Review: Nollywood Babylon

If you make films or any media, if you're interested in film culture beyond the usual geekonomic US-Japan-Bollywood-UK group, then you need to see the movie "Nollywood Babylon."  It's right here at Neftlix and you can read a summary here at IMDB.

If you're still wondering why I'm saying this, as opposed to following my every word unthinkingly, let me sum up the film.

This is a look at the Nigerian film industry, an industry that differs so vastly from ones in other countries (yet is huge), and is such a different look at filmmaking, it's incredibly informative.  It will make you think about media, culture, and technology – if you have an interest in film culture in Africa, that's a plus, but that's just one thing you'll learn about.

Nollywood as it is huge – as in it it's behind Bollywood and ahead of Hollywood in amount of films produced.  Now if you've seen any Nollywood films, which often seem to be, frankly, lower budget or cheesier, you might write this off – you shouldn't.

The film explores the industry, people, and culture behind the prolific Nollywood, and it's a look straight into something very, very different than most film cultures we seem.  Nollywood is in a country that has problems of poverty and politics, cultural change, and a different history than Hollywood or the US (obviously).  Film distribution is radically different (in most cases straight-to-video), production is done with common technologies, there are few if any sets, etc.

It's a different world from giant CGI special effects, overrated actors, and marketing campaigns that go as far as branding snack cakes.  Nollywood filmmaking has an almost visceral feel to it – and indeed some of the people interviewed straight up say it's more derived from performances and oral culture.  It's filmmaking from the gut – and for its intended audience.  It's making money and sending messages, to paraphrase one of the interviewees.

As we explore this mix of professionalism and common tech, you gain an appreciation for what driven people can do with what seems to be nothing to us.  There are people making films that are hits in their country on incredibly low budgets, under adverse conditions, and with common technology.  It kind of makes any complaining multimillion-dollar star look rather petty – and shows what driven people can do. 

There's also an exploration of the culture and history of Nigeria and what it means for filmmaking, with an emphasis on religion and poverty.  It makes you look at the reasons people make films and their role in culture that will make you think a great deal.

So why see this?  Why am I pitching this beyond a curiosity to film buffs and media types?

  • Because, frankly, Nollywood films give you an idea of what fans can do with today's tech – some of these movies are made with time, tech, and opportunities any large fangroup could do.  It may inspire you to epic – or profitable – works.
  • Nollywood works come out of a different professional culture – one that in some ways is reminiscent of fanculture.  It'll help you get a different perspective on the ever-fuzzy pro/fan dichotomy.
  • It shows what people can do when driven.  By the end of the film I was inspired by Nollywood.  When you see people make and distribute a film with a sum total of technology you could get on one shopping trip (at least here in Silicon Valley) you'll feel like you can do anything.
  • It is a glimpse into a different media culture, and the sheer contrast is going to make you think a lot about video, publishing, and more in our culture.  By stepping into the Nollywood mindset, you'll become more aware of your own.
  • It's also an examination of the role of media in culture, religion, attitudes, and more.  That too will make you think.
  • It's humbling.  At first some of these films may seem cheesy – then you get to understand the people, technology, and culture better.  It takes you out of your usual mindsets and comfort zones (especially if you're a tech-surrounded media type) and appreciate hard work and different approaches.
  • It's a look at different media styles.  Some of the horror/supernatural films have a bizarre look that reminds me of old metal music videos – a mix of cheesy and disturbing.  The actors and actresses do not fit our stereotypes of what they should look like.  The themes are different.

So pretty much, "make you think out of the box and get inspired" is why you should see this film, combined with "really think about culture and media."

Also as more technology becomes available, look out for Nollywood.  The drive, the ability to squeeze the most out of little, she sheer ambition . . .  everyone better look out in the next few decades.  I would not be surprised if in the years to come, we're discussing more and more Nollywood here . . .

Steven Savage