So, it’s been a while. How’s it going? All good? Excellent. Yeah, no change here. Except I had a baby, quit my job and moved my family to sub-Saharan Africa. No, for real. It’s all here if you’re really interested, and by “all” I mean “almost nothing.” I’m Harry, by the way, the pseudonym thing seems a bit unnecessary now that I’m beyond the reach of your petty laws.
Malawi, where I now live, is the third (or eleventh, depending on who you ask, never in between though) poorest nation on earth. I’m not sure where’s poorer, but there must be a whole country living in a cardboard box somewhere, because this place is pretty damned poor. The life expectancy is shockingly low. The country has the one of highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world. There are near constant power cuts and water shortages. You live in constant danger of malaria, bilharzia, meeting Madonna or plague. The real problem with Malawi, though, is that there is no way to watch the Junior Apprentice, nor whatever witless crap Jamie Oliver is currently foisting, with wet-lipped enthusiasm, on the peoples of the rest of the world. In short, this place is a cultural desert. My having no access to bad television, and therefore nothing to say on these pages, was an unintended consequence of our move to the Dark Continent, but it seemed to be an unavoidable one. At least, I thought so, until I stumbled across Demon-in-Law.
It was on one of the channels that I never normally look at, called Mzansi or something. The channel usually consists of angry looking televangelists barking at the screen in a variety of Bantu languages – my Chichewa has, after six months, risen to the level of being able to order two beers. If there are more than two of us in a round I have to go twice, if you want something other than beer, then tough*. So, even if I was in the mood to be told I was going to hell for not hating gay people enough, I couldn’t have understood most of the channel’s programming. Mzansi was not on my favourites list, then, as you can imagine. In the evenings, however, Mzansi, as well as about five other channels all clustered towards the bottom of my South African EPG offers the fruit of the Nigerian film industry, of which Demon–in-Law was a particularly ripe, pungent example. Didn’t know there was a Nigerian film industry? Well, prepare to learn very little more about it.
The first thing you need to know about Demon-in-Law is that it was directed in 2006 by Inechukwu Onyeka. As was Demon-in-Law 2. Also The Monster: Demon-in-Law 3. This guy’s incredibly prolific, and he never makes a movie without also making at least one sequel. Seriously, never. Check out his IMDB page if you don’t believe me. Between 2005 and 2011 he directed 92 movies. That’s (quick bit of maths on my phone) one every twenty four minutes. No, that can’t be right. It’s one every 3 and a half weeks. That also seems unlikely, but is true, and that’s assuming he works Christmas and Easter and Diwali and Ramadan and whatever his flavour of feast is likely to be. Rosh Hashanah, too.
It won’t surprise you to learn then, that Demon-in-Law is bloody awful in almost every way. The plot was nonsensical and the characterisation paper thin. Dad’s Army had greater scope for re-shoots and Dad’s Army wasn’t filmed on a phone, as I suspect Demon-in-Law to have been. It was basically a horror movie, as the title might have suggested, wherein a woman, Patience, I think, disapproved of her son’s choice of wife, so she got all black magic and shit on their arses. She did so without the benefit of even the most rudimentary effects, however, and it basically consisted of her chanting gibberish (to me, and forgive me if this was a proud African language with a long tradition of oral history and poetry) while waving at a bonfire. I think she might have caught the hem of her chitenge on fire, though I don’t think she meant to. This is where I really ought to say that I was instantly gripped, that I watched it all in a rising state of excitement and that I am now a convert to Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. But I wasn’t, I didn’t and I’m not. Demon-in-law was obviously incomprehensible shit, and CSI was starting on Sony Max, so Demon-in-law got pretty short shrift. I did flick back later, to discover that Patience, I think, now had a skin condition consisting of breakfast cereal inexpertly glued to her face. I went to bed.
