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As Netflix and AT&T Take On Nigerian Cinema, the Country’s Film Industry Is Searching to Define Itself

Nigerian cinema continues to evolve beyond expectations of a stigmatized Nollywood, as filmmakers challenge the dominant narrative.

Cninaza Uche in "Nigerian Prince"

Chinaza Uche in “Nigerian Prince”

Vertical Ent.

When Netflix acquired “Lionheart” following its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere, the acquisition marked a new arena for the global streaming platform — Nigeria. The directorial debut of Nigerian superstar actress Genevieve Nnaji, “Lionheart” drew a new level of international attention to Nigerian cinema. However, as Nigerian movies get more notice outside the country, it’s also raising the issue of exactly what a Nigerian film is supposed to be.

“It’s a complicated question,” said 31-year-old Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro. He’s the writer and director of “Nigerian Prince,” the first film to win the AT&T/Tribeca “Untold Stories” initiative, a multi-tier alliance between AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute that supports underrepresented filmmakers and awarded $1 million in funding for the winning script. Born and raised in the US, Okoro is a graduate of both Howard University and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he received his MFA. Most of his cast and crew are Nigerian. However, a $1 million movie doesn’t have many peers in Nigeria, where the average budget hovers below $100,000.

In terms of annual output, Nigeria is the world’s third-largest film industry, behind Hollywood and Bollywood. “Nollywood,” as the Nigerian film industry has long been called, which emerged in the 1990s as a home video industry — with films available solely on VHS, and then DVD — has become a stigmatized term. The films have less in common with traditional cinema and more with Latin American telenovelas, although they tend to be of even lower production quality. And there’s an ongoing effort by a cadre of Nigerian filmmakers with international aspirations to distance themselves from Nollywood cinema in favor of films with improved narrative complexity, aesthetic nuance, significantly higher budgets, and advanced production values. In short, Nollywood is not the sum total of Nigerian cinema.

The picture becomes even more complicated when consideration is given to films made by Nigerian filmmakers living in and trained in the West, funded by typically American or European companies, while still telling stories about Nigerians, whether set in the West or in Nigeria. There’s ongoing debate among Nigerian filmmakers, critics and audiences about whether a distinction should be made between those films, and films made by Nigerian filmmakers in Nigeria, funded by Nigerians (or Africans). At stake is what the international face of Nigerian cinema should be.

“I will say that it’s definitely a Nigerian story,” said “Nigerian Prince” producer Oscar Hernandez. “It’s told from the POV of a Nigerian, so I would say that makes it authentically Nigerian.”

Biyi Bandele’s $8 million adaptation of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, remains the most expensive film made in Nigeria. Bandele is Nigerian, as was much of his cast, and it’s a Nigerian story, set during the country’s 1960s civil war. It received a US theatrical release in 2013, the last Nigerian film to do so. Along with Spike Lee and Sam Pollard, Bandele is an executive producer on Okoro’s film, which opens in 10 theaters nationwide October 19, including AMC Empire 25 in NYC and Laemmle Monica Film Center in LA.

Co-written with Okoro’s fellow Howard University alum Andrew Long, “Nigerian Prince” takes its inspiration from the infamous Nigerian letter scam that typically targets Westerners. You’ve probably seen one: The sender claims to be a government official or member of a royal family and requests urgent assistance in transferring millions of dollars of money out of Nigeria, promising to pay you a hefty percentage. Set in Lagos, the country’s largest and most economically prosperous city, the film follows a stubborn first-generation Nigerian-American teen named Eze (Antonio J. Bell) sent to Nigeria by his mother for an unexpectedly extended stay so that he can connect with his roots. Facing a culture shock, Eze rebels, and teams up with his cousin, Pius (Chinaza Uche), a desperate and heavily indebted scammer, to swindle unsuspecting foreigners in order to earn money for a return ticket back to the US.

Okoro originally planned to shoot the film for less than a quarter of the film’s eventual $1 million budget. While he and his crew certainly appreciated the additional funds, they discovered it still wasn’t enough to cover the elaborate ideas they had for the production. “The money goes very quickly,” Okoro said. “People tend to think that it all went directly into the actual shooting of the film. They don’t think about things like travel expenses, which can get very expensive when you’re having to fly people back-and-forth across continents, and house them as well.”

The budget also didn’t ameliorate the issues that come with shooting a film in a country without the proper infrastructure, and in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Among the challenges were a notoriously unreliable electrical grid (power outages are routine), nightmarishly heavy traffic that would put LA’s infamous 405 freeway congestion to shame, rampant bribery, and filming during the rainy season. Hardships like these forced them to return to the more indie-minded strategy they would have employed with a $200,000 budget.

Okoro credits the efforts of local crew, notably line producer/producer Bose Oshin, for keeping the production on track. “With the help of our Nigerian crew, we were able to overcome these challenges,” he said. “Also, given the size of the production, we attracted many onlookers who were wondering what we were doing. Some of them disrupted us, others helped us. This is an example of the kind of thing that our local team was able to navigate for us without further aggravating any situation.”

Uche, a Scotland-born Nigerian, said they also benefited from a population not yet jaded by filmmaking. “People there were so genuinely excited about the film shooting around them, unlike a place like New York, where people generally don’t care about these things. And because of that excitement and interest, we were just finding extras left and right who were happy to be in a scene, even if it was just as people walking in the background.”

As the country’s industry infrastructure continues to improve, Okoro and his team plan to make more films in Nigeria (and elsewhere), across all genres, and with Nigerian cast and crew that will continue to gain valuable work experience from larger scale “foreign” productions like “Prince.” This decision by Okoro will ensure that the filmmaker and the work he produces contribute to the ongoing discussion around how a still evolving Nigerian cinema should be defined.

“Nigerian Prince” opens October 19 in a limited theatrical release and On Demand starting on October 19, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

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