Thursday, December 28, 2017

Nollywood Babylon

(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.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Crazy Love

(2007) Directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens; Written by Dan Klores; Starring: Burt Pugach, Linda Pugach, Bob Janoff, Sylvia Hoffman, Rita Kessler and Joyce Guerriero; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“It’s a story that interested me…on a number of levels, because I think most people, as much as they don’t want to admit it, will make decisions about not being alone that affect the rest of their lives.” – Dan Kores

“In court, I was still in love with her when I saw her. And to me, just seeing her in the courtroom was a profit. In other words, I was happy to be a defendant, because I was able to see her.” – Burt Pugach

In the immortal words of musician/songwriter Graham Parker, “Love gets you twisted.” When it comes to affairs of the heart, some of us may take leave of our senses over that special someone, especially if that special someone doesn’t reciprocate (ahem, not that I’d know anything about that). For his documentary Crazy Love, Writer/director Dan Klores mined the depths of tabloids and sensationalistic talk shows for a most unconventional love story. It’s the sort of film that could only be told as a documentary – If it had been a work of fiction, no one would have bought it.

The year is 1957, and Burton (“Burt”) Pugach, a successful young negligence attorney with a penchant for pretty women and fancy cars becomes fixated on Linda Riss, a 20-year-old receptionist. They don’t exactly hit it off when they first meet, but she reluctantly agrees to go out with him. Things seem to go well for the new couple until she learns that he’s still married. When it becomes apparent that Burt is dragging his feet with his divorce, she breaks up with him, and embarks on her own pursuits. Her engagement to another man sets Burt off the deep end. One day in 1959, he hires thugs to threaten her, but one of them throws lye in her face, permanently damaging her eyes (she lost one eye, and 80 percent of her vision in the other). Burt serves as his own defense attorney in the ensuing trial, he’s convicted, and goes off to prison. In most cases, this would be the tragic end to the story, but he still holds a candle for her. Burt continues to send her letters from jail, professing his undying love for her, referring to Linda as his bride. After serving 14 years of his 30-year sentence, he’s released from prison, and endeavors to resume his relationship with Linda. (Cue the clichéd record scratch sound…) She relents, and eventually marries him. It’s a plot twist that wouldn’t pass muster in a second-rate Hollywood production, yet it’s the core of the film.

The obvious question that any reasonably sane individual would ask is: why on earth would she marry the guy? The film comes up short on answers, but maybe that’s the point. When it comes to matters of the heart, not very much makes sense. Love is a messy business. At least from her outward persona, Linda doesn’t appear to be lacking in self-esteem. In her mind, however, she might have harbored feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, due to her disfigurement (she wears large dark glasses to mask her damaged eyes). Perhaps she felt her only recourse as “damaged goods,” was to give in to Burt’s marriage proposal. In his DVD commentary, Klores provided additional insight about Burt’s motivations for marrying her. He was stuck in the past, and when he looked at Linda, he only saw her younger, idealized self. We may never have all the answers. Only Burt and Linda understand their true motivations. Their relationship defies rational explanation. They somehow click, but shouldn’t.

In his interviews, Burt Pugach comes across as funny and charming at times, and overconfident to the point of arrogance. His favorite subject is clearly himself, with Linda second.* Narcissistic tendencies aside, there’s little to indicate this is the same man who descended into mental illness, and plotted to attack Linda, but the film suggests that the seeds of Burt’s obsessive behavior had been sown during his childhood. Crazy Love traces his difficult past, with a domineering, abusive mother and a passive father. As he grew up, he may have come to the realization that he had to assert himself to take what he wanted, which shaped his view of people as possessions to be acquired or rivals to vanquish.

* Because of Burt’s “domineering” personality, Klores decided to shoot Burt and Linda’s interviews separately, with the exception of a few choice scenes.

Burt and Linda Pugach don’t seem particularly enamored of each other or compatible,* but something compels them to stay together. They were products of a different era, when it was more important to be together than alone, and having financial security took priority over love. Their fractured relationship reminds me of a plaque that my parents displayed in their house: “Marriage is a Mutual Understanding,” a paradoxical aphorism that held true for their marriage, and an apt description of Burt and Linda Pugach’s dysfunctional, oddly enduring union.

