Looking for _OLLYWOOD: Nigeria Edition
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Everybody in Toronto goes on and on about how it's the most diverse city on the planet. From hearing them talk, you'd think that the bar across the street from the SkyDome'd look like the cantina on Tatooine, and really, you'd be close to right. There are people here from everywhere, and because Canadians are nice, there's no pressure on immigrants recent or otherwise to conform to some kind of white-bread flag-waving "Canadian" identity. There's not much melting pot action going on here. Which rules.
But what's extra-great about living in a multicultural hub like Toronto is that all the people who move here from abroad inevitably bring little pieces of home along with them. As someone who hasn't been to a lot of places and as someone who enjoys eating, I feel absolutely privileged to live in this mashed-up city where, without having to look too hard, I can be exposed to a wide variety of delicious ethnic food and hear the strange languages spoken by the people who prepare it. There are also tonnes of specialty grocery stores, clothing and souvenir shops that might sell imported CDs, books, magazines and - oh, check this out - movies from countries that you might have trouble locating on a map. And what better, cheaper way to locally experience life abroad than to watch a bootleg DVD made in a foreign country? If you're lucky, you might even stumble upon something exceptional and deserving of your attention, film-wise. Which is exactly what I had hoped to do.
I was walking along Eglinton Avenue West (which, at certain points, features a weird mix of Caribean and Italian store-front businesses) looking for cool, weird, foreign DVDs well outside the selection they've got at Blockbuster. I've seen The White Ribbon and A Prophet, and now I wanted to see something completely different. And smack in the middle of a cluster of hair salons and dollar stores, I saw it: The African Video Mart, which offers internet access, fax & copy, "women accessories", money-grams, and new and old African movies. Inside I met Lara, who let me know that most of the DVDs covering the walls were Nigerian, and they cost $2.50 each, but did not include the cover art.
As it turns out, film production in Nigeria is about a $250 million dollar per year industry, blown up thanks to the increasing cheapness and accessibility of digital video equipment and a so-crazy-it-obviously-might-just-work distribution system. Most of the films are direct-to-video, shot on location in about a week, and have budgets of no more than $25K. Around 30 new English-language titles show up in Nigerian stores each week, and DVD-R copies of the films are sold for a couple bucks to the public, who freakin' love them. Since the average title sells about 50 000 units, the average production company makes their money back several times over, allowing them to crank out a few dozen more just like it before the year is out, adding to a collective pool of 1000 - 2000 Nigerian or "Nollywood" films distributed annually around Africa and worldwide. Holy tomatoes... .
I asked Lara for some help choosing a Nollywood movie that's right for me - most of the DVD covers look identical, featuring a photo-collage of dudes and ladies with facial expressions that run the literal gamut of human emotion and experience. With generic-sounding titles like Silent Scandals, Billionaires Club and A Kiss From A Rose, it's easy to see how fierce the competition really is in a DVD market that might just maybe be just a tad over-saturated with identical products. Or maybe as a Nollywood Noob I hadn't the sophistication of palate to tell them apart... . To me, all the films seemed more or less to be about the same thing: the drama of human relationships and the status of the people in them. Soaps, maybe. I didn't see anything to indicate any action, adventure or fantasy. Nothing there screamed 'genre' to my Western eyes at all; no superheros, no westerns, no police procedurals. it seems like Nollywood's maybe the one place on earth where Dogme '95 cats could make some coin these days (zing!).
Finally, I made a decision. I thanked Lara as I left the store with my copy of 'Part 1 n 2' of Paulicap and Perpetua, a 2008 film directed by Tchidi Chikere and starring famous Nigerian actor Nkem Owoh. Lara told me that it was a comedy, which got me excited, because of how I like to laugh at jokes and stuff. Mostly, though, I was curious. I walked in knowing nothing of Nigerian film, but as a fan of film and a citizen of the world, I figured it was a neat opportunity to see how people elsewhere might utilize the same tools that I have in order to create something so completely foreign to my brain's way of thinking. It was bound to be an interesting example of DIY filmmaking no matter what, so I popped the disc in and hit 'play.'
As it turns out, Paulicap and Perpetua is a pretty bad movie. From a technical standpoint, it's really, really rough; the sound levels fluctuate like crazy and the actors' voices were often so distorted that you couldn't even make out what they were saying. The story also draaaaaaaags in so many places. Characters have 10 minute, roaming arguments with eachother that always reach a predictable conclusion, and every time somebody gets in a car, the camera stays with them as they check their mirrors, put on their seat belt, start the ignition, slowly back out and drive away. Every single time. Which, is weird. It helps to stretch the running time of Paulicap and Perpetua to around 2 hours (conveniently though, the film is split into 2 parts, as are most of these Nollywood films). The editing is sloppy and the whole thing feels rushed, which is no big surprise considering the large volume of output by any given Nigerian production company. The turn-around on these films must be absolutely insane.
The story in Paulicap and Perpetua is pretty simplistic and completely sexist by, you know, my privileged North American standards. Paulicap is a loveable cad - an easy going married man who runs around with loose women, constantly providing his pious wife with a source of anguish and disappointment. He'd remind me of Andy Capp, if Andy Capp had no problem paying for and sleeping with prostitutes. Paulicap drives around in his convertible all day, spouting his catchphrase, "if you catch my drift?" to sexy young women he happens to see walking by, and they fall for it because he's obviously rich and so that means money, which is what all women are after, am I right? These scenes are flooded with an endless loop of catchy African hip hop tracks, and I do mean flooded, because the music never lets up in this film, not even for one second. Meanwhile, several hard-cuts to his wife Mabel, played by actress Queen Nwaokoye giving the most maudlin performance I've ever seen, reveal that she's not happy, to say the least. You can find her either crying or yelling her way through each scene while somebody somewhere plays the same 4 sad-sounding chords on a piano over and over for 10 minutes straight. As a devout, god-fearing christian, she's had it with Paulicap's lyin' and cheatin' so she and her pastor stake out the nearby hotel to catch a glimpse of Mr. P leaving with some harlot, which they do, leading to a 'hilarious' lady cat-fight in the middle of the street.
The film has a distinct made-up-on-the-spot vibe, and it takes a few weird turns involving a shaman and mind control and the healing power of Jesus, eventually settling on Paulicap and Mabel getting back together. I honestly have no idea if this film is trying to say that sleazy men who disrespect their wives are still worth fighting for and forgiving, or if it's that, no matter what, God is more powerful than ancient tribal magic, so read the bible and go to church. I have no idea if Nigerian people think this is a great film or a bad one, if it's trash or treasure in some other frame of reference. I can't even begin imagine. I might, despite Lara's help, have bought the worst film in Nollywood history, so I'm going to try and refrain from generalizing any more about the Nigerian film industry. Still a neat film-viewing experience, though!
It does, however, kind of bus me out that, as bad as Paulicap and Pepertua was, it was still an indication of a thriving micro-industry, one that's culturally specific and one that kind of maybe might put our meagre Canadian film industry to shame. These dudes are making thousands upon thousands of these movies, and cats are snapping them up. I'm gonna find out why, maybe get a few more recommendations from nice Lara, maybe check out some more of Queen Nwaokoye's work. Stay tuned to this column as we continue Looking For _OLLYWOOD!