In a recent article in The (UK) Guardian, film critic Phil Hoad writes that “maverick” Nigerian director Jeta Amata is perhaps “Nollywood’s gift to Hollywood.” Amata’s new feature, “Black November“, is a Hollywood-friendly big budget epic, delving into the horrific situation in the Niger Delta and the havoc that the oil industry leaves behind. Hoad’s article is a nice survey of Amata’s current status, yet it fails to truly explore how Nollywood could affect a wider cinematic context. “Black November” is a gritty epic of oil-fueled conflict, collusion and unrest, which features an all-star cast, both from Hollywood and Nollywood (Billy Zane, Vivica Fox, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Anne Heche, Hakeen Kae-Kazim and Razaaq Adoti).
Here’s the trailer.
The film has an impressively long synopsis on IMDB, and it is tipped as “hotly anticipated.” But why “hotly anticipated”? In the same way that “Blood Diamond” – a teeth-grindingly banal look at conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone – was ‘hotly anticipated’ because it had DiCaprio in it, and the black darling of Hollywood, Djimon Hounsou? Invariably, when Hollywood deals with African conflict, political unrest or social issues, it produces a catalogue of stereotype, sentiment and sugary soundtracks. I’m thinking of recent offerings such as “Machine Gun Preacher,” directed by Marc Forster and starring Gerard Butler, or “The Bang Bang Club” directed by Steven Silver starring the American actor Ryan Phillipe. Both are big Hollywood entertainment pieces that place white, courageous characters amongst the imagined chaos and supposed free fall of African states, with none of the subtlety, sophistication or research that they might have dedicated to a film about a white conflict.
No, Black November is not hotly anticipated because it is a Nollywood director hitting the big time: it is because a Nollywood director has reached the dizzying heights of Hollywood, and all the famous names that come with it.
Rather than focusing on the instances where Nollywood directors/actors ‘make it’ in Hollywood (Amata’s new feature is an American production), it is necessary to focus on moments where Nollywood cinema carves it’s own, independent space within a Western context. At a recent forum discussing the trials and tribulations of securing theatrical distribution for African cinema in the UK, Moses Babatope spoke about his rise from Odeon usher to ‘Odeon Cinema’s special projects manager for Nollywood’. Moses managed to convince Odeon, one of the largest cinema chains in Europe, that Nollywood films deserve to be screened in their UK cinemas by running screen rentals, often showing Nollywood films at 11pm at night, which would sell out. Moses, a fan of Nollywood film himself was sure that there was a market, and the two films his programme has screened, Anchor Baby (2010) and Mirror Boy (2011) have both been huge successes. He proved that Nollywood film is a mainstream and commercially viable option for Odeon.
It is a very quiet revolution for African film. Hoad writes in his article that “Amata could be the savvy alumnus who encourages Nollywood to raise its game.” Could it not be the other way around? Sold out performances of Nollywood films challenging US blockbusters at the box office. The common criticism of Nollywood cinema is the lo-fi quality of the film material itself- it is often on video, with distorted audio and melodramatic acting. Stereotypes, sexism and violence are prevalent. Yet, narratives and quality are changing of their own accord, rather than from Hollywood’s influence. The recent film “The Figurine” (2010) by Kunle Afolayan was a powerful and entertaining look at ritual belief, the role of women in contemporary Nigeria and the pressures of success. It is a convincing story about the meeting between metropolitan, contemporary people and the beliefs and rituals that still play a part in Nigerian society. It is a witty and thrilling imagining of how these two worlds meet, and interact.
Similarly, “alt-Nollywood,” pioneered by experimental filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa has been subverting many of the themes of Nollywood, creating acerbic and witty short films that challenge Nollywood on its own grounds. This is the way around we should be looking at Nollywood film, rather than judging its success on the level of assimilation certain Nollywood directors have found within the shallow glitter of Hollywood.
Some further material:
“Sweet Crude” is a documentary by Sandy Cioffi, described by Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International as “an incredible film that is moving, effective and is by far the most powerful educational and motivational tool that I’ve ever seen regarding the Delta.”
On Nollywood and alt-Nollywood: This artist’s talk with Zina Saro-Wiwa dicusses Nollywood and her films at Location One in New York City.