(2008) Written and directed by Samir Mallal and Ben Addelman; Starring: Osita Iheme, Chinedu Ikedieze, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen and Odia Ofeimun; Available on DVD
Rating: *** ½
“Nollywood is a child of circumstance, because Nigeria at this stage is cut across a bridge with western world and tradition. So, that’s the contrast.” – Uche Jumbo (Nollywood actress)
International cinema can often serve as a lens to capture a glimpse of other cultures. Although it may be an imperfect snapshot, it provides a launching point for further exploration of the society that created it. Nollywood Babylon takes a look at the thriving Nigerian (or “Nollywood”) film industry, which is the third largest in the world (after the U.S. and India), but remains largely unknown in the west. We hear from the actors, filmmakers and fans of Nollywood (some of which see three to five movies per day). The diverse subjects range from family drama to broad comedies. Many titles delve into supernatural themes, which are deeply rooted in Nigerian culture.
Most of Nollywood Babylon was shot in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria (and the African continent), as well as the birthplace for Nollywood. Shooting presented numerous challenges for the Canadian documentarians, Samir Mallal and Ben Addelman, who had to weave through the politics of corrupt local officials and evading street gangs that wanted to steal their cameras.*
* Fun Fact: In the DVD commentary, both directors recalled having their cameras taken away, and having to bribe their way to get them back. According to Mallal and Addelman, depending on the gang’s status, it could range from $100 to $500 USD to ransom their equipment.
Nollywood Babylon makes several salient points about what sets Nollywood apart from the rest of the world. The movies are not a product of big studios, but are self-financed by the directors, often for budgets less than $15,000. According to the DVD commentary, the shooting schedules are brief, normally ranging from seven to ten days. Because there are only three surviving movie theaters in Lagos, Nollywood films are targeted at the home video market on DVDs. Film crews are without formal training, and most actors don’t have agents (directors often hold open casting calls). Nollywood films differ from other global cinema, due to thematic differences that are distinctly Nigerian. Many of the movies reflect a culture steeped in old traditions of magic and witchcraft, and the ensuing struggle with evangelical Christianity. These are essentially films by Nigerians for Nigerians.
Nollywood Babylon shines the spotlight on several prominent and prolific Nigerian filmmakers. One of the standout individuals is hard-working director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen (at the time of this documentary, he was shooting his 157th movie, Bent Arrows). The film follows him over the course of his latest project from the first to last day of shooting.* We get a feel for his dedication to the filmmaking process, despite the lack of resources and amenities afforded a typical Hollywood production. He’s quick to get hot under the collar if he feels that he’s not getting the best performances from his cast or crew, but he’s also quick to reward work well done. We also spend some time with Helen Ukpabio, who makes a series of inspirational films and runs a large network of ministries. She sees her movies as something more than entertainment, as teaching and recruiting tools.
* In one of the documentary’s most amusing scenes we watch Lancelot bless the camera equipment (“You will function to capacity! You will function above your limit!”)
My primary complaint about Nollywood Babylon is that the film’s breezy 74-minute running time is too brief. A longer film could have potentially provided more depth to this fascinating subject. Although we see several short snippets from Nollywood movies, it would have been nice to have seen more clips, along with some commentary from the directors themselves, to place their work in the proper context. To the casual western observer, the movies seem amateurish and unintentionally funny, which seems to be an unfair assessment, considering the differences in budget, resources and cultural/spiritual concerns. Another blind spot is that the film shies away from the potentially detrimental role the churches serve. As one interviewee asserts, evangelical Christians dominate Nollywood. If this is the case, the films that are being made are distilled through a specific bias. How are filmmakers in this system being silenced or censored because of this bias? Also, what has been the negative cultural impact of the films and their messages?*
* In recent years, Ukpabio herself has generated her share of controversy, due to her crusade against witchcraft.
Faults aside, Nollywood Babylon excels in its depiction of filmmaking on a shoestring by individuals flying by the seat of their pants. The cast and crews make up for any deficits with a keen enthusiasm for making movies and wanting to entertain audiences. We also gain a sense of a film industry that’s still in its infancy, ready to transition to the next level. Nigerian poet/writer Odia Ofeimun states, “The great Nigerian film has not yet been made.” The Nollywood industry is concerned with producing popular movies for the masses, but nothing that’s liable to win awards from the snooty art house crowd. Nollywood has remained virtually invisible to the western world, because of (among many factors) the low production values and no recognizable stars, but there are quite a few lessons filmmakers around the world can glean from this lo-fi approach. What the films lack in polish is more than compensated by an abundance of enthusiasm and a great deal of heart. In this era of skyrocketing budgets, it’s comforting to see what can be accomplished for next to nothing. And if a $10,000 film still touches people, is it any less valid than a $100 million blockbuster? Nollywood is easy to ridicule, but more difficult to understand.