WILLIAMS: Nigerian film industry building a nation

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LAGOS, Nigeria — This is my first visit to the land of Nigeria, and no amount of briefing could ever prepare one for this vast oasis of people and the incredible intellectual and business capital in this part of the world.

The opening scenes in the Hollywood epic “There Will Be Blood” feature a grainy video shot in soundless shadow. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful big-screen scenes in modern memory. But in fact, the scene and the movie as whole take the viewer to a rougher period in early American history - before the country was connected by railroad, telegraph and highway. Similarly, Nigeria’s nascent movie industry operates in a land without robust national infrastructure. The fact that the industry exists at all, without cinemas, studios, cable television or even a national electric grid, speaks to its amazing resiliency.

More than any other industry, Nigeria’s filmmaking reflects the messy, ambivalent process of nation-building in the country. Men and women with few resources but boundless ingenuity have taken matters into their own hands and crafted not only an industry, but an art form that is quickly evolving into a national cultural movement. While in monetary terms, the Nigerian film industry (I resist using the term “Nollywood”) pales in comparison with that of the United States, it is undeniably the most vibrant expression of talent and ingenuity in the country.

The industry employs more than 1 million people - making it the largest employer outside of agriculture - and has exerted considerable cultural influence within Nigeria and throughout the African continent. The cultural genre, generally featuring modern themes interspersed with native cultural symbols, represents a cinematic art form in its nascent stages. Its ability to capture the energy and ambition of Nigeria’s youths is nothing short of startling. The film production industry has given them jobs, hope and valuable skills.

In recent years, political and business leaders have taken notice and attempted to capitalize on the industry’s vitality. The political leadership wishes to use cinema as a marketing tool to burnish Nigeria’s image abroad. The mainstream business community wants to harness Nigerian cinema’s economic potential. However, efforts to corral growth - whether by censorship or government investment on one hand or by strict enforcement of intellectual property rules on the other - threaten the industry with extinction.

In the United States, wildcat oilmen found small wells and drilled them. In the course of their expansion, railroads, banks and towns arose in their midst. As “There Will Be Blood” depicts, the process was fraught with danger and uncertainty, along with fraud and corruption, intrigue and violence. But out of that dynamic process, a vast energy industry emerged and ended up fueling America’s industrial growth. My point here is not that the Nigerian film industry should be allowed to grow unaided or unregulated, but that at this stage in development, the creativity, drive and passion within the industry should be allowed to flourish more freely.

As the American oil industry grew, its supporting infrastructure began to form the backbone of the nation - whether in terms of railroads, telegraphs, industrial equipment or oil pipeline. In fact, today’s largest telecommunications companies such as Qwest Communications use rights of way that originally were owned by the small wildcat drillers.

Similarly, as Nigerian cinema continues to grow as an art form and an industry, related infrastructure naturally will evolve. Whether it takes the shape of a village cinema, production studio or distribution shop, the means of distribution ultimately will form the basis of a more robust Nigerian infrastructure - and infrastructure, as we all know, is the backbone of any nation.

Armstrong Williams is on Sirius Power 128, 7-8 p.m. and 4-5 a.m., Mondays through Fridays. Become a fan on Facebook at www. facebook.com/arightside, and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/arightside. Read his content on RightSideWire.com.

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