Nollywood Babylon (Directors: Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal): Bustling Lagos, Nigeria is the largest metropolis in Africa, with more than 14 million inhabitants. It’s also the centre of the third-largest film industry in the world, behind only India (Bollywood) and the US (Hollywood). But Nollywood, as it’s called, might be growing quicker than the rest, producing more than 2,500 films each year. Director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, at 36 years of age, has already directed 157 films!
The filmmakers take us on a dizzying tour of the Nollywood film industry, following the dynamic and opinionated Lancelot as he directs Bent Arrows, his 158th feature, and introducing us to other commentators, actors, evangelists and the people who consume the movies themselves. Obviously, based on the sheer output of the industry, these films are made quickly and on the cheap, but as Lancelot boasts, his films connect with the people, while other African films, born out of a more traditional (ie. French) film culture, only play at festivals and then disappear. One thoughtful commentator, poet/writer Odia Ofeimun, laments that Nollywood sprung up after the economic collapse of the 1980s destroyed the traditional film industry in Nigeria. Social unrest meant that traditional business structures couldn’t operate with any sense of stability, so these DIY filmmakers, armed with cheap VHS cameras, created their own film industry. The first Nollywood film was only made in 1992, but is emblematic of the movement. Living in Bondage dealt with themes of witchcraft and the conflict with evangelical Christianity and the modern society it represents.
In fact, many of the films have an evangelistic message. Seeing the popularity of Nollywood, many of the country’s evangelists branched out into film production. Both the church and the Nollywood industry seem to have at least one thing in common: offering solace to the many slum-dwellers who see no way to overcome the poverty and corruption they experience every day. There is no doubt that the films appeal to the public. In fact, they are partially financed by the market shopkeepers who sell them on VCDs (video compact discs), who offer advice on everything from casting to plots. But some of the more wistful commentators (who, granted, are not benefiting financially from the Nollywood boom) are worried that there is no way that the quick and dirty DIY ethic of Nollywood can ever transition into a more traditional artistic film culture. Some older Nigerian directors decry the Nollywood films as “rubbish” but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative film infrastructure. Lagos has only three functioning cinemas left, and none of them show Nollywood films. Instead, people watch them at home with friends and neighbours. Just like the rest of the world, in Nigeria, the cinematheque is disappearing.
Near the end of the film, the poet/writer Odia Ofeimun makes a rather chilling connection between the churches and mosques and the Nollywood films. Both, he says, charm people with tales of witchcraft, magic, and getting rich. Meanwhile, they remain poor, while their government and society remain corrupt. It’s almost as if the film industry and institutional religion act as a social safety valve, pacifying people with manufactured hope while keeping them too amused to think of how to really change society. That’s a thought that goes far outside of Nigeria, but it made me wish the film tried a little harder to find someone not making films just for money or for “the gospel.”
Note: The film is playing here in Toronto from August 11-13 at 7:00pm at the NFB Mediatheque at 150 John Street. Tickets are $6 and are available at the door. Co-director Samir Mallal will be in attendance for a Q&A session on August 11.