The guys of New Nollywood (or the new guys of Nollywood) may seem obsessed with violence, but really they are obsessed with ways of showing violence onscreen.
As it stands: No one has achieved the crude verisimilitude of Nigerian violence like Eric Aghimien; no one has stylised that violence as well as CJ Obasi; and now, no one has shown that violence is as much verbal, a way of speaking, as it is physical like Dare Olaitan in parts of his remarkable first feature film, Ojukokoro. These three films claim violence as essentially male.
Appropriately, the film’s central character has no real name but has a nickname with ‘man’ as first syllable: He is called Manager, and is played by promising new actor Charles Etubiebi.
Manager has decided to rob Lubcon, the establishment he works for. To the world Lubcon is a petrol station, but it is really a front for drug shenanigans. This is not-so-subtle criticism of the Nigerian oil sector where huge revenue meets massive corruption.
As it turns out, the day Manager chooses to rob his employer is the day one of his co-workers invites two goons to rob the place. And there is the case of a kidnapper named Mad Dog Max, played by a fine Wale Ojo, whose screen name recalls George Miller’s hero. He, too, comes to need that Lubcon money. Olaitan weaves these stories into a larger narrative, while showing that to their individual minds, each of these men is a protagonist of his own story.
And there are only men in Ojukokoro. They enact the film’s violence, make its jokes, and stage its robberies. While this may suggest that evil is coded in the masculine psyche, it leaves the film’s female characters, the paltry, disposable total of them, without agency. Neither camera nor story has their time. Greed is bad, frequently fatal, and ultimately male.
Olaitan, who also has screenplay credit, has made a fine Nigerian crime story with deference to the modern western masters of the violent flick. Quentin Tarantino’s influence is boldly writ: You see it in the way Olaitan structures his story in chapters. But it is English director Guy Ritchie who is the chief influence in Ojukokoro: the whip-smart lines, the mano-a-mano dialogue, the series of coincidental events jerked to plausible impossibility — these recall the young man who made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ritchie transferred Tarantino-speak to the UK; Olaitan has transferred both to Nigeria. Admirably, he has done it in a way that highlights regional lingos.
Nollywood at the cinema often takes the relatively bland pidgin English spoken in Lagos as standard and reserves Warri pidgin for laughs. Ojukokoro re-imagines the paradigm. There is a superb turn by Shawn Faqua, one of the goons hired to rob Lubcon, who delivers his lines in a mixture of Benin pidgin and the Edo language. By highlighting the Benin City variant of pidgin, Ojukokoro retains the music and meaning of South-South Nigerian pidgin and becomes more than just a vehicle for laughs. In Ojukokoro, pidgin comes off as a language for ideas.
This “local” use balances Olaitan’s clear debt to the west. It recalled an interview with a popular actress who told me she was unhappy new Nigerian directors were making what she called ‘James Bond movies’.
“It is not our culture,” she said.
But in the age of the internet, what exactly is Nigerian culture? Today’s Nigerian is a collection of cultures, depending on taste and browsing history. So perhaps it is fair that Nollywood reflects this variety.
Besides, in updating some of the more recent Nollywood films that flirt with western influences, Ojukokoro belongs to a developing tradition. It dispenses with the Christian sympathies of Aghimien’s A Mile from Home; it adds brutality to the darkly comic cynicism of Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa; it excises the neat, happy ending of Daniel Oriahi’s Taxi Driver; and is without the ultra-American narcissism of Obasi’s O-Town.
This is not to say Ojukokoro is perfection. Its camera in the early scenes is too conscious of its own existence. One scene misjudges the extent of audience credulity and shows persons defecating with their lower clothing still on, an error that could have been corrected, one imagines, by tilting the camera upwards. The most ridiculous of the film’s flaws is a post-credit scene that needs to be cut in subsequent releases.
The primary sources of Ojukokoro’s excellence are its imagination, script and acting. Some threads of the story are shown from different point of views — old stuff elsewhere, but not in Nollywood where cinematographic innovation is anathema. Save for Emmanuel Ikubese, who is the weak link in the film as a stoned accountant (though he manages to have one great scene; surprise, surprise), the actors are uniformly good and have wonderful chemistry. I came to think of them as age-long friends with deep differences.
The exemplary scene in this regard features a semi-shootout and Manager’s co-workers, Monday and Sunday (Tope Tedela and the always brilliant Seun Ajayi). In a film where much of what is to be admired must be appreciated by the brain, this one scene goes for the heart.
This structure enforces the Nigerian idea of masculinity: 97 percent brain, brawn and violence; 3 percent tears that will never be seen in public. Olaitan’s film never truly critiques Nigerian masculinity, but then he has provided the audience a vastly entertaining platform to do the critiquing.
The flawed men of Ojukokoro may be recognisable to Nigerians, in how they go after what seems to be free-of-charge. In fact, part of Manager’s plan springs from a conviction that his countrymen can never refuse free food. But he is only half-right: there is more than just sustenance at stake: for some of these men, as for many Nigerians, it is about survival. Greed comes later.
Ojukokoro knows and shows the Nigerian way: We move towards death in a dysfunctional country, but we’ll be damned if we don’t make one last desperate grab for what looks like free money. It is a must-watch.