With a Spielberg cap on her head, the apprentice-director Esther Abah gives her final instructions to her actress and goes back to settle behind the monitor. In the studios of the EbonyLife Creative Academy, a brand new film school in Lagos, the team of around thirty students is “ready to shoot”.
In this faux-confessional in velvet, they film their short film “My Father forgive me”. “3.2.1. Action!”, launches the young director, while, on the advice of a professor, the sound engineer still adjusts her pole. At 30, Esther Abah has already made several short films and music videos in Nigeria. But by integrating the school, she “wanted to learn how to make films with another perspective”she told AFP.
Based in Lagos, the bustling cultural capital of Nigeria and all of West Africa, this academy aims to train young professionals from Nollywood, the very powerful Nigerian film industry, to make films capable of being exported to outside the African continent.
A rarity in the country, training is free and fully funded by the State of Lagos, which has understood that its creative and ambitious youth are a real wealth, and a huge potential job provider if the sector is better supervised.
“We want our students to be able to tell Nigerian stories for an international audience, in a format that is accessible to the world”explains to AFP the director of the school, Theart Korsten.
All the cinema trades are represented there – directing, acting, production, screenplay, sound, artistic direction… – and all the teachers are Nigerians, South Africans or Kenyans, with international experience.
Golden youth and glitter
Until recently, Nollywood, which produces more than 2,500 films a year, did not actively seek to conquer the global market, with Nigeria’s 215 million people and immense cultural influence on the continent.
Since the rise of Nollywood in the 1980s, the vast majority of Nigerian directors have made their films in a few weeks with less than 20,000 dollars. Movies “funded in Nigeria, and produced for a Nigerian audience”points out Alessandro Jedlowski, anthropologist specializing in Nollywood at Sciences-po Bordeaux.
But in the early 2010s, in the face of massive hacking that annihilated the economic model of the industry, some distributors gradually moved towards a “more formalized market”. It is also the advent of satellite channels, new cinemas… and above all paid streaming.
They then target the Nigerian elite and the wealthier African diaspora, explains Mr. Jedlowski. Budgets are increasing and the type of film is changing, with romantic comedies starring Lagos’ golden youth leading the way.
The rise of major international streaming platforms like Amazon or Netflix also opens up Nollywood to a much wider international audience.
“Films from South America, Asia, or countries almost unknown in Europe are successful on the platforms, so many Nigerian directors have found that their films can be seen on a global scale”explains Nigerian director Daniel Oriahi, a professor at the EbonyLife Creative Academy. “But for that, they must conform to different standards, in terms of narration or technique”he points out.
So, at the academy, we encourage screenwriters and directors to try out other genres, drama or thrillers for example. Actors are trained to play differently to prove their – bad – reputation in the world of cinema, to lack realism or to overplay their role.
“We’re talking loud, we’re excited, everything is very dramatic about us and that’s reflected in our films. But you can convey the same information without overplaying, and making a viewer in Asia relate to our characters. “says Mr. Oriahi.
These different criteria, the powerful production company Ebonylife understood them well. And it is no coincidence that she has become one of the main partners of Netflix in Nigeria.
It is to train the professionals of this new Nollywood, but also to identify the best talents that she launched this school. And it was within its first promotion that the production company spotted Genoveva Umeh, the actress-star of Blood sisters, the first Nigerian series co-produced by Netflix, broadcast since the beginning of May. Other students have been recruited as interns on a film being prepared with Amazon.
Projects abound and in 2021 alone, Nollywood brought in $660 million in revenue to the country, or 2.3% of the GDP of Africa’s largest economy. According to financial analysts, its growth potential is immense. So for Esther Abah and her comrades, it is not only in Los Angeles that it is allowed to dream. Also in Lagos.