There’s never anything at all worth watching on my TV, though**, so I was bound, eventually, to give Nollywood another shot. I went with Hypertension, a sex comedy. This doesn’t have an entry on the IMDB, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it exists***, but rest assured that I’m not capable of dreaming up anything so bafflingly banal and amateurish. It appeared to be about a man trying to find a wife for his son, but the actor playing the son was clearly older than the actor playing the father. There were many long, wobbly shots of women’s clothed bosoms as they walked about villages. Then cut to the father gurning and sweating. Then back to the bosoms. There was a scene where the father and son tried to talk to one of the bosom-toting females and, for reasons that I couldn’t quite follow, ended up throwing a drink over her. Then there was a very (like, six minutes) long shot taken from inside a moving car. The car was, as all African cars are, a seven year old Toyota Corrolla with a furry steering wheel cover. The shot was taken from the back seat, and the left ear of the driver was visible throughout. There were seven hairs protruding from it, and there was a mole on the lobe. It was a very long shot. The composition was immediately familiar to anyone who ever had to sit through the first incarnation of Top Gear during the eighties, and I kept expecting the ear to turn toward me, and the drummer from Supergrass’s bearded dad, now inexplicably African, to appear and dismiss the level of torque on the new model. He wouldn’t have looked out of place, actually, apart from his being of the Caucasian persuasion, as none of these people are good looking enough to be actors. They aren’t ugly per se, but none would be the best looking person in a pub, or most night buses.
So, these films are terrible. No-one, you would think, the option of watching anything else**** would choose to subject themselves to them. So why are there so many of them? Because really, there are loads. Nollywood is officially the second largest film industry in the world, second only to Bollywood. There are some 200 feature length productions produced in Nigeria every month, almost all going straight to video for the home market. The distribution system is reassuringly African, with the vast majority of discs reaching consumers through market stalls and the guys who try to sell you stuff on the side of the road.***** They tend, Hypertension aside, to focus on peculiarly African themes, including tribal conflict and HIV rates. Even the execrable Hypertension, now that I think about it, was predicated on one generation having the right to marry off the next. They are invariably filmed in English, to compensate for the multiplicity of languages spoken across the continent, though the accents are so broad as to render them practically incomprehensible to an English, English-speaker.
These films are a testament to African ingenuity, obviously being filmed on micro-budgets, in the houses and home villages of the producers, and with a casting regime that consists of grabbing people off the street. The long, awkward pauses between dialogue suggests that the actors aren’t being given very long to learn their lines, if indeed they are being given lines to learn. These films sell for, on average, 2 US dollars each, and some of that will have to be for the disc and case. They are the product, and the workplace, of an industry which is worth over 200,000,000 US dollars per year. They keep at least five pan-African TV channels in content, with all the subsequent employment that that entails. They are, whichever way you slice it, a good thing. They just aren’t very good.
*Actually, that’s more to do with the availability of goods than my Chichewa, but you get the idea.
** Except for Chopped, which is an American cookery show where they make them cook dessert out of liver and shit like that. It’s wonderful. The judges say things like “it didn’t really feel like an appetiser to me” and you can watch the competitors struggle with the urge to shout “of course it didn’t feel like an appetiser! You made me cook with Gummi bears and Vaseline!” Check it out.
*** Though a more extensive search reveals that hypertension was one of the European titles for awesome Stath-fest Crank. I’d like to see a youtube mash-up of the two.
**** Especially Chopped. Seriously, check it out. Last night they made someone cook beef fillet, Orangina, chocolate pasta and kale. It was awesome.
***** Recent things I have been offered : a machete, a bow and arrow, an evangelical DVD featuring someone called Wise Man Harry, cooked mice on a stick, USB sticks, windscreen wipers, the hire of a chainsaw and four live chickens.
NB – the opinions expressed above are not the opinions of the greater Mostlyfilm community, or even necessarily the opinions of the writer. For the record, Africa offers a wide variety of trash TV and motor cars. African languages are beautiful, lyrical and extremely easy to learn. Wise Man Harry is almost certainly very wise. Many Nollywood films are of high quality and showcase excellent production values. One of them even has Thandie Newton in it, and surely, there is no greater claim that human art can make than that.