One criticism of Nigeria’s Nollywood movie industry is the lack of variance in story genres.
While Nollywood movies are widely watched across Africa, they’re mainly known for live action urban rom-coms and modern-day dramas than anything else. Two genre gaps are animations and movies rooted in African mythology. Roye Okupe, founder of YouNeek Studios, a comics publisher, is hoping to fill both in one swoop.
After years of publishing Malika: Warrior Queen as a graphic novel with its central character inspired by Queen Amina, a 16th century queen who ruled in parts of Nigeria’s northwest, Okupe has stepped things up with an animated 15-minute short film which he expects to be the precursor to a full length feature. The decision to base the story on a character steeped in legend was deliberate for Okupe.
“I really wanted to do something deeply rooted in African history, culture and mythology,” he says. “These are things they don’t teach us in schools in Nigeria because we learn more about foreign history than our own. I didn’t know about Queen Amina growing up.”
Okupe’s effort comes amid a blossoming of the comic scene in Nigeria. Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, has hosted an annual Comic Con since 2012 with several companies and creators showcasing characters and stories in front of an audience that now numbers in thousands.
And, after years of being famed solely for its low-budget, high-volume production, an increased focus on quality rather than quantity has also seen Nollywood movies score big at local cinemas. The availability of box office earnings offers filmmakers a vital revenue stream and the prospect of profits in an industry long plagued by piracy.
There are already signs that an animated story which explores African history and mythology could have some appeal, even among Nollywood’s core establishment. Niyi Akinmolayan, director of The Wedding Party 2 and Chief Daddy—two of Nigeria’s highest-ever grossing movies, served as executive producer of Malika while the lead character of Malike, was voiced by Adesua Etomi, one of Nollywood’s biggest stars. Beyond Nollywood, the film has also raised eyebrows, snagging the award for best animated short at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards in July.
Bringing the graphic novel to life through film was not without challenges, especially given lean resources: Okupe bootstrapped production costs, partly aided by a $20,000 raise from Kickstarter. A production team of 30 people also worked painstakingly to capture authentic details from costume to architectural design. “We thought it was going to be done in six months, it ended up taking a year,” Okupe says.
Okupe plans to spend the coming months showcasing Malika: Warrior Queen at festivals and pitching to major studios in a bid to take African mythology stories global. “There’s no reason why our children shouldn’t be able to turn on their TVs and see characters like this rooted in Africa,” he says.