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The Screening Room

Traveling film festival lands in heart of troubled Niger Delta

By Teo Kermeliotis for CNN
Nollywood practitioners and students celebrate the arrival of ION International Film Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
Nollywood practitioners and students celebrate the arrival of ION International Film Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
  • ION, a one-of-a-kind touring film festival, takes place this year in Port Harcourt, Nigeria
  • Troubled region better known for oil kidnappings and unrest
  • Festival organizers want to promote peace and global awareness through film
  • More than half of the festival's feature films and documentaries are made by women

London, England (CNN) -- Nigeria's Port Harcourt International Airport is buzzing with unusual activity. And perhaps for the first time it's not the departure hall that is attracting all of the attention.

Over the last few years, the world's lens has focused mainly on the mass crowds of people fleeing Port Harcourt, situated in the heart of the Niger Delta, amid escalating violence between government troops and armed gangs.

But now the oil-rich city is determined to turn the spotlight back on its cultural heritage as it gears up to welcome an array of international film directors, actors and industry executives, at this week's annual ION International Film Festival.

ION, a unique touring festival, which is dedicated to celebrating diversity and unity, will be descending on Port Harcourt from December 9 to 12, bringing with it four days of culture, dialogue and independent cinema from around the globe.

For too long the city has been showcased as a place of conflict and extreme insecurity.
--Caterina Bortolussi, producer of IONIFF

It traveled from Los Angeles in 2007 to Dubai in 2008 and this year it's hoping to make Port Harcourt a meeting point for cinema and art lovers.

Local authorities have been reassuring participants and tourists of the city's safety. Sokari Davies, the Rivers State's Director of Tourism stressed that performers traveling to the area would not be harmed during the festival, in Nigerian local media.

In its sixth year, ION is bringing together over 200 international guests, including actress Daryl Hannah and rapper/actor Pras from The Fugees, as well as representatives from Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood -- Nigeria's booming film industry. So far, no one has declined to attend due to security reasons, according to the festival's organizers.

For ION, Port Harcourt was the ideal choice to mark its first-ever event in Africa. The city was in line with their aim to give emerging talents from different parts of the world a voice and to promote global awareness and peace in the region through art.

"Port Harcourt is a place full of energy and exceptional natural beauty which once was the epicenter of culture in Nigeria," Caterina Bortolussi, local producer of IONIFF Port Harcourt 09, told CNN.

"The Rivers State government has taken many steps to secure a peaceful environment for its people. For too long the city has been showcased as a place of conflict and extreme insecurity," she added.

"The time has come to shift the focus from the bad news to the good news and the positive initiatives that are taking place in this corner of the world."

The four-day event is expected to attract an estimated 17,000 visitors who will watch over 80 films from around the globe -- 32 from Nigeria -- as well as participate in music events, photo exhibitions and workshops.

The long list of movies includes "Gospel Hill" -- produced and co-written by Giancarlo Esposito, starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover, -- "Skid Row," a documentary account of Pras's nine-day experience as a homeless person living in downtown Los Angeles, Chris Roland's "Darfur" and "Arugba" by Nigerian filmmaker Tunde Kelani.

Catherine Ruelle, the festival's artistic director, told CNN that there has been a surge in the numbers of female filmmakers, especially in Africa, which has helped push modern cinematography to more exciting avenues.

"Over 50 percent of the festival's feature films and documentaries are made by women. And when women make such films, they are much more political than men, they are less scared. I think that's because they don't care about politics, they just want to be filmmakers so they take more risks."

By bringing the festival to Nigeria, ION is also paying tribute to the country's mounting love affair with cinema.

Nollywood is now the second largest movie producer in the world after India in terms of output. In 2006, it produced an astounding 872 films, according to a survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. In just 13 years, it has grown into an estimated $250 million industry, according to the Nigerian Film Corporation.

The festival will also include a session on "Connecting Bollywood and Nollywood" which will bring together two of the world's largest movie industries and help explore collaborative opportunities.

Parminder Vir, the Indian-origin award-winning movie producer and program consultant to the festival, told CNN: "There are huge differences and huge similarities between the two industries.

"Obviously, Bollywood has become much more professionalized in adopting a lot of the international practices, but there is a huge potential for Nollywood to begin to grow. There is a lot that it could learn from Bollywood as another industry model."

The 2010 edition of the ION International Film Festival is scheduled to be held in Istanbul, Turkey.