Last Flight to Abuja, the Nollywood hit about a near miss, delivers a fairytale ending in country with a dire air safety record.
It is perhaps an unlikely theme for a blockbuster film in a country with a dire air safety record: a near miss in which a pilot steers a smoke-filled plane to safety.
In Nigeria, Last Flight to Abuja has become the first homegrown production to outsell Hollywood films this year. Crowds have been packing cinemas to see how the Nollywood fiction matches the reality of taking an internal flight in Africa‘s most populous country.
The film took a record-breaking 8m naira (£32,340) in its first week on release in Lagos. It has toppled this year’s box office hits The Amazing Spider-Man and Ice Age: Continental Drift, and is currently the second highest grossing film in west Africa after The Dark Knight Rises.
“Each time I fly in Nigeria it’s a nervy experience. All the shaking, the bumpy landings, the unexplained noises, as the plane starts off five hours after you’re supposed to have arrived at your destination,” said the director, Obi Emelonye. “The film was an accumulation of all those stories.”
The timing of the film’s release was inauspicious. It coincided with a Dana Air plane smashing into a Lagos slum, killing 163 people. Relatives of the dead encouraged the director not to cancel, to keep aviation safety in the spotlight.
“The timing was spooky because it was supposed to be an era behind us. I felt I had a social responsibility to show [improvements] we could make with just a little change of attitude, being proactive,” he said.
Audiences have given the fictional white-knuckle ride a positive reception.
“When I watched it, I thought that’s how a country with big dreams like Nigeria should be able to handle an aviation disaster,” said cinemagoer Daye Sola, who has spurned domestic carriers since a “bad experience” 12 years ago.
Not everybody is convinced by the fairytale ending, in which emergency workers are at the scene before the plane’s dramatic touchdown.
Femi Alade, whose house is within sight of where the Dana plane crashed, is a rare person from the slum who watched the film. “Someone like me, I have never entered a plane and I will not do so. I enjoyed the film but afterwards I remembered how people were looting and police were beating the crowds,” he said.
“The emergency reaction wasn’t realistic, it was just too prompt,” said another filmgoer, Ohimide, 32, after a showing in Lagos. The reality is undoubtedly grimmer. June’s accident marked the start of a tumultuous period in which half of Nigeria’s domestic airlines have been grounded.
Africa accounts for 14% of the world’s aeroplane crashes although it has only 3% of global traffic.
Whistleblowers have claimed that heavy debts in the aviation sector routinely compromise safety.
In some cases, insiders say planes have been dangerously overloaded with fuel to avoid paying refuelling fees in each country.
David Kolawole’s seven-month-old daughter survived the initial Dana Air impact. But emergency services took 45 minutes to push through the crowds thronging the slum’s narrow mud roads. At the local hospital, staff were unable to save her amid electricity blackouts. “In a country where people are prepared, she could have been saved,” Kolawole said.
An inquest revealed other failings, including emergency staff who had not been trained to put out an aircraft fire with chemical foam rather than water. The aviation minister, Stella Oduah, has cleared Dana Air to fly again, although an inquiry continues.
Safety in Nigeria improved after two aircraft crashed within two months in 2005. But public distrust has returned since the country’s most popular airline, Arik Air, was briefly grounded when aviation workers raided its offices, saying they had not been paid.
Hailed for its fleet of new planes in a creaking industry, Arik had mopped up passengers in west Africa’s thriving market as competitors floundered.
Accusations of financial mismanagement have threatened to engulf the sector, which has grown steadily as air travel has become an alternative to being transported along the region’s often poorly maintained roads.
“We had situations where some of our aircraft were flying with only one engine working rather than pay for the cost of maintaining two,” said John Nnorom, a former finance director at Air Nigeria, one of the recently suspended airlines.