Nollywood Babylon

Nollywood Babylon


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

Nollywood Babylon begins with a shot of a film crew praying. The camera is blessed and a hymn is sung. A close-up focuses on the director's prominent cross necklace, over a Roberto Cavalli T-shirt. We learn that Nollywood, the Nigerian popular film industry, is the third largest in the world after the US and India. It has existed, according to the inter-titles, since 1992. However, its production values are much closer to that of 'third cinema': a movement that values the effort involved in making a film (particularly when it occurs in the developing world or conflict zones) over high production values. This film follows the production of the film Bent Arrows, directed by Lancelot Imasuen, a prolific Nollywood director.

Bent Arrows sounds ambitious when it is described as the story of women facing up to incest and prostitution. Particularly when we are treated to several montages of the kind of work Nollywood produces: pimptastic narratives of excess with titles like Desperate Billionaire; tales of witchcraft accompanied by the kind of effects last seen in the most low-budget of zombie movies; cheesy sound and visual effects that can be achieved with the most basic free editing software; and what might be described as overwrought acting.

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However, Nollywood stars make an excellent living and they have legions of fans. Like most popular cinema, Nollywood films rarely make it out of their country of origin and are hardly designed to cater to a foreign market. Nollywood films are funded entirely by the filmmakers themselves and local traders. The films are then distributed through video CDs shown in homes and in shops, and can be purchased in the huge local markets that dominate Lagos.

In a series of interviews, Imasuen discusses his approach to filmmaking. He is entirely self-taught and says he has learnt his techniques “from the street”. He complains that the kind of African cinema selected for international film festivals - consider the work of Ouseman Sembene or Youssef Chahine - does not reach ordinary African citizens. Imasuen also shrewdly observes that “America has colonised the world through cinema.”

If we accept this premise, then Nollywood occupies a powerful position - it demonstrates that a national cinema needn't conform to transnational standards of storytelling or technique, so long as it provides an opportunity for indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories. Early in the film, we briefly meet a Nollywood actress, Omotla Ekeinde, who states that “Hollywood is white” and in this sense, Nollywood does provide African narratives and representations in its stories, in contrast to the whiteness of Hollywood.

The charm of this film lies in its unpretentious mode of letting the filmmakers, artists and historians speak for themselves, in the best tradition of direct documentary. Some background information is offered via inter-titles, but much of the story of how Nollywood has evolved is related by the eloquent and informed Obia Ofeimun, a Nigerian writer and poet. His interviews are supplemented by Onookome Okome, a Nigerian writer and film historian. Both these men frame the interviews with Imasuen, as we follow the production of Bent Arrows from casting to its final shots.

What emerges as the film moves along is that fundamentalist Christian churches have begun to infiltrate Nollywood. These organisations have started producing their own films with titles such as The End Of The World and Hellfire, which threaten harsh punishments to those who are perceived to practice witchcraft and do not adhere to the church's strict teachings.

Both Ofeimun and Okome are critical of this development, citing the fact that because of Nigeria's rampant poverty, the church provides a much needed sense of hope, while also requiring its members to tithe, meaning members pay a certain proportion of their wages directly to the church. In some cases, it is unclear just where this money goes and how it is used, leading to allegations of corruption. The churches have begun to shape the strong moral outline of Nollywood's narratives, where stories often begin with a suffering protagonist who is then saved by religion. Ofeimun worries that this religious slant may hinder Nollywood's evolution. It remains to be seen whether the growing influence of a conservative religious stance will aid or hinder Nollywood's expansion beyond the realm of quick, popular cinema to encompass a more classical filmmaking tradition.

A final criticism: although the language of the film is English, it is subtitled throughout to aid understanding of the Nigerian accents. However, I found the accent relatively easy to understand and at times found the subtitling disruptive and potentially insulting to the film's subjects.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2009
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Welcome to the wacky world of Nollywood, Nigeria's bustling home-grown movie industry.
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Director: Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal

Writer: Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal

Starring: Osita Iheme, Chinedu Ikedieze, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Uche Jumbo, Kenneth Okonkwo, Bob-Manuel Udokwu

Year: 2008

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: Canada

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