With more than 1,000 films produced each year, the Nigerian film industry now makes more movies than Hollywood.
Filmmaker Jeta Amata has been involved in Nollywood since the industry's beginning 20 years ago. From Nigeria to Hollywood to Haiti, filmmaker Amata strives to bring the global African diaspora together.
Amata casts Nollywood stars alongside American actors like Vivica Fox and Mickey Rourke so that the stories he tells will reach a wider audience. His latest film, Black November, dealt with the environmental devastation caused by oil spills in the Niger Delta.
Black November started conversations that extended far past the Delta. After the film was screened at the Library of Congress in 2012, Congressman Bobby Rush and three of his colleagues sponsored a joint resolution advocating for the Delta's protection and recovery. "That was just a major, major achievement," Amata says of the resolution.
Amata joined Tell Me More's Michel Martin to talk about how his storytelling connects Africans living all over the world.
On bringing professional quality production to Nollywood
Nollywood is actually not about the quality. Nollywood is making films for us, by us. That's what's made it as phenomenal as it is. So the quality has never come into play. But with guys like me, who get ambitious and feel like "How do we tell the world our stories?" The world demands... I don't want to use the word "quality," but certain ways have to be applied in making the film, yes. That's why I decided to venture out to using such ways.
On casting Hollywood stars in Black November
I grew up in the Niger Delta. I know the problems we face in the Niger Delta. And if you want to tell the story, you want the world to see it. You want the world to understand so they can help us in minimizing the problems we go through... If I have to make something that people would see and join us in our peaceful fight, they would have to regard it as one of their kinds of films.
Nobody wants to talk oil, even in Hollywood. While I was trying to cast, there were some people who just saw that it had to do with oil and were like "I love this, but I will have to pass because I am not political and I don't want to delve into this." So it was quite difficult casting the right names.
On his next film about Toussaint l'Ouverture and the struggle for Haitian independence
Now, that is a story that every, every African and Africans in the diaspora have to know... This is something the world has to know. They have to understand that years ago, we had a few people who stood up, did it the right way, and succeeded.
It's a big story. It's a big endeavor, but big endeavors have never scared Nigerians. We just keep going, so the Nigerian spirit in me is gonna move on.
On making global connections
There are so many dynamic people out here [in Africa] who would love to welcome our brothers and sisters from out there so that we can connect and do business together. Like Nollywood, we're the second-biggest film industry in the world-- come on!
The African-Americans out there, all they need to do is collaborate with us and they can reach the 170 million people in Nigeria. ... Black History Month, bring it to Africa. Connect with your African brothers. We want our brothers and sisters to come back home to celebrate with us so we can plan on how to move forward.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This February, we decided to observe Black History Month by going global. We'll be hearing from voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora. And today, we are going to hear from one of the biggest names in Nigerian film. Now you've probably heard about Bollywood. The Indian film industry is the world's largest, but did you know that Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry has come to be known, is second in terms of the number of films produced every year. Jeta Amata is Nollywood royalty. His roots go back two generations in film in Nigeria. But he's also taken the industry forward by not only telling Nigeria's stories, but also creating a place where Hollywood and Nollywood meet. And Jeta Amata is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
J. AMATA: Well, thank you for having me here.
MARTIN: Can I start by asking you how you feel about the term Nollywood by the way? I understand that everyone does not love that term.
AMATA: I don't hate it. What they say is when you want to kill a dog, you give it a bad name. That's what they said. But it's an identity given to us - I think it was the New York Times. At some point, it was said that it's not a way to make films, not Hollywood, and the Nollywood style of making films. How we started in Nollywood, we started by just getting on the job. We didn't have any formal training on filmmaking.
Yeah, I studied theater arts, but no one told me anything about cameras and edits and stuff. But however, the name, it's everywhere in the world right now. So why should we hate something that's making us move forward? I'm different when it comes to that. I am proud of the name. I don't care how it started. I would identify with it any day.
