• January 6, 2015

Life in Lagos: The Rising Stars of Nollywood Films

Robin Hammond

Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.

Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.


Beads of sweat ran from Ewe’s glossy, hairless head, down his bare chest, and over his portly belly. Between swigs from an unmarked plastic bottle and drags from his cigarette, he barked orders at actors, the soundman, the light engineers, the make-up artists, and occasionally the photographer: me. All of us were crammed into a tiny, stuffy living room for a scene of his latest Nollywood film, Who Is the Stupid Wife?

Picture of production of Who Is the Stupid Wife in Lagos, Nigeria
Behind the scenes of the Nollywood film Who Is the Stupid Wife? The film is directed by Rasheed Akano—better known as Ewe.

Nollywood is Nigeria’s film industry. It’s big. Nigerian cinema grew quickly in the 1990s and 2000s. It is now the second largest film industry in the world in terms of number of films produced each year—an estimated 200 films a month, placing it ahead of the United States and behind only India.

The top film industries are all very different though. While Hollywood films can take months or even years to produce, Who Is the Stupid Wife? was being made over a weekend. There was one camera and three lights, a couple of make-up artists, and a cast of part-time actors. Power came from a generator, which could be heard throughout filming, humming away outside. That was until it broke down and that pitch blackness, as I’ve only experienced in Africa, descended.

Nollywood films are generally made quickly and cheaply. Don’t expect flashy special effects, complicated plots, or polished delivery of lines. Raised, as I was, on big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, they’re not my cup of tea. But who cares what I think? Hundreds of millions of Africans love the movies. They tell stories that appeal across this diverse continent. Many plots revolve around family drama and infidelity, crime, corruption and gangs, witchcraft or village life.

Picture of production of Who Is the Stupid Wife in Lagos, Nigeria
Behind the scenes of the Nollywood film Who Is the Stupid Wife?

Movie production in Nigeria has interesting parallels to attitudes about photography that I often encounter; for many, content trumps delivery. Most photographers are obsessed with how the message is delivered—it must be “artful” and capture a sense of mood. But many Nigerians I meet are much more interested in what is in the picture than aesthetics. They ask to see the images I have just captured and exclaim: “It’s not clear.” “It’s dark.” “It’s shaky.” “You are too far.” “It’s not good this one! You must do it again, use your flash!”

The Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award Ceremony after party. The awards celebrate African-made film.
The Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award Ceremony after-party. The awards celebrate African-made films.

Nollywood is filmed bright, tight and loud. Many Nigerians think photography should be the same. My idea of a “good” photograph differed from that of many of the Nigerians I met. But this is what I love about Nollywood and Nigerian photography, it is not trying to be something else; it’s not trying to be Hollywood; it’s not trying to be National Geographic! It is uniquely Nigerian. In a world where everything is becoming more and more the same, Nollywood keeps its style and its voice.

Ewe’s drinking on the set didn’t seem a problem; actually I think I was the only one who was sober. Halfway through a take, one of the actors, who I’d noticed earlier in the bar nursing a large bottle of Star Lager, didn’t deliver his line—he had fallen asleep on the sofa.

I should point out that this was one of the lower-end productions. Nollywood is actually very serious business and actors are real celebrities on the continent.

Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award Ceremony. The awards celebrate African-made film.
Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award Ceremony. The awards celebrate African-made films.

The complete antithesis of Ewe’s production was the African Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards—Africa’s version of the Oscars. None of Ewe’s unmarked bottles of clear liquid here, only the best champagne. Glamorous, stylish, beautiful people sauntered down a red carpet while roped-off photographers jostled for position.

These were the real stars of Nollywood.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the awards, hosted in a five-star hotel in Lagos. I felt shabby in the ill-fitting shirt I borrowed amongst Lagos’ stylish elite class in tailored suits or ball gowns, a glass of champagne in one hand, a Blackberry in the other.

Picture of: Lagos, Nigeria
Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award Ceremony after party.

Between awards we were entertained by comedians and singers and a violin soloist who enthused the crowd with his rock violin.

Hennessy Cognac, which seemed to be at every event I went to in Lagos, fueled the after-party into the early hours of the following morning. The dance floor flashed with bright lights to the beat of the music, and jumped to Nigerian hip-hop and, to my surprise, a cool selection of ’80s music. Lionel Richie had everyone singing “All Night Long.”

Behind the scenes of the Nollywood film “Who Is the Stupid Wife?”
Behind the scenes of the Nollywood film Who Is the Stupid Wife?

