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OVERSEAS, THOUGH, THE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN THE DEGREES offered by New York University and the New York Film Academy tend to appear less relevant. From the beginning, the academy has proved to be very attractive to international students. In contrast with university film schools, Sherlock’s attitude toward qualifications—“Who am I to say who has talent and who doesn’t?” he told the Times—offered easy admission, and with it the document necessary to secure a student visa to the United States.
“They are just after the money,” said Chineze Anyaene, the Nigerian director. And she was appreciative, because the film academy’s openness had helped to launch her career.
“I wanted to go to film school to learn the basics,” she told me. But with help from her prosperous family, by the end of her two years of study in Los Angeles, Anyaene was able to turn her student project into a feature film about a Nigerian woman accused of a Hollywood murder, starring two famous Nollywood actresses but shot with an American crew.
“I wanted to do everything the Hollywood way,” Anyaene said.
When Ijé was released in 2010, African audiences marveled at its slick production, and it went on to become of the most successful theater releases in Nigeria’s history. There are similar stories about other academy graduates, like Khyentse Norbu, a Buddhist monk from Bhutan who made a soccer-themed comedy, The Cup, which I happened to run across on the Independent Film Channel one weekend afternoon. Digital cameras have made it possible to shoot cheap, high-quality films almost anywhere.
In our phone conversation, Sherlock told me that in the last five years the film academy has seen a sharp increase in its applications from the developing world, a market it is trying to cultivate. In March, for instance, the school held an open house for interested students in Rio de Janeiro, and it has staged a recent four-week program in Mumbai. In 2008, the film academy opened its first permanent overseas branch in Abu Dhabi, in cooperation with the wealthy emirate’s government, which has made a serious effort to attract western cultural and educational institutions. Its first classes included students from as far away as Bangladesh and Kazakhstan.
"What we're proud of is we deliver the goods," Sherlock said. "We're in Beijing, China right now, working with CCTV, the government broadcasting channel. They could have done a deal with anyone."
The school’s Nigerian venture, however, is by far its most daring. It came about at the urging of Stephanie Okereke. A famous actress and former beauty queen, she attended the academy before making her directorial debut with a movie called Through the Glass. She saw an opportunity in Nigeria, where a $500 million movie industry has exploded over the last two decades, in the absence of almost any formal training.
“We said, yeah, we get that all the time—why don’t you bring the school to Kuala Lumpur or wherever,” Sherlock told me. “We say, great, if you can make it happen, we’ll do it.”
Okereke and her longtime boyfriend, Linus Idahosa, were partners in a communications consulting firm called Del York International. Idahosa became the film academy’s local sponsor, bringing the program to the capital of Abuja in 2010, and then Lagos last year.
“Linus is an interesting man,” Ryan Gibson wrote in his journal. “[He] has the look and carriage of a businessman wrapped in the intensity of a gangster. In America, he would be a celebrity in his own right. Here there is a mix of fear, respect and concern, as the media scrutinize the what’s and why’s of what he is doing.”
One afternoon, Idahosa made his entrance into the school building in Lagos, gliding with smooth assurance behind a pair of large aviator sunglasses. We sat down on a pair of plastic chairs, and he explained his ambitions for the month-long program, as a Del York documentary crew, shadowing their boss, began to film our conversation.
“We hear of a lot of philanthropic efforts from the States, for example, coming to Africa,” he said. “People helping out with hunger and disease and all of that. But what we feel it that the best way you can invest in the lives of people is by investing in their talents. So if you can identify someone who can be a Steven Spielberg tomorrow, an Angelina Jolie tomorrow, you know, you identify them and train them so that they can begin to fend for themselves. That is how the growth can be achieved.”
The challenge, Idahosa explained, was money. I was told that the instructors, many of whom were taking breaks from jobs in the entertainment business, were being paid between $3,000 and $6,000 for the month, in addition to living expenses. A Nigerian airline had donated the cost of their plane tickets. But somehow, the total budget of the program had still added up to well over a million dollars, which meant very expensive tuition. “Few people in Nigeria can afford it, and we saw that coming,” Idahosa said. “We decided to open our treasure chest of contacts.”
