In the huge Nigerian film industry known as Nollywood, producer and writer Emem Isong is a standout. She's one of the few powerful women who can get a movie made. She is trying to forge ties with filmmakers around the world to make Nigerian films part of the global cinema industry.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's go to West Africa, now, to explore one of the world's great centers of filmmaking. We hear more about Hollywood in California or Bollywood in India's Bombay - or Mumbai - then there's Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry which is one of the world's largest film industries. Nollywood DVDs are sold throughout Africa, Europe, North America and the Caribbean.
These films are generally made in English, on a low budget, and they have a huge female fan base. Most of the powerful players, however, are men. There's one major exception. That's writer and producer Emem Isong. Reporter Wills Glasspiegel caught up with her in Lagos.
WILLS GLASSPIEGEL, BYLINE: Emem Isong is a Nollywood powerhouse. She's written 60 movies and produced 15. She got her start when she quit a job in banking to write movie scripts.
EMEM ISONG: So many Africans want to hear their voices. So many Nigerians want to see their people, they want to see people like them going through what they are going through. And we tell a lot of human stories.
GLASSPIEGEL: In the mid '90s, Isong made her first blockbuster for about $300 U.S. dollars. Back then, most Nollywood movies dealt with darker themes - crime, corruption, failed marriage and the occult.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the gods have closed their ears. Seasons change, but only gods know why.
GLASSPIEGEL: With her movies, Emem Isong brought levity to Nollywood, and a new genre: twist-of-fate love stories and romantic comedies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Relationship, dating, marriage. I'm what you'd call SSS: Single and Seriously Searching.
GLASSPIEGEL: Romantic-comedies like this caught on, today it's the most popular genre in Nollywood.
ISONG: At that time, I was being accused of being a little bit too Westernized, but I said, well, we are not living in the villages. I'm living in contemporary Lagos. So I'm going to write about what I'm used to, what I know, how I live.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BURSTING OUT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Majid) Do you know what the most attractive part of a woman?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Genevieve) What is it?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Majid) Her brain, I find that very attractive and I want to know you more.
GLASSPIEGEL: That's "Bursting Out," Emem Isong's movie about a scruffy bike messenger who falls in love with a wealthy businesswoman. Nollywood's fans - who are predominately women - identify with the stories in Isong's movies, and with Isong, because she's a pioneer in a male-dominated industry.
ISONG: Male producers in Nigeria like to portray women as weaklings, and I don't think the African woman is a weakling. The African woman is strong and the African woman can hold her own in any way. And that's what they don't like.
GLASSPIEGEL: Emem Isong also runs a film school in the Surulere section of Lagos.
ISONG: So I wanted some kind of meeting point where people could come, not just for auditions and to meet like minds, but also to train.
GLASSPIEGEL: Isong thinks a sense of place and professionalism will strengthen and broaden the Nollywood industry. And she may be right. Scottish producer, Andrea Calderwood, was recently in Nigeria shooting an international mainstream film that features both Nollywood and Western stars.
ANDREA CALDERWOOD: It's like the Latin American filmmakers a few years ago, from films like "Amores Peros" and "City of God," where they can continue to make films for the home market but can also be recognized abroad as well and I think the Nigerian film industry is round about that point.
GLASSPIEGEL: Back in Lagos, Emem Isong is internationalizing from the ground up. Her new movie, "I'll Take My Chances," focuses on a love affair between a village priestess and a traveler from the U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "I'LL TAKE MY CHANCES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ike) Relax, I'm a foreigner, and I hear that they respect foreigners in your land.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Priestess) Not foreigners who disrespect the customs of the land.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ike) I'm in love with one of your women, is that also disrespectful?
GLASSPIEGEL: For "I'll Take My Chances," Emem flew in cinematographers from New York and a white actress from Canada.
ISONG: I wanted to do something that was kind of cross-cultural. It was the biggest budget movie I've ever done. Like I always say, I did take my chances on this one.
GLASSPIEGEL: Nollywood started as a home video industry, the movies sold on VHS cassettes. But today, Isong premieres at fancy Lagos theaters and distributes online. She's shooting for new horizons in West Africa, and for screens large and small across the globe. For NPR News, this is Wills Glasspiegel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.