Ema Edosio would be the first to admit she didn’t know what she was getting into when she decided to make her first feature film. “I had no idea how I was going to raise the money. I had no idea what the distribution strategy was going to be,” she said. “I just wanted to make this film to express myself…[and] show a different side of Nigeria.”
“Kasala!” is a low-budget comedy set in the working-class suburbs of Lagos, about four young friends who scramble for money after wrecking a car that belongs to one of their uncles. After world premiering at the NollywoodWeek film festival in Paris, it’s traveled to more than 22 fests around the world.
But Edosio has found the local box office to be a tougher nut to crack. “Cinema in Nigeria, especially for independent filmmakers, is a very tricky business,” she said.
In an industry built on guerilla-style shoots and a freewheeling approach to distribution, Nigerian filmmakers have traditionally been masterminds at bringing their fast-and-furious approach to local audiences. Nollywood hits can often make it from digital camera to DVD to Nigerian living rooms in a matter of weeks.
But with a growing theatrical sector that’s expected to break box-office records this year, more and more filmmakers are pushing to bring their movies to the big screen. And while that trend has helped boost the quality of Nigeria’s notoriously ragtag industry, creating a wave of slick romances and comedies featuring A-list, ensemble casts, it’s made it difficult for aspiring filmmakers trying to go against the grain.
Edosio had to fight to get distributors to pay attention to “Kasala!”, urging them, “Look, this film has a market. This kind of film is profitable,” she said. But few exhibitors seemed willing to take risks when there’s a formula for B.O. success in Nigeria with a proven track record—the same formula for popcorn fare that’s struck gold across the globe.
Critics are asking if it’s time for Nollywood to move in a new direction. “Everybody is shooting on Red, the images are well-exposed, it looks clean, but what are the films saying?” asked Newton Aduaka, a Lagos-born, Paris-based filmmaker serving as artistic director of this year’s Africa Intl. Film Festival (AFRIFF). With their flashy cars, gilded homes, and Hollywood endings, Nigeria’s top-grossing films are typically “set in a milieu lived by the 1%,” said Aduaka, adding that they’re “not representative” of the country today.
Adekunle Adejuyigbe wanted his latest feature, “The Delivery Boy,” to reflect a different reality. “I was sick of the kind of films that were playing,” he said. The film tells the story of two young Nigerians – an orphan raised in an Islamic extremist group and a sex worker on the run – whose lives become intertwined one night in Lagos. After also premiering in Paris, “The Delivery Boy” has struggled to find distribution in Nigeria.
Adejuyigbe recognizes that even in Hollywood, exhibitors are focused on the bottom line. But just as caped crusaders replaced romcoms at the top of the U.S. box office, Nigerian tastes at the cinema will eventually shift. Adejuyigbe thinks exhibitors need to do more to embrace that change—and even spur it along. “They need to be bolder,” he said. “And they need to trust the Nigerian audience more than they do at the moment.”
Edosio eventually landed a December theatrical release date for “Kasala!” that pits it against bigger-budget holiday releases. While savoring the victory, the director knows the battle is far from over. “The bulk of the work is on me to be able to push it out there, to let people know that ‘Kasala!’ exists,” she said. “Because if I don’t, then the film will die.”