A small number of new well-produced movies are upping the ante and altering the perception of the local Nigerian film industry, called Nollywood. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
House lights! All small talk ceased as a sudden hush descended among the small audience at the Lagos Sheraton Hotel room that Sunday afternoon. A special screening of Mahmood Ali-Balogun's Tango with Me was about to begin.
Sitting almost incognito among the audience - largely made up of film critics and art writers - screen diva, Genevieve Nnaji watched from her seat. Beside her, her manager Ajua Dickson looked ever ready to offer any moral support she would need.
Also in the audience was Joseph Benjamin, who played the lead role as Genevieve's husband. The film also featured industry leading lights like Joke Silva, Bimbo Akintola, Kate Henshaw-Nuttal, Tina Mba, Bimbo Manuel and the stage director, Ahmed Yerima.
A lead role in the 35 mm celluloid film ups Nnaji's rating among her peers in the industry. How long would those Nollywood shoddily-scripted home-videos, churned out in DVDs, sustain its incredibly mammoth followership?
Mindful of the flaks these locally-produced films have drawn for their poor quality, Ali-Balogun decided to go the extra mile to produce a first-rate Nigerian film. It took the 1984 University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) graduate of dramatic arts, who specialised in film production more than two years to produce the script. This was while cross-fertilising ideas with other accomplished scriptwriters.
Shooting Tango with Me on 35mm celluloid was a clear statement of his mission. To achieve his dreams of producing a high-quality film of international standard, he travelled to Bulgaria, where he availed himself of the latest Kodak technology to master the film.
His previous productions were no less painstaking. One was his award-winning MNET short film, A Place Called Home, which, shot in 1998, clinched a coveted FESPACO nomination the following year. In 2003, he produced and directed, Temi ni Tooto, which won the REEL award. These contributed in earning him a distinguished African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) Special Recognition award in 2005.
Before taking the headlong plunge into his career, Ali-Balogun had a three-year stint at the Nigerian Television Authority's National Productions Department. Soon afterwards in 1988, he established his outfit Brickwall Communications Limited in Lagos.
His latest film, Tango with Me, tells a gripping story of love, forged and burnished in the crucible of tribulations. A fairy-tale like honeymoon is blighted by the rape of the bride. The newly-tied nuptial is mortally threatened. This is especially as the unfortunate violation had led to an undesired conception. Here the filmmaker, a pro-choice activist, confronts the viewer with a moral choice: should the bride get rid of this unwanted pregnancy or not?
Nnaji, who sat through the Sheraton room screening, had also painstakingly built herself an enviable career in the industry. She also featured alongside Omotola Jalade-Ekehinde in another first-rate Nigerian movie shot on 35 mm celluloid. She plays Chioma, the concerned and devoted sister of a distraught Anya (Omotola Ekehinde), in the film titled Ije: the Journey.
In the film, produced by Chineze Anyaene, Chioma takes a long nerve-wrecking flight to the US where her sister Anya is awaiting trial for a triple-murder charge. Even her acknowledgement of guilt for two murders isn't enough to deflect suspicions for the third, which she vehemently denies.
But would believe the testimony of a gold-digging black woman seeking her American dream in the arms of a pot-bellied white man? Chioma's touching faith in her sister's innocence heightens the suspense while the viewer waits with bated breath for her eventual vindication.
Anyaene, like Ali-Balogun, is intent on breaking new frontiers in the Nigerian movie industry. That her film features both Nollywood and Hollywood actors and actresses is an eloquent testimony of this.
Even before Tango with Me and Ije hit the screens, a lot of excitement was already swirling around Kunle Afolayan's The Figurine. The film director and actor had previously made a name for himself with his movie, Iredapa. But his 2009 production was the icing in his career.
With a talented cast comprising of Ramsey Nouah, Omoni Oboli, Funlola Aofiyebi-Raimi, Tosin Sido, Wale Adebayo, Jide Kosoko, Muraina Oyelami and the producer, he tells the gripping story how a mysterious figurine Araromire changes the fortunes of two young men in their National Youth Service Corps assignment and a lady. The Figurine, according to the legend, bestows seven years of good luck to whoever holds it. But what happens afterwards, no one told the trio.
The film was applauded for its virtually flawless production by even Nollywood cynics. "The acting was pretty good - body language and facial expressions instead of yelling into the microphone which is very common with Nigerian movies, "gushed an appreciative viewer.
Afolanya's effort, which was originally written by Kemi Adesoye, clinched10 nominations and five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards in 2010. Among these awards were awards for Best Picture, Heart of Africa, AMAA Achievement in Cinematography and AMAA Achievement in Visual Effect.
Then, there is Jeta Amata's Black Gold: Struggle for the Niger Delta, which like Anyaene's movie, features a Nollywood cum Hollywood cast. With a riveting storyline spun on greed, murder and corruption, the film directs viewers' attention to the volatile oil-rich Niger Delta.
Featuring among its cast are Tom Sizemore (whose credits include Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and Heat), Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day and Kill Bill), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Brasco and Kill Bill), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight and The Expendables), Billy Zane (Titanic), Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Pirates of the Caribbean and Hotel Rwanda), Razaaq Adoti (Black Hawk Down and Resident Evil: Apocalypse) and Mbong Amata (Inale and Amazing Grace).
A production of Jeta Amata Concepts/ Well Entertainment, Starkid Inc and Rock City Entertainment, Black Gold can be described as a political suspense drama. It is also about environmental justice and the struggle over the oil resources control.
Yet another A-list film is Stephanie Okereke's debut offering Through the Glass, which she wrote, produced and directed. Okereke explores the phobias that trail serious relationships and the possible reasons behind them.
Like Black Gold and Ije, the film has a lot of Hollywood input. The A-list Nigerian actress told an online publication, Ladybrille.com that it was her wish to do something different that egged her on. The film's overall quality as well as the sound and lighting are first-rate.
"I heard people trying to figure out if it is a Nollywood and Hollywood film," she observed during the interview with the online publication. "Why the argument? It's a collaborative work that can sell in both markets. Myself as a Nollywood face gives it all the attributes of a Nollywood film.
What we are looking for are various ways to reach a broader audience and create room to do collaborative work with other film industries be it Bollywood or Hollywood. Bollywood got more international raves because of their collaborative work with Hollywood."
With the screening of these films in the cinema halls, local film buffs are already looking forward to a rebranded Nollywood.