MARTIN: Well, you've kind of taken that ethos forward, though, haven't you? I mean, as, you know, many people might know that Nollywood films have really gone global, incredibly popular. I mean, people can - like, even, like, a not-great film can sell - what - 20 or 50,000 units. But let's say the stereotype about the Nollywood films is that they - not the highest production quality. And that's one of the things that you are known for is kind of elevating the game. Do you think that's fair?
AMATA: Fair in a way, and not fair in another way. The thing about Nollywood is actually not about the quality. Nollywood is making films for us by us. That's what's made it as phenomenal as it is. So the quality has never come into place. But with guys like me who get ambitious and feel like, how do we tell the world our stories, and the world demands a certain - I don't want to use the word quality - but certain ways have to be applied in making the film, yes.
That's why I decided to venture out to using such ways. I don't like to use the word quality because no matter how bad a Nollywood film is, like you said, it still sells a lot. And people still follow the story and especially when you have a target market who just follow a story, and it doesn't matter how beautiful the picture looks.
MARTIN: And I want to mention here, one of the films that I think people in the U.S. might have seen, either at a festival or in theaters, it was your 2012 film "Black November," which starred of course Nigerian stars, but also actors well-known to the U.S. audience including Vivica Fox, Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. And I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK NOVEMBER")
NARRATOR: Oil - it fuels empires, enriches the world.
HAKEEM KAE-KAZIM: (As Dede) We can't fish. We can't farm. We can't do anything. Why are they here?
NARRATOR: It destroys Nigeria.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Unidentified Character) You would call the president of the United States of America?
NARRATOR: Inspired by true events.
M. AMATA: (As Ebiere) This is what you have turned into, a (unintelligible) criminal.
KAE-KAZIM: (As Dede) I have become who the government has made me be.
MARTIN: The trailer there. So what gave you the idea to make the cast kind of transnational?
AMATA: Well, I grow up in the Niger Delta. I know the problems we face in the Niger Delta, and if you want to tell the story, you want the world to see it. You want the world to understand so they can help us in minimizing the problems we go through. It's just terrible to know that when there was the Exxon Valdez, everyone talked about it. But now we've had, like, 53 of that size every year for the past 50 years. So I thought if I have to make something that people would see and join us in our peaceful fight, they would have to regard it as one of their kind of films. So that's why I opted for that quality.
MARTIN: What were some of the challenges in making that film? I mean, anybody who follows this issue closely understands that there's quite a lot of money at stake, and whenever there's that much money at stake, there are going to be, you know, powerful interests who are not necessarily interested in changing the status quo. Were there some particular challenges in making that film that you want to tell us about?
AMATA: Yeah, definitely. First of all, when I started making it, I filmed in Nigeria and of course in Los Angeles. While I was filming in Nigeria, I got some threats from a few organizations from the Niger Delta who claimed I didn't come to take proper permission from them. So because of that, they threatened and told me they knew where my house was, how my daughter gets taken to school, the name of the school. So it was bad, you know.
But I thought I was doing the story for them. But apart from that, I have - many stumbling blocks here and there. Nobody wants to talk oil. Even in Hollywood while I was trying to cast, there were certain people who just saw that it had to do with oil and were like, I love this, but I will have to pass because I am not political and I don't want to delve into this. So it was quite difficult casting the right names. So we had to put a lot of money to make it work.
MARTIN: Were you happy to get an opportunity to screen the film in the U.S.? I mean, was that important to you?
AMATA: Oh, yes. It was. And the first screening was at the Library of Congress with a few congressmen there, and that inspired a resolution in the House on the Niger Delta. That was just a major, major achievement.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking to director Jeta Amata. He is one of the biggest names in Nigerian film, and he's also now making a name for himself in the U.S. film industry. Let me play a clip now from another of your films. This one is actually a musical. And this is the trailer for "Inale."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INALE")
DEDE MABIAKU: (As King Oche) The rules of our village state that any man, whosoever wishes to prove his love for my daughter must be given an opportunity.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Unidentified Character) (Singing in foreign language).
