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Nigeria ready to tell stories

Nollywood has bigscreen ambitions

While Hollywood’s interest in Africa continues unabated, African helmers are making a concerted effort to get their own stories out to the world. Chief among these are Nigerian helmers keen to break away from the straight-to-video model of local filmmaking.

Nigerian helmer Jeta Amata’s “The Amazing Grace” — about how British slave trader John Newton’s voyage to Nigeria in 1748 led to him writing the famous hymn — has become the country’s biggest-ever hit since its release last October.

The Nigerian film industry, dubbed Nollywood, produces up to 1,200 pics a year, although these tend to be ultra-low budget exploitation pics. Amata’s film, boasting an unheard-of $400,000 budget, is the first Nollywood feature to be released theatrically in the country since 1979. With admissions of some 25,000 people, the pic earned nearly double the gross of previous box office champ “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

Then again, with only four cinemas serving a population of 140 million people — a legacy of the devastation wrought on Nigeria’s film industry during the brutal reign of military dictator Sani Abacha during the 1990s when many Nigerians feared venturing from the safety of their homes — the largest market in the country for films remains DVD sales. Amata’s film has moved close to a million units in Nigeria alone, easily recouping for investors, all of whom were private backers, including Donald Duke, the governor of Nigeria’s Cross River State.

Amata has sold North America rights for film to U.S. distrib Rock City.

Ambitious multihyphenate, who has already helmed 40 features at the age of 32, has also inked a deal with South African-based distrib New Metro for the widest pan-African theatrical release ever for a Nigerian film.

Pic has been released in South Africa and Kenya with a further 10 prints, and is being dubbed in French for Francophone auds, and set to make its way around Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

“The film industry here is not used to writing applications to a film fund or asking the government for money,” Amata says. “We’re used to asking our next-door neighbor if they want to invest. But we’re definitely growing, and we need more international co-productions. If we reduced the number of the films we make from 1,000 to 100, we could make bigger-budget and better-quality films.”

Recent years have seen the establishment of a Nigerian film commission and a film school, as well as the announcement by the Nigerian government that it intends to launch a $40 million film fund. The Tinapa film studio, reputed to have cost $28 million and built by the Nigerian government in partnership with U.S.-based shingle and distrib Dream Entertainment, opened its doors in April.

Amata hopes the studio can become a one-stop shop for Nigerian and international helmers hoping to lens in the country. “Before, I had to go to the U.K. for my cameras and to do my post-production,” Amata says. “It’s so wonderful to think I can get everything I need in my own country. The studio is a huge complex with two sound stages.”

Not that Nigerian helmers only want to tell Nigerian stories. In March this year, Nigerian helmer Newton Aduaka picked up the top prize at Burkina Faso’s Fespaco film fest, the largest in Africa, for “Ezra,” a Sierra Leone-set feature, which received its U.S. preem at Sundance and screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. French sales agent Wide Management is handling foreign sales for the $2.1 million pic.

Aduaka’s pic has even been dubbed Africa’s “Blood Diamond” by some because it also deals with the plight of child soldiers during the civil war there.

In fact, both Aduaka and Amata have covered ground touched on in Western productions. Amata’s film stands in contrast to Brit helmer Michael Apted’s similarly titled “Amazing Grace,” about the abolition of slavery in the British empire, which also featured the real-life figure of John Newton.

While Apted’s film has drawn criticism in some quarters for its lack of African characters, it isn’t stopping Western helmers from shooting African-themed or -based stories. Anthony Minghella is in Botswana for “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” while producer Andrea Calderwood is busy prepping HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” set to shoot in Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa.

As for why Africa continues to fascinate, the answer is obvious to Calderwood, who also produced “The Last King of Scotland,” which lensed in Uganda. “I like to take on big stories, and there are a lot of big stories happening in Africa right now,” Calderwood says. “Plus, it’s got a really good filming infrastructure.”

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