Gangs of Lagos is not your father’s Nollywood.
Jáde Osiberu’s gritty crime-thriller, which bowed on Amazon Prime Video on April 7 bears little resemblance with the cheap, mostly direct-to-video, movies that used to define the Nigerian movie business. The film spins an epic, Scorsese-esque tale of the rise of three childhood friends —played by Tobi Bakre, Adesua Etomi-Wellington and Chike Osebuka — through the ranks of one of the city’s most violent gangs. The elaborate stunt work and action set pieces, one involving a machetes-and-shotguns rumble on the streets of Lagos, another a Godfather-style ambush at a swanky political soiree, mark Gangs as an altogether different kind of Nigerian movie.
“I was definitely terrified making it,” says Osiberu, “[but] I wanted to tell this story and to show that this kind of film could come out of Nigeria.”
Amazon, which signed Osiberu and her Greoh Studios label to a three-year production and development deal last year, sees Gangs of Lagos as the poster child for its African ambitions. Along with Netflix and South Africa-based streamer Showmax, Amazon is investing heavily in local African talent in a bid to grow its audience on the continent at a time when subscriber growth in most rich, Western countries is flat or declining.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom, Osiberu discussed her 10-year journey to make Gangs of Lagos, how the streamers are transforming Nollywood, and why, in Nigerian cinema, women moguls like herself are the rule, not the exception. “We’re in this weird alternative version of the media space in Nigeria where actually women are dominating the industry.”
This is really ambitious and epic film. Is that to do with it being the first African Amazon Original movie, and the first from you since you signed your three-year deal with Amazon last year?
Actually, Gangs of Lagos was shot independently two years ago, before Amazon actually entered the market and before we met the Amazon team. At the time, we basically came together, my friends and I, to fund-raise for the film. We were an independent force. It was a very ambitious project. But it’s a project that I had been inspired to write 10 years ago. I just knew I really wanted to make the film. So we went ahead and made it. Now, there are only about 100 cinemas in Nigeria, so we knew Nigeria alone didn’t have the capacity to help us distribute the film. We knew we needed a global platform. We were just lucky that Amazon was also coming to Nigeria at the time. They saw the film and felt it fit into the sort of thing they wanted to do in Nigeria, the scale of ambition and storytelling and all that sort of stuff. So they acquired it. But this was prior to my deal.
It is incredibly ambitious, probably the most epic Nigerian film I’ve ever seen. Were you at all trepidatious, at all worried about funding this independently? I mean, it’s a big swing.
Yes, we were definitely terrified. I was terrified going in. The filmmaking industry in Nigeria is growing but it’s quite, well, young-ish. Filmmaking in Nigeria is quite old but what we call Nollywood now, where Nollywood is, is just about 20 years old. And all of us independent filmmakers are just trying to make our dreams come true, collaborating with each other to try to take these big swings.
A majority of the people working on this film hadn’t worked in anything like this before. Even our stuntman took a long time to approach a scene like the battle near the end of the movie where we have over 100 people fighting in the streets of Lagos, with all the elements: rain and all that. It was quite scary. We did go in with a plan and tried to pre-produce as much as we could, given our level of funding. I suspect if we had more funding if we had been working with Amazon, we’d have had at least a six-month pre-production period. But we didn’t have those kinds of resources.
So yeah, it was daunting. But I think for us, it was important to take the swing, to show what was possible, to show our voice as filmmakers and for me to show my own direction. I wanted to tell this story and to show that this kind of film could come out of Nigeria. Now just imagine what we could do when we even have an even bigger stage and more resources.
Can you give me an idea of what resources you did have?
Well, for pre-production, we didn’t have a pre-production office or anything like that, we were just in conversations with the crew and cast for about maybe six months before shooting. The actor who plays Obalola [Tobi Bakre] was getting acting coaching for about four months before because he had never had a lead role before in his life. I’d worked with him before on a smaller film that had a few action sequences. I saw the way he threw himself at that. I also saw the way he played a comic role. I felt like there was something more there if he dug even further. So he did acting training for about four months as well as stunt training. Some of the actors had about four weeks of stunt training, some only two, depending on how much work they had to do. For the extras, a lot of them, we had to train them on set on the day because we couldn’t afford to extend them. We shot for two months, from the 18th of June to the 18th of August. All in the streets of Lagos.
