“We don’t even want to go to Hollywood anymore,” admits a Nigerian actress in the Canadian documentary Nollywood Babylon, which examines the world’s third largest film industry (after the U.S. and India). “Because, really, Hollywood is white, you know,” she adds with an apologetic cringe. She and her colleagues’ collective goal is to make the grassroots filmmaking centered in Lagos nothing less than the “best African movie industry in the world.” And in many ways, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal’s nonfiction flick, which itself moves with the go-go speed dubbed “Nollywood style,” is a big fat, kiss-my-ass to imperialist Hollywood.
At its core, modern-day Lagos is a home-movie market (originally because the violence in the streets made it safer to stay at home) dominated by homegrown fare. Only the three remaining movie theaters in the metropolis still show foreign films. And this sense of community is nearly palpable in Addelman and Mallal’s doc. Set to African pop music, Nollywood Babylon seamlessly interweaves actual clips from the often melodramatic, though surprisingly stylish (for movies usually shot on less than 10 grand), Nollywood flicks and onset footage with scenes from the bustling, chaotic markets of Lagos, while a wide range of talking heads—from Nigerian film historians to actors, directors, and even a writer/poet—organize it all in an important historical context.
And then there are the charismatic characters, most notably Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen. In his mid-30s, this hyperactive director is also one of Nollywood’s most famous and prolific, taking merely two weeks between wrapping his 157th film and beginning his 158th. “Jumping from one television house to another I could tag that to be learning from the street,” the moviemaker, in his hip-hop grammar, explains of his lack of formal training. And like a great many DIY filmmakers, Lancelot has nothing but contempt for his fellow continental directors who favor the festival circuit and worldwide prestige over reaching the populist masses. “The business of filmmaking is about making money and making statements,” Lancelot proclaims, noting Steven Spielberg’s ability to “penetrate the whole world.” “Americans have been able to colonize the world through music and movies, especially movies,” he adds. “Art is a form of communication.” It’s not lost on Lancelot that 80 million people watch Nollywood flicks. And that he and his fellow Africans—not Westerners—have the power to shape society in their own image.
Not only does Nollywood take specifically African stories and transport them to the screen, but it does so through Africa’s traditional means of oral storytelling, avoiding the Western lens altogether. The plots may speak to the poor man’s aspiration to be rich (Lagos is “where you can make it or not,” a Nigerian film historian explains with echoes of “New York, New York”), enticing like the Hollywood dream factory. But a struggle between tradition and modernity still pervades Nigeria and, unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the film culture. With religion forever filling voids that economic crashes create, it’s inevitable that someone like Helen Ukpabio, head of the 50,000 strong Liberty Gospel Church, would become one of the most successful Nollywood producers. (A sophisticated lady who accidentally stumbled into the zeitgeist, following in the footsteps of Kenneth Nnbue, who created the first Nollywood blockbuster with the occult-and-salvation themed Living in Bondage, she certainly knows how to tap into a market—her own!)
Yet even Lancelot and his crew pray to and thank Jesus in between takes. And another Nollywood director tells Addelman and Mallal that Westerners think Nigerians are joking when they refer to the witchcraft still steeped in their society. He then describes shooting in a place that he didn’t know was a witchcraft coven—and all his equipment stopped working. “Why did it stop working?” one of the directors naïvely wonders. “Witchcraft, man!” the director exclaims impatiently. Duh!
Only the writer/poet, bemoaning the quality of most of the Nollywood movies, points out that the great Nigerian film has yet to be made. But then this is a bit like complaining that Roger Corman’s no-budget productions weren’t masterpieces—while forgetting the masters that Corman’s quickie industry subsequently birthed.