Monday, January 11, 2010

Welcome to Nollywood (United States, 2007)

I think that -- for me, at least -- the Nollywood film industry might be more exciting than Nollywood films themselves. While there are many aspects to Nigerian popular cinema that make it sound well suited for coverage on a blog like this, the soap opera-like nature of the shot-on-video movies -- which even one practitioner describes as "slow and talky" -- has served to scare me off.

Nonetheless, the state of that country's filmmaking community circa 2004, when much of Jamie Meltzer's documentary Welcome to Nollywood was shot, reflects the very kind of wild west atmosphere that I've thrilled to vicariously seeing played out in many other countries at different times throughout the history of filmed entertainment, from the Philippines and Turkey during the mid 1960s, to the regional and B movie makers of India, to the various hucksters and visionaries from the heyday of the American grindhouse in the 1970s.

Of course, while many of the challenges faced by these Nigerian moviemakers are universal to low budget exploitation filmmaking -- the stifling budgetary constraints, shortage of professional-level talent, and the pitfalls and perils of shooting guerilla-style without official support or sanction -- others are unique to the experience of shooting in a third world country -- i.e, frequent power outages, flooded streets, and the fact that "low budget", in this case, literally refers to sometimes as little as ten thousand U.S. dollars.

Still, from a market standpoint, the landscape is a very familiar one: a small army of scrappy independent entrepreneurs, a newly identified market of entertainment-starved working folk ripe for exploitation, and a mad, competitive scramble by said entrepreneurs to produce as much pulp entertainment as possible in as short a time and for as little money as they can. (The Nigerians -- reminiscent of the notoriously mercenary Italian pop film industry of the 60s -- even have a tendency to all hop on the same trend at once, with one period seeing all of them producing love stories and the next political thrillers, etc.)

While my left coast upbringing hasn't inured me to the ravages of capitalism, I have to admit that I find something incredibly exhilarating about the rough-and-tumble nature of this type of purely market-driven, street-level filmmaking. There's a real thrill to seeing the fierce level of resourcefulness and invention, as well as those moments of cracked, individual inspiration that only tend to pop up in commercial cinema when things are moving too fast and loose for streamlining or consensus building.

That said, while Meltzer's documentary is both well-intentioned and welcome, I found that it left me a little wanting. Running at a little under an hour, Welcome to Nollywood shows me enough to spark my interest, but ultimately doesn't provide me with as full a picture of its subject matter as that interest demands. The film starts by reeling off, via a series of text screens, a number of factoids about the Nigerian film industry, among which is the fact that that industry had not existed before 1990. However, how its existence came about is left unaddressed, as the film then proceeds to basically join Nollywood in progress, with little further discussion of any historical background.

At this, mind you, Meltzer excels. Giving us a real "you are there" sense of the dash and hustle of the industry's day-to-day machinations, the director takes us from the bustling locations where these films are churned out in a matter of days to the crowded electronics marketplace where literally dozens of them make their debut every week (the Nollywood market not being driven by theatrical releases, but instead exclusively by direct release to video tape and VCD), in the process making palpable a milieu that pulsates with the rapid tidal shifts of supply and demand. Unfortunately, while the footage that Meltzer provides of the films being shot is riveting, we end up seeing very little of the finished products, save for a couple of brief clips and one trailer for the tantalizingly lurid looking Slave.

More importantly, Meltzer departs from the first half's overview of the industry to spend the larger portion of the remaining half of the film following the movements of one director, Izu Ojukwu. Given that Ojukwu is an obviously gifted filmmaker, and that his plan -- to make a sprawling historical epic -- marks a sharp departure from the standard Nollywood MO, his story merits telling. In fact, the tale of Ojukwu's self-taught journey toward mastery of his craft, beginning when he built his own projector from scratch using found materials (which, incidentally, he then used to screen Bollywood films for the enjoyment of the children of his village), would make a fascinating film all on its own.

In addition to that, while Nollywood's most prolific director, Chico Ejiro -- whose interviews take up a good part of the film's first half -- is every bit as brash, fast talking and boastful as you might expect (Ejiro promotes the use of the moniker "Mr. Prolific" to refer to him), Ojukwu is likeably soft spoken and thoughtful. If you were looking for an underdog narrative to keep your audience rooting along, you'd be hard pressed not to devote your attention to Ojukwu, especially given the heroic and seemingly insurmountable nature of the project he has set out for himself.

The problem, though, is that it seems to be Ejiro, rather than Ojukwu, who is most representative of the Nollywood that Meltzer finds before his camera at this point in its history. Given that, you can either look at Welcome to Nollywood as a project seduced from its course by the lure of exceptionalism, or as a document of a fledgling film industry at an important turning point in its history. (In support of this latter interpretation, Ojukwu did indeed, after much hardship and delay, finish his film, which then went on to both popular and critical acclaim in his home country.) Either way, I couldn't help despairing a bit as I watched all of those things that I personally found most interesting in Welcome to Nollywood shrinking in Meltzer's rearview as he sped off in pursuit of his muse.

Of course, for me to complain too much about Welcome to Nollywood would amount to my faulting it for not catering to my own personal biases. Meltzer is certainly a skilled documentarian (he's also responsible for the wonderful Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story, another short-form doc that aired on PBS in 2003), and the portrait he paints here, if lacking the amount of detail I would have preferred, is certainly vivid. Vivid enough, in fact, to provide me with a welcome reminder of exactly those things that make me so passionate about world pop cinema. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.


Tars Tarkas said...

Nigeria's film industry is covered a bit in the documentary Good Copy Bad Copy, which was where I first saw clips. Most of the films that would be interesting seem to be either ultra-violent gang movies or sorcery/black magic movies. I have one or two Nollywood films, but as they don't have giant monsters, fighting chicks, or cat puppets cooking ramen they keep getting pushed to the back of the review pile.

sunil said...

Malegaon ka superman might or might not be more of the same.

Todd said...

Tars: Yeah, it seems that these filmmakers are more interested in giving the Nigerian audience an opportunity to see their daily lives reflected on the big screen than they are in luring cult film bloggers like ourselves with promises of suitmation monsters and femaliens. Which is fine, of course, but still a shame. I wonder if they at least have a movie where a dog rides a horse.

Sunil: I just missed seeing Malegaon Ka Superman at a festival here. Not that I really made a sincere effort to see it, mind you. It was more me saying "Ooh, that looks interesting" and then, on the night it played, being too lazy to leave the house. I'm bummed about it now.