Nigerian movies saved cancer survivor Tawana Lowe’s life after doctors cut off her tumor-filled left breast.
Bedridden from aggressive radiation treatments in the summer of 2008, the Harlem, NY resident spent her days watching movies like “Hope Alive” about an innocent man who’s jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.
For the former city hospital clerk, who fought to get disability benefits even while battling cancer, the films were an oracle.
“My life is in those movies,” said Lowe of the low budget, independent films shot on location in West Africa and known for vivid storylines that range from the comical to the supernatural. “That’s my therapy session right there,” she said.
In the last 17 years the Nigerian movie industry, known as Nollywood, has exploded, surpassing Hollywood as the world’s second largest film producer.
In 2006, Nollywood churned out 872 movies, compared to 485 major films the U.S. produced, according to a study by UNESCO. Bollywood, the India-based industry that’s currently the world’s top moviemaker produced 1,091 the same period.
With U.S. inspired titles like “Beyonce and Rihanna,” a recent release about two rival singers both vying for a rapper’s affection, Nollywood is steadily courting a new audience these days — African Americans–like Tawana Lowe. And even Black Hollywood’s taking note.
Before his tax troubles, Wesley Snipes visited Abuja and met with filmmakers about collaborating on future film projects. In 2007, Danny Glover was the keynote speaker at the Nollywood Foundation’s annual convention.
Dr. Sylvester Ogbechie, vice-president of the California-based foundation aimed at promoting the Nigerian film industry in the U.S., isn’t surprised by the interest African Americans are showing in Nigerian movies.
“It’s the only film industry in the world that’s entirely controlled by black people,” Ogbechie said of Nollywood which generates around $200 million in revenue per year.
The industry is ripe for deep-pocketed Hollywood investors Ogbechie said, adding it’s only a matter of time before a “Slumdog Millionaire” emerges from Nigeria, referencing the hit that stole this year’s Oscars and squarely put Bollywood on Tinseltown’s radar.
But not everybody’s gung-ho about Nollywood.
Director Spike Lee criticized the industry when asked by a Nigerian reporter how his country’s filmmakers could improve their craft.
“You are from Nigeria, Lagos? Those people are bootlegging my films a lot,” Lee told the reporter at last month’s Cannes International Advertising Film Festival, according to the blog naijarules.com
Speaking of Nollywood directors, Lee said, “Let them attend international film festival[s] like the ones held in Cannes and other places to learn how to make great films that would be of international standard.”
When News One attempted to contact Lee, his assistant said the director was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment as of press time.
WATCH a clip from 1st Nollywood BLOCKBUSTER:
Lee’s comments not only raise questions about the quality of Nollywood movies shot by amateur filmmakers on shoestring budgets of $15,000-25,000, but also the business practices behind their distribution.
A portion of Nollywood’s revenue can’t even be accounted for due to rife bootlegging that’s almost considered standard practice.
Corrupt business deals including the infamous Nigerian letter and e-mail frauds have helped solidify the country as the scam capital of the world and lend to reasons why Nollywood hasn’t seen an influx of American investment.
“That perception does play a big part in people’s willingness to go open handedly in Nigeria,” agreed Nigerian-born British actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
Kae-Kazim, who’s starred in “Hotel Rwanda” and the Fox series “24″, says Black Hollywood isn’t rushing to invest in Nigerian movies because they are still struggling to get their own stories to the big screen and don’t as yet see a “worthwhile investment” in the West African industry .
If and when Black Hollywood invests in Nollywood it will be welcomed by hard core fans like Tawana Lowe.
On a rainy Tuesday, Lowe was on a mission to win converts to Nollywood.
Armed with a shopping list, Lowe visited African Movies Mall. The tiny storefront on W.165th street off of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx boasts being the largest distributor of Nollywood films in the country.
Lowe perused the shelves stacked with Nollywood’s latest offerings including “The Sleepwalker,” “Princess Tyra,” “Emerald,” and “Fantasia Fantasy.” She left loaded down with two shopping bags full of movies.
The films she bought weren’t just to add to the massive collection of more than 350 Nollywood films she has arranged in alphabetical order and color coded on her bedroom bookshelf.
This weekend she will send over a dozen movies by Priority mail to her aunt and uncle in Gainesville, FL, as well as to a friend in Newark, Maryland, whom she’s introduced the films to.
“It’s about spreading the word,” said Lowe committed to preaching the gospel of Nollywood to other African Americans.
“The time is coming, eventually it’s going to cross over, and when it does, it’s going to hit big!” she said with absolute certainty.