not only that the Yoruba believe in reincarnation, but that a person has a destiny to fulfil. If for whatever reason you cannot complete that journey and reach destiny’s fulfilment, you will reincarnate to complete that journey. There is a catch, however. If the person who reincarnates elsewhere is recognised by someone from the family or community where they first came to life, they will disappear once again.

As Alex tells me this story the realisation drifts in. Like the stories of the celebrated Mozambican author Mia Cuoto (for example, Under the frangipani), and Nigeria’s Ben Okri (in The famished road), or countless other African authors, the real life stories of Africa often reflect on overlapping realities where the realm of the invisible, the machinations of the gods and forefathers, or the evil devices of witches and wizards, impact directly on this hard lived reality.

The art of telling the Nollywood story cannot necessarily be whittled down to a formula. But, key ingredients seem to be boldness (to have a dream to tell a story in film by whatever little means at your disposal), and to keep it real so that the story does not portray a reality alien to the one people live and persist in from day to day.

Like old friends finding it difficult to wind down our conversation we part ways at the day’s pending end. As I head back towards Ikeja, leaving the grit and bustle of the Suru-lere neighbourhood behind, I think of the Brand SA vision which is to “Tell the South African story”.

I realise that the lesson I am taking home with me today is that if we want to tell the South African and African story, we have to take a lesson from Nigeria which is to be bold, to keep it real, and not to procrastinate, hence to make it quick.

I believe this is not the last conversation to be had with Alex, and definitely only the beginning of the story of an African icon in the making. And I furthermore take another lesson home with me: if we want to truly emancipate our people, and rise to the task of creating a new continental reality, we have to own, tell, produce, distribute, and enjoy our own stories. We cannot leave it to chance, or to others, to tell our stories – it is up to us.

Petrus de Kock is Brand South Africa’s general manager of research. To view more of his research, check out the research and reports.