Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nigerian Movies Are 'Bad'

Over at Africa Works, G. Pascal Zachary highlights this essay from Emily Witt review in The Nation of an essay collection on Nigerian movies. In this thorough review, she wonders aloud about the move away from the Ousmane Sembene movies with an idealogical bent that made up much of the first wave of African cinema, to the popularity of home video movies that critics usually deem technically and artistically "bad".

what does "bad" mean in a global film economy when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—in which various main characters function as product placement for General Motors—can pull millions of moviegoers from the deepest recesses of their couches? In the case of Nollywood, "bad" means, on the technical side, a home video aesthetic, poor sound mixing, blinking special effects in primary colors, jarring lapses in continuity and boom microphones sinking into the frame. In the realm of the artistic, "bad" means wooden acting, excess melodrama, displays of consumerism that make Imelda Marcos look like Mother Teresa, baroque screenplays that don't always cohere into a narrative whole, failure to suspend disbelief (indeed, an active effort to encourage it), wailing, catfights and evil mothers-in-law.

A lot of criticism about Nollywood, therefore, concerns itself with resolving the fundamental question of why these usually not-very-good movies (judged, perhaps harshly, according to the above criteria during a few Saturday afternoons spent on YouTube) are so very popular. Their home-video aesthetic isn't just tolerated but relished by viewers, and there is evidently some consternation in certain circles that the postcolonial African tradition of lush, 35-millimeter, French Embassy–funded allegorical films and centralized-government-sponsored Marxist epics has been eclipsed by films like Baby Police, a popular franchise starring a dwarf who harasses unsuspecting citizens at roadblocks (think Gary Coleman as a Nigerian police officer who occasionally leads Bollywood-style group dance numbers).

Zachary on Witt's take:

Witt shrewdly observes that African movies of the sort made by such celebrated Francophone directors as Sembene are “burdened with ideology” (doing what elite Africans think Europeans consider to be art) and far more popular abroad (with the very Europeans who often funded the films in the first place) than at home in Africa, partly because the high-minded pretensions and “puritanical didacticism” of the films drove audiences away. By contrast, Nigerian films about everyday urban life – these are do-it—yourself videos without pretensions and frankly pandering to mass tastes – represent a radical re-ordering of African cinema. Hence the prominent role granted the supernatural, romance, corruption and crime. Unfortunately, Witt’s actual experience viewing Nigerian movies seems limited to rummaging through clips available on Youtube. As a result, while trying to defend the value of Nollywood content, she unfairly stereotypes and denigrates Nigerian films, fixating on the themes of juju, magic and mayhem that do indeed dominate many Nigerian movies though hardly all. Witt even dismisses the content altogether, seeing the films instead as chiefly valuable as signs of rebellion. Yet Nollywood content, while often trivial and offensive, sometimes rises to the level of art and social criticism.

The thing is, I'm not sure that she is unfair to Nigerian movies. I'm a bit tired of people using the success of Nigerian films as a reason to excuse how bad they actually are. From Soulja Boy to junk food, there are lots of things in the world that are bad but popular in mainstream culture just about everywhere. I belong to the "Nigerian movies suck" school of thought, but I don't really care too much that there are a lot of people that enjoy it. I'm more concerned by the fact that so many do not ask for more from Nigerian films than they do from films from, say, the United States or India. If these same people that are comfortable with Nigerian movies as they are will not accept the bad sound mixing, below par acting, and woefully terrible plots that you find in a lot of Nigerian movies, then the audience reaction to Nigerian movies hints at a larger problem of what Nigerians, perhaps even all Africans, expect from their own people.

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