directors Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal
A lot of people might have heard of Nollywood, and further known that the nickname represents the Nigerian film industry, the world’s third largest (certainly at the time of this film’s production). But how much else does the average person know about Nollywood or its films?
Nollywood Babylon, a Canadian production, is a reasonable primer on the subject, though it’s worth noting that at least two other documentaries on Nollywood were made around the same time, Welcome to Nollywood (2007) and This Is Nollywood (2007). I haven’t seen the others so I can’t say which is the most informative. Directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal give a lot of context for Nollywood, its rise, its audience, its producers, its setting in Nigerian history, and it follows the production of a film by the prolific Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen.
In particular, a couple of social critics interviewed extensively in the film (I sadly missed catching their names) offer the most enlightening perspectives on it all (how accurate/inaccurate you’ll have to decide for yourself).
Lagos, the capitol city, is the heart of the industry, in particular the markets where everything is bought and sold. Because Nollywood pictures aren’t shot on film, nor are they shown in theaters (At the time of this film, it is reported that only 3 cinemas operated in Lagos, all showing only foreign fare.) The industry of Nollywood came about thanks to home video technologies, filling in gaps left after the colonial era ended and an influx of weapons brought in a more violent and chaotic time. These changes also eroded any Nigerian film industry that had developed before. One older director interviewed highly disdains the current product.
The cultural impacts that accompany these times and changes are significant. More and more people move to the increasingly crowded and run-down city, moving away from cultural traditions of oral storytelling, as well as traditional religions that featured magic and legends. While video movies fill the void of the paternal narrators to the children, Christianity (especially Evangelical or “Born Again” Christianity) or Islam have superseded traditional practices (or have adopted and warped them into a modern melange.)
Capitalist models have left the country with a tiny fraction of the people controlling almost all of the wealth while the mass is insanely poor. The social critic notes that the Evangelical churches demand tithes of 10% or more of these poor people’s income, with which they build churches…and produce movies with an Evangelical bent. The whole society is very Christian and most (if not all) of the films featured here espouse explicitly Christian ideals, challenges, and fears.
On the more positive side, the films are indeed uniquely Nigerian. Their stories are of their worlds, filmed by people not in elitist social strata, offering opportunity to regular people in casting calls, and consumed by the average citizens. In this way, there is an almost egalitarian quality to the industry, much more “of the street” than any other film industry I have ever seen.
It’s hard to know how comprehensive Nollywood Babylon is in its depiction of Nollywood. The two native social critics offer compelling and incisive insights, but how clear and true are their points of view? They certainly seem eloquent.
It’s particularly hard to know, with a subject of which I have so little foreknowledge. Taking it at its word and presentation, though, it is a fascinating glimpse into a very different world, a glimpse given historical and social context, potentially real value.
It’s also key to note that this film is nearly a decade old now, so the glimpse is not that contemporary.