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Ads for a pair of Nigerian films are seen at Idumota market in Lagos, Nigeria. "Nollywood" is the third-largest filmmaking industry in the world, and the subject of the Canadian documentary Nollywood Babylon. (National Film Board)

Back in 2005, Montreal filmmakers Samir Mallal and Ben Addelman decided to check out a little-known Nigerian drama called Emotional Crack at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. It blew their minds.

Nigeria has the third-largest film industry in the world, trailing only Hollywood and Bollywood. "Nollywood" produces 2,500 movies a year.

"I’d never seen a film that used special effects in such a melodramatic way," Mallal enthuses, still stoked by the memory. "I’d never seen a film about contemporary urban Africa told by Africans, about the clash of the old and the new, with this fantastic backdrop of Lagos, a city of 14 million people. I’d never seen Africa portrayed in that way. Also, it looked like a B-movie, like a Roger Corman movie — it had great visual appeal. Something told us to pursue this as an idea."

Now, three and a half years later, Mallal and Addelman are at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, promoting Nollywood Babylon, their compelling portrait of the Nigerian movie industry.

"It seemed like a great way to tell a different kind of story about Africa," said Mallal during a recent phone interview. "It’s an entrepreneurial story, it’s hopeful, it’s about beating the odds and building something for a local audience that’s now exported to people all over the world. And it’s about the importance of people being able to tell their own stories."

And boy, does Nigeria tell its own stories. As the third-largest film industry in the world — trailing only Hollywood and Bollywood — Nollywood’s numbers are staggering: it produces 2,500 movies a year. But we’re not talking James Cameron-type budgets here — most of the films cost less than $15,000 to produce. Although the production values are low-tech — the movies are typically shot on video rather than celluloid — and the actors are often non-professionals, the films are teeming with visceral energy, an appealing side-effect of shooting schedules that rarely last longer than a week. These down-and-dirty productions embody a style that Nigerians have dubbed "sharp sharp let’s go let’s go."

The plotlines are a fascinating mix of action, crime, domestic drama, traditional mysticism and Christian ethics. Nollywood basically started in 1992, when a Lagos electronics merchant named Kenneth Nnebue shot a no-budget film called Living in Bondage and distributed it on videotape. It sold over half a million copies, yielding insane profit margins.

"The typical Nollywood plot comes from that film," explains Mallal. "It’s the archetype: someone comes from the village to the big city and has a hard time navigating it. He finds the city difficult to survive in, then turns to witchcraft to try to make ends meet. That leads him to lose everything. In the end, he abandons witchcraft and finds redemption in the church."

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Co-director Samir Mallal interviews a parishoner outside Liberty Gospel Church for the documentary Nollywood Babylon. (National Film Board)

Nollywood’s visual style is also unique. Many of the films combine the raw feel of American drive-in movies of the ’70s with crude, crowd-pleasing special effects. The look and feel is apparently charming audiences at Sundance.

"People are really enjoying it. The Nollywood aesthetic is an important part of why people like the films," notes Mallal. "We spent a lot of time trying to pick clips and find the best examples of what makes Nollywood appealing to so many people. Who doesn’t love seeing lightning bolts flying out of people’s fingers and people shrinking into eagles? It’s great stuff."

If the visual feel and disparate story elements are different from modern-day Hollywood, so is the distribution model. Nigerian cinemas essentially died during the violence and economic turmoil of the 1970s and ’80s; in fact, there are only three movie theatres still operating in Lagos, and none of them show Nigerian films. Nollywood films go straight to DVD and VCD, and are sold in Lagos market stalls for about two dollars each. They’re screened constantly in homes, shops and restaurants, serving as the cultural pulse of the country and easily outselling Hollywood product.

Mallal and Addelman’s documentary deftly traces the evolution of this popular industry, but the star of Nollywood Babylon is Lancelot Idowu (a.k.a. "The Guv’nor"). He’s a Nigerian filmmaking legend and the director of Emotional Crack, the film that introduced the Montrealers to the vibrant scene. Nollywood Babylon follows Idowu during the shooting of Bent Arrows, a typically intense Nollywood drama about redemption, incest and prostitution. Idowu was only 36 at the time; remarkably, it was his 157th movie.

Judging by the footage, he’s a whirlwind of energy, a natural leader. We see him conducting auditions, cajoling and berating his cast and crew, even doing some camerawork while hanging precariously outside a moving car. In the film, he calls Nollywood "the voice of Africa, Africa’s CNN." Idowu is in Sundance to help promote the doc, and he has boundless enthusiasm for the topic.

"Movies about Africa made by Hollywood are always depicting Africa from a negative perspective," he explains over the phone. "I’m very concerned about letting everyone around the world know that every African city has the good, the bad and the ugly. Overemphasizing the negative is very demoralizing to Africans. And I feel I’m championing the cause of having African stories told by Africans, and a true picture of Africa is presented that is a complete and unique society.

"The world has become very global: Jamaicans, the Caribbean, Cubans, all of these guys are glued right now to Nollywood. And they’re so excited that Africans don’t live in the trees after all, as always presented by the Western media."

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Director Lancelot Idowu, a.k.a. "The Guv'nor," is a Nollywood legend. (Samir Mallal/National Film Board of Canada)

Idowu was initially skeptical about participating in the Canadian doc, but Mallal and Addelman allayed his fears. "Most times when westerners come to Nigeria, they just do an interview and we never hear from them again. But these guys, I made them promise me that they’re going to take this movie far and wide, and Nollywood is going to ride on it. And they said they’re going to try."

Idowu hopes that by getting the message out, Nollywood can advance artistically. Like any director, he’d ideally like to spend more than a week or two shooting a film; Idowu dreams of co-production deals and more substantial budgets.

"Yes, we know the qualities technically are not what is attainable here, but we’re saying, ‘Hold on.’ Someone in the film says the great Nigerian film has not been made. Africa is coming soon and with this film, I’m hoping a lot of people will look beyond what you’re seeing on screen right now, to say if these guys can do this much with literally nothing, if the money grows just a little bit, then we’ll do the real, real stuff. You’ll be amazed at what you’re going to see."

Idowu has high hopes for Nollywood Babylon, but the cultural exchange goes both ways. Its Canadian co-directors have already been inspired by their Nigerian experience. "We do documentaries, so we can really relate to the spirit of Nollywood," says Addelman. "The main attraction to documentary was that you can do it cheaper, you can do a lot of it yourself, you don’t have to wait to raise so many millions of dollars to start working. And Nollywood just takes all those things to the next level."

The final Sundance screening of Nollywood Babylon is on Jan. 24.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.