No one is likely to conflate the dangerous, kinetic world of Nigerian Nollywood action movies with the benign fantasies of Lewis Carroll, although each portrays a surreal universe. The Nollywood portraits of South African photographer Pieter Hugo depict the denizens of a dark rabbit hole of third world cinema, one heralded as the world’s third most prolific production center—behind only Hollywood and Bollywood.
Nollywood began as an indigenous, from the ground up, movie industry—an outgrowth of the proliferation of video cameras, at first bulky analog, then in the last decade, digital HD prosumer camcorders. Numbers are not easy to keep in this freewheeling, decentralized business but it is estimated that 150-200 feature length features are produced every month, sold in thousands of video kiosks countrywide, generated from the Lagos distribution center, Idumota Market. The average movie run is 50,000 copies, while a major hit may sell close to one-quarter million units. These numbers are so high because there are virtually no cinema screens in the country of 170 million; a DVD sells for about two dollars and may be seen by hundreds of viewers.
The staple genres and plots of many Nollywood films are the same as those of Western commercial cinema: drugs, corrupt politicians, police crime dramas, zombies and vampires. Most of the portraits in Hugo’s book depict the seamier elements of Nollywood films; clearly, he has some affection for this world. The book’s sole photograph of a white man is his self-portrait. Hugo stands bare-footed and masked in a junkyard, a backdrop for many of his subjects. He wears long, dark industrial gloves and from his right hand hangs a steel awl or cudgel. His right thigh is tattooed with a skull and he wears dark jockey shorts. A key to Hugo’s self-portrait as a Nollywood star manqué may be his abandonment of the guidelines of traditional photojournalism. This is from a July 2008 interview in The Observer:
I have a deep suspicion of photography, to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything, really. And, I particularly distrust portrait photography. I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?'
This perspective flies in the face of the impassioned images made by an earlier generation of South African photojournalists, those at the ramparts of the struggle against apartheid, subjects of the book and film The Bang Bang Club.
That sordid history ended with the victory of the ANC and the ascent of “majority rule” in South Africa. Hugo became the beneficiary of a changed political attitude toward his homeland. Far-flung assignments in Equatorial Africa have given him access to some of the world’s most disadvantaged and troubled peoples. Though a white man from a country that once promoted some of the harshest racial policies in the world, he moves now through the tensions of the Sub-Sahara with evident ease.
He has made the decision to portray his subjects as he would people he already knew—by posing them looking directly into camera, their collaboration with the photographer proud and unambiguous:
My homeland is Africa, but I'm white. I feel African, whatever that means, but if you ask anyone in South Africa if I'm African, they will almost certainly say no. I don't fit into the social topography of my country and that certainly fueled why I became a photographer. I am of a generation that approaches photography with a keen awareness of the problems inherent in pointing a camera at anything.
The illusionary world of Nigeria’s Nollywood cinema with its multi-layered artifices would seem perfect for a photographer who doesn’t work with a small newsworthy SLR, but one who prefers the discipline of larger format film. His portraits are made with deliberation, not stolen.
Nollywood films may have begun as super low budget, wannabe clones of Hollywood, but it eventually became clear to producers and directors that the entire panorama of Nigerian tribal histories and of contemporary social issues could have strong attraction to its indigenous audience, one nearly equal to the routine blood and gore programmers that still dominate. But social issues do not represent the world captured by Hugo’s camera, nor are the actors who pose for him representative of the elite stars of Nigerian cinema, many of whom have lifestyles parallel to that of their American and Indian counterparts. Hugo’s figures inhabit the lower depths of a deeply stratified society.
The center of the Nigerian film industry is Lagos, a city of close to 15 million people. Its second center is Enugu in the southeast of the country, where many of the low budget genre films are produced.
As fascinated as Hugo has said he is with the world of filmmaking, a closer consideration of his overall body of work is testament to the diversity of subject matter he feels compelled to witness and document. One of the most controversial and bizarre of these is the Hausa tribe of Hyena Men. He has also photographed movingly many of the memorial sites and church naves of the 1994 killing fields of the Rwandan genocide.
A compelling essay on the arc of Pieter Hugo’s career is the above quoted article from The Guardian, published shortly after he won the Discovery Award at the 2008 Arles Photography Festival:
Before discovering the Nollywood photos of Pieter Hugo, I had almost no awareness of the complex and bustling Nigerian film industry, one that also floods many neighboring countries with product. It didn’t take me long to find videos, including a YouTube channel hosting dozens of Nollywood features. Western fascination has been reflected in several documentaries.
A trailer for director Jamie Meltzer’s Welcome to Nollywood gives a brief window into the intense rhythm of production, as well as a sense of the pride that comes with a national cinema that is defining itself as it goes.
Another trailer, for a National Film Board of Canada documentary from 2008, Nollywood Babylon, illustrates the energy of an exploding industry before charting the unlikely rise of offshoot bedrock Christian cinema that emerges as competitor, a parable of the unpredictable crosscurrents in one of Africa’s most volatile cultures. The film is co-directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal.
There is also a South African documentary that presents a more personal focused history of Nigerian movies—not of the official government sponsored films of the 1960s and 1970s that strove to present a picture of its emerging art cinema at the world’s film festivals. No, this is a grassroots, primal yelp cinema, all video captured, and shot mostly handheld with a routine shooting schedule of one week. The documentary focuses on four Nollywood filmmakers: a young woman, Chinny Ahaneku, who is directing a tribal witchcraft tale titled, Deceit of the Gods; Ralph Nwadike, a pivotal producer/director, the documentary’s nominal guide; Hanks Anuku one of the reigning male stars of Nollywood; and Stephanie Okereke, a fast rising female star. The documentary is titled Nollywood Dreams, and is directed by Jacques Pauw. An amusing incident emerges near the end of the film. The director of Deceit of the Gods, Ahaneku, requires a cameo scene to be played by a white man. She quickly turns to the documentary’s director, Jacques Pauw. He is drafted to play a white missionary. A non-actor, Pauw is on camera for several days.
Pauw’s unlikely ascent to brief stardom may be seen as a metaphor for the topsy-turvy, chaotic but infectious world of Nollywood movies.
Many of Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood photographs feature ragged street children. Some of them may become tomorrow’s stars in a cinema born out of the mean streets and poverty rows of Lagos, but which may one day reach out beyond the confines of its fanatically loyal native community. Somewhere, watching the shootouts, car chases and decapitations of Nollywood’s grindhouse cinema may be Nigeria’s own Satyajit Ray.
UPDATE NOTE: Hugo's photo essay and video "Empire of the In-Between," a look at rust belt America seen from the Amtrak train between NYC and DC, is on the NY Times website here:
It is also the cover story of the Times Sunday Magazine, November 4, 2012.