Ewe’s production went late into the night too. I stuck around for the club scene—somewhat different from the African Magic Viewers’ Choice event. In this scene “the stupid wife” flirts with a drunken patron. They bump and grind on the dance floor.

The filming went on until past midnight, until the fuel for the generator ran out. The club scene was shot and most stumbled back to their accommodations near the set. I couldn’t shoot anymore and the mosquitoes had completely mauled my ankles. Ewe grunted a goodbye. I was walking away when he called me back. I should really “dash” him some money for alcohol and cigarettes, he said. He explained that it was the beginning of a busy weekend of filming.

Read Hammond’s other blog posts on Proof, covering Nigeria’s Fashion week, the rising African middle class, sand diggers at the bottom of the bay, and the roar of big religion.

See more of Hammond’s photos from Lagos, including a gallery of portraits, in the National Geographic story “Africa’s First City.”


Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mano luiz-lee
    August 26, 2015

    hollywood live in imaginations add useless knowledge to person,but african movies is the best the y go for real life insures.even budget lying is expensive reality is cheaper that the reason why African movies are

  2. Georgiegirl
    May 8, 2015

    I find the end of Nollywood films boring. Always a Christian ending – same old, same old. Dont you guys believe in the God that is within and everywhere who hears your softest whisper? Why the constant recruitment of third parties to perform loud and vulgar prayers? Is that the way Jesus taught you to pray? Now that the world is finding the weaknesses of organized religion, now is the time Nollywood is forcing religion on the psyche of Africans. So unfortunate. The modern trend is to cheapen the woman’s body. Cant Nollywood stars be beautiful without being made to appear cheap? And those horrible wigs. Boring! At the same time humiliating to the negro race. Havent you guys heard abut leg make up? Do you have to show ugly scars? Every woman who becomes pregnant does not vomit. Ladies who cry use a handkerchief or napkin to blow their noses, not their hands. Seeing modern princesses in all their refineries using their hands to clean up their snot is gross.

    I prefer the old village stories, at least they have historical uniqueness.

    This notwithstanding, I believe you guys will find your way eventually. There is so much heroic uniqueness and interest in your history, you will eventually tell those stories, lift your people up instead of cheapening and making fools of them before the world.

  3. ananias
    May 7, 2015

    Namibia have 2 million people while Langos hve 20 million people ow

  4. K. Adenuga
    March 14, 2015

    This is a great write-up by the author, who pointed out some of the challenges facing Nollywood, while also praising our unique way of story-telling despite limited resources. Many of what the author pointed out (including the lack of power supply), are one of the factors limiting Nollywood’s creativity as discussed by many Nollywood fans on http://www.nollywoodsocial.com/

    Yes Nollywood have come a long way, and the future is bright for the industry.

  5. irene evbade-dan
    January 17, 2015

    I am mixed Nigerian/Japanese, so this article is very interesting and helpful! Since I live in Japan with my family whole my life and have been to Nigeria only one time, I have almost no idea what Nigeria is like nowadays. Actually, my dad and his Nigerian friends in Japan always, ALWAYS watch Nollywood films when they get together.

    Thank you for this interesting/helpful article!

  6. Sean Alexander
    January 15, 2015

    I think the article is unnecessarily sensational and mocking of people who have worked to build Nollywood into the 2nd largest film industry in the world.

    There’s no need to mention the on set drinks, power outage, mosquitoes, etc. What about the ingenuity, hard work, and persistence of people working to make the very best in spite of, sometimes, limited resources?

    Why didn’t you devote more of your article to the awards show?

    Anyway, for more news on Nigerian business, check out http://www.africanbusinesscentral.com/news/nigeria

  7. Hakeem
    January 12, 2015

    Second biggest film industry in the world? My God, the Ghanaian film industry has so much promise in the 90s and 2000s, now look have far behind we are. Congratulations to Nollywood.

  8. chollom zi
    January 11, 2015

    great work

  9. ozoh joe
    January 10, 2015

    well we Nigerians got. s big eye for creativity even better than Hollywood u can’t take it away our artists are adored all over east to western yo southern Africa we are skilled entrepreneurs who maximizes raw materials to make profits give it to us man

  10. Parveen
    January 10, 2015

    Its really great to see such developments happening in African continent, its needs such people to promote, encourage them to get a international visibility. Thanks

  11. Greg Martin
    January 8, 2015

    The most dangerous city in the world 🙁

  12. krishna c battaluru
    January 6, 2015

    A great story about Lagos and movie industry over there. Interesting story and view points.Thanks for the article.

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