Emily Witt spent five weeks in Nigeria to research “Nollywood,” her new book about the country’s thriving film industry.
“The hardest part,” she told me, “was accepting that there were no official metrics to quantify the ‘best’ or ‘most popular’ movies. There’s no Nigerian Rotten Tomatoes, there’s no Nigerian Oscars, and because of piracy nobody really knows what the best-selling movies are except by word of mouth, a channel of information that I had trouble accessing as a foreigner.”
Shaky metrics aside, Witt captured the state of play by spending time, among other places, at a vast electronics market to get a sense of distribution patterns; on the set of a biopic about Queen Amina, a warrior princess; and in the company of Genevieve Nnaji, the star of more than 80 movies. (Oprah Winfrey once called Nnaji “the Julia Roberts of Africa”; Witt writes in the book that the description “does not suffice,” and that Nnaji is the continent’s “Julia Roberts and its Audrey Hepburn.”)
Witt said her favorite movie that she saw while there was “Taxi Driver,” a dark comedy about a driver and a prostitute, influenced by Martin Scorsese’s movie of the same name as well as Jim Jarmusch’s moody collection of taxi-set vignettes, “Night on Earth.” “Like many of the best Nigerian movies,” Witt said, “it tells the story of a provincial naïf arriving to the city and trying to maintain his sense of right and wrong. The plot gets a little muddled at the end, but I like that it plays with traditional Nollywood tropes (a Shakespearean visit from a ghost and ill omens) while avoiding simplistic moral lessons.” Like more and more Nigerian films, the movie is coming to the United States. Its director, Daniel Oriahi, will be at Columbia University for a screening on Nov. 9.