What was the original inspiration for the story?
Well 10 years ago I was shooting in the neighborhood of Isale Eko in downtown Lagos, for a series called Gidi Up, the first thing I ever shot, and in this area, the buildings are very close together, and you can see into other people’s windows. I looked in and could see this mother preparing dinner for her children, in a state of undress and shouting at her children. I felt like I was looking right into a scene from their lives. It got me thinking about what it would be like to be born into this life [in the slums]. Because right next to this poverty, surrounding it, is extreme wealth — it is right next to the big commercial and financial center of Lagos, where a lot of banks and financial institutions have their headquarters. People there can see this extreme wealth, almost touch it, but it’s not their reality.
There is a lot of gang activity in these different slums in Lagos and a lot of gang wars as well. There’s a lot of research on it online. Over the years, I just kept on going back to this idea of telling the story of the gangs but not just from the point of view of fighting and violence but from the human angle, starting with a child thrust into this life.
It reminded me a lot of classics of the genre, like Goodfellas. Did you take inspiration from other films in shaping this story?
Yeah, I mean, a few. I love Martin Scorsese, I grew up watching all of his films. I love, love, love Goodfellas. One of the scenes [in Gangs of Lagos] is a throwback to the first scene in Goodfellas where the guy’s in the trunk of the car and there’s this red light beaming into the faces of the three guys outside. But I also loved City of God when I saw it, back in the day. The chicken at the beginning of the movie is a throwback to the first scene in that film. But it’s true to life. I don’t know if you’ve been to Lagos, but in traffic in Lagos, you can find anything being sold from new suits to live chickens. The chaos of growing up as children in the streets is very similar to the Brazilian experience. And for the blood and gore, well Fargo was an inspiration because I’m such a huge fan.
Were you thinking, at all, about the international audience when you made the movie? Did you make any adjustments or concessions to make the story understandable for people who don’t know Lagos or Nigeria?
Not really. I was very passionate about making a story that feels authentic. And I was just hoping and praying that authenticity would somehow find its audience. I consciously did not adjust anything. Because I’ve seen what happens when [filmmakers in Nigeria] try to satisfy both a Western audience and a local audience and end up with this Frankenstein-style project that doesn’t quite appeal to anybody. I was quite conscious not to do that. I got questions, even in Nigeria: “Why did you make this primarily in Yoruba, and not in English?”
But for me, all my decisions were not about the [commercial] outcome. We wanted to make a film for a broad audience but didn’t want to make too many compromises; we didn’t want commerce to dictate our commercial choices. But, of course, the fact that our media in Africa is so very American, we are very exposed to that. We are very influenced by Scorsese, as I said, or Tarantino, or all these great filmmakers. So those influences are in the film but we didn’t set out to try to appeal to a Western audience.
What was for you the most difficult thing to shoot?
Probably the shootouts at the party at the end of the film. It got a little chaotic, because, Nigeria is still Nigeria. You have power problems. We had two generators and both of them [stopped working] while we were shooting. We had to run around to look for another one. There were so many extras. So trying to feed so many people, while trying to track your story, and then someone’s stuck in traffic … everything that could go wrong went wrong. A big part of producing here is logistical. Planning can be a nightmare because Lagos is unpredictable. There are so many things you can’t foresee.
So the party scene was the hardest. But I have a history with party scenes. I love the way Nigerian parties look. I don’t like to attend them, but I love how they look. In every film that I make, I typically have a party scene. But what I try to do is subvert what you expect will happen. So here you have a typical Nigerian party and then there’s a massive shootout. In my next film, I want to start it with a party that turns into a horror scene.
As you said, what we call Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, seems to have really transformed in the last few years. Has the rise of the streamers — with Amazon, Netflix, and [South African streamer] Showmax investing in African cinema — had a major impact on the local industry?
I would say absolutely. It depends on which company, because each of them operates differently, and their objectives, their corporate culture and the way they interact with creators are different.
