Nollywood, the subject of the solid Canadian documentary “Nollywood Babylon,” is Nigeria’s homegrown movie industry. The world’s third largest after the -woods Holly and Bolly, it’s the source of hundreds of movies annually, all shot quickly, cheaply and digitally, all released directly to DVD or VCD (outbursts of public violence made theaters less than appealing). Nollywood cinema is, by definition, popular cinema — funded by investors or the filmmakers themselves, the features are calculated to give the people what they want, crowdpleasers, melodramas, crime stories, tales of religious redemption, broad comedies, all designed to recoup cash. “Africans telling African stories,” as one girl puts it.
Basically, for the type of person who predicts the death of film due to new technology or to commercial pressures, “Nollywood Babylon” could be seen as an ominous vision of the future. “The great Nigerian film has not yet been made,” explains one interviewee, a poet, because no one in Nollywood is trying to make a great film; they’re trying to make entertainment and a profit. And the films are enormously popular, outselling any imports while being tailored to their intended market to the point of being largely unexportable themselves. Who needs global fame, anyway? “The business of filmmaking is about making money and making statements” declares Lancelot Imasuen, the prolific director who over the course of the documentary shoots his 157th feature, “Bent Arrows,” decrying the festival system as being the host to films that are screened and then never seen by a larger audience, much less the masses that take in his work.
Cut together from talking head interviews, historical background, clips, Lagos footage and a look at the production of “Bent Arrows,” “Nollywood Babylon” is stylistically standard, but cheers to filmmakers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal for going beyond a look at Lagos as the Wild West of cinema to offer unexpected insights, not always sunny, into the economic and social forces that created and continue to sustain Nollywood.
“Nollywood Babylon” currently has no U.S. distribution. See all of IFC.com’s Sundance coverage here.
[Photo: “Nollywood Babylon,” National Film Board of Canada, 2008]