The casting for Dr. Bello joins together powerhouse stars Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox and Jimmy Jean-Louis with Nigerian A-listers Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke. It’s not the first time actors from either side of the pond have starred alongside each other, but producer and director Tony Abulu says Dr. Bello symbolizes a new chapter for African movies.
“This is not a film,” Abulu told theGrio. “This is a movement. This is the beginning of a new Africa.”
The Nigerian government recently created a $200 million loan fund to help finance the country’s film projects, which are often quickly produced and sent straight to DVD. That’s not to say the film industry, better known as Nollywood, isn’t already doing well. The world’s third-largest filmmaking industry produces thousands of movies every year, but the hope is that the government’s financial help will result in better quality films and a stronger international audience.
Abulu, a Nigerian-raised filmmaker who now lives in New York City, was the first to receive a loan from the fund. In March, with the $250,000 in hand along with other money he fundraised, he set out to produce a film that would appeal to all audiences.
“Whether you’re white, whether you’re black, there’s a message in it specifically for every group and community,” Abulu said. “There’s a spiritual message and there’s a cultural message.”
In the film, cancer specialist Dr. Michael Durant, played by Washington, immerses himself in his work to avoid dealing with the traumatic loss of his 10-year-old daughter from cancer and the ensuing blame from his wife (Fox). In the process, he crosses paths with Dr. Bello (Jean-Louis), an uncertified Nigerian doctor who teaches Durant to look at medicine in a new way while they try to save the life of a young cancer patient. In a series of twists, Dr. Bello becomes ill and Durant must risk everything and travel to the mountains of Nigeria to find a special potion, which holds the cure.
The film was shot in both New York and Nigeria, and Abulu said the cast really enjoyed working together.
“We had a ball,” he said. “The American actors, the Nigerian Actors — it was fun. We had a wonderful time.”
Isaiah Washington, best known for his role in Grey’s Anatomy, told the New York Times the film’s opportunity to “cross-pollinate” Hollywood and Nollywood is what influenced him to get involved. He also said he wants to help make Nigerian films mainstream.
“How can I bring value to destigmatize Nigeria and destigmatize Nollywood?” he said.
Though Dr. Bello had a smaller budget than most Hollywood productions, which at times bill up to 9-digit figures, Abulu is hoping the story surpasses that. He wants to prove that Nollywood can hold its own outside of Africa, and he’s hoping Hollywood is paying attention.
“It’s not going to be easy because Hollywood doesn’t make movies to experiment,” he said. “Africa is a major risk.”
He wants to reveal a market for the continent similar to the way, he said, Tyler Perry proved there was an audience for non-violent black films.
“Nobody ever believes black folks in America will watch something that is not violent. They tell you in Hollywood, if you’re going to make a black movie, it’s got to have violence, sex and crime because they don’t believe there’s a market for anything else.”
“But Tyler Perry was able to prove there was,” he continued. “We are going to prove that people will be interested in Africa.”
Dr. Bello will open the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Fesitval tonight in New York’s Symphony Space, and Abulu is planning a major release for the film by next spring.
With the release, he hopes to encourage more collaborations between the two film industries. But more importantly, Abulu hopes the film will help grow Nollywood into a solution for Nigeria’s economic problems.
It’s a big goal for one film, but he knows this already.
“I don’t make films for arts sake anymore,” he said. “I make films now to open doors.”
Follow Ugonna on Twitter at @ugonnaokpalaoka