Nollywood Babylon

Intriguing doc eyes Nigerian film biz

Mar 10, 2010 at 12:00 am

If movies can be seen as the stories a society tells not about what it is but what it wishes to be, then Nollywood Babylon is a wonderful document of cinema as a mantra of affirmation. Unbeknownst to Western audiences, the Nigerian film biz cranks out nearly 2,500 pictures a year, most made for less money than a midsized American production spends on craft service. This astounding output makes the western African nation the third-largest movie producer in the world, right behind the United States and India, amazing considering there was scarcely an "industry" in this poverty-ravaged country until the early '90s. Not long ago, the market was dominated by foreign films, but now they are a relative rarity, confined to the tiny handful of movie theaters still in operation there.

Out of necessity and a bit of innovation, the local film biz became a strictly home-video enterprise, scratching an itch that Hollywood was never, ever going to scratch. Many millions of copies get sold in the bustling markets and endless back-alleys of Lagos, a swelling metropolis of more than 8 million people. Though it is in essence a vast slum, Lagos is still the place Nigerians come to funnel their shared ambitions, the teeming focal point of commerce and the fastest growing city in Africa. All this social dynamism pours out of the country's films, which often combine drama, comedy, mysticism, and whacked-out violence into an amusingly chaotic concoction.

This rambunctious doc serves as a fun primer, but there's probably too much info to digest in one sitting, with a parade of talking heads, and tantalizing looks at real-life characters, such as pint-sized action stars Aki and Paw Paw, and a local hero named Lancelot, a street-smart huckster hard at work on his 157th film in just a few years. We may not really understand their work, or really know how hard they struggle, but we root for these artists, and their nation's collective dream of a life made better — one frame at a time.

One showing only at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237, at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 13.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].