Jamie Meltzer on "Welcome to Nollywood"

Michael Fox October 8, 2007

When last we saw Jamie Meltzer, the S.F. State grad was paying tribute to the most unlikely group of would-be artists ever assembled in one documentary. “Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story” was an unusually mature first film that treated its assortment of oddball amateur songwriters with respect as well as bemusement. A poignant, priceless slice of Americana, it received a national public television broadcast as well as a permanent spot in the unofficial cult fave Hall of Fame. For his next film we half-expected Meltzer to make another expedition into a homegrown world of weird art-makers, but instead he went to far-off Nigeria, where the digital revolution enables entrepreneurs to churn out movies quickly and inexpensively on DVD — to the tune of 2,400 movies a year. Many of the filmmakers profiled in the amusing and eye-opening “Welcome to Nollywood” make straight-ahead action flicks, but a few want to be serious artists. (There is a connection, after all, with “Off the Charts.”) A good chunk of “Welcome to Nollywood” screened at a benefit for Film Arts Foundation last November at the Castro, and the finished film is on view Oct. 7 and 9 in the Mill Valley Film Festival. (It seems inevitable that the doc will have a theatrical run at a local arthouse in the not-too-distant future.) Meltzer lives in San Francisco and teaches film production at Stanford’s esteemed graduate doc program, but we caught up with him in Chicago for a wedding, parked in his car under the “El” tracks.

SF360: So how the heck did you end up in Nigeria?

Jamie Meltzer: “Off the Charts” took me, I think, four years to get done, a great project but a really frustrating project in terms of the process because it took so long, going from state to state and visiting all these different people. At that time I read about this industry going in Lagos, in Nigeria, where they were making films in 10 days, where they were getting those films out in a couple weeks and they were connecting with an audience, and that had the sort of immediacy that I really responded to. Especially being in my situation, mired in the end of making a documentary. That just sort of stuck in my mind. And I started thinking about it more, and the whole idea of it really appealed to me, of challenging myself to exist within that context. I wanted to investigate how they did it. I started to read more about it and then started to contact people, and I thought it was the perfect follow-up film, in a way, because it would have all these limitations built into it.

SF360: What was your plan?

Meltzer: My goal was to go there, shoot for a month and follow a couple different productions and then edit it maybe in the year or six months following. Of course, two years after I went there I’m done with it, so I wasn’t quite on the time schedule that I wanted to be on. But I still think it sort of kicked me in the butt and was a good experience as far as changing my point of view on the process of filmmaking, which is what I wanted to do all along.

SF360: Was there a point when it seemed like less of a departure from’“Off the Charts’ than you’d originally imagined?

Meltzer: On the thematic and subject side, as I was doing it I realized it did fit with the song-poets and these people who were trying to do something against all odds, which is what Nollywood is about. They’ve created this industry out of nothing, from the ground up with no support at all from the government, from any outside governments or agencies, and they’ve created something that’s incredibly successful. How do they do this? The film, for me, was an investigation, discovering what’s behind this miraculous industry of Nollywood.

SF360: Even as you were challenging yourself to work faster, you were on another continent in a foreign culture. What was it like working in Lagos?

Meltzer: It was almost impossible. The conditions for making anything are terrible. Our power was going out all the time. It’s incredibly hot. It’s very difficult to get across town because you get caught in traffic jams that are legendary there. That affects anyone meeting with you. Sometimes you’re supposed to have an interview with someone and they wouldn’t show up, and it would be hours. We couldn’t really use lights because of the energy problems. So we improvised, and again that’s the lesson of Nollywood. I took them as my inspiration and as my teachers while I was there. If they could do it, then I could certainly do a documentary, which required a little bit less than the full-blown environment that they needed to make their film.

SF360: I understand the appeal of making feature films the Dogme way, without all the gear and crew and bloat. But verityé documentaries are already lean, run-and-gun productions. Are you saying you found a way to make them even lighter, faster and quicker?

