Writer and Regional Audio-visual Attaché of the French Embassy, Pierre Cherruau, is a foreigner with an insider view of Nollywood. Impressed by the cinema revolution pioneered by Lagos, he believes the rest of Africa has found a worthy role model. Interview by Olumide Iyanda
What is your impression of Nigerian cinema?
I am very impressed with the way Nigerian cinema has developed in the last 20 years. This is not my first time in Nigeria. I was teaching French in Enugu more than 20 years ago. I am amazed at the way Nollywood has improved over the years. It is not perfect, but you see an improvement every year. There is technical improvement of course because there is more money in the movies, but you can also see more energy, more time spent on the script and so on. Nollywood is definitely going up.
What would you say stands Nollywood out?
I believe the biggest strength of Nollywood is the fact that you have original stories and an African voice. Before, we had movies about Africa from European and American perspectives. It’s not bad to have African stories from European and American perspectives but we need to understand the African realities through the people themselves. It’s like Chinua Achebe; to become universal you have to be local first. The strength of Nollywood is that they did not try to do stories about Americans and Europeans; they were first thinking about the Nigerian audience and the African audience. That way, they have attracted people from different parts of the world who want to have an African point of view. I have seen so many American movies; I have read so many American novels that sometimes the excitement is not the same. In Africa you have so many amazing stories. Because I am a writer and some of my books take place in Africa I can say that you can get a lot of creative ideas by opening your eyes and talking to the people. You read Nigerian newspapers and see a lot of amazing stories that can be made into movies. Nollywood’s main strength is original stories.
From making films basically for DVD, Nigerians filmmakers especially in Lagos are now making films for the cinemas. What do you think of that development?
It is very positive. And you need to get an African perspective to that. What is happening in Lagos is not only important for Nigeria but for the rest of Africa. In the last 20 years, cinemas have closed almost in many African countries. They have either become churches or shops. At a point people said it is impossible to run cinema in Africa because people don’t have the money and so on. Now, you have a rising middle class all over Africa, and like others in other parts of the world, they like to go to the cinema or shopping mall. It is not just to see a movie, but to see a movie and spend some time with their loved ones. I believe Lagos is showing the way to the rest of Nigeria and the rest of Africa with the cinema. And you can see that last year the 10 most successful movies in Nigeria made more than one billion naira in the cinema with most of that coming from Lagos. Now, banks will be ready to give filmmakers money because they know that it is possible to make money with movies. That is very important for the future of the industry.
Do you think Nollywood is reaching out to the rest of the world?
Yes. For example, in francophone Africa you have a channel called Nollywood TV. It is owned by Canal+ and it shows Nigerian movies dubbed in French. It is the most successful channel in many francophone African countries. Some 20 years ago the people were watching Bollywood movies or movies from Latin America but they now watch movies from their continent. Africans have a lot in common than many imagine. You may think Lagos and Abidjan are far apart but when you watch the movies you will see that their clothes, food, family and drama have a lot in common. Nollywood also shows the African diaspora what they have in common. The next challenge is not to touch Africa or the diaspora but the rest of the world. We have seen that the producers of the movie ‘76 that was shown in Toronto have closed a deal with American distributors. That is the first time a Nollywood movie is doing that kind of business. It is a good sign. The challenge will be for Nigerian movies to be widely seen in Europe and America but at the same time keep their energy and authenticity. Maybe at some point you will have some movies made more for local audience or others as co-production with actors from Nigeria and other parts of the world. It will be quite interesting to see how that develops. Another interesting thing is that you see a lot of movies in pidgin. It is very interesting because pidgin is very important in the Nigerian culture. At some point people want to develop their own language. When you watch some movies you realise that some actors feel more at ease with pidgin because when it is in English they concentrate more on the fact that they have to speak like British people. But with pidgin it is easier and they can concentrate more on acting. The challenge when you have your movie in pidgin is how you do your subtitle.
How important is it that Nigeria has co-production arrangement with other countries?
I believe it is very important. Of course, when people talk about co-production they first think about money. Money is very important. But let us say you are doing co-production with a French producer. It means you have access to his network and it will be easier for your movie to be shown in France and francophone countries. It is noteworthy that francophone countries are also opening new cinemas just like you have in Nigeria. Bolloré a French company opened a cinema in Yaoundé in June last year. Other companies are also coming to places like Dakar and Abidjan. The market is expanding in Africa and it is quite open in France. If you have co-production you are likely to have an easier access to film festivals.
- Culled from Cinema in Lagos, a publication by Mighty Media Plus Network Limited for the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy