'Yellow Sun' rises in West Africa
Hollywood finds funding, crew for Nigerian tale
"Half of a Yellow Sun," with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, shot in Nigeria with a largely local crew.
Daytime temperatures hit muggy highs in the 90s. The start of the rainy season had the makeshift dressing room for a cast that includes Thandie Newton, Dominic Cooper and Chiwetel Ejiofor looking like a triage unit.
But spirits were high, as the production, which wrapped principal photography in June, marks the most ambitious attempt yet to bring Hollywood-style filmmaking to a nation best known for the low-budget fare of its local Nollywood industry. Far from the smoothly run locations industries of South Africa and Kenya, the producers know they're blazing a trail in a country that still scares off most potential filmmakers and investors.
For co-producer Andrea Calderwood, who lensed "The Constant Gardener" and "The Last King of Scotland" in Kenya and Uganda at a time when both nations were largely uncharted territory for filmmakers, the upside is clear.
"At that time, nobody wanted to let us make a film in East Africa," she says, "but now people don't think twice about shooting in Kenya."
In order to give investors confidence in filming in a country that remains untested, Calderwood says the goal of "Yellow Sun" was to show the film as being international in scope from the beginning. The cast includes recognizable foreign talent. When executive producer Yewande Sadiku began to raise financing, she worked with a U.K. sales agent and secured a bond for the film. Her pitch to Nigerian investors -- who ponied up roughly 80% of the coin -- was based on international sales estimates. Foreign partners like the British Film Institute gave the proposal more muscle.
Nigeria, as Calderwood points out, is a business-oriented culture with a can-do attitude. Once investors were confident in the film's potential, they began lining up. In the end, the producers raised more than $7 million.
Sadiku sees the film as a bridge between Nigerian cinema and the international film community. Most of the local crew members, who make up roughly 60% of the production, are getting their first chance to work on a film with a high level of technical detail, acquiring skills that will help the local industry moving forward.
Calabar, the city in which the production is based, boasts Tinapa Studios, a topnotch facility that is being redeveloped by Nigerian media mogul Mo Abudu, and has been used throughout the shooting of "Yellow Sun."
The high cost of filming in Nigeria, however, remains a hurdle. Much of the lighting and grip equipment had to be brought into the country; problems getting it through customs delayed work for a week. Despite the assistance of companies like Jungle Filmworks and Audio Visual Services in Lagos, there are no production-services companies equipped to handle the logistics of a full-scale Hollywood production.
Such services will only come as filming in the nation grows, Calderwood says. "It needs a critical mass to support this level of technical infrastructure," she notes.
Most important, though, government needs to get onboard. Calderwood estimates that the film's budget was 25% higher than it would have been in a country like South Africa, which offers significant incentives and rebates. Despite what she calls "a lot of support and goodwill" from every level of government, a similar system to officially offset production costs is still lacking.
Still, Calderwood feels that for Creek Town and the rest of Nigeria, such progress is just a matter of time. "Once the first film comes, and people see that it's possible, then more will follow," she predicts.
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