Meltzer: I’m saying I think people are precious a little bit about documentaries. They’re precious about making the perfect film and precious about filmmaking in general. They have to look and sound and be a certain way. Yeah, you’re right, there is a certain looseness to documentary that’s always existed in a certain on-the-run production, but I think that this did push that beyond what I imagined it to be. I had to give up a certain level of control, and I enjoyed doing that because I just feel, whatever happens, that’s what I’m going to end up working with. It’s a bit scary; if you’re making a documentary you still want a level of control and I really had to give that up in this project.

SF360: So how do you maintain some sense of craft? How do you achieve an aesthetic that’s raw and immediate without being slapdash?

Meltzer: There can be a sacrifice in terms of craft if you approach filmmaking in a certain sort of extremely loose and spontaneous way. Obviously, that has its dangers. I was just responding to what was there. For instance, there’s the story in the film about the filmmaker Izu [Ojukwu], who built this homemade projector in his garage without even ever knowing what a projector was or what a film was, and he used that experience of showing films as a way to learn filmmaking. I knew that story had a lot of resonance for my film, because [that] was sort of a metaphor for what the larger Nollywood industry was getting done with nothing basically. I slowed down when I came to that story and I spent two or three days just getting everything I needed, having him recreate the projector and recreate the moment, the magic of cinema that he had shared with his friends years back. And now, in my film, he’s sharing with his younger siblings and people that are in the neighborhood now. Every day presented different material, and sometimes I would take what I got and sometimes I would slow down and be a little more precious with it.

SF360: Now, you could move through production quickly and then take an inordinately long time cutting the film.

Meltzer: Yes, in Nollywood I noticed there’s two different trends, and in my film I have two directors represent those trends. On the one hand, you have a sort of run and gun, do a film in 10 days. And that’s this guy Chico Cachero, Mr. Prolific. He epitomizes that approach, which is what everyone who knows anything about Nollywood thinks of it as [the Nollywood] approach: a film in 10 days. Now that’s sort of a myth and a legend. To some degree it’s not really true. It’s just a good story. On the other side there’s Izu Ojukwu. He’ll spend, in the case of the film that we followed [“Laviva,” also playing the Mill Valley Film Festival], [several months] shooting, which was unheard of at the time in Nollywood, and probably still somewhat unheard of now. They just don’t have the budget to support that. And he would also spend a year or even more on the editing, just getting it perfect, just getting it right. [While] Chico would probably spend four or five days editing a film. He really had it down to a science. I just sat back in amazement. I was editing my film and I was trying to keep that spirit of his manic energy alive in the edit. Izu, [who] I admired and respected from the moment that I met him, I tried to respect the care and precision and labor that he puts into his creative process.

SF360: How do you distill the Nollywood philosophy into two sentences for your students?

Meltzer: The lessons of Noillywood that I took, and anyone making films — whether they’re documentary or not — can take, is that there’s really no excuse and no obstacle that you can’t overcome. They show that by building this industry in this completely inhospitable environment that’s actively against them in a lot of ways — the heat, the traffic, the lack of infrastructure. But they have managed to create a thriving industry that you don’t see all around the world, an industry that can stand up to the cultural influence of Hollywood and the larger film industries that are silencing these smaller national voices. They’ve been able to create this successful cultural film industry that is going to be around for a long time. Now they’ve created a desire in Nigerians and Africans at large to see their films, so they’ve come a long way.

SF360: Last question: What is your favorite filmmaking tool?

Meltzer: I try not to get too caught up in tools because it’s my personal philosophy that it’s much more about telling stories. I’m not tied to one particular camera, I’m not tied to one particular editing tool. I’m not so much technologically oriented as I am oriented towards amazing stories. I wouldn’t want to single out a tool or a camera or a piece of technology because in a way it’s all irrelevant; in a way nothing’s changed while everything’s changed. I’m saying that in the face of the fact that Nollywood exists entirely due to the digital video revolution. Everything they shoot is on digital video cameras, edited on digital nonlinear [systems] and distributed on video CDs. It’s an entirely digital system, and in that sense it’s far ahead of what Hollywood is