If you ever thought that Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry was only about directors with low budgets churning out films in a couple of weeks, which were shot in the streets of Lagos or in their lounges; think again. Nigerian producers and directors are stepping away from the generic Nollywood film mold; their films are emerging onto international cinema screens at film festivals.
The award-winning Michelle Bello is one such film director and producer. Bello studied visual media at Regent University in Virginia in the United States. In three decades since its establishment, the school has attracted distinguished faculty and guest lectures such as John Ashcroft, former United States attorney general; Vern Clark, former chief of naval operations and Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes Inc. Over the years, the university has been the recipient of more than 267 national and international film awards.
During her time at the university, Bello had the opportunity to attend some of the biggest film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, which—since its launch in 1985—has been the launchpad for many films. Some of these films gained critical recognition, received commercial distribution and reached audiences eager for fresh perspectives and new voices.
Bello is dedicated to the film industry and was even an intern at the prestigious Cannes film festival. According to the official websites, “Ever since [Festival de Cannes’] creation, [it] has remained faithful to its founding purpose: to draw attention to and raise the profile of films with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level”.
With these experiences she came to appreciate that successful filmmakers are those who are patient and passionate about their craft.
She lives by the fact that filmmaking is not about rushing into things and making millions of films; it’s all about taking the time to make powerful films. Small Boy, which was inspired by Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated Pursuit of Happyness, was Bello’s debut film about 10-year-old Sonny who has to learn how to survive in the slums of Lagos. She felt that there was a need for such a film in Nigeria.
“For me, the reason why I made Small Boy is because I was tired of seeing the world just having a negative image of Nigeria. I wanted to do something that was an inspirational story. At that time, I felt that we needed such kind of movies to uplift Nigerians and there were very few films doing that. I was not thinking about how much money I will make, I was just passionate about the story,” she says.
The truth is that while Small Boy might not have been a moneymaking blockbuster, nor was it launched at Cannes or Sundance, or gained recognition on a global scale, it has however made headlines in the industry. The film scooped two awards at the 2009 African Film Academy Awards and was screened at the American Black Film Festival in the United States, where it received
She has also opened the eyes of International Creative Management (ICM), one of the top three recruitment agencies, which believed in the skills that this young Nigerian filmmaker had to offer.
“I got to see Hollywood from the inside…” says Bello about her experience at ICM.
She discovered that although there is talent in Africa, recruitment agencies are not queuing up at Africa’s international airports to whisk away this talent to the promised land
“They work in a complete business end of it. Someone like Genevieve [Nnaji], for example, is our superstar and from their perspective they don’t see her as [being] bankable. They need to pick the big stars, whether it is Will Smith or Denzel Washington, who are bankable, whom if they are put in the movie are going to make billions of dollars… Unfortunately, right now, they are not at that level where they can get someone like Genevieve and say she can bring 10 million…” says Bello.
Despite this, Bello is optimistic. She was quoted in NigeriaFilms.com as saying, “The growth in the [Nollywood] industry over the next few years will be exciting because there are young people [of my generation] that are now coming up wanting to tell Nigerian stories to an international audience.”
With new cameras and editing equipment, it is now possible for African filmmakers to make films the same way a painter draws or novelists write.
Filmmakers, however, cannot avoid costs. A novelist can write a novel with a pen and paper if they like, they don’t even need a computer. A sculpturer or a painter can use worthless materials such as plastic to create a sculpture or painting, which may be sold for $200. But for filmmakers, it is different. Films inadvertently require money because of the number of people and processes involved in front of and behind the camera: food has to be bought for the crew; filming permits need to be acquired; music needs to be recorded and then there is editing. All these come at a cost, which filmmakers have to budget for.
The Nigerian filmmaker is currently working on another romantic comedy, which started shooting in August and is scheduled for completion in January. The budget for the film is $300,000—two times larger than the first film. She admits, jokingly, that the largest portion of her film budget goes to food catering and the generator.
“I called my brother and told him that the generator is eating into my budget. He was shocked to hear that I had to pay for the generator to film.”
Bello is working closely with her California-based brother who is an award-winning screenplay writer. She wrote the original script during her screenwriting classes at
“I was about to come back here [to Nigeria] whilst completing my internship at Cannes and I was thinking about what project I am going to do next. I thought about the script and talked to my brother about it… and now the script is now where it is today, we are making a movie,”
She knows how tough the film industry can be and so her intention with this new film is to create a platform for young and upcoming actors to shine and showcase their talent. At first, she was unsure about having auditions, owing to the fact that she had been away from Nigeria for so long. To her surprise the turnout was impressive. It attracted many actors from the popular Nigerian soap opera, Tinsel, which is an M-Net production known for its quality in West Africa. The film will feature stars such as Damilola Adegbite and Ghanaian actor
Piracy is a big problem in Nigeria. It is for this reason that Bello has been careful of whom to give the film to. With her new project she is not concerned because the film is made for theatrical release and has managed to secure various international cinema releases before being released on DVD which is where piracy is most prominent. With this she is hoping to get her money back and make profit, only to invest it further in her passion for filmmaking.