Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Nollywood!: Battle on Buka Street

There are different sizes and sorts of blind spots you can have as a person who is into movies. You can have not seen something that's been out in theaters for a bit and everyone would assume you've seen; it took me months to get around to Top Gun: Maverick. You may have missed a particular classic - I can't imagine sitting down for three or four hours of The Ten Commandments, for instance. . I'm missing major swaths of certain genres people might assume I'm conversant in, like how I write a lot of horror-movie reviews for someone who has never seen an entry in the Friday the 13th series. And so on.

And then there's the thing when you open your Letterboxd stats page and scroll down to the world map and see large swaths either gray or a very light green, far from the neon yellow of the USA. It's fine to not particularly worry about it - there's a lot of world, and you can get yourself into a situation where you'll never catch up just with whatever's mainstream in your part of it. Still, if you're curious, those gaps can gnaw at you. There's a story I tell even though I don't remember all the details about posting a review of an Iranian art-house movie and having someone in the comments mention that nobody in Iran actually watches them and they don't necessarily reflect the country, because everyone there watches Egyptian action movies. It would be something like twenty years before I actually saw one (mostly. Seeing Indian movies took a while, too, and even then, it took a while to see that there was more than just Hindi-language Bollywood movies, but a whole host of local film cultures, and the very fact of that, on top of seeing Indian-led fantasies, romances, and comedies, taught me something about a massive place I hadn't considered as much more than kind of homogeneous.

But the big gaping hole has been Africa, and while I've chipped away with that through various horror movies and afro-futurist sci-fi movies at Fantasia and the occasional art-house/IFFBoston booking, plus the Officially Sanctioned Cult Phenomenon of the "Wakaliwood" movies from Uganda, nothing from Nigeria has shown up, which kind of shows the pitfalls of relying on art houses and festivals to learn about world cinema: You see a lot of movies from the fringes, an a lot of it is good stuff, but Nigeria's "Nollywood" is the mainstream engine that drives cinema around Africa, cranking out a ton of films - by some accounts, a number right up there with India, China, and the USA, which get exported across the continent and probably influenced that Senegalese import as much as the west did.

I'm not sure what's up with the Regal in Fenway booking Battle on Buka Street this week - it's apparently a massive hit featuring people who are especially popular in Africa and among the diaspora, although I don't know to what extent it is more so than any other recent Nigerian movie. Is there an African immigrant community near there, akin to the way AMC Boston Common is near Chinatown and AMC South Bay apparently draws from a Vietnamese community? Don't know; it wasn't hugely crowded, but it was a literal Saturday matinee (11:50 start time), and who knows how well word got out? Maybe there's all this and Regal figured they don't get the traction on award contenders that other theaters do, they already had M3GAN and Avatar on all the screens they could support, and still had a couple slots per day after even after booking an Egyptian movie, so why the hell not?

And, why the hell not? It's a different thing from a lot of the movies I've seen, and I suspect that it will take me a few tries to get used to. The performances are big and broad in many cases, the story takes some crazy turns, and the ending does not seem to be what most of the movie was leading up to at all (and, man, that movie just stopped). The budget is small enough that the filmmakers sort of suggested a prison break and I had no idea what was going on until later, but I suspect locals would know how to process that sort of scene better. I had it pegged as a comedy going in but it had the feel of a soap opera playing to the rafters, a telenovela cut down to 140 minutes and also in Nigeria. And, speaking of, I am obviously missing a lot of context - is polygamy common in small-town NIgeria? Is one wife being Yoruba and another Igbo a big deal or just interesting details?

I can't say I particularly loved it; it's the sort of thing that I recommend to people because, hey, I bet other folks would like to fill in their blind spots as well, not because it's a particularly strong movie. Anyway, I hope that, with the Seaport and Causeway Street theaters reopening under new managements in the next few months, all these places within a few T stops of each other keep drawing from relatively far afield to fill their screens, including more Nollywood stuff; I'm looking forward to learning more about the cinema and society of Western Africa.

