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DVD Review - 'Nollywood Babylon' Chronicling The Jaunty World Of Nigerian Cinema (Watch Now)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act September 20, 2012 at 3:44PM

Bollywood meets Nollywood.
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Nollywood Babylon

Bollywood meets Nollywood.

Well, not really. Specifically, an Indian director directs a film about the Nigerian film industry, known to the world as Nollywood - one of the 3 largest film industries in the world (in terms of output), right alongside Hollywood, and, of course, Bollywood.

Except Samir Mallal, the co-director of Nollywood Babylon (along with Ben Addelman) isn't a Bollywood director - rather a Canadian of Indian descent. However, I couldn't resist making the transcontinental connection, if only for effect.

Athough Mallal (who I learned was very much connected to his native country's film industry) and Addelman, while definitely seeking to edutain with this film, didn't insult, ridicule nor exotify its subject the way western filmmakers sometimes do when documenting foreign groups that they may deem inferior.

And I was certainly relieved, because I went into the screening expecting a kind of insensitive "white man" gaze.

With all the recent interest in Nollywood (this being one of at least 4 documentaries on the subject in the last 3 years), I've noticed very little, if any, coverage on the origins of film in Nigeria which, as as Nollywood Babylon highlights, date back to the early days of cinema, post the infamous Berlin Conference, when much of Africa was carved up and claimed by European powers, eliminating most existing forms of self-governance throughout Africa.

Although, as the zeitgeist would have it, just about all the images of Africans on celluloid in those days were captured by their European colonizers, who saw them clearly as inferior.

That trend saw a shift when Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, and developed its own film industry. Local filmmaking as we know it thrived for several decades, but it all collapsed in the mid-1980s when Nigeria experienced an economic depression, as its currency was devalued, and oil prices plummeted. A revival came in 1992, when a Lagos businessman, Kenneth Nnebue, produced a film, Living In Bondage, specifically to boost the sales of video cassette tapes.

Completely unexpectedly, the film was a big hit, selling more than 500,000 copies on VHS tapes. Local film historians have pointed to that accidental occurrence as Nollywood's birth, as we know it today - spawned more from TV-style drama, than a film/cinema tradition.

Director Mallal recognizes the importance in giving us a history of film in Nigeria and, thus, a foundation to build on and context in which to view his film, which spends much of its time in the present, with its spotlight on Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, considered Nollywood's current Steven Spielberg.

40-year-old Imasuen, nick-named "Da Guvnor" for his dominating personality, has made close to 200 films to date, since his debut in 1995, and Nollywood Babylon follows him as he makes his 157th, a melodrama titled Bent Arrows - a story about incest and prostitution - which, like other Nollywood movies, is considered of low quality (by western standards), and usually shot in 1 to 2 weeks, with a single hand-held digital camera, and eventually released straight-to-DVD and sold at market stalls for $2 or $3 each; avoiding movie theatres almost entirely, which tend to be dominated by foreign fare - American, European and Asian cinema mostly.

So locally made movies are watched at home, and often en masse.

And since the films are relatively cheap to produce - Imasuen’s costs have ranged from $20,000 to $100,000 - it’s easy for filmmakers to profit from their productions. The documentary, which was shot over a 2-year period, includes footage of the ever-ebullient Imasuen at work, providing much of the humor and entertainment to counter the more austere talking head sequences, which include local film critics, film historians, sociologists, media personalities, and more, with the combined effect providing a decent intro to the industry and its participants.

I felt that I learned from the experience, considering that I was already somewhat familiar with the subject matter, and it actually gave me more to ponder - more like a cause for pause, as I found my general pre-existing critical thoughts on Nollywood challenged to some degree. 

To be sure, as the film showed, the industry does have its detractors within, as one critic stated that, despite its history and output, Nollywood still has yet to make that definitive Nigerian movie; and another critic looked forward to a time when profit wasn't the sole motivator for the filmmakers, and a true, substantive film industry would emerge - one that rivals Hollywood in variance and complexity of content, production and distribution.

Filmmakers like Imasuen want to spread Nigerian films around the world. To do that, they’ll need investments from major international producers who, as of yet, haven't expressed much interest.

Will they? I don't know. Should they? On one hand, I'd like to keep as much outside influence away from Nollywood, allowing it to evolve autonomously, and find its own way - maybe just as Bollywood did - and, essentially, force foreign industries to deal with Nollywood on its own terms, and not the other way around, which I believe is what would happen if foreign investments in Nigerian films became prevalent.

But on the other hand, I applaud the cross continental collaborations we've seen recently, between Nigerian and black American talents, done in the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

As I watched the documentary, I wondered what a director like Imasuen would do with the average Hollywood studio budget of $60 to $70 million. The obvious answer would be that he'd likely continue making films as he has been, for $20,000 to $100,000 each, and instead just make a hell of a lot of them!

However, maybe he'd instead create what one critic called the definititve Nigerian movie. Although, the gap in production costs between the 2 industries does make one wonder if Hollywood studio budgets are indeed prudent, or rather an unfortunate waste, and instead, Nollywood, considered inferior by much of the rest of the world, might actually be onto something worth taking note of.

But as a documentary on Hollywood or Bollywood would call for, an extended series would do the subject matter better justice, because there’s only so much that one can cover in 90 minutes. I don’t think one could produce a 90-minute documentary on Hollywood and be thorough.

So, maybe the next step is some kind of multi-episode PBS series, which I can actually see happening. It’s right up their alley. And with a recent push by Nollywood filmmakers to produce product that can compete on the international stage, it could be an ongoing series, capturing the trials and triumphs of what we could look back on in 20 years as a major shift.

But I’d say Nollywood Babylon is a decent, quick introduction for anyone completely unfamiliar with the industry. Of all the documentaries I’ve seen on the subject, this is one of the stronger ones.

You can watch the film right now via SnagFilms, for free:


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