Ben Addelman & Samir Mallal
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 07 June 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
As a movie buff who strives to look beyond Hollywood and get a sense of the whole wide world of filmmaking, I was disappointed with myself for having been so clueless about the subject matter of Nollywood Babylon. Before encountering the film, I knew nothing about the Lagos-based Nigerian film industry, which happens to be the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. How could this be?
As it turns out, an overwhelming majority of Nollywood product is never intended for export. The distribution model for Nollywood films is by and large restricted to DVDs sold in the cities and viewed on the small screen; there are few operating movie theaters, and few can afford them anyway. It’s no accident that the rise of Nollywood coincides with the rise of accessible, inexpensive digital technology.
Nollywood Babylon directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal take us into a world of DIY cinema, films made on low budgets with young, enthusiastic local film crews who are interested in telling African stories for African audiences. Given Hollywood’s history of telling purportedly African stories replete with such condescending representations as 1935’s Nigeria-set Sanders of the River (excerpted here), and more often, its history of offering no representation at all—it’s obvious that Nollywood is filling a need that is otherwise largely unmet. A drive to resist the cultural colonization of the West underlies many of the interviews. Filmmakers and audiences buck the ubiquitous American entertainment industry, tell their own stories, and discover their own stars.
Yet while Addelman and Mallal’s doc celebrates the scrappy spirit of Nollywood, it is a stronger film for its clear-eyed and indeed critical view of the booming Nigerian movie business. Lancelot Imasuen, a Nigerian film director working on his 157th film, Bent Arrows, and one of the doc’s primary interviewees, overflows with the high energy and ambition that informs the casts and crews of Nollywood, but his views also bring up some of the stickier points of the industry. Imasuen decries the African films playing the international film festival circuit, where they are largely inaccessible to the massive audiences who await Bent Arrows; but it can certainly be argued that opportunities for cross-cultural connections are lost when films fail to circulate internationally. Nigerian filmmakers and audiences may be closing themselves off to the domination of the west, but they also allow the west to remain closed to them. And as other interviewees note, if Nollywood remains as profit-driven as it is, film culture in Nigeria may remain restricted to B-movies. The generous sampling of Nigerian film clips (out of context though they surely are) reveal pictures with shoestring production values and an apparent eye toward mass appeal. Further complicating matters, some of Nollywood’s most powerful producers are also church leaders, and the intersection of movie marketing and evangelism is an uncomfortable one.
Clocking in at just over seventy minutes, Nollywood Babylon covers an impressive amount of material in a short time. As other critics have noted, Addelman and Mallal’s style is a standard mix of talking heads and relevant archival footage, but their subject matter is fascinating and their handling of it nuanced, offering an invaluable window on a fledgling film culture at a crossroads.
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