When “Living in Bondage,” a film about a man who sacrifices his wife to gain wealth, only to repent when her ghost haunts him—gripped Nigerian audiences in 1992—it ignited the creative juices of artists here.
A lot has changed since that movie (which sold over 750,000 videocassettes) came out. Once upon a time there was virtually no filmmaking in the country, and now one million plus people are employed by it.
Nollywood productions are seen all over the continent like Bollywood offerings and Hollywood blockbusters, with an estimated 2,000 films made annually.
But even with its explosive growth, the themes of its bestsellers have remained constant.
Witchcraft or ‘juju’ in local parlance, and cultism are heavy favorites, reflecting get-rich quick schemes to explain how folks go from being poor to living like millionaires in a short amount of time.
For years, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, the founder of the nonprofit organization Communicating for Change has sought to use Nigerians love of drama and entertainment to influence their behavior.
Obiago has produced internationally acclaimed documentaries that focus on female mechanics—Nigeria’s leading women market traders known as ‘Cash Madams,’—as well as programs promoting democracy and good governance.
Recently, she began collaborating with Nollywood directors.
“Documentaries reach a certain segment of the population but not everyone is attracted to documentaries, so halfway through we said lets try and be more popular, she explained in CFC’s offices tucked away on a quiet street in Ikeja, a commercial hub that is 10 miles northwest of Lagos.
In 2002, CFC produced an attention grabbing 52-part radio drama on conflict resolution, exam fraud, cultism, health education and other topics relative to Nigeria.
Their method is simple.
CFC produces programming that shines a light on Nigerians behavior and uses research data to illustrate the country’s problems.
When HIV/AIDS began to severely impact Nigerian youth, CFC produced seven dramas based on the experiences of young people in the oil producing Bayelsa State.
Many natives dealt with navigating safe sex issues on college campuses, unplanned pregnancies in which young fathers disappear, and the severity of not seeking HIV counseling after engaging in unsafe sex.
“The films are a synthesis of the research. Everything that came into the film you can trace it back to something someone said in the field, explains Obiago.” That link with the audience, what works, what doesn’t, what is believable and what is not has been a big factor in our success.”
When U.N. statistics showed that Nigeria had the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world with an estimated 144 women dying daily from pregnancy-related complications, CFC embarked on its most ambitious project yet.
They brought in health experts and screenwriters and took all of them to a seaside resort for some solitude and brainstorming, and from that meeting three issues emerged.
The cultural barriers for seeking treatment include complications of early marriages; getting the husband’s permission to go to a hospital and indecision as to when to seek prenatal care.
The idea was to teach screenwriters how to produce dramas using research findings on safe motherhood.
“It was now up to them to find out how do we pull all of this information together and come up with a fantastic script, not just to inform people or educate people but also to entertain them,” said Bolaji Fati, a producer with CFC.
Three shorter films were produced and a 90-minute feature is in development. All were screened in December 2009 at the Silverbird Cinemas in Lagos.
The production got a boost when Nigeria’s widely known and highest paid director, Teco Benson, agreed to direct two installments pro bono.
Benson is known for the horror movie “Six Demons” and his hit “Mission to Nowhere.”
“I was attracted by the topic and the credibility of CFC,” Benson, former head of the Association of Movie Producers. (AMP), said.
He said his own interest in public health made him accept the job even though he had a big project on hand.
“They have really done works that touch on virtually all works of life. And the amazing thing is that they spend a lot of time and resources in research with a view to educating the viewers and changing their bad attitudes,” the director added.
CFC’s maternal mortality project was made using some funds from the New York based Ford Foundation.
In February, at least 60 of the100 TV station executives saw the films. CFC is providing the series to them for a nominal fee (about $300). The stations will air the works repeatedly next year. TV stations rarely commission their own work.
Silverbird Cinemas, the largest movie chain in sub-Saharan Africa, is supporting the project by airing them in its cinemas as previews to its main events. Its television arm will air them.
Even with the 100 TV stations and close to 5,000 cinema screens CFC keeps looking for means to get its message out.
It has partnered with luxury bus companies that transport the bulk of Nigerians from city to city and provides DVDs or videocassettes to drivers to screen the films.
“The whole point is that we are trying to be popular, we are trying to reach out to the grassroots, we are trying to use visual language that is understood,” Obiago said.
Going forward, CFC has signed agreements to have its films translated and broadcast in East Africa and marketed elsewhere as they try to change attitudes around the continent.
Photo Caption: CFC team at their Lagos production facility. Phillip Mmuo, Bolaji Fati, Padma Ugabe, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago and Chichi Uzuegbu.
Check out these two Bayelsan Silhoettes