Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.
Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.
Beads of sweat ran from Ewe’s glossy, hairless head, down his bare chest, and over his portly belly. Between swigs from an unmarked plastic bottle and drags from his cigarette, he barked orders at actors, the soundman, the light engineers, the make-up artists, and occasionally the photographer: me. All of us were crammed into a tiny, stuffy living room for a scene of his latest Nollywood film, Who Is the Stupid Wife?
Nollywood is Nigeria’s film industry. It’s big. Nigerian cinema grew quickly in the 1990s and 2000s. It is now the second largest film industry in the world in terms of number of films produced each year—an estimated 200 films a month, placing it ahead of the United States and behind only India.
The top film industries are all very different though. While Hollywood films can take months or even years to produce, Who Is the Stupid Wife? was being made over a weekend. There was one camera and three lights, a couple of make-up artists, and a cast of part-time actors. Power came from a generator, which could be heard throughout filming, humming away outside. That was until it broke down and that pitch blackness, as I’ve only experienced in Africa, descended.
Nollywood films are generally made quickly and cheaply. Don’t expect flashy special effects, complicated plots, or polished delivery of lines. Raised, as I was, on big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, they’re not my cup of tea. But who cares what I think? Hundreds of millions of Africans love the movies. They tell stories that appeal across this diverse continent. Many plots revolve around family drama and infidelity, crime, corruption and gangs, witchcraft or village life.
Movie production in Nigeria has interesting parallels to attitudes about photography that I often encounter; for many, content trumps delivery. Most photographers are obsessed with how the message is delivered—it must be “artful” and capture a sense of mood. But many Nigerians I meet are much more interested in what is in the picture than aesthetics. They ask to see the images I have just captured and exclaim: “It’s not clear.” “It’s dark.” “It’s shaky.” “You are too far.” “It’s not good this one! You must do it again, use your flash!”
Nollywood is filmed bright, tight and loud. Many Nigerians think photography should be the same. My idea of a “good” photograph differed from that of many of the Nigerians I met. But this is what I love about Nollywood and Nigerian photography, it is not trying to be something else; it’s not trying to be Hollywood; it’s not trying to be National Geographic! It is uniquely Nigerian. In a world where everything is becoming more and more the same, Nollywood keeps its style and its voice.
Ewe’s drinking on the set didn’t seem a problem; actually I think I was the only one who was sober. Halfway through a take, one of the actors, who I’d noticed earlier in the bar nursing a large bottle of Star Lager, didn’t deliver his line—he had fallen asleep on the sofa.
I should point out that this was one of the lower-end productions. Nollywood is actually very serious business and actors are real celebrities on the continent.
The complete antithesis of Ewe’s production was the African Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards—Africa’s version of the Oscars. None of Ewe’s unmarked bottles of clear liquid here, only the best champagne. Glamorous, stylish, beautiful people sauntered down a red carpet while roped-off photographers jostled for position.
These were the real stars of Nollywood.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the awards, hosted in a five-star hotel in Lagos. I felt shabby in the ill-fitting shirt I borrowed amongst Lagos’ stylish elite class in tailored suits or ball gowns, a glass of champagne in one hand, a Blackberry in the other.
Between awards we were entertained by comedians and singers and a violin soloist who enthused the crowd with his rock violin.
Hennessy Cognac, which seemed to be at every event I went to in Lagos, fueled the after-party into the early hours of the following morning. The dance floor flashed with bright lights to the beat of the music, and jumped to Nigerian hip-hop and, to my surprise, a cool selection of ’80s music. Lionel Richie had everyone singing “All Night Long.”
Ewe’s production went late into the night too. I stuck around for the club scene—somewhat different from the African Magic Viewers’ Choice event. In this scene “the stupid wife” flirts with a drunken patron. They bump and grind on the dance floor.
The filming went on until past midnight, until the fuel for the generator ran out. The club scene was shot and most stumbled back to their accommodations near the set. I couldn’t shoot anymore and the mosquitoes had completely mauled my ankles. Ewe grunted a goodbye. I was walking away when he called me back. I should really “dash” him some money for alcohol and cigarettes, he said. He explained that it was the beginning of a busy weekend of filming.
Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.