But, for me, what runs across all of it is opportunities. When I left university 17 years ago — it feels like forever now — being a filmmaker didn’t seem like an option. I studied engineering, because my parents were engineers, even though I knew, from when I was 13 or 14, that I wanted to be a filmmaker. But back then it was obvious that wasn’t really a career choice. Fast forward to when I made my first film. The box office in Nigeria, which was, and still is, quite small, meant you didn’t quite know what the path was to get your film to the world. Now things are really different. The path for most filmmakers is really clear. There are multiple paths now. And filmmakers are forging their own paths.
There’s a film called Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), that was at the Berlin Film Festival two years ago, and it was in theaters in Europe, and then it was sold to HBO. That’s not a path that any Nigerian film has ever had before. (Amazon Prime acquired the film for the rest of the world outside the U.S.).
It feels really exciting at the moment, especially in the last five years. Before it was mostly business people who were in charge of the industry, but now creators actually have a voice. You have to give Amazon credit because when they came into the market, they were like: Yes, we’re going to talk to distributors and aggregators, but actually, we want to talk to filmmakers, we want to talk to writers and directors, to the people in charge of these narratives. That’s been the biggest change, and it’s been really empowering.
It’s interesting you mention a festival film because I go to the big festivals and I’ve noticed a big difference between the kind of African films that are selected for them, usually very art house movies, and the sort of films being made, and watched, in Africa itself.
It’s not all festivals. TIFF [Toronto Film Festival] has a history of showing all sorts of [African] films. But the festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Venice, seem to cater more to art house sensibilities. And in Nigeria, and most of the rest of Africa, particularly West Africa, the sensibilities of the larger and broader audience are quite different. These African art house films are very influenced by a European sort of filmmaking, which does feel out of reach and a bit unrelatable to a lot of people [in Africa].
I like to think I’m somewhere in between. I don’t think I’d make a complete art house film, something that doesn’t have that broad relatability to the audience in Nigeria, because I grew up here. Yes, I’m influenced by Western films and even European cinema, but a lot of my experiences are grounded in the reality here. And so my work has to be authentic like that, it can’t be like a version of something I’ve watched in film school. But the other side is that a lot of the commercial filmmaking here doesn’t really cater to any sort of artistic sensibilities at all, so they aren’t the kind of films that get shown at festivals.
I think the French African filmmakers have, for a long time, been dominating the festival circuit, because most of their funding has come from France, particularly the films that go to Cannes. Nigeria hasn’t really had that, we don’t have grants, and we don’t have co-production treaties.
Can you tell me a bit then about your Amazon deal? What sort of productions will you be making under the agreement?
We’re developing a number of things, but we haven’t gotten the go-ahead to speak about any specifics. What I can say is I love that Amazon is being really adventurous with genre. Historically, in Nollywood, people have said the only thing that works is dramas or broad comedies. That changed when Amazon came into the market. There’s a film, Brotherhood, an action blockbuster-style movie, that I produced, which has done really well on Amazon. Just a few years ago people said action didn’t work in Nigeria.
But we are getting great encouragement from Amazon to break the rules, and to be really adventurous. My pitch to them was I wanted to be able to do all sorts of things: horror, action, romance. One of my big passions is producing because it also helps me work with other directors and other storytellers. I want to be the same kind of producer that I love to work with when I’m directing, one who isn’t just looking at the numbers but has my back, creatively. I’m their support system so they can just focus on making the most awesome version of the film they want to make. Amazon allows me to do that with this deal, whether it’s a series or films, in all different genres.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that female creators and executives, like yourself, play a larger role in the Nigerian film industry than they do in other countries, including Western countries.
I was asked once in an interview: “As a female Nigerian filmmaker what’s it like working in an industry where you are in the minority?” But we’re in this weird alternative version of the media space in Nigeria where actually women are dominating the industry. If you check out the top 10 films at the box office in Nigeria, I suspect at least eight are produced by women and directed by women. Two of the big streamers [in Africa] — Amazon and Showmax — are headed up by Nigerian women as heads of the originals team.
So it’s also, as you say, in the executive roles as well where women are dominating. A few years ago, a Nigerian bank put out a report that said women business owners were the ones most likely to pay back their corporate loans. They were the better customers. There’s just something about Nigerian women. I’m not sure what it is. We’re just dynamite when it comes to business, the film business included.
Interview was edited for length and clarity.