10/15/2018 – Nigeria: Ojuju (2014)
Directed by C.J. Obasi
Once again, we have another cinema I’ve been meaning to get to for a long while, but unlike Iceland or Iran where it was primarily for reasons of “noteworthy and humorously named movie not getting distribution” and “spite at marketing departments” respectively, Nigeria had a more noble reason. It’s now the second largest film industry in the world and third most valuable. While #1 and #2 both were represented the first year I started spotlighting countries, Nigeria, has thus remained unrepresented. It’s not for lack of trying. Every year I’ve looked to them first to find a copy of a horror film, even having this very movie in mind for a while now, but for all their level of production, distribution abroad remains limited.
The first Nigerian film was 1926’s Palaver, a silent film made back when the country was still a British possession and which one modern magazine referred to as “proudly racist”. Despite the achievement of featuring Nigerian actors in a speaking role, it was also a propaganda film meant to sell the idea of colonization to the populace. Largely, film production under British rule was nonexistent with that only starting to change towards the end of it with the 1949 establishment of the Nigerian Film Unit (which was later reorganized in 1954). Under it, the first color film in Nigeria’s history, 1957’s Fincho was produced, three years before the country achieved independence.
While the Nigerian film industry entered a golden age, their films were never able to break out internationally. Still, notable titles such as Kongi’s Harvest, shot by the great Ossie Davis in 1970, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart was made in 1971, Amadi (1975), Ajani Ogun (1976), Bisi, Daughter of the River (1977), Àiyé (1979), Cry Freedom (1981), Jaiyesinmi (1981), Papa Ajasco (1984), and Mosebolatan (1985) were produced in the country, helped in large part by the oil boom of the ’70s and largely in the Yoruba language (one of the largest of hundreds on languages in the country). It’s an era that came crashing to an end in the ’80s and ’90s with the rise of TV and home video which killed off the market for theatergoing. It’s the greatest fears of Hollywood studio types come true.
From the ashes of that era arose the modern era of Nigerian cinema. Dubbed Nollywood by a reporter for The New York Times, it would be centered around ultra-cheap direct-to-video movies that could easily be distributed (and pirated). While the industries are still very regionally based, unlike the golden era films, Nollywood movies tend to be shot in English. While the films have become successful across Sub-Saharan Africa, worldwide, they’ve achieved little notability. In recent years, however, the budgets for some of the films such as The Wedding Party movies (currently the two highest grossing Nigerian films), have started to increase and even to a limited extent increase their areas of release.
Half of a Yellow Sun (which has a cast filled with prominent actors) and Flower Girl are perhaps the only two to receive any kind of US theatrical release. I’ll admit that it is far harder here in researching these films to determine the ones widely considered important here since the kinds of lists and articles that I normally find for these types of threads, just don’t exist for modern Nigerian film in any level I feel comfortable pulling from. It’s hard to even cross reference with IMDB (not that I like to with recent movies, but in a pinch) all but a couple of the thousands of films they produce each year will get no (or insignificant) votes. I’ll just link to the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Nigerian Film, as a good starter link since they’ve never had a film even submitted for Best Foreign Language film (in no small part because their films are largely in English).
When it comes to horror, the scene is littered with them, the earliest I can find is Witchdoctor of the Livingdead from 1985, but the most beloved seem to all be from the ’90s. Among them count Nneka The Pretty Serpent (1992), Karishika (1996), Blood Money (1997), Oracle (1998), Diamond Ring (1998), The End of the Wicked (1999), and The Last Burial (2000). 2016’s Kpians: The Feast of Souls is one of the few of those however to seem to warrant an IMDB page with a few actual votes (only six, but they are positive).
Ojuju is set in a poor Nigerian village (with spoken languages of Pidgin English, Yoruba and Igbo) and as the title card makes clear (perhaps too clear as it kinda spoils the whole mystery), one of many in the country without access to safe drinking water. Water that isn’t polluted by sewage, pesticides, chemicals, and more. We open on two men smoking weed and talking when they see what they think is a drunk stumbling towards them, only to bite one of the dude’s arm. It may feel a bit too reminiscent of the scene zombies are introduced in Shaun of the Dead, but I’ll allow it here. The infection starts to spread through biting and while a slow process at first, eventually takes over the town.
Our main character is a man who despite maintaining quite the collection of women around town, has decided to devote himself to one after having knocked her up. His name is Romero which I can only guess is in reference to Archbishop Óscar Romero (of course it isn’t) and played by actor and singer Gabriel Afolayan who does solid job here. The acting in general tends to take a sharp dive after a couple speaking roles with the extras (who were actual residents of that slum) being particularly silly, but the cast is mostly naturalistic and even amusing.
The tiny budget is visible in the at times choppy editing which sees cuts imperfectly match up in sound and visuals, the minimal effects (though there are a couple minor shots of gore) which require the movie to frequently has to cut away from actually showing people being bitten and depict the zombies as looking almost unchanged from their human form, and of course the acting. We don’t use the Zed word here, as Obasi refers to them by the title, Ojuju. The symptoms are preceded by some real hoarse coughing and then when they drink the water they wind up turning and yet the film seems unclear about exactly what is causing it in the end even with the opening scene. These zombies are the slow moving, lurching at the last second type that’s hardly intimidating and even the characters recognize how easy they can be overpowered one on one.
C.J. “Fiery” Obasi has a real cinematic eye that makes up for a lot of the low budget and the slum is a great setting. The film also does well to foreshadow throughout after its too obvious intro card. I can’t say its suspenseful or too effective as a horror film, but it shows quite a bit of promise for the filmmaker and I had a good time with it.
Bonus Episode #25 – A – 1930s: Mummy’s Boys (1936)
Directed by Fred Guiol
We’ve already looked at one comedy team this year in the Ritz Brothers and their lackluster horror-comedy effort The Gorilla, and now we must look at another. Wheeler & Woolsey were an American comedy duo (despite their incredibly British sounding name) consisting of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey who would appear together in twenty-one films of which I’ve only seen Diplomaniacs, a film I absolutely hated which trafficked in tons of ethnic stereotypes. Thankfully, with Mummy’s Boys they’ve managed to reverse course with an unfunny comedy film trafficking in a number of ethnic stereotypes. At least they’re consistent.
Wheeler and Woolsey are ditch diggers who quit to become scientific excavators, somehow managing to get a job despite their bumbling and obvious lying. Granted, that probably something to do with the Curse of King Pharatime’s Tomb has claimed nine victims thus far even with the claim of 100 applicants thus far. They head to Cairo and proceed to do the standard comedy act film thing of move from one loosely tied vignette to the next. If you are looking for the horror SPOILERS1
The horror’s nonexistent and even as a parody of a horror movie it is anemic at best and restricted to the conclusion. The stereotypes come in the form of the stupid Egyptian impersonation (where I’m not even sure there was a joke in it), an extremely stereotypical black character as their assistant, and the secondary baddie, an Arab stereotype complete with harem that they run afoul of and who they have to resort to crossdressing to avoid. It’s not just bad, it’s lazy. The jokes don’t land, and I don’t even get the sense that they were even trying in one of their last films together. I’m not sure who finds these movies funny, but I don’t want to know them. I’ll stick to Abbott and Costello.
Next up: The 1970s and the original adaptation of the EC comics series Tales from the Crypt.