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Out of Africa: KUNLE AFOLAYAN Bids To Bring Nollywood Cinema To The World

Hailed as the ‘Martin Scorsese of Lagos’, Afolayan is finding new ways to take his films beyond Nigerian borders  screening his latest, Phone Swap, at the Film Africa festival in London They’re calling you “the Scorsese of Lagos”  no pressure then. That’s what the New York Times recently headlined its piece, and Kunle Afolayan’s ambitions to shake up the industry now known (more great expectations) as Nollywood. With three films under his belt since he started directing in 2005  which, by frantic west-African standards, makes him more the Kubrick of Lagos  the 38-year-old has become a byword for elevated quality: shooting on 35mm, releasing in cinemas, trying to improve on horribly stilted Nollywood formulas that seem to place more emphasis on gaudy soft furnishings than on dialogue and camerawork.
Actually, Afolayan would prefer it if you called him the Mel Gibson of Lagos. “I always show Apocalypto to my crew, because of the language thing. I say to them: ‘You don’t necessarily have to shoot your film in English for it to be good. You can do Swahili, you can do any language, you can even do no language at all.’” Gibson’s not an obvious renaissance-man idol  but crossing boundaries, having international aspirations, is the path forward for Afolayan and what is becoming known as the New Nollywood. The old Nollywood had no time for film festivals. When I speak to the director, he’s just touched down in Amsterdam for the Africa in the Picture jamboree, where he is shopping his comedy drama Phone Swap. Next up is London, for the Film Africa festival.
“I’m not saying it’s the perfect film. I’m not saying it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to Nollywood. But it’s totally different to what everyone else has done,” Afolayan says of Phone Swap. It goes without saying that it’s shot on film  a must for any hope of international distribution. And it has what sounds like the sort of sparky commercial premise that will give it high-concept traction beyond Nigerian borders: a country girl and a Lagos businessman fall in love in absentia after they pick up each other’s BlackBerrys at the airport. Afolayan says he tried to
steer clear of the overripe visual humour and slapstick that has dogged traditional Nollywood comedy.
Phone Swap is a departure for Afolayan, as well as the industry. His first two moviesIrapada (Redemption) and Araromire (The Figurine), were self-originated stories rooted in juju, the supernatural folklore tales Naija audiences never tire of. But he had to pitch for Phone Swap at an advertising agency, who were taking proposals on behalf of Samsung, who saw a branded Nigerian feature as a piece of potentially hot marketing in the last half of the noughties, when Nollywood was really hitting the global consciousness. Samsung later dropped out, but Afolayan, who won the pitch, went ahead with other corporate sponsors, most importantly BlackBerry. His various “partners” provided about 40% of the $500,000 budget; the rest came from his bank loans and his own pocket.
Afolayan has few of the artistic hangups about taking corporate money that exist in the west  which isn’t surprising when money is so difficult to raise and to recoup. New Nollywood budgets, driven by well-to-do production values, are beginning to creep beyond $500,000, but the lack of cinema screens in Nigeria (there are currently 10 mainstream cinemas) makes good returns far from certain. The Figurine only took about two-thirds of its budget back. Mahmood Ali-Balogun’s recent marital drama Tango with Me, also earmarked as a possible international breakout, failed to break even too. In fact, it’s rare for any local film to take more than $200,000, according a report compiled for Unesco by Nollywood expert Rob Aft.
There’s an ingrained perception in Nigeria that anything other
than the traditional Nollywood model  no-frills budgets between $15,000 and $75,000, and a smash-and-grab 14-day distribution window on VCD  is doomed to failure. That conservatism, most entrenched in the producing guilds who form Nollywood’s power base, is what Afolayan is aiming to overcome. Ten more cinemas are on the way, and he thinks that will be enough to make New Nollywood-level budgets viable. “I’d say we are pretty close. Even if your budget is $1m, you should be able to recoup it in the country. Because we have a huge market, and they know what they want, and when they see it, they go for it.”
He reckons The Figurine  which has some bursts of cinematic flair that suggest its director may indeed have been scrutinising Mel of the Jungle  made other producers take notice. Evidence suggests that Nollywood’s turnover has dropped by at least 50% over the last couple of years  perhaps a sign that the days of profligate output are ending. Phone Swap, released in
Nigeria in March, has made 80% of its costs back, with DVD and foreign releases still to come; another message to Nollywood that quality pays.
Afolayan’s reforms are motivated by childhood memories of a golden age: he is the seventh of the 25 children of Adeyemi “Love” Afolayan, a postwar theatre and cinema impresario who had 10 wives and died in 1996. Afolayan Jr grew up accompanying his father on “carnivalesque” 1970s film shoots that often featured thousands of extras and lasted two or three months. “I grew up seeing how film was properly done,” he says. “I had no idea what film-making was all about, but I saw the commitment from actors, I saw the commitment from crew.” But the infant Nigerian film industry collapsed due to the lack of a feasible economic model, and didn’t recover until the mid-1990s, when cheap video technology gave rise to Nollywood.
The director trained as a banker, but got into the film business in 2005, initially as an actor. Amid the Nollywood mania, resisting the urge to direct wasn’t easy. “I wanted to stop complaining about what people did: let me see what I can make out of it. What you can do to start out is to capitalise on what people are not doing right. No matter how little it is, even it’s just one step ahead.”
Nollywood could be about to take a giant step ahead, thanks to that recollection of the glory days. Afolayan is aiming to shoot October 1st, a serial killer movie set in 1960 against the backdrop of Nigerian independence, in February, but he is trying to secure a foreign co-producer outside the country first, to better his international chances. “It is difficult to get a mainstream distribution deal, no matter how fantastic your film is, because it’s a cartel, it’s a clique,” he says, “If you don’t belong, it’s tough.”
His battle to set an economic precedent for Nollywood phase II could be as important as anything he puts up on the screen itself  and with his background in finance, he’s well placed to achieve his goal. Werner Herzog once said that the ecstatic truth  the poet’s kind  trumps the accountant’s truth. But just try running an industry on ecstasy alone.

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