From Nollywood to New Nigerian Cinema: Obi Emelonye interviewed

Nollywood—Nigeria’s direct-to-video industry of scruffy, cheap films cranked out on hurried schedules and dumped onto the market at low prices—became the third largest producer of movies in the world in the 1990s. Obi Emelonye is one of the filmmakers challenging the Nollywood paradigm with the New Nigerian Cinema, a concerted effort to create domestic films strong enough to bring audiences back to the cinemas and good enough to be exported to other countries.

Emelonye, who practiced law in Great Britain for two decades, returned to Nigeria to follow his dream of filmmaking. His 2011 feature, The Mirror Boy, was a critical and commercial success and one of the few Nigerian films to be seen in film festivals outside of the country and his follow-up, the homegrown disaster film Last Flight to Abuja, was one of the top-grossing films in Nigeria in 2012. Unlike the fast, cheap, and out-of-control melodramas cranked out by Nollywood, Emelonye’s films took on more complex stories, complicated characters, and themes that cross cultures.

Last Flight to Abuja

Last Flight to Abuja follows the model of Airport and other American and European disaster dramas of strangers tossed together in a crisis, but frames it within a distinctly Nigerian context. Though inspired by real events, it tosses a bit of everything into the ensemble: romance and marital conflict, comedy and crime, a murder, an affair, a little Nigerian star power (and it’s clear who the stars are simply by their confidence and command on the screen), and of course a crisis on an airplane. And along with the array of stories and experiences, the film presents something not seen in many Nigerian films: strong, confident, successful women in the professional world.

Emelonye took Last Flight to Abuja to film festivals all over the world, including the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, where the film made its American debut, and along with discussing his film, Emelonye showed a shrewd and necessary understanding of the business and culture of Nollywood, the efforts to create a cinema culture in Nigeria and the challenges in taking on the entrenched Nollywood industry.

Keyframe: I understand that before you started directing films you were a lawyer in Britain. Is that right?

Obi Emelonye: It’s more complicated than that. I actually studied theater and drama and film in Nigeria before I went to the U.K. And when I arrived in the U.K. I discovered that it was a bit impractical to make a living as a theater artist starting at the lowest of the lowest ranks, so I had to make a pragmatic decision to find a different career that would allow me the time to still practice my craft and also that would have transferable skills. And I thought law was that. I learned my trade and honed my skills as a filmmaker while still practicing as a lawyer until a few years ago, in 2008, when I decided to concentrate on filmmaking. So in a way I’ve gone full circle with a different career. A friend of mine says ‘Everything we are goes into everything we do.’ The more varied my life experiences are, the more varied my skill set and my knowledge is, the better I will be at whatever I decide to do. In this instance, it makes me a slightly better, more complete, more eclectic filmmaker.

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