The Nollywood director with American dreams
‘Steven Spielberg of Nigeria’ hopes his African films could spark international interest ‘It’s everyone’s ambition to go to Hollywood and tell an African story’
in Benin City
IF ALL it took to make it in the movies was a prodigious work rate and plenty of self-belief, then Lancelot Imasuen would be as well known today as Steven Spielberg.
The 47-year-old director has made well over 200 films in just 20 years, and reckons his latest romance, Love Birds, has the “greatest” on-screen chemistry since Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio got it together in Titanic. Yet whether or not it lives up to his hype, the chances are that Love Birds – which is due out next week – won’t be coming to a cinema near you.
Its creator is a household name only in his native Nigeria, where he’s among thousands of players in the ultra-low budget local film industry known as Nollywood.
Sometimes churning out movies in weeks or even days, Nollywood is infamous for poor production values, with actors who learned their lines on the day. That has not stopped it becoming hugely popular across Africa, and Mr Imasuen has aspirations beyond that.
“It’s everyone’s ambition to go to Hollywood and tell an African story,” he told The Sunday Telegraph on the set of film Dawn of a New Day. “But we’re limited by finance and circumstance – hopefully those days will come.”
Indeed, they may finally be just around the corner – thanks to the recent global success of Black Panther, the Disney blockbuster based on a Marvel Comics black superhero.
In Nigeria, there are hopes that it will spark a surge of international New Day, Dawn of a interest in Nollywood. The question now is whether one of its offerings can become the next Hollywood or Netflix sensation.
Directors like Mr Imasuen have the odds stacked against them. Dawn of a New Day, for example, has a budget of just 15m naira (£30,000). With purpose-built studios neither available or affordable, it is filmed in a suburb of the director’s native Benin City in southern Nigeria, where chickens and goats wander on to the set and there are crowds of onlookers, bribe-hungry policemen, and noisy generators that make sound recording hard.
Like most Nollywood films, Dawn of a New Day plays on tensions between the old Africa and the new. A domineering matriarch is angry at her daughter-in-law for refusing to undergo the village tradition of circumcising her daughter, and for failing to produce a son and heir. While the film has been funded by a university to warn of the dangers of female circumcision, most of Mr Imasuen’s films are commercial.
But just as Black Panther er has challenged racial stereotypes in Hollywood, so Mr Imasuen is breaking the mould in Nollywood. His 2016 romantic comedy ATM was one of the first by a major Nigerian director to give star billing g to a white actor, Claire Edun, a former British Airways hostess from Hamps.
It is said that Nollywood began in 1992, when a Nigerian businessman imported a vast consignment of redundant VHS cassettes. Unable to sell them, he hired a movie producer to record a cheap film on them in the hope of cutting his losses. Living in Bondage sold 750,000 copies.
Nollywood is now worth around $500m (£350m) a year. Although some films still have a soap opera feel more serious efforts have reached overseas film festivals.
Typical of the slicker “New Nollywood” directors dir is Lagos-born Dare Olaitan, 27, 27 who studied at film school in the US. US
His 2017 movie mov Ojukokoro (Greed)
– a Tarantino-in Tarantino-influenced crime caper – saw him tipped tippe locally as a Hollywood breakthrough brea director. But it will, h he says, take more than just Black Panther hype for a Nollywood Nollyw film to break beyond beyo the niche. “If we’re to do d well internationally, it will have to be as Hollywood H does it – by selling se great human stories stor to the rest of the world.” worl
Make-up time on the set of
and actress Oge Okoye, right and the film crew