The Nigerian entertainment industry, known as Nollywood, has been thriving for years – it’s the second largest film industry after Hollywood – but truly international and mainstream success in the orbit of a “Squid Game or “Money Heist” has so far been elusive.
For a long time, this boiled down to a propensity for island stories that could not easily travel beyond the Nigerian audience, combined with low production values. But all of that is about to change as Nigerian storytelling targets more global audiences and streaming backers like Netflix direct resources to premium programming from the country’s top producers.
Netflix’s first Nigerian original TV series, “Blood Sisters”, epitomizes the market potential that is in store. The four-part thriller hails from prolific producer Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Studios, and you’d be hard-pressed to walk away from its explosive first episode.
Set in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, “Blood Sisters” follows best friends Sarah (Ini Dima Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime) as they prepare for the former’s big wedding. What should be a happy day, however, is marred by groom Kola’s (Deyemi Okanlawon) abusive tendencies towards Sarah, and when she tries to call off the wedding, her family urges her to stay in order to support their business.
The big day becomes a bigger nightmare, however, when Kemi discovers that Kola accidentally beat and killed her trying to defend her friend – all minutes before the wedding.
An infectious mix of melodrama, dark humor and social commentary, the show offers an authentic portrayal of Nigerian culture that also tells a very universal story. One only has to look at the headlines of the week to know that women’s rights and domestic violence are still endemic global issues.
“It’s a very important indicator for us to do this project at this stage,” Abudu said. Variety. “It’s about which local stories can go global, and we think this one can.”
Abudu, one of Africa’s leading media moguls, has transformed EbonyLife, the premium black television network she launched in 2013, into a sprawling media empire that has produced over 5,000 hours of original content. , including one of the highest-grossing Nigerian films of all time, “The Wedding” (2016).
She has a multi-title deal with Netflix in place, as well as a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television and a development pact with BBC Studios. She also has projects in development with AMC; the Westbrook Studios of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith; and Will Packer Productions.
“Blood Sisters,” however, feels like a graduation of sorts for its production banner, EbonyLife Studios. Abudu says the project was developed closely with Netflix, which helped turn his team’s original 13-part idea into a four-part limited series.
“The themes are universal – you’re dealing with domestic violence, dysfunctional families – but it’s actually something that we’ve made our own, using our culture and traditions to tell the story in a way that makes it more authentic,” says Abudu. .
“We want this to happen well in Nigeria, because of course it is a very Nigerian story, but we believe the world is ready to take on these Nigerian stories in the global space… The time has come [right] now where something from Africa hits that note with international audiences.
Foreign audiences, however, can be “a little picky,” says Abudu, and breakout shows typically possess high production values mixed with “the right kind of sensibilities.” Even things like audio, locations, and costumes require a different level of attention, the exec explains.
Language, too, is a consideration: “Blood Sisters” is mostly in English – which is Nigeria’s official language – with a few lines of local Nigerian Igbo vernacular and Pidgin English scattered throughout.
But ultimately director Kenneth Gyang, who helmed episodes three and four of the series, says it’s the relatability of class tensions and domestic issues that will draw audiences in.
“The most important thing is the class system,” says Gyang. “The parents of this young girl want to ensure that their economic well-being is taken care of simply by marrying their daughter into this family. The economic dynamics between rich and poor are very comparable internationally; it was the same in “Squid Game”.
Gyang was also aware of presenting a multi-dimensional portrayal of Nigerian culture and its various socio-economic groups, especially in the final two episodes.
“How do you present your community culturally? Do you make it just one-dimensional, like how Hollywood portrayed the upper class? Gyang said. “Or make it accessible and show the different sides of life? That’s what people want to see. When people watch your project, it’s almost like a journey in understanding your culture and how your country works. »
For Nigerian actor Deyemi Okanlawon, who plays the abusive and very unlovable Kola (a difficult role which forced him to undergo therapy during production), the global platform provided by Netflix has already attracted interest from producers around the world.
“I think Nigeria has some of the most talented creators, and especially actors, in the world,” says Okanlawon. “I’ve seen how in other climates they’ve tried to represent Nigeria and they haven’t done it particularly well. You cast for a Nigerian but you have someone from another country – maybe an African country – that doesn’t sound authentically Nigerian. It’s worrying. It would be great to represent my country globally and as an actor to play other nationalities.
But at this point, Gyang is quick to point out that an actor like Okanlawon no longer needs to stray far to find global stardom.
“People always move to Hollywood because the big studios are there,” says the director, “but now the big studios are everywhere, and they actually operate in Nigeria. For me, it’s the same process, it’s the same platform, so you don’t have to travel, physically, to get any form of validation.
Abudu emphasizes, “We want our stories to be as authentic and local as possible to appeal to a local audience, but also to appeal to a global audience. The stories are going to be big stories, it’s just that they’re not told from London, although that doesn’t mean we are not will tell stories of London, because we are citizens of the world — we travel. There are Nigerians all over the world; there are Africans everywhere.