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Riverwood: Kenyan Super-fast, Super-cheap Filmmaking

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The African film-making success story of Nigeria’s Nollywood has been joined by another fast-rising star: Kenya’s Riverwood. Both are beneficiaries of the digital revolution in filmmaking over the last decade, and both are using low-cost digital filmmaking and editing to tell local stories — in the process making money and creating thousands of jobs.

The power of creative industries to create jobs and wealth has been a focus of UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity. UNESCO has been in the forefront in helping African countries re-shape their policies to take cultural industries into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

What is particularly attractive about this phenomenon for the poor in the South is its rough-and-ready approach to filmmaking: combining low-cost digital cameras and film editing software on personal computers, with small budgets and fast turn-around times. Films are made on location using local people. These factors make getting into filmmaking accessible and within reach of more people.

Riverwood is named after River Road, a bustling creative and business hub in Nairobi. Riverwood operates at a furious pace, with 20 to 30 films made every week. It adds up to 1,000 films a year selling 500,000 copies at 200 Kenyan shillings (US $2.60) a piece: 1 billion shillings (US $13 million) in the past two years.

The whole industry is totally self-sufficient, and is following the well-trodden path laid down by Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

One of Kenya’s woman directors is leading the renaissance in filmmaking. “Movies are very important because I think they are the most important art in Kenya – in Africa,” said Wanjiru Kinyanjui in the film, “Riverwood, the Blooming of a Film Industry,” by the World Intellectual Property Organization (www.wipo.org). “Basically, because Africans have an oral tradition, and a visual one, there is a huge market for local films.”

Riverwood films share a common characteristic of on-the-spot sets and a resourceful and cheap approach.

“They are shot in two, three days and edited in a week,” she continued. “They are selling because people can identify with them. The films being in Riverwood are basically the lives of people, reflecting the Kenyan way of life and entertaining Kenyans. “

And it is a new form of employment for many people:  “When I am making a movie, I need people: you employ very many people. And you also employ yourself. It is a real way of getting rid of poverty. Because all this talent, which is untapped, could be working.”

And as Riverwood rising star director John E. Maina puts it: “Hollywood is the model for any society that wants to develop.”

While still in its infancy compared to Nigeria’s Nollywood, Riverwood is already pioneering ways to protect the creative rights of filmmakers and build a financially-sustainable industry. Inspired by Hollywood’s ownership of creative material, Kenyan filmmakers have come up with some ingenious solutions. Each production company has a rubber stamp and signs on the sleeve of the DVD (digital video disc) – even if it is 1,000 copies.

If a director finds a pirated copy, and even if pirates have forged the rubber stamp, the signature will look like a forgery.

“It is based on a business model,” said director John E. Maina. ”It is commercial. So it is self-sustaining. This is how Bollywood is growing, this is how Nollywood is growing, this is how Hollywood developed.”

As pioneers in copyright protection, Riverwood directors strongly believe they are an important part of the country’s development.

“When you pirate a product, and the resources are not channelled back to the person who created that product, he is losing out on creating a new product for you tomorrow,” said Maina. “So you are the loser: tomorrow you will not have another product.

“Riverwood, Nollywood, Hollywood, are the model for any society that wants to develop. No society will develop without an audiovisual industry. And I think the way to protect an audiovisual industry is through strong copyright laws,” he said.

“If you go to most of the cafes and the pubs in Kenya, people only turn to TV at 7 o’clock, watch the news, after the news is over, they tell the management to put for them the local DVDs from Riverwood. Because they see themselves, they identify with those images. They don’t identify with the foreign American films, the soaps from South America.<

“The audiovisual industry is a mirror. If you don’t have a mirror to see yourself, you don’t know who you are. If you don’t have that mirror to see yourself, you are lost.”

Published: November 2008

Resources

  • The global charity Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and empowerment of women) has projects to teach women filmmaking skills. Website: http://uk.camfed.org
  • Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Television de Ouagadoogou 2009: Africa’s biggest film festival. Website: http://www.fespaco.bf/
  • Naijarules: Billing itself as the “largest online community of lovers and critics of Nollywood”, an excellent way to connect with all the players in the business.Website: http://www.naijarules.com/vb/index.php
  • A film by the World Intellectual Property Organization about the Riverwood phenomenon and an introduction to its up-and-coming directors. Website: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=OwSu5kcUErE

Cited in The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film by Sonja Fritzsche (2014).

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This work is licensed under a
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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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Nollywood: Booming Nigerian Film Industry

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The digital revolution in filmmaking over the last decade has given birth to an African success story: Nollywood – Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood, uses low-cost digital filmmaking and editing to tell local stories — in the process making money and creating thousands of jobs.

This do-it-yourself (DIY), straight-to-DVD and video market has in just 13 years ballooned into a US $250 million-a-year industry employing thousands of people. In terms of the number of films produced each year, Nollywood is now in third place behind India’s Bollywood and America’s Hollywood. Despite rampant pirating of DVDs and poor copyright controls, directors, producers, actors, stars, vendors and technicians are all making a living in this fast-growing industry.

