Film » Screens

Out of Africa

Nolllywood Babylon explores the little-known history of Nigerian cinema

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This documentary about Nigerian cinema, which now ranks behind only India and the U.S. in the number of films produced, is shot about as well as your average reality-TV show. But that doesn't diminish the movie. A look behind the scenes at the burgeoning Nigerian cinema scene that produces some 2,500 movies a year (most for under $10,000), it opens with footage of a man blessing a camera on the set of a low-budget movie. That's the first sign that Nigerian cinema is different. While it shares some of the D.I.Y. sensibilities of blaxploitation and has a connection to India's self-run Bollywood industry (hence the film's title), its content comes from a totally different perspective.

As one actress describes it, "It's Africans telling African stories." Another actor says it's "the answer to CNN." Clips of flicks such as Desperate Billionaire and 1992's Living in Bondage, the first legitimate Nollywood blockbuster, don't suggest the films are masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination. But they do reflect the fast-paced life in the chaotic Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, where half a million people come and go every day.

The film takes a turn midway, focusing on how evangelists have taken over the industry, using direct-to-DVD videos as a way to spread their message about Jesus. As a result, movies like Hellfire and The End of the Wicked exploit African interest in witches and voodoo to suggest that people need to abandon those practices. Cheesy special effects make bodies disappear in puffs of smoke, and evil spirits with white-painted faces appear out of nowhere. The clips aren't scary even by B-movie standards. While the filmmakers don't say so directly, they suggest that Christian fundamentalists have ruined the Nigerian film industry.

The behind-the-scenes material is great. We see shots from the sets (look closely and you'll see an extra wearing a LeBron James jersey) and auditions filmed in a meeting room at some crappy hotel. Directed, written and photographed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the film covers a broad history in one fell swoop. You don't have to know anything about Nigerian cinema to get something from the movie.

jniesel@clevescene.com

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