Okereke was known to be friendly with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, and when he ran for reelection, Del York cut a slick commercial for him, featuring many Nollywood stars. The firm’s connections came in handy when it was looking for scholarship donors: Along with corporate sponsors, like Pepsi, Del York secured financing from government entities including the Niger Delta Development Commission, or NDDC.
The commission, financed by the Nigerian government and oil companies like Shell, oversees more than a billion dollars in funding meant to alleviate poverty in the petroleum-rich coastal region, which suffers from spills, environmental destruction and periodic warfare. Under a 2009 peace agreement, Niger Delta rebel groups agreed to end a campaign of kidnapping and violence against oil facilities in return for amnesty, education and retraining, and investment via agencies like the NDDC. The film academy scholarship program was launched as part of this peacemaking initiative.
The commission did not appear to have allotted its scholarships to demobilized rebels or displaced fishermen, however. One of its beneficiaries, Blessing Uduefe, was a gregarious theater actor who told me that he had already directed two movies back home in the city of Warri. “I want to do works in the Hollywood style,” he said, as he waited for a filmmaking panel discussion. “I want to know what they do, and how they do it.”
There was some grousing among the more experienced students from Lagos about the Niger Delta contingent, who were thought to be unserious beneficiaries of government nepotism. But Uduefe’s instructors in the editing program raved about his work ethic.
“Blessing is an incredibly ambitious student,” said Derek Griesbach. When I asked Uduefe how he had ended up in the program, he volunteered that his uncle was on the NDDC board. “Most of these militants for whom the amnesty was meant are not that educated,” he said. “Bringing them here, it would be like giving corn to a goat.”
Uduefe told me he was hoping to learn enough about digital editing so he could cut his own movies. “Those editors in Warri,” he said, “they are always bragging about what they know.” They worked on PCs, but the film academy instructors had introduced him to Apple and its software program Final Cut. “If they can make this Macintosh equipment available to us permanently,” Uduefe said, “it will be very, very profitable.”
Idahosa told me that his intention, over the long-term, is to open a full-time film school in Nigeria. He was hoping for increased aid from sources like the World Bank and the Nigerian government. To secure Nollywood’s campaign support, President Jonathan has set up a $200 million fund to develop the industry. “We are looking for partners, people who understand what we are doing,” Idahosa said. In September, though, a few days after the program ended, Idahosa’s most important partner, the NDDC, was dealt a blow when its entire leadership was fired en masse by Jonathan, after a government investigation revealed what one newspaper termed “mind-boggling” corruption.
For their final project, Uduefe’s editing class was given a surprise: a chance to cut a music video for General Pype, a Nigerian dancehall star. Griesbach and some other teachers shot the footage, having slipped away from their bodyguards to film it in a Lagos junkyard. Uduefe told me he had learned a great deal, but continued to worry about what would happen once it was time for the instructors to leave. “It will be easy to fall back to using substandard equipment,” he told me.
“The only disservice we did to them, I wish we had more time,” Gibson told me after he returned home. “If you can get one talented director and give them a shot of being Quentin Tarantino, there are so many stories that these guys are waiting to tell.”
In a month, most of his students never made it through the first act of their screenplays. But the serial plagiarizer did come up with a semi-original idea, called Gangland. With some advice from Derek Griesbach, Uduefe Blessing did manage to buy a new Macintosh computer, shipped from America. A red-carpet awards ceremony drew many Nollywood stars, and each student was awarded a diploma.
Sherlock’s company also profited from the experience, presumably: A few weeks ago it was announced that the New York Film Academy would be returning to Nigeria in June.
Inline photos: Jerry Sherlock (in shorts) with director Clive Donner at Paramount Studios, from NYFA course catalogue; students in class, from the DelYork flickr stream
Andrew Rice is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.
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