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Nollywood Babylon

2008. Directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal (Am Pictures/NFB).

Canada may not be very effective at turning a critical eye to our own homegrown schlock film industry, but we've managed to do so abroad in the engaging NFB-produced Nollywood Babylon, a rare peek into one of the world's more elusive filmmaking communities. Witchcraft, murder, blackmail and Christian themes dominate the cheaply produced, shot-on-video productions that have become a national obsession, launching Nigeria's capital, Lagos as one of the world's biggest hubs for motion picture production of the 1990s, behind only Hollywood and Bollywood.

Filmmakers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal uncover one of the world's more elusive filmmaking communities with Nollywood Babylon, their so-far definitive documentary on the Nigerian movie industry. The film mostly follows kinetic and charismatic director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who has directed more than 150 movies, as he works on his latest feature, Bent Arrows. Addelman and Mallal use Imasuen's daily struggles on the set as a jumping off point to uncover the movie-mania that has gripped the nation ever since a local merchant, unable to sell a box of blank VHS tapes in the early 1990s, decided to dub over them with movies he made himself to give them more appeal. Since then, market stalls have been jammed with locally produced horror, drama and fantasy films on VHS and VCD, while other movie fans crowd around TV screens in open air street "cinemas"

The story is spurned on by a host of whacked-out clips from some of the video opuses, get-rich-quick fantasies, cautionary tales of voodoo and evangelical message movies that are usually cobbled together in about two weeks. The special effects may be hokey and the acting not much better than a typical American shot-on-video disaster, but it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of this unexplored world, as the doc uncovers films not usually available to Western eyes, with titles like Living in Bondage, Millionaires Club, Oga and His Boys, Pleasure Before Business and Women Affair. Addelman and Mallal also cover the local celebrities that have benefitted from the culture, including midget comedians Aki and Pawpaw and producer Helen Ukpabio, a preacher who administers the gospel through her films and actively encourages her congregation to buy copies of all her films and show them to friends.

The pop culture obscurity of the subject is enough to pull viewers' interest along for 70-odd minutes, but Addelman and Mallal also try to use the surprising success story of the Nollywood film industry to make points about Nigeria at large. It's the only place where Nollywood Babylon appears to falter, as the filmmakers turn to a local poet, Odia Ofeimon, to describe the role that these films play in Nigerian society and African storytelling traditions. Ofeimon is well-spoken, but his segments seem intended to add some embarrassed highbrow justification for the lowbrow subject matter, and the generalizations he makes can be somewhat suspect.

Nollywood Babylon's strength is not it's deep exploration of the subject; it's much better as a quick and dirty primer to acquaint viewers with the basics of this unique film scene. While perhaps the definitive look at Nollywood has yet to been made or published, this is a fine start, a fun documentary with much to delight all stripes of movie fans, even those with no intention of ever picking up Evil Men 2 or Sugarcane Lady.

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