The power of creative industries to create jobs and wealth has been a focus of UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity. UNESCO has been in the forefront in helping African countries re-shape their policies to take cultural industries into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

What is particularly attractive about Nollywood to the poor in the South is its rough-and-ready approach to filmmaking: combining low-cost digital cameras and film editing software on personal computers, with small budgets and fast turn-around times. Films are made on location using local people. These factors make getting into filmmaking accessible and within reach of more people.

Nollywood grew out of frustration, necessity and crisis: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nigerian cities became crime hotbeds. People were terrified to go out on the streets, and this led to the closing down of many movie theatres. Desperate for entertainment at home – and unsatisfied with foreign imports from India and the West – Nigerians turned to telling their own stories to stave off the boredom of staying in.

The film credited with sparking off the industry is 1992’s Living in Bondage – a huge financial hit credited with raising the level of professionalism and production values in Nigerian cinema.

Now, between 500 and 1,000 feature-length movies are made each year, selling well across the continent of Africa. Average productions take 10 days and cost around US $15,000 (www.thisisnollywood.com). Nollywood stars are famous throughout Africa – and Nigeria culturally dominates West Africa just as the US does the world. It is estimated there are 300 producers and that 30 titles go to shops and market stalls every week. On average, a film sells 50,000 copies: a hit will sell several hundred thousand. With each DVD costing around US $2, it is affordable to most Nigerians and very profitable for the producers.

“These are stories about Africa, not someone else’s,” well-known actor Joke Silva told the Christian Science Monitor.

Focused on Africa, the films’ themes revolve around AIDS, corruption, women’s rights, the occult, crooked cops and prostitution. They do so well because they speak directly to the lives of slum-dwellers and rural villagers.

“We are telling our own stories in our way, our Nigerian way, African way,” said director Bond Emeruwa. “I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about. He tells his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”

The big brands – Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon – all produce cameras capable of high-definition digital filmmaking and these have become the staple tools of this filmmaking revolution.

More and more, the films are capitalising on the large African diaspora around the world, on top of Africa’s large internal market. And this is offering a step-up into the global marketplace for Nigerian directors and producers.

The Nollywood phenomemon has been documented in the documentary This is Nollywood, directed by Franco Sacchi, a teacher from the Center of Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University.

The prospects for the industry are only looking up: the Nigeria in the Movies project has been launched to help grow the industry, establish standards, improve distribution and broaden its international appeal and awareness. It also offers filmmaking grants for neophyte filmmakers.

Of course, filmmaking can be a tricky business: authorities in largely Muslim northern Nigeria have imposed 32 restrictions on the local film industry — nicknamed “Kannywood” after the city of Kano. A six-month ban lost the industry US $29 million and put thousands out of work: a sign of the economic importance of this DIY filmmaking business. The message is clear: filmmakers need to be sensitive to the cultural norms of the communities in which they work.

Kannywood, started in 1992, has 268 production companies and 40 editing studios, employing over 14,000 people.

Adim Williams is one Nigerian director who is getting an international audience. He spends about US $40,000 on films that take two weeks to shoot. He has already secured an American release of a comedy, Joshua. Another director, Tunde Kelani, is regularly featured at international film festivals, where Nollywood screenings are more common.

And some, like young director Jeta Amata, believe Nollywood’s cheap, fast-production, DIY approach has a lot to teach Hollywood, with its expensive filmmaking and ponderous production cycles.

Resources

  • This is Nollywood: A documentary about Nigeria’s booming movie industry.
    Website: http://www.thisisnollywood.com
    There is also an inspiring trailer to the film here.
    Website: http://www.thisisnollywood.com
  • The global charity Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and empowerment of women) has projects to teach women filmmaking skills.
    Website: http://uk.camfed.org
  • Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadoogou 2009: Africa’s biggest film festival.
    Website: http://www.fespaco.bf/
  • Naijarules: Billing itself as the “largest online community of lovers and critics of Nollywood”, an excellent way to connect with all the players in the business.
    Website: http://www.naijarules.com/vb/index.php
  • Nollywood Foundation: Based in the US, aims to bring Nigerian films and culture to an international audience and to promote new films and new media.
    Website:http://www.nollywoodfoundation.org/home.php

Published: March 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

One of the many stories we covered on Africa’s fast-growing cities from 2007. It was witnessing first-hand Africa’s innovators and their adaptive use of mobile and information technologies that inspired us to give birth to Southern Innovator’s first issue.

Cited in Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence edited by Olugbenga Adesida, Geci Karuri-Sebina, Joao Resende-Santos (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016).

Cited in Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence edited by Olugbenga Adesida, Geci Karuri-Sebina, Joao Resende-Santos (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016)

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021