The secret of the chameleon is known only by the gods
One of the key aspects for me of being a film fan is to actually see films from around the world. To stay in one place in terms of cinema or to ignore films because they had subtitles is a dubious thing for me; at least the friend I used to meet, who found it difficult to keep up with the subtitles quickly enough, had a justifiable reason that would have required getting used to reading them. Even then, as with this film, there are plenty of examples of films that are in the English language, or with the case of the Italians especially, had to be post-synched and had English dubs that even diehard viewers who prefers films in their original language would still view them with. Then of course there are plenty of silent films that, even with their intertitles, follow the idea that the images themselves are enough to evoke reactions, something that still exists in the modern day whether it’s a horror scene that terrifies us, or even pornography that causes us to have a physical orgasm. The good thing is that, while the vast adventure into the continents of cinema, like a classic adventure story full of man-eating snakes and ancient gods, is a difficult and hard one, to start it is so easy that even ordinary people, like your parents, your friends or the man down the street can inadvertently see a film that doesn’t exist in the bubble of multiplex fodder.
Naturally American cinema looms over everyone else’s country when we were growing up – older film fans in the 1970s and 80s, myself in the 1990s and early 2000s as a child under ten to a teenager – to the point it’s kind of pointless to bring it up, something we fail to realise after the next argument is brought up about how Americanisation is corrupting the world; frankly, just in cinema, we could have a cultural revolution that would shame Karl Marx and the communists if more people just watched more non-American films and ignored the advertising once in the while. And this is possible as once in a while a film or individual comes up – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Bruce Lee, Mad Max (1979),Godzilla films, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) – and pierces through into the mainstream like a tactical strike and catches the attention of the ordinary person. For me it was a mischievous Dutch man named Paul Verhoeven who managed to end up making American action films, Shaun of the Dead (2004), and its references that included Lucio Fulci and non-English films, Sergio Leone films from one of my grandmothers’ collection of westerns, Battle Royale (2000), anime from the same friend who had difficulty with subtitles, and Takashi Miike. Before their affect on my film interests it was mostly American films I watched, and the few films from my own country of the United Kingdom – Carry On films, possibly a Hammer Horror film, and unfortunately Sex Lives of the Potato Men (2004), which was released when I was growing up, and just mentioning it feels as disgraceful as drowning head first in the contents of a public toilet bowl. Then we all got to cult cinema and our territories of choices expanded out, Japan and Italy especially, and China and specifically Hong Kong for its martial arts films. if you became an art film fan like I did too, you not only widened your palette, before you discovered the genre films of those countries too, but you also had the entirety of Eastern Europe and former Soviet bloc countries knocking on your back door for tea and biscuits. From there certain areas of the world culture, through (re-)discovered or critically acclaimed films being released on DVD usually, would allow you to go further – Coffin Joe for Brazil, his talon-like claws gripping his nation’s flag like a Dark King, the odd bedfellows of Tony Jaa and art film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul for Thailand, who would be an interesting pair to make a film together just to amuse my perverse tastes, and Dogtooth (2009) throwing Greece’s sense of perversity onto the table until you findIsland of Death (1977) or Singapore Sling (1990) and realise its more common in their cinema than you think. Sadly we still have a great deal of cinema that is not in our grasp, especially in the United Kingdom, only available through YouTube, import DVD and bit torrent, which is made worse by the fact that whole continents are almost completely ignored except the few films, usually art house, that manage to get picked up by Western distributors. African cinema is ignored to the point its uncomfortable insidious and frankly racist, even if it’s accidental, when whole countries of its output including critically acclaimed films are not available such as from Senegal. That hasn’t stopped individuals from trying to find these films though, and as I have tried to do in the recent year, I’ve been conscious of looking out for them.
This review documents the first Nigerian ‘Nollywood’ film I have seen; a culture that is growing in vast interest for people but paradoxically is not that easy to find and merely known as a concept and for some bizarre trailers. I don’t really want to compare looking for rare straight-to-video films to a drug addiction, but one occasionally wishes there was a dealer of obscure and rare films near me in the back alleys who could provide me with a few copies burnt on DVD-R. I nearly had the chance to see a Nigerian film before now, a drama recorded off a satellite channel catering for African viewers, but unfortunately the ending was not recorded, something that pisses me off to this day.