KAE-KAZIM: (As Odeh) And I thought the gods had abandoned us.
CAROLINE CHIKEZIE: (As Inale) The gods would never forsake love.
ACTRESS: (As Unidentified Character) (Singing in foreign language).
MARTIN: Tell me a bit about this one - a very different feel, right, than "Black November."
AMATA: Yeah. It's a musical. It's like a folklore from the people in Benue state in Nigeria called the Idomas who have a story about how a princess turned into a mermaid. And I felt I had to introduce another part of Nigerian kind of filming to the world where you have an actual musical - it's, like, our first musical to come out of Nigeria - and keep it really traditional, keep it really cultural. And it's reaching both elements. So...
MARTIN: It's such an interesting position that you're in. On the one hand, because you are known and you have a big vision of what's possible, I can see that there are all kinds of pressures on you for people wanting you to be one thing or another thing, right? And I'm wondering, do you feel that? Do you feel pressure to - what - satisfy all these things that people want from you? Or do you just do what you want at this point?
AMATA: Well, the moment you get to Hollywood, what you want starts shifting slightly to the background. So with "Inale," it was still what I wanted. But right now in Hollywood, the kind of meetings I've been having with a lot of important people, they say, we get it. You want to make films that tell good stories of Africa. You want to tell stories that can impact the world in a positive way. But they remind me that you need the market and you need people to say, we know him. And then after that, you can go back to doing what you love to do best.
MARTIN: So now I understand that you're also working on a film in Haiti about Toussaint Louverture, right? And is that going forward?
AMATA: Yes, it is. In fact, as soon as I'm done with what I am doing in Nigeria, I'll be flying straight to Haiti so we can start putting that together. But Toussaint Louverture is - now that is a story every, every African and Africans in diaspora have to know. It's interesting to know that a group of slaves could fight for their freedom and defeat Napoleon's army, defeat the British, defeat the Spanish and keep the Americans at bay to declare their independence. Now this happened in 1804. This is something the world has to know. They have to understand that years ago, we had a few people who stood up, did it the right way and succeeded. They need to know that.
MARTIN: That's a big story to get on film.
MARTIN: How are you going to get all that down?
AMATA: We're just going to do the best we can. We...
AMATA: We've done a good script.
AMATA: It's a big story. It's a big endeavor, but big endeavors have never scared Nigerians. We just keep going. So the Nigerian spirit in me is going to move on.
MARTIN: OK. Well, thank you for speaking with us. Before we let you go, as you know, we mentioned that Black History Month in the U.S. is a big thing. It's a time of year - I'm sure you know this, you've spent a lot of time in the U.S. - when the kind of contributions of people of the African diaspora are celebrated in the U.S. And it was begun by an African-American historian who felt that these contributions to America's story were overlooked. As we mentioned, we're taking it global. And I just wondered if you have any special thoughts for Black History Month that you would like to share with us?
AMATA: I do, actually. And what I think African-Americans should do is take Black History Month back to Africa. I know there's loads of chaos and poverty and corruption or whatever, but there's so many dynamic people out here who would love to welcome our brothers and sisters from out there so we can connect and do business together, like Nollywood. We're the second-biggest film industry in the world. Come on.
Yeah, most of the quality, that comes out terrible. But at least the African-Americans out there, all they need to do is collaborate with us, and they can reach the 170 million people in Nigeria and also reach the African-Americans in the U.S. and the ones in other parts of the world. Black History Month - bring it to Africa. Connect with your African brothers. We want our brothers and sisters to come back home to celebrate with us so we can plan on how to move forward.
MARTIN: Jeta Amata is a Nigerian filmmaker. He was kind enough to join us from the BBC studios in Lagos, Nigeria. Jeta Amata, thank you so much for speaking with us. Do keep us posted about all of your adventures.
AMATA: I will do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.