* According to Klores, they reminded him of his own parents. “They would talk at the same time and never quite listen to one another. They would talk and never listen.”  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Best Fiend

(1999) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog, Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Towards the end of shooting, the Indians offered to kill Kinski for me. They said: ‘Shall we kill him for you?’ And I said: ‘No, for God’s sake! I still need him for shooting. Leave him to me.’ I declined at the time, but they were dead serious. They would have killed him, undoubtedly, if I had wanted it.” – Werner Herzog (on working with Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo)

We’ve all probably had friendships in one point of our life that started out with excitement and promise, only to end up toxic and bitter. Arguably few personal/professional relationships can compare with filmmaker Werner Herzog’s contentious association with the volatile actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s entertaining documentary, My Best Fiend, chronicles the director’s troubled, yet fruitful association with a performer unparalleled in his reputation for being difficult. It’s a complex portrait of a gifted actor and an intense man, plagued by moments of lapsed sanity, and punctuated by fits of rage.

The opening scene is a fitting introduction to Kinski, with footage from his ill-fated “Jesus Christ” tour. The actor goes on a protracted rant, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the audience. The negative response only serves to antagonize him further, as he hurls insults and a litany of expletives at the crowd. Herzog traces his early days with Kinski, as they briefly occupied a boarding house together, where he observed the mercurial actor’s destructive tendencies. The majority of the film discusses their first professional collaborations, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982),* two productions that presented enormous challenges for the cast and crew.

* In addition to contending with Kinski’s mood swings, Herzog endured the trials of dragging a small ship up a mountainside. Bonus Fact: Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, as Fitzcarraldo, with Mick Jagger as his assistant. We’re treated to some of the incomplete footage, which was scrapped when Robards became too ill to continue filming, and was replaced by Kinski. Les Blank’s excellent documentary Burden of Dreams covers how Herzog’s wildly ambitious production went awry in greater detail, and is highly recommended.   

We’re never quite sure how much is fact and how much is fabrication in My Best Fiend. Herzog recounts how Kinski threatened to leave Aguirre before it was completed, which prompted the director to threaten his star (“I told him, I had a rifle and by the time he’d reach the next bend there’d be eight bullets in his head and the ninth would be mine.”), although he dispelled rumors that he completed the film with Kinski at gunpoint. In another instance, Herzog, in his customary dry delivery, explains how he once plotted to firebomb Kinski’s house, with the actor inside. Another case in point is Kinski’s autobiography, which Herzog attests was intentionally filled with inaccuracies. According to Herzog, the two conspired to stretch the truth for the sake of giving readers what they wanted, inventing all sorts of wild accusations and slurs against the director. Although Herzog confides, “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski,” we’re left to speculate how much of their friction was illusory.

As the audience, we’re expected to accept Herzog’s narrative that Klaus Kinski was a megalomaniac, standing on the precipice of sanity by the thinnest margin, but it’s a dubious recounting of events. My Best Fiend is as much a tell-all about Kinski as it’s a confession of the madness that propels Herzog to make films. Herzog pointed to an instance when the actor called the filmmaker a megalomaniac, which prompted the response, “That makes two of us.” Madness and genius are strange bedfellows with the two artists, who were in some ways two sides of the same coin, willing to suffer for their art and ready to take everyone along for the ride. Both are intensely passionate about their artistic visions, with strong convictions about what should be. By the same token, they are at odds with each other because of those same convictions.

To Herzog’s credit, he balances out Kinski’s less savory aspects with some more favorable recollections. He interviews two actresses that reveal additional facets of the actor’s personality. Eva Mattes, who appeared with Kinski in Woyzeck (1979) recalled a very different portrait of Kinski, compared to his reputation, as a sensitive, fragile man. Likewise, Claudia Cardinale, who co-starred in Fitzcarraldo, recalled his professionalism and “capacity of transformation” as an actor. Herzog speaks of the actor’s perfectionistic tendencies and considerable knowledge of filmmaking, and his awareness of how to appear for the camera.

If one truth is to be gleaned from My Best Fiend, it’s that Herzog and Kinski shared a symbiotic relationship (“Kinski and I complemented each other in a strange way. I think he needed me just as much as I needed him.”). Their relationship was ephemeral, a case of capturing lightning in a bottle for a short time, which was fated to burn out. Herzog has often been accused of blurring fact and fiction, creating a narrative to suit his purpose, and I believe Herzog would agree. In his own way, he’s having fun with manipulating the audience and subverting our expectations. In the context of My Best Fiend, myth is as important as objective truth, and Kinski occupied both realms quite comfortably.