The guys of New Nollywood may seem to be obsessed with violence, but what they really are obsessed with are ways of showing violence on screen. No one has achieved the crude verisimilitude of violence that Eric Aghimien has. No one has shown more stylised violence than CJ Obasi. Some parts of Dare Olaitan’s remarkable first feature film, Ojukokoro, show that violence is as much verbal, a way of speaking, as it is a physical thing. All three these films claim violence as essentially male.
It is appropriate, then, that the film’s central character has no real name but only a nickname, with ‘man’ as its 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 a not-so-subtle criticism of the Nigerian oil sector, where huge revenue meets massive corruption.
The day Manager chooses to rob his employer is also the day one of his co-workers invites two goons to rob the place. Elsewhere, there is a kidnapper, a roughneck named Mad Dog Max, played by a fine Wale Ojo, whose screen name recalls the hero in George Miller’s Mad Max films. He, too, comes to need that money. All these men clash, connected by money, that famous root of all evil.
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.
A Nigerian Homage to the West
Olaitan, who directs and writes, 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 plays Warri pidgin for laughs. Ojukokoro re-imagines this. 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 variant of pidgin, Ojukokoro retains the music of South-South Nigerian pidgin; it becomes more than just a vehicle for laughs. In Ojukokoro, pidgin comes off as a language for ideas, which it hardly does in Nollywood.
Months ago, a popular actress told me she was unhappy that new directors were insisting on making what she called ‘James Bond movies’. “It is not our culture,” she said.
But in the Internet age, 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 should reflect 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; the neat, happy ending of Daniel Oriahi’s Taxi Driver is excised; and it is without the American-styled narcissism of Obasi’s O-Town.
Not Quite Perfection
This is not to say Ojukokoro is a better film than any of these. For one, its camera work in the early scenes is rather conscious of its own existence. One scene misjudges the extent of its audience’s credulity and shows persons defecating with their lower clothing still on, an error that could have been rectified, one imagines, just by lifting the camera. And after the credits comes a ridiculous scene that will need to be cut in subsequent releases.
The primary source of Ojukokoro’s excellence is its imagination, script and acting. Some threads of the story are shown from different point of view – this might be old stuff elsewhere but not in Nollywood. Save for Emmanuel Ikubese, who is the weak link in the film as a stoned accountant (though he manages to have one great scene) the actors are uniformly good and have wonderful chemistry. I came to think of them as age-long friends, able to complete each other’s sentences.
A wonderfully sad scene towards the end features Manager’s co-workers, Monday and Sunday (Tope Tedela and the always brilliant Seun Ajayi). It shows that a scene’s excellence can come down to great casting and great acting. In a film where much of what is to be admired must be appreciated by the brain, this scene goes for the heart.
This structure enforces the Nigerian idea of masculinity: 97% brain, brawn and violence; 3% tears that will never be seen in public. Olaitan’s film never truly critiques Nigerian masculinity, but then he has provided the audience with a vastly entertaining platform from which to do the critiquing.
The men of Ojukokoro, all flawed, all familiar, may be recognisable to Nigerians, in how they go after what seems to be without charge. In fact, one part of Manager’s plan springs from the conviction that his countrymen can never refuse free food. But there is more than just feeding at stake: for some of these men, as for many Nigerians, it is about survival; for others, it is about wanting more.
Ojukokoro is a fatal fable with a valid insight into the Nigerian character: 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.