A drop-dead beautiful Ghanaian actress is yelling at the director. Her voice — with that slightly British Ghanaian accent — echoes across the polished marble floors and bounces off the baby grand inside a Montgomery County mansion that has been turned into a movie set.
Cameras have stopped rolling. Actors lean against the bay windows overlooking the swimming pool.
“I’m human!” shouts the movie star, Yvonne Nelson. “I can complain if I want to complain. I am not a robot.”
“No one can tell me what to do on my set!” warns the director, John Uche, a Nigerian who lives in Upper Marlboro. “I’ve directed bigger actors than you.”The actress spins and storms up a circular staircase, retreating to her bedroom lair and halting production.
This could be a disaster for this “Nollywood” movie. Filming has to be completed in three weeks.If the star quits, thousands of dollars are down the tube. The other actors — some of the biggest names in Africahave flown in from Nigeria and Ghana — will have wasted a trip. And the producer, Koby Maxwell, an award-winning Ghanaian musician turned moviemaker, will lose investors’ money.
Maxwell eyes the scene from the mansion’s kitchen, where he is peeling green plantains to boil for the cast’s dinner. Besides obtaining investors, writing the story, locking down actors and locations, and working with crew members on a major Nollywood production, he also has to cook supper.
As he rinses and slices, he tries not to show his worry. He has slept only two hours at a time in the past few weeks, worried about production, worried about accommodating actors, worried about filming on a shoestring budget. He cannot afford to lose this actress or this director. Everything is riding on “One Night in Vegas,” a movie Maxwell hopes will raise the bar on Nollywood production values.
The next three weeks will test his dream. While Hollywood dreamers wait to be discovered, Nollywood waits for no one.
Nollywood, the colloquial name used to describe the Nigerian film industry, is the second-biggest movie industry in the world in terms of number of movies made. The $500 million business churns out hundreds a year, second in film production behind India’s Bollywood. Hollywood comes in third.
According to a 2012 UNESCO survey, India produced 1,255 feature-length movies in 2011. Nigeria produced 997 movies in video format; and Hollywood produced 819films.
The hottest Nollywood actors earn as much as $10,000 per movie. Some earn $4,000 or $5,000. Some make more than 50 movies a year, rolling out productions one week after the next with a swiftness that would make a Hollywood actor’s head spin.
Nollywood has swept into Cameroon, the Caribbean and Ghana, which calls its industry Ghollywood. Now Nollywood actors and filmmakers have started making movies here. They call it Nollywood USA.
“We are trying to make the African filmmaking industry a force to be reckoned with worldwide,” said Majid Michel, a Ghanaian who is one of the most acclaimed actors in Africa. He recently traveled to Washington, New York and finally Philadelphia, where he received a humanitarian award from the city council for his contributions to Africa’s film industry and for building clean-water wells.
“Movies can connect people to places, and you see them in a different light,” says Michel, who calls himself “the Al Pacino of Africa.” He won the 2012 Africa Movie Academy Award for best actor. “It is almost spiritual for me what it does. ...
“In high school, we had these guests from Sweden who said, ‘Before we got here, we heard you guys lived with monkeys and you play with lions.’ After watching” Nollywood movies, he says, “they were amazed at seeing mansions and first-class roads. ... Our only weak point: We need to tell stories with better cameras and lights.”
Since 1962, when the first Nollywood movies were made, thousands of low-budget movies have been produced on cheap video CDs and distributed in Africa. Recently they’ve spread to the African diaspora in Europe and overseas.
Nollywood filmmakers, moving quickly to beat bootleggers, often sell movie rights directly to marketers who distribute copies to African stores or beauty shops for as little as $1.50. Shop owners in the states sell the movies for as much as $10 to Africans and increasingly African Americans, who find the plots of love, lust, greed, betrayal, black and white magic, and family dysfunction salaciously addictive.
Nollywood movies often play out epic themes of good overcoming evil, religious conflict and moral dilemmas. Bad guys often die, as they should. The princess is discovered in a village. The rich boy falls in love with the poor girl selling oranges on the side of the road, but his mother forbids the marriage. Despite a vindictive stepmother, the good son finally receives his inheritance from the chief.