The world’s most prolific film industry may be beset by problems, but director Kunle Afolayan is hoping to help it take off
Nollywood’s arrival has been delayed. Our black Peugeot tries to muscle its way into the three gridlocked lanes of tetchy Lagos traffic leading to the airport terminal. It has taken us nearly two hours to travel 3km to the venue for the premiere of The CEO, the new Nigerian blockbuster by the country’s hottest director, Kunle Afolayan. A muggy June night closes in; I’m sweating off the sharpener I had back at the hotel. We’re very late. “Maybe we should walk it,” I say to Aurélie Eliam, the film’s Ivorian co-star. Or possibly not, says the look she gives me.
Stuck in traffic – that’s the status update for Nollywood, in output terms the world’s most prolific film industry (allegedly close to 2,000 titles a year), but still beset by problems of funding, piracy and wave-it-through quality control. Afolayan, earmarked for the past half-decade as its most promising director, wants Nollywood to join business class and go international. The CEO, produced with help from Air France, is the first movie to premiere aboard a plane: flight AF0149 to Paris; both event and film synergistically drumming a beat for a sexy, ascendant Africa.
Some might question the wisdom of launching that kind of initiative at Murtala Muhammed international airport, a spot with roughly the same reputation as Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars. Not Afolayan – who only had the idea six weeks earlier and, at midnight on the eve of his mile-high premiere, is still thrashing out the logistics amid a drunken throng at his mansion. “Everyone with hold luggage should drop their bags off at 2pm, return to the hotel, then go back at six for the red carpet. It’ll be chic with hand luggage,” he says. “That doesn’t make any sense” says Nico Panagio, a cast member, who has also seen Lagos traffic. Afolayan guffaws and pours everyone another slug of red liquor: “It’s the Campari talking!”
His energy is infectious, and this is precisely why the strapping but baby-faced 41-year-old finds himself spurring Nollywood beyond its current limitations. The seventh of director Adeyemi “Love” Afolayan’s 25 children, he remembers when post-independence Nigeria had a proper cinema-going culture, before the economic model collapsed and was replaced in the 1990s by Nollywood’s dumper-truck supply of infidelity and witchcraft potboilers shot on video. The majority turned out in a week for an average $40,000 (£27,250) budget, these quickies are consumed across Africa; the consensus is that they earn around $600m a year, though some estimates run to $3bn. Quite a bit, considering we are not exactly talking Marvel production values.
Afolayan is aiming to be a cut above. Since his first feature, 2006’s juju fable Irapada, his craft-level and budgets have quickly risen: 2014’s October 1, a serial-killer film set during Nigeria’s handover period from the British, cost $2m, as did The CEO. That has put the former banker among the so-called “New Nollywood” – others include playwright-turned-director Biyi Bandele and Mahmood Ali-Balogun – who are aiming to up their game for the cinema release needed to make a profit. Not easy in a country with only 24 multiplexes: the country’s most successful film to date, 2014 romcom 30 Days in Atlanta, took a mere $700,000.
Going pan-African is Afolayan’s latest attempt to crack this problem. The CEO puts five hard-nosed telecoms execs – Nigerian, Kenyan, Moroccan, Ivorian and South African – together at a luxury beach resort to pitch for the top job in an Apprentice-style elimination narrative presided over by a steely consultant (played by Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo).
“I asked myself: how come we can’t capture Africa as a market,” says the director. “How come a film from Morocco would not show or sell or appeal to Nigerians?” With releases planned in all five of the countries on screen, this is aiming to be the first targeted mainstream film by and for a continent neglected by Hollywood. For Afolayan, it’s artistic, economic and neighbourly good sense rolled into one. “For me, film-making isn’t just telling stories – it’s about bridging gaps and bringing people together. I did this with my first film, Irapada, where I decided to feature the major tribes in Nigeria in one film, and that had never been done before.”
Whatever the rationale, business is part of Nigeria’s soul. Afolayan proudly shows off the film’s app, which lets users take a selfie bearing the words: “I am The CEO.” “We’ve taken it out on to the street, so anyone can say they’re The CEO,” he says. The gesture means something – especially with the economy currently souring – in a country bursting with self-reliant entrepreneurship. Nollywood is the prime example: a tastemaking cultural powerhouse that runs without a single naira of public investment. Afolayan, who put up his house as collateral to finance his second film, The Figurine, confesses he is jealous of more readily subsidised Francophone African film-makers. No such luck via Nigeria’s old colonial links: “The British Council – I don’t even know what they do!”
Later at the airport, the DIY spirit seems to have paid dividends. Flustered but ready, we’re deposited on to the red carpet outside the terminal. Eliam gives me her phone and asks me to take some Snapchat videos of her big moment – it’s her first premiere. Huge moths flit across high-wattage lighting. I slip behind the crash barriers protecting the media zone – someone has left a bag of plaintain chips and a green-mohawked motorbike helmet on them – and play paparazzo among a thick hedge of hollering media.
