Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal’s documentary Nollywood Babylon takes a playful and up-tempo look at the prolific Nigerian film industry. Both insightful and sweeping, this doc shows how affordable filmmaking technology and evangelical Christianity has assisted Nigeria, now the third largest producer of movies, to build a fecund film industry that serves a largely impoverished and politically unsupported nation. A short New York release beginning at NY MoMA July 3 kicks off the U.S. theatrical run. One hopes it will see more theaters before nestling into its obvious next life on IFC or the Sundance Channel.
A cross between a general and a Pastor, Director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen leads his crew in fervent prayer before beginning photography on his recent feature Bent Arrows. He says Nollywood films are “the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN.” Bent Arrows deals with incest, shame, abortion and spiritual struggles. It’s Lancelot’s 157th film. His films aren’t shown in theatres, in fact there are only three brick and mortar movie houses in the whole of Lagos, the Nigerian capital, and those three theaters are meant to service a population of 14 million—but they don’t show Nollywood titles. Nollywood films are sold on DVD in storefronts and on the street.
Nigeria had a touch and go relationship with cinema until 1992. After decades of imported films, the local industry produced a handful of small but impactful low budget pictures in the 1970’s. Sadly, it was at roughly the same time the availability of small arms created a wave of violence that forced people indoors. The resulting economic downturn stopped local film production for almost a decade. In between the last wave of films in the early 1980’s and the boom that the industry enjoyed beginning in 1992, the magnificently depressed economy directed millions into religion and the industry contributed by catering to the desire for proselytizing well, really the knife cuts both ways.
As the economy saw factories vacate their buildings mega-churches took residence, most requiring a tithe of 10% from each member’s earnings. It’s often precisely the ex-factory workers who throw their dollars into the massive collection baskets for the church. And the most successful film producers, one of the leaders of the pack, is also the head of one of the biggest church conglomerate around. In her sermons she tells people to use the church’s films for their own evangelical purposes.
Religion has had a perfectly contentious relationship with film since the earliest days. (You’d be hard pressed to find a storyline that’s had more action than the Passion Play.) But seeing a nation’s film production and use so actively married to the church can’t help but raise eyebrows. The ties the film draws to Kenneth Anger’s book, Hollywood Babylon, which was written by a vocal Satanist and has been read as a treatise on the religion-like structure of the industry and its stars, could be layered, but conclusive comment on it is up for grabs. What does seem universal about the doc is that it makes a clear point about the use of these film products in their locale. The movies are useful. They exist for good reason and are produced on the cheap and dirty because there’s demand. One can argue about whether the cost of representation here is too high, but that seems like the cause to be addressed by the as yet unmade “great Nigerian film.” Until then, director Lancelot will hear from his camera operator: “My tape is blasting like a bullet” To which he’ll respond “Unleash it. Action!”
Director/Screenwriters: Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal
Producers: Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal and Adam Symansky
Running time: 74 min
Release date: July 3 NY