Arts & Entertainment

How ‘Nigerian Spielberg’ Izu Ojukwu is taking advantage of free speech and a changing industry

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Like so many film industries in developing countries, Nigerian cinema started small and scrappy, with inexperienced filmmakers rushing out ultra-low-budget movies on tight turnarounds for quick profits. But the cinema scene The New York Times dubbed “Nollywood” has grown with incredible speed: Nigerian filmmakers are producing more than a thousand movies a year — more than twice Hollywood’s annual output, and second only to India in terms of production. In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that film was Nigeria’s second-biggest industry, after agriculture. That’s particularly remarkable for a country with few movie theaters, a limited distribution industry, and a cinema culture largely based on bootlegging, dollar-DVD peddlers, and small-scale local video cafés. But since 1999, when the country returned to democracy after 40 years of civil war, military rule, and destabilizing coups, Nollywood has seen explosive growth and increasing international visibility. It’s also seen a new cultural openness about its own history, which has been particularly helpful for local film luminaries like Izu Ojukwu.

Ojukwu has been part of the Nollywood film scene since 1993, when he started making films directly out of high school. Touted in African publications as the “Nigerian Spielberg” for his fast-moving action scenes and his increasingly ambitious movies, he won the Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for his 2007 movie Sitanda, and became one of the subjects of the documentary Welcome To Nollywood. His latest film, 76, is an unusually high-budget, high-profile historical epic about Nigeria’s 1976 coup, focusing on the pregnant wife of a soldier unwillingly drawn into an assassination plot. Ojukwu is currently looking for an American distributor for the film. At 2016’s Toronto International Film Festival, which showcased eight Nollywood films in a special program, I sat down with Ojukwu to talk about how political and cultural shifts are changing filmmaking in Nigeria, why filmmaking is an important part of reuniting the country with its own history, and why he felt a need to shoot 76 on film, even though it literally added years to his production time.

Tasha Robinson: Is it true that for decades, Nigerian filmmakers were banned from even addressing the military era?

Izu Ojukwu: Yeah, you couldn’t. During the military regime, you couldn’t even raise your camera, if you were talking about the army. But now, not only can we make these films, the army is willing to support projects like this. And they are in no way influencing the outcome with their support.

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