Battle on Buka Street

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2023 in Regal Fenway #6 (first-run, DCP)

Even more than with most foreign-to-me movies, I don't know that I've got the right vocabulary or mindset to approach a Nollywood movie like Battle on Buka Street, and as a result the film both frustrates and fascinates me. It's a film with a few issues beyond me not being used to the vibe of movies from Nigeria, but it's also a lot more movie than I was expecting, different enough in culture and style that I want to see more.

Once upon a time, Maduka (Nkem Owoh), a merchant in the community of Otonwa, had several wives. Two of them in particular, Asake and Ezinne, despised each other, and it only got worse when they each gave birth to daughters on the same day, each figuring the other was trying to upstage her. The daughters carried on their mothers' feud, and a generation later, on the day Asake's daughter Yejide (Funke Akindele) married her fiancé Lashile (Femi Jacobs), Ezinne's daughter Awele (Mercy Johnson Okojie) tied the knot as well, causing an eruption that ended with Awele leaving town. Now, Yejide operates one of the most popular eateries, though Asake (Sola Sobowale) does most of the cooking, with son Ademide (Moshood Fattah) looking to start a singing career while daughter Fadeke helps at the restaurant. It's going well until Awele rolls back into town, older daughter Ifunanya and teenaged twins Kaiso and Kaira in tow, leaving an abusive husband, and opens her own restaurant directly across the street, and not only are Asake, Ezinne (Tina Mba), Yejide, and Awele immediately at each other's throats, but Fade and the twins are all too willing to to engage in an escalating campaign of sabotage, while the more level-headed Ademide and Ify are sent abroad to find opportunity.

That's a lot, and there's more besides. Some of that "more" might have either been shaved out or more tightly integrated in a different sort of movie; there are at least a couple of "wait, what?" moments where directors Funke Akindele & Tobi Makinde do things which could potentially send the movie off in new and screwy directions (and sometimes do) in ways that seem like they use a different shorthand than I'm used to. It goes all over the place and much of the final act is concerned with things that are at best tangential to what had been at the center of the movie for the first half, right up until it ends at a point that didn't particularly feel like the culmination of the story. It can also be abrasive, with lots of parents calling their children idiots and no hints that this family has any feelings more complicated than innate loathing for its other branches.

There is something genuinely appealing about this shagginess, though - there's a straightforward sort of comedy at the core, but that belies that this is also a generational epic and a soap opera, and the way the filmmakers will often shift into different episodes or have the story veer in a new direction with a lot of melodrama makes it bigger than the plot: It's a foolish animosity, but the audience can feel just how much bigger than them it must feel to the characters. The film doesn't do much to dig into how this kind of self-destructive, miserable-looking family feud gets started and sustains itself, but does an impressive job of pulling the audience into it without taking sides but instead feeling how irresistible the momentum of it can be, and how Ifunanya are potentially making a major break by acting sensibly.

The actors playing those two cousins give the performances I felt most comfortable with, in large part because of how they aren't yelling until something merits it; it's part of how they mostly seem to be playing to the other character, not the audience. That's not the case with Akindele and Mercy Johnson as the middle generation, but they are forces of nature, sometimes playing to the rafters but also absolutely convincing in how strongly felt their animosity is and how the ends of their marriages has left something at least a little broken underneath. Sola Sobowale and Tina Mba are both playing it a bit more broad in their roles as the grandmothers - Ezinne's frailty is a millimeter away from being outright comedic.

I'm not quite sure if Nkem Owoh's Maduka is a flat portrayal or hitting a certain type of toxic masculinity that has plausible deniability head-on, with a certain offended above-the-fray manner that on the one hand makes me think that if someone's going to do polygamy at all, they should be better than this, but is probably more about how men like this maintain control by pitting women against each other. That's what's been happening for generations here, to the point where men being good enough to break the cycle seems to be regarded with suspicion by these women who have for so long seen each other as the enemy.

It doesn't quite gel, especially the filmmakers don't seem to have the resources to depict some of the events that the film turns on rather than having them happen mostly off-screen. Nevertheless, I'm curious to see more from Nollywood; it's long been a blind spot and I don't want to judge it by just this one example.

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