Quick. Name the countries with the world’s largest film industries. Easy points for picking the United States as the No. 1 big dog, and kudos for ranking India’s musically glamorous Bollywood in the second position. But who pulls the third spot? You can be excused for guessing cinemaniac France, or perhaps China or Japan. But no — to find the third largest film industry in the world one must travel to Africa, specifically to Nigeria.
Nicknamed Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry churns out 2,500 films per year — most at budgets under $15,000. Quick-dash, self-financed B-movie affairs primarily shot on video, the productions have created a booming insulated economy for the poverty-stricken nation. The themes are insular, as well, eschewing stories and narratives popularized by cinematic imports in favor of relatable themes. In short, Nollywood creates African films for Africans. And the people of Nigeria prefer it that way.
The amazing documentary Nollywood Babylon provides a quick survey of this unique world. Directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal travel to the congested, half-slum Nigerian capital of Lagos, the home of Nollywood, to trail Lancelot, one of the most popular and prolific Nollywood filmmakers, as he preps and shoots a film. Along the way, they chronicle the rise of Nollywood from the early 1990s to the present and the conditions that allowed for its local dominance, in particular its reflection on African life — views not found in films from abroad.
The industry booms both economically and culturally, creating a rabid fan base among the Nigerian population who digest the straight-to-video films with passion. The artistic investigations are balanced with sobering details of life in Lagos — depictions that make the films’ escapisms understandable.
Though low-budget, the films themselves are wild, with a sincere, energetic, home-grown aesthetic. They tackle all genres, but religious, moral programming dominates. Clips of features warning of the perils of witchcraft are absolutely bonkers, with demons and possessions that would make Troma proud. Nollywood Bablyon’s only minor fault is that it needs more of such footage. The mechanizations of Nollywood are fascinating, but the final product deserves more recognition. Grade: A