Someone later tells me that Nigerians, even by 21st-century standards, have a passion for self-documentation. So intense and earnest is the fuss that it almost feels like an extension of the country’s ever-present etiquette; there as much for its own sake as whoever is supposed to benefit. There’s a second red-carpet area at the regular Air France baggage drop, where beautiful actresses in couture and honeycomb-tinted crops loiter alongside regular passengers with rolling suitcases. All the pizzazz is interfering with the check-in process.
There’s a danger for Afolayan that playing this media game – necessary to keep up his profile and get private funding – has a similar self-hindering effect. His marketing hustle sometimes seems to run far ahead of his film-making. The ambitious October 1 was perhaps a stretch too far; both tonally and technically wobbly, it couldn’t always hide the seat-of-the-pants nature of Afolayan’s film-making (he sometimes shoots segments only when money becomes available). His 2012 film Phone Swap, a comedy of manners about two Lagosians who pick up each other’s mobiles, remains his best work.
Afolayan admits he is now a brand himself. I get acquainted with his house before I’ve even visited – there’s a programme devoted to it on youth channel Hip TV. The hype gathering around him is less of an issue inside Nigeria, where audiences tend to be proud and critics lenient (press previews, for example, are largely bought and paid-for). But high expectations are a problem outside, where Nollywood won’t be cut any special favours. Film festivals, wary of the technical quality, still have a tendency to treat the Nigerian industry as more of an anthropological curio, rather than fully backing it. Toronto was complimentary in private about October 1, says Afolayan, but still refused to programme it. They’re planning a Lagos strand this year, so he’s expecting a visit soon to talk about The CEO. “If they come here and don’t take it, I won’t be happy,” he says.
Nollywood’s recent attempts to go global, bridging the gulf between folkloric filmed theatre and mass-market entertainment, have not been very successful. The likes of 2011’s Black November (starring Mickey Rourke) and 2013’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun have the difficult task of catering to homegrown crowds, diasporic ones with more westernised tastes, and the western audience; they fell between the three stools. Out of his depth on his debut Half of a Yellow Sun – at $10m, easily the most expensive Nigerian production ever – the UK-based director Biyi Bandele recently retreated into formulaic soapy Nollywood-style intrigue for his followup Fifty.
But does Nollywood even need international approval? There are those who think the country’s creatives need to think foremost nationally. Daniel Emeke Oriahi, a 34-year-old director, talks about “reorientating” his countrymen to believe in cinema and what’s “organic” to Nigerian culture. He believes his country would benefit – in film-making and plenty else – from applying itself more patiently. “Some people just focus on going to Cannes, and go broke in the process. I just aim on pleasing my market, and anything else is a bonus,” he says. His latest filmTaxi Driver is a Lagos-set homage to Scorsese, also inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. Ironically, he cites foreign influences far more than Afolayan. Import, rather than export, seems to be his preferred method of contributing to his native cinema.
Jimmy Jean-Louis, a chiselled fortysomething Haitian also on board The CEO, agrees that traffic is starting to move towards Africa. A regular in the TV series Heroes, as well appearing in a handful of Hollywood blockbusters, he has lived in Los Angeles for several years – but he spends much of this Lagos stopover scouting out brand partnerships: “I say to all the Nigerian guys in LA: ‘What are you doing here? Why don’t you move between the two a little bit?’ Now they’re starting to get it.”
Afolayan’s rapid progress shows why. The CEO – even with a few rough edges – is another step up in quality. It turns out to be a tightly structured and enjoyably fiendish thriller, cloaked in noirish murk. Wearing its pan-African credentials boldly, it stands every chance of being the crossover success he is hoping for.
But it wouldn’t be truly Nigerian without making as much noise as possible en route. Past the two security cordons that are a reminder of the country’s fractious situation, the departure gate D34 has been transformed into a genial madhouse: blaring Naija hip-hop and cognac cocktails on tap. Afolayan, dressed in a black, epauletted 70s-dictator ensemble, fistbumps everyone: Lagosian hipsters, French diplomats, even the odd bemused traveller who unwittingly booked on to the flight. “It’s amazing!” says Jean-Louis. “All the people who’ve never been toNigeria to before, I wonder if they’re like: is it like this all the time?”
Minutes later, Afolayan struggles to direct what he’s unleashed. He grabs the DJ’s mic: “My plane is leaving – can you shut the bar? Anyone who is still in the lounge, we will leave you behind.” And with that, he disappears down the docking tunnel and gets ready to soar.The —-
- CEO opens in Nigeria on 15 July.