Friday, April 22, 2011

Hooray for Nollywood

I've seen bad action movies in train stations, on ferries, and on buses from Bolivia to Jordan to Thailand. But West Africa, thankfully, doesn't seem to know these exist.

Instead, on buses and ferries from Bamako to Calabar, I had the pleasure of watching baffling, quirky, frequently hilarious Nigerian movies. And by movies, I don't mean film. This is cheap-and-cheerful digital video, with melodramatic themes of tragic backgrounds, believable crime, and a surprising lack of cynicism. To my simplistic eyes, Nigeria's south is a mind-boggling mixture of corruption, crime, petty thieves, and teetotaling Bible-thumpers—in the classic sense, as in "There's a big guy with a beard in the sky and he will fix my problems if I pray harder, or maybe he'll buy me a car." Nollywood to me produces some lively, unsophisticated, confusing, and random movies, the kind of not-too-linear stuff I imagine Hong Kong producing before it found its footing.

Some of the movies I couldn't make head or tales of. It's hard to understand the soundtrack when you're on a bus and the sound is piped in and distorted a few feet from your ears, and you're wearing earplugs because of this. Plus there's the accent problem. I can communicate only slightly better in English than in French here due to my/their accent.

Some of the productions seemed to be heading for a clear moral resolution. But that would be too simple. In Nollywood, the story goes where it wants. I suspect it surprises the movie-makers as much as the audience.

Here are the plots of some of the Nigerian movies I saw.

Movie #1 Sarah is a sweet country girl who lives with her parents. Her father dies suddenly, dramatically, and Sarah runs to get her mother, who finds a doctor, who may have been just driving by, or might have been on call or something. Dad is definitely dead, so the doctor closes his eyes. Mom and Sarah bawl--now what? The doctor takes pity on them, and agrees to take Sarah to be his live-in housekeeper and nanny.

Doctor's wife is pretty psyched. She brags to her friend that she has a housekeeper. The jealous friend points out that Sarah is young and hot. Wife starts to worry.

Kids love Sarah, who plays games with them all the time. Then it looks like the Doctor loves Sarah too. We had an entire scene of Sarah sweeping with one of those runty bundles of sticks they use here, and the Doctor sits unabashedly admiring her ass. There is a voiceover of Doctor here. I couldn't quite hear it, but it was something like "She sure is hot and what a fine butt."

Wife is getting pissy. Doctor brings home a nice frock for Sarah, who is amazed as she's never had anything like it. Wife demands her own frock.

Doctor is at work when the wife drags Sarah out of the kitchen to watch as Wife burns Sarah's new frock. Kids are confused and stunned.

Next, Sarah drops a glass. Wife goes ballistic and beats the hell out of Sarah, who doesn't bother to defend herself, just cries "It was an accident." Wife brutally murders Sarah with a rolling pin.

Wife calls Doctor in a panic. They bury Sarah in the middle of the night.

Then they're haunted. They hear her pounding millet in the kitchen. She takes the kids to school. They're freaking out.

Sarah's mother comes to visit and the family says they don't know where Sarah went.

Then one day Sarah walks into the garden, past the guard, fetches the children, and walks away with them. The kids, in spite of the fact that Sarah's eyes are entirely white and she is creepy-looking, go along with her and disappear.

The Doctor and Wife freak out and tell the police their kids are missing. The jealous friend is also there. Sarah makes some haunting noises in the next room, the Wife confesses, and the police arrest all three. The end.

Movie #2 made no sense at all to me. It appeared to be a romantic comedy, in which the man was always busy. The woman would wait for her phone to ring, and he'd be late, or not show, but then he did show and he asked her to marry him. They were getting ready for their wedding, and then he was walking to his car in the parking lot outside his office in Lagos, and two thugs shot him and stole his car. There was a funeral. Everyone cried. The fiancee walked home with his parents. His mother went inside to sweep with her bundle of sticks, while Dad whispered a plot to the fiancee all about finding out who did this. And the fiancee was like "Okay," and then the movie ended.

In Movie #3, a man was useless. He couldn't stay out of debt. His parents came to the city from their village and told him he was useless and that if he didn't get his act together, they would disown him. His father then took off his flip-flops and marched off barefoot with his wife.

The man went to his friend for advice. His friend, who was in a wheelchair, told him a story, about how ending up in a wheelchair had been good for him. He'd moved to New York, which had palm trees and low, brown buildings. He'd made a lot of money and enjoyed it, but something was missing. He sat down with his employers, two Lebanese men a/k/a New Yorkers, and said he had to return to Nigeria for a while.

The next scene was the two Lebanese men and one white man in a suit all sitting in a room saying how sad they were that the guy had been in a car accident in Nigeria and could not return to New York. They shook their heads sadly.

But by staying home in Nigeria in a wheelchair, the man had found a calling of sorts, then married and had children. So the car accident was good.

This cheered the friend up, but about ten minutes in the movie later, he committed suicide. Which was awful, except for the part where while everyone considered his life at the funeral, the wheelchair man prayed and then got up and walked. Amazing! Everyone cheered.

And last, in Movie #4, the movie opens with Pastor, who is in a hospital room where the beds and white sheets are stained with blood. He lifts one to see his bloody, dead wife. The other bed holds his bloody, dead children. He has a dramatic moment, howling and popping his eyes.

One of his congregation suggests that the Pastor is being punished by God. And off goes sub-plot #1, where the man is trying to steal the congregation and start his own church. For purposes of getting money from them, of course.

A member of the choir will hear none of it. She goes to the pastor and tells him what's up. The Pastor doesn't understand.

Then we see her visit her single woman friend. The two commiserate over being single women in their thirties and wish they could get married.

Next, the church elders ask Pastor to remarry, because having a single man around is getting the single women of the church all hot, bothered, and competitive. He asks Choir Girl to marry him. Why not? She's a nice woman.

Her friend is outraged. "I want to be married too!"

Then a new member of the congregation asks her to marry him. She jumps at the chance, though Pastor advises her to take it slowly and get to know the man first.

Now we have two newly married couples. Too bad the second one beats his wife. She goes running to Pastor and Choir Girl who say "For better or worse, go home."

Then she finds out that her husband is a criminal and goes around robbing people with a gun.

So she jumps off a bridge.

And that's the end of that sub-plot. It disappears just like the alternate-church guy disappears.

Meanwhile, Pastor and Choir Girl somehow go to America, which we don't see, but when they come back, it's like the Pastor watched Blues Brothers and decided the James Brown church scene was a documentary. He sings, he dances, he wears hip-hop clothing while he preaches. He becomes famous. The churchgoers are appalled.

Pastor starts drinking and cheating. He says he's going to Rome, but in reality, he's holed up in an apartment with a Russian woman who likes to dance in front of the TV in her hot pants. Another woman he was cheating with brings the wife over to see this, and the wife is horrified.

The wife conspires with the other members of the church. The two women the Pastor were cheating with have catfights. One of them reveals she is pregnant.

The Pastor goes to church to preach. He is surprised to find the church empty. The entire congregation has dumped him. His wife is last seen chatting with a friend.

And the moral is: Don't get married. Or maybe, don't go to America and then come home and act like an ass.

The end.

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