I will be completely blunt about Igodo: The Land of the Living Dead. It is a very cheaply made film, with cheap special effects, not a film for a large amount of people and difficult to find. I will argue however that, even just out of interest of having seen a Nigerian film now, it lived up to what film fanaticism should mean, not merely being able to say who the cinematographer for an obscure giallo film was, but a cultural scrapbook or index to connect to the world when one is unable to travel outside your country at that time, or to learn more about other countries through their pop culture. It even allows you to realise that there’s plenty of aspects in each other’s cinema that are the same. As a result of killing the innocent, physically manifestation of the son of Amadioha, the real god of thunder and lightning for the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, in a kangaroo court and sentencing him to be buried alive up to his head until he perishes, a curse has been put on the land where young men for ten generations will die inexplicably en mass, the images of a parade of coffins at the beginning reminding me of both F.W. Murnau’s and Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. Immediately I was reminded of works, from British plays as far back as Shakespeare to American horror films, which play with the idea of how the sins of the parents damn their offspring. Yes, some who see the film will gasp in horror at me going this far with the references when they are put off by the video-shot film itself, but regardless of technical qualities this film was up my alley in terms of it content. I will admit too that I have spat venom on low budget films from 1999 onwards from the West, when digital cameras became more common and a lot of genre filmmakers used it as an excuse for merely slapped-together films than to help them creatively, but I will not do the same with Igodo. First, it has to be bared in mind that Nigerian cinema for the most part is made in mass in the thousands and quickly put together, which means putting my issues with straight-to-digital video biases aside when it’s a large part of the films’ culture. (Interestingly though there are a few individuals pushing for high quality films, which will be fascinating to see if I could get my hands on them). Secondly, for all of Igodo’s slow passages, it was actually interesting to watch and entertaining.
Within a fairly complex flashback story with a flashback story structure, a generation before decide to pick seven men – a hunter, a warrior, a flute player, a drummer, a wrestler, a farmer, and a tree climber – to locate the only object that can lift the curse, but involves travelling through the lands of the dead of the title full of supernatural perils. At this point in the narrative the special effects are more prominent, cheaply made as mentioned but far more striking and memorable in their crude charm than more fine quality CGI and practical effects that never stick out in the mind. The sense that actual mythology may be up on screen, without being cleaned up into a simplistic version without the tangents, and regardless of the lack of technology to put it across, is entrancing, by itself as interesting separate from the film as well as within it. And unlike some Western film makers, who probably have higher budgets but use computer effects, at least the creators of this, to depict a chameleon humanoid who briefly appears to attack the seven heroes, made an actual chameleon man costume and filmed someone in it in the Nigerian woodland charging at the main actors. I do not want to guess whether someone like The Asylum Company would spend money on actual monster costumes or be content with a computer rendered beast, despite probably having more money to do so. That may seem like a cheap shot at them, but having seen The Almighty Thor (2011) in the last month and having reviewed it for my blog, I will argue that Igodo, for its cheapness, has a lot more interesting looking special effects than anything in that film. (That and wasting the magical idea of having wrestler Kevin Nash as Odin in its rip-off story of the Marvel adaptation). Most of Igodo is men in elaborate and traditional costumes talking, or with the seven heroes, travelling through woodland, but considering the amount of more easily available films that are the same, this at least has something interesting within it unlike the countless ones I’ve seen before it.
In this I can see a white ram superimposed onto a sky, an innocent farm animal turned into an omnipresent, towering God-creature through a crude, but effective superimposition. I can think about how, as part of the journey through the lands of the dead, the heroes are not allowed to look backwards or they will face their doom; the film cheats a little with this, occasionally ignores it, but when it is invoked, such as one member having to walk backwards in their line to help another out, it is at least creative. It even invokes the myth of Orpheus, only with a far more abrupt and doomed result for the one who looks back. I swear even The Evil Dead (1981) popped into my mind when the directors decided to splice in short shots of the camera flipping and moving in random and abrupt directions under the tree canopies, an even lower budget version of Sam Raimi’s prowling cameras that would be off-putting and time wasting in another film, but actually work in this for the low-grade supernatural effect.
If most Nigerian cinema is like this, it will be an acquired taste for many, but the part of the point of watching multinational cinema is to leap into areas like Nollywood without second thoughts and with a willingness to eschew conventional qualities of film. If we had more time in a day, more days in a year, and unlimited access to this sort of material, I can see someone go through these films even if many were merely terrible, and I would be joining them too. Its less cultural vegetable then going to the diner or cafe which specialises in another country’s food and soaking in the atmosphere, from a greasy burrito stand to a Cambodian restaurant. I have plenty of places to go in my cinematic world tour, including genres that if I were to bring up to some people would cause them to say I am making them up – fromSanto films from Mexico to South Korean animation – and I can be as specific as I can, as we all can, because there is so much. I only wish it was easier to access, although considering the Nollywood films that have been officially put up on YouTube, and that satellite channel called Vox Africa is on British TV listings, there are plenty of opportunities to watch more of them and if anyone wanted to join me, there’s plenty of room. We’ll have to admit though that our hobby is the visual-audio equivalent of an opium addiction and that some of these films are far from Hollywood, its glamour, its expensive budgets and strict distribution and piracy laws, as possible and embrace the fact.