WESTFORD -- If you want to know what Nigerians are really like, Monica Swaida said, they are loud.
For hardworking Nigerians, giving up on dreams isn't an option. Just as Swaida put herself through a bachelor's program at UMass Lowell in three years after immigrating at the age of 18 to eventually become a Lowell business owner, Nigerians strive for success. And along the way, they make their feelings known loudly and clearly.
Nigerians have long held this self-image. Only now, they're beginning to find it on the big screen in their home countries as the African film industry, commonly known as Nollywood, continues to grow across the globe.
Helping make more Nollywood films and sharing them with Americans is Swaida's new dream.
"It's time that Africa was heard," Swaida said.
Faces of Love, a 110-minute feature film that Swaida, a Westford resident, produced with Hollywood actor/producer Robert Peters, recently garnered Golden Icons Academy Movie Awards (GIAMA) in two categories. Winning the Best Director award was Peters, who has played roles in Hollywood films including Ocean's Eleven (2001), with the Best Actor award in the Diaspora category going to Raz Adoti, a British-born Nigerian actor who played roles in such Hollywood movies as Amistad (1997) and Black Hawk Down (2001).
The GIAMA is an annual award ceremony designed to recognize "the very best of African entertainment and rich culture through filmography," according to its website.
The awards aim to promote that work to the United States and expatriate communities around the world.
The movie, which depicts "the cost of straying from your relationship and staying in your relationship," as Swaida puts it, makes it a classic story of love between men and women. What sets it apart from other films, though, are the cultural subtleties shown through the plot and the way the characters deal with the issues and react to one another, she said.
Swaida, an insurance business owner, returned to her entertainment roots four years ago. Faces of Love is only the second movie she produced and her first to receive an award. Swaida began working professionally as a backup singer for such Nigerian singing sensations as Majek Fashek when she was 14. After finishing high school at 15, she backpacked around Europe and Africa, from Poland to the Netherlands to Togo to Ghana, before moving to the U.S. to study accounting and finance at UMass Lowell.
Following a career in the information-technology industry, she started her business in 2003. By this time, she had forgotten about the artistic side of her life, Swaida said.
Then Peters approached Swaida while shooting parts of the movie Mail Man in Lowell, and she became its executive producer.
For Faces of Love, she plays a key character and produced the soundtrack. She also serves as a co-executive producer, meaning she and Peters fund the project together, Swaida said. She decided to take on the responsibility, she said, because she wants to promote art that can convey the "true" images of African people.
Until recently, movies shown in African countries mostly came from Hollywood.
"We had the Western world tell the story for us," Swaida said.
African audiences began asking themselves why they didn't see films created by and starring entertainers of their own.
As the Internet became part of everyday life and filmmaking technologies grew accessible financially, Africans found it easier to express themselves through films. That was the beginning of so-called Nollywood, Swaida said.
"People are getting more passion into the movies. This is the time for Africa," she said.
Swaida said fellow African entertainers want Americans to know life in Africa isn't all about starvation and corruption. Many people in Nigeria, for example, are highly educated and the economy is big, Swaida said. According to Nigeria's government website, the country is the largest trading partner of the U.S. in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily due to petroleum exports.
But Nollywood doesn't shy away from exposing the negative side of the culture. Documentaries helped expose such serious social problems as female genital mutilation, Swaida said.
Faces of Love was also nominated for the Nollywood & African Film Critics' Awards this year. The film premiered at Showcase Cinemas in Woburn earlier this month, attracting about 300 people, Swaida said.
Having awoken to the artistic side of herself again, Swaida has just launched a new music album, Monicazation, featuring Afrobeat, reggae and Christian songs that highlight her suave singing voice.
Swaida, who is married with two children, said her entertainment career is only beginning, just as Nollywood is in America.
"Everything is possible," Swaida said.
For more information about Monica Swaida, visit facebook.com/Monicazation.
For more information about Faces of Love, visit facesoflovemovie.com.