A Scorsese in Lagos
Kunle Afolayan wants to scare you, he wants thrill you, he wants to make you laugh, but most of all, he would like you to suspend your disbelief — in his plots, yes, which tend to be over the top, but also about what is possible in Africa. He bristles if you call him an “African filmmaker” — a phrase redolent of art-house cinema, which his work assuredly is not. He wants to make huge, explosive, American-style blockbusters, and he wants to make them where he lives — in Nigeria. His ambitions may sound implausible. Nigeria lacks even a reliable supply of electricity. But it does contain a chaotic creative energy that has made it the world’s most prolific producer of films.
Twenty years after bursting from the grungy street markets of Lagos, the $500 million Nigerian movie business churns out more than a thousand titles a year on average, and trails only Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of revenues. The films are hastily shot and then burned onto video CDs, a cheap alternative to DVDs. They are seldom seen in the developed world, but all over Africa consumers snap up the latest releases from video peddlers for a dollar or two. And so while Afolayan’s name is unknown outside Africa, at home, the actor-director is one of the most famous faces in the exploding entertainment scene known — inevitably — as “Nollywood.”
On a continent where economies usually depend on extracting natural resources or on charity, moviemaking is now one of Nigeria’s largest sources of private-sector employment. Walls around Lagos are plastered with posters reading, “Actors/Actresses Wanted.” Nollywood stars are everywhere, from billboards to glossy tabloids filled with pictures of red-carpet events. The African Movie Academy Awards, held each year in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, have become a lavish spectacle, drawing visitors like Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has recruited Nollywood stars to campaign with him, while Afolayan and others have lent prominent support to a protest movement called “Occupy Nigeria.”
And yet most of the movies themselves are awful, marred by slapdash production, melodramatic acting and ludicrous plots. Afolayan, who is 37, is one of a group of upstart directors trying to transcend those rote formulas and low expectations. His breakthrough film, the 2009 thriller “The Figurine,” was an aesthetic leap: while no viewer would confuse it with “Citizen Kane,” to Nigerians it announced the arrival of a swaggering talent keen to upset an immature industry. Unlike most Nollywood fare, “The Figurine” was released in actual theaters, not on cheap discs, playing to packed houses next to Hollywood features. “Many observers,” Jonathan Haynes, a scholar of Nollywood, recently wrote, “have been waiting a long time for this kind of filmmaking, which can take its place in the international arena proudly and on equal terms.”
In contrast to Nollywood’s chiseled leading men, Afolayan is stout, speaks with a laid-back drawl and has a noticeable scar on one side of his face from a car accident. But he has undeniable charisma — a quality his admirers say he inherited from his father, an actor and legendary playboy. One sticky August night, I accompanied Afolayan on a prowl through Lagos, weaving through the metropolis in his monstrous pickup truck. We ended up at an open-air nightclub called King Sized, where heads turned as he made his entrance with a boisterous entourage. In West Africa, a famous presence demands recognition, so the resident highlife band swiftly shifted into an impromptu praise song. “Kunle Afolayan,” the vocalist began to trill, “Kunle Afolayan is here!”
As the singer celebrated his name, Afolayan nonchalantly sipped from a sweaty beer bottle. This was a scripted ritual; the entertainment didn’t come free. The chorus reached a crescendo as Afolayan, dressed in faded jeans and bursting from a sheer white shirt, came forward with a huge stack of Nigerian banknotes. He began to dance, shaking his hips and moving his feet, casting off bills with fluid flicks of his wrist — a tribute Nigerians call “spraying.” A band member crawled around, scooping up cash, while Afolayan delighted in the adulation.
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