In the midst of Montreal’s recent film festival shakeup-a Shakesperean tragicomedy into which my word count doesn’t allow me to go in detail-the Festival de Nouveau Cinéma initially seemed like it might be trodden underfoot. Instead it emerged as the dark horse popular favourite because of the programmers’ emphasis on quality and innovation.
The fest also places a lot of importance on aesthetic extremism. Much talked about is the film The Family That Eats Soil. Director Khavn De La Cruz seems to be trying to outdo John Waters, but without the sense of glee and fundamental sympathy for the characters that balances out Waters’ gross-out terrorism. The Family lays its cards on the table with the opening sequence, a Claymation gang rape and murder. The next few minutes include a harsh torture scene and a couple more rapes. Maybe it’s that I’m getting old, or maybe the nastiness of the real world makes me less interested in seeing such activity onscreen, but I couldn’t get into it and I bailed out after 20 minutes.
A similar extremism pervades Édouard Salier’s Flesh, but here it’s made more palatable by the film’s ten-minute length and its impressive technique (which helped it walk away with the NFB Innovation Award at the fest). A reimagination of the 9/11 attacks, with hardcore porn videos superimposed on the NYC skyline, it’s an assault on the senses and emotions with a deliberately ambiguous political message.
I dutifully attended some lo-fi Canadian and Quebec productions. Matthew Klinck’s Greg and Gentillon is an enjoyable, though ultimately minor, entry in the overcrowded mockumentary genre, telling the tale of two clueless Québecois comedians who go to Toronto to make it big. Jean-Louis Tremblay’s Star Apoplexie is a critical look at media convergence with a specific focus on Quebec’s leading megacorporation, Quebecor, and its flagship money-maker, Star Académie (a talent show in the Idol mode). Though the film suffers from a few clichéd MTV-generation tropes (I personally don’t need to see fast motion ever again, for any reason), it’s methodical in its examination and criticism of how Quebecor manipulates the media while milking the public for dollars every way they can.
By far the most interesting discovery, and boldest programming choice, is the showcase on Nigerian film. This national cinema has earned the title Nollywood after emerging, seemingly out of nowhere, as the third most prolific national film industry (after Bollywood and Hollywood). Nigerian film is a DIY filmmaker’s wet dream-an incredibly cheap, slapdash and over-the-top vision that happens to be massively popular. The films are shot on dirt cheap, consumer-grade video (sometimes even VHS), and are distributed to stores and village markets.
Aesthetically, a Nollywood film is like an irony-free Douglas Sirk melodrama with a Pee-wee’s Playhouse colour scheme on a high-school student film budget. Sloppy, hand-held cameras and bright, bleeding colours are complemented by late-’80s video effects. When people scream and yell (which is very often), the sound peaks and distorts. Actors trip over their lines-great dialogue like “I am captivated and magnetized by your rather rapacious gaze” (not a questionably translated subtitle; the films are in English), all delivered with scenery-chewing gusto. And just when you are trying to figure out where the convoluted stories will go, the film ends abruptly in the middle of the action. It’s filmmaking by any means necessary-surreal, garish and weirdly beautiful.
The plots tend to melodramatic morality plays. Lancelot Oduwa Imusen’s Emotional Crack is a cautionary tale of a bisexual home-wrecker. Chika Onu’s Dogs Meeting and Teco Benson’s Highway to the Grave turn the heat up further, throwing witchcraft into the mix. Highway to the Grave concerns a group of evil mermaids who lure men away from the righteous path through sexual corruption, quickly killing them or driving them insane. A batch of previews indicate that witchcraft is an extremely popular subject in Nigerian film-one that allows the filmmakers to warn against its evils while depicting these evils in gleefully lurid detail.
The audiences at the Nigerian films I saw reacted with incredulous laughter; they seemed to find the phenomenon a curious novelty-a reaction that’s understandable, but superficial. I was amazed by the films’ madcap energy and totally genuine sensibility. The aesthetic extremism that many underground filmmakers self-consciously strive for, Nigerian film achieves with a complete lack of pretension and a populist thrust. It may be far out on our cinematic horizon, but I personally hope that Nollywood is the future. (Note: for a somewhat dry but informative history of the Nigerian film industry: http://www.nigeria-planet.com/Nigerian-Movies.html) (Malcolm Fraser)