THE CYNEPHILE

"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Nollywood, Nigeria’s grassroots independent film industry, produces over 2,000 feature-length movies per year. This makes it the third* largest in the world, behind Bollywood and the United States in terms of the number of movies made, with profits ringing in at around $250 million dollars. Working with digital cameras and near-zero budgets, these films are a rare instance of autonomous film production in a third world country, and are wildly popular throughout West Africa.

Pieter Hugo’s striking photographs reveal, in a highly stylized form, the characters and subject matter of Nollywood cinema. Horror dominates as characteristically low-budget genre that appeals to audiences and filmmakers alike, and there are a profusion of stories about zombies, black magic and the occult as a result. But there are also stories about poverty, teenage pregnancy, tribal conflicts, HIV/AIDS and other contemporary realities that haunt daily life.

Not surprisingly, Hugo’s work is controversial, and he has been accused of sensationalism and spreading racial stereotypes (for these photos as well as for an earlier series, The Hyena & Other Men). But I think the sheer force of his images combined with the artifice-upon-artifice presentation make these photographs more performative than anything else. They actively seek to disturb the viewer — much like the films themselves.

And how do you get your hands on some Nollywood films? Format-wise, the films are mostly distributed on VCDs, making them hard to view in the United States. I have asked friends (and a few cab drivers) to recommend some popular titles, but it seems like there isn’t any equivalent (as of yet) to a Nollywood Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the universally beloved Bollywood classic. You can watch full-length films at this website, but I was enraged by excessive pop-ups. The best solution for New Yorkers? Go to Harlem, find a vendor, and ask what his favorites are. Festival fare it isn’t, but for those truly interested in developments in world cinema, the Nollywood film industry is too revolutionary to ignore.

*Some estimates actually place the Nollywood film industry ahead of the U.S.

Pieter Hugo’s photographs are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery until April 10. There is also a photobook available via Amazon — the reviews indicate  just how polarizing these photos are.