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Monday: “I thought this is how people dressed when they want to do things like this.”
Rambo: “Where did you get such a stupid idea?”
—an exchange from Ojukokoro (Greed), 2016
The story of Nigerian cinema is inextricably tied to technological and cultural innovation. By the late Eighties, movie theaters were one of the first remnants of colonial rule to be done away with, an intentional outcome of a governmental desire to see ownership of the stories told about Nigerians returned to Nigerians themselves. When that happened, the influx of foreign cinema slowed, and then trickled to a halt, as a fledgling country beset with low currency values and lack of production experience grappled with the task of establishing its own voice in the world of film. But as the theaters died, television production emerged as a force to fill the void; enterprising marketers and producers understood the mass-distribution opportunities of video technology. In the Nineties and early Aughts, Nigerian cinema would experience a boom so seismic that it would be propelled into being the second-biggest market on the globe, landing behind Bollywood but ahead of Hollywood in terms of volume of production.
To me, and to countless others like me growing up in Nigeria at the turn of the century, Hollywood was a long way away; Nollywood, simply, was cinema. Movie culture in those years was a revolving door of video parlors, cassette players, VCDs, and the colorful, tattered sleeves that cased them. An entire generation grew up on household names like Jide Kosoko, Patience Ozokwor, and Dele Odule.
But another revolution for Nigerian cinema was waiting in the wings. Where the first had been led by videocameras, this one would be led by the internet, the arrival of which birthed so-called cybercafes in which those with a voracious appetite could seek a knowledge of Hollywood beyond the pirated CDs that occasionally made their way into rental stores. The generation weaned on this online literacy triggered its own seismic shift in the Nollywood landscape, exchanging the charming DIY nature of early-video-era undertakings for higher production values and a change towards fewer but higher-quality films.
“Nollywood 3.0: Images and Stories From the African Diaspora,” a program on view at Metrograph this weekend, examines this burgeoning and transformative period, which currently dominates the Nigerian film industry. Fiber-optic dissemination of information and media has replaced the homespun way of passing around home videos and VCDs, and influences for Nigerian filmmakers now extend far beyond the Atlantic. Aspiring directors in the country today look to the work of Tarantino and Scorsese alongside that of Tunde Kelani and Amaka Igwe. On top of which, the movie theaters are coming back: These “Nigerian New Wave” films are almost always released theatrically, and surging production budgets, combined with exposure to international markets, have raised the pressure on films to succeed financially. With these changes, the Nigerian cinemascape has tragically ceded its hard-fought, home-grown control to the designs of yet another foreign model.
In addressing such matters through its selection, “Nollywood 3.0” poses a series of multilayered questions: What does this intrusion of Western cinema values mean for Nigerian cinema? Is it possible to maintain our unique identity in the face of a capitalist model of movie production and distribution? Or will the peculiar and distinct nature of Nollywood eventually morph into a recycled version of Hollywood?
A perfect illustration of these dueling forces can be found in Akin Omotoso’s Johannesburg-set Tell Me Sweet Something (2015), which relates a tale of love seemingly modeled on American romcoms of the late Aughts: A flawed protagonist with a tough exterior protects a vulnerable soul, while being surrounded by a coterie of friends with their own eclectic feedback on the world of dating. Moratiwa (Nomzamo Mbatha) is an aspiring writer who owns a bookshop and is reluctant to love; she meets Nat (Maps Maponyane), a model who wants to be admired more for his mind than his body. What starts as a straightforward will-they-or-won’t-they? scenario quickly develops into a wickedly piercing commentary on youth, the challenge of how to rediscover yourself after failure, and the realities of black life in South Africa.
The shorts-centric program, screening once a day, gives the series opportunity to pursue more varied, experimental storytelling. The Knot (2017) is an off-kilter romance that asks what lengths a person would go to to ensure their happily-ever-after. Davina Lee’s fifteen-minute film thrums with a nervous spiritual energy reminiscent of the classic Mount Zion school, an entire genre of Christian-themed films that used biblical stories of the end times to create some of the most enduring iconography in Nigerian cinema. But where a traditional Mount Zion movie would likely ramp up the religious alarm, Lee explores Santeria here without bias.
The 26-minute Oblivious (2014), by Ekene Som Mekwunye, is perhaps the weakest of the shorts, yet is not without charm. In it, a married man asks his wife for a divorce in order to pursue a new lover, only to be reminded in the process of the things he loved about her in the first place. What could have been a flat and misjudged story of morality is elevated by an excellent score, appropriately both effusive and bombastic.
The last short is altogether stronger, a triumph of directing, acting, and storytelling. The Encounter (2015) is a personal period piece about two former friends who find themselves on different sides of the Biafran war — a scenario the director, Tolu Ajayi, realizes with a deft and sure touch. During the central encounter, the screen is consumed with the physicality of the two men: their eyes, their hands, their mouths. The claustrophobic perspective drives home the closeness of the bond these men once shared, before the war splintered them into opposing sides. Running only twenty minutes, the movie is a carefully considered exploration of a fraught juncture in Nigerian history.
2016’s Ojukokoro (Greed), the overall standout on the Metrograph bill, draws influence from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950): Dare Olaitan’s thriller traces a robbery gone wrong seen from three conflicting points of view. Frenetic but confident, the film maintains a nice balance between lingering mystery and forward momentum. However, its real feat is the spark of hope it provides for those who fear for the identity and erasure of Nigerian cinema. What initially appears to be a mere rundown of the Western film canon (Kurosawa aside, callbacks to Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are especially noticeable) is cleverly peeled back to reveal a celebration of classical Nollywood. The film confidently leans into signature Nollywood elements — a story of rich and poor friends, comedic security officers, even the incompetent armed robbers — while weaving a tale that is both timely and thematically consistent. A love letter to growing up with Nigerian movies, Ojukokoro at the same time artfully plumbs the repercussions of poverty and the extreme decisions to which such disenfranchised circumstances can lead. It is a perfect film for Nigerians, reflecting Nigerian anxieties. It could only have been made by someone just like me, who used to sit for hours glued to the television set, watching countless films on home video.
‘Nollywood 3.0: Images and Stories From the African Diaspora’
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Ekene Som Mekwunye directed The Encounter. That is incorrect; the director of The Encounter is Tolu Ajayi.