Nigeria's Nollywood eclipsing Hollywood in Africa

It's a paradox. As cinemas close across Africa, homegrown blockbusters are actually eclipsing Hollywood on the African market as for the first time in 13 years an African feature competes for the top award at Cannes.

This weekend, "A Screaming Man" by Chad director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun joins 18 other movies selected to contend for the prestigious Palme d'Or, awarded May 23 at the close of the 12-day film festival.

Yet cinemas across the continent are pulling down screens, converted to pentecostal churches, night clubs or warehouses.

The average rate of closure is estimated at one a month - an endemic trend blamed on ticket prices too high for the average African as well as on the proliferation of cheap pirated DVDs at any street corner.

Around 50 cinemas remain in business - most in South Africa and Kenya with a few in Nigeria - thanks to mushrooming city shopping malls.

In Ivory Coast, west Africa's cultural crossroads, "cinema is dying, if it is not dead already", said award-winning producer Roger Gnoan M'Bala.

In Senegal, home to some of the continent's most renowned early filmmakers such as the late Ousmane Sembene, cinemas have all but shut down. "Senegal is one big black screen," said local weekly La Gazette.

A vestige of film resistance in West Africa is the Oscars' equivalent, FESPACO, Africa's biggest film festival held every two years in Burkina Faso.

But Africa's most populous country Nigeria 18 years ago burst into production with affordable movies now shot with digital cameras that shun the more expensive classical 35mm format.

Known as Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry has in recent years galloped ahead of Hollywood to be ranked second in the world in production terms after India's Bollywood.

A UNESCO study last year placed Nollywood second to Bollywood in terms of the numbers of films produced, with Hollywood trailing in third position. In 2006 for example, Nigeria churned out 872 productions against 485 in the United States.

Film-makers say the digital camera has helped boost African film production, with Nigerians releasing what some dub "microwave" movies that can be ready in under a month.

Nollywood "has taken over completely" from Hollywood, said Nigeria's film producer and director Teco Benson, saying it is the latest "superpower" in the movie industry.

"It's Africa's new rebranding tool".

The good news is that African film-lovers go for Nollywood.

"Africans watch more Nollywood than Hollywood," commented another local director and producer Zeb Ejiro.

Most Nollywood movies depict societal ills - corruption, fraud, drugs and human trafficking, love triangles and witchcraft - and almost all go for happy endings.

One reason for Nollywood's popularity lies with South Africa-based pay television MultiChoice. It has four 24-hour channels dedicated to African content, predominantly Nigeria productions. Two of the channels run movies in two of Nigeria's main languages, Yoruba and Hausa.

But in poor neighbourhoods, shacks with old TV screens placed on dusty alleys or verandas pass for video viewing centres. Bootleg copies sell for a couple of dollars across the continent.

In central Africa, Nollywood movies are the only ones sold by market vendors as "African movies", with the Nigerian productions dubbed into French in such countries as Cameroon and Gabon.

In Kenya, Nigerian films are also a hit - many of them broadcast on terrestrial networks - but face competition from Bollywood due to a historic large Indian population in the eastern African country.

Nollywood films are also immensely popular in Sierra Leone, to the extent of choking the growth of the country's own movie industry, said Thomas Jones, a radio play scriptwriter.

"Nollywood has hampered the growth of the local film market because my contemporaries have just resigned themselves to watching these films from Nigeria," he said.

More affluent South Africa on the other hand has seen a growth in its movie sector since the end of apartheid, and Neill Blomkamp's science fiction "District 9" was this year nominated for an Oscar.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nollywood is "very popular on television" after being dubbed into the local Lingala dialect, according to Petna Ndaliko, a local organiser of the five-year film festival in the eastern town of Goma.

And even in the tiniest of African countries such as Gambia, "Nollywood is ahead of Hollywood", said Nigerian businessman Barnabas Eset, who since 2000 has been renting out both Nollywood and Hollywood movies.

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