Filmmaker Biyi Bandele on Nollywood, Poverty Porn and the Miracle of Nigeria

Illustration by Alex Fine

One of Nigeria's great exports is its artists. Biyi Bandele is an award-
winning Nigerian writer and filmmaker. Among his works are the novel The King's Rifle and the films Half of a Yellow Sun and Fifty. He is currently working on a feature documentary film on Fela Kuti for the BBC and is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Newsweek's Sam Hill talked with Bandele from his home in New York City about being a part of the nation's artistic diaspora and his country's future. Edited excerpts:

Why does Nigeria have what seems like an inexhaustible supply of great writers and artists?

Because over the last forty years to survive we've had to rely on ourselves. Nollywood came into being because in the late 1980's, state TV simply stopped. Our creativity comes from necessity. We have a healthy skepticism of depending on anyone but ourselves. The result is an artist community that is incredibly resilient and inventive. Nigerians take international influences like reggae and hip-hop and combine it with homegrown musical styles and create something new and great like Afro-beats.

Some critics have said that what the west knows as "Nigerian" literature is really literature written by Nigerians for non-Nigerian audiences. Writer Helon Habila famously called it "poverty porn."

Helon's right. To a point. There's a bit of give-the-editors-what-they-want and it's true that literary prizes in the West favor victimhood. Several years ago I judged a literary competition. We got a short story by a then unknown writer, a young woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Well, I tried to get the story onto the shortlist and I failed. I couldn't convince my fellow judges. Some felt it wasn't African enough, presumably because it didn't deal with HIV or prostitution. (Laugh) Of course, by the time the awards were announced, Chimamanda was a mega-star.

I can't help noticing that many of the greatest Nigerian artists live outside Nigeria. Do you see a day when that will change?

Nigeria is very important to all of us in the diaspora. We all have dreams of contributing from within and we'd love to go home. But Nigeria is a very, very tricky place. It's dog-eat-dog. Some returnees have thrived, some haven't stayed. I try to contribute by taking back film projects, like Half of a Yellow Sun.

Is it hard to make a film in Nigeria?

The hardest part is trying to get the insurance bonds and all that stuff in place. We shot Yellow Sun in the delta. Well, the delta's a big place and the part we shot in was perfectly safe. In six months we had not a single security incident. But everyone's seen the photos and heard the stories, so people are afraid to invest.

What do you see in the future for Nigeria?

Nigeria is a miracle. Nigeria was cobbled together in 1914 by the British. It shouldn't exist, but it does and it's thriving. As long as we have democracy, no matter how flawed, we will continue to thrive. The beauty of democracy is that it always reinvents itself. OK, maybe it's two steps forward and one step back, but it's progress.