Onitsha Home Movies

Adewale Maja-Pearce

The last decade has seen the emergence of a new kind of film industry in Nigeria. The results are known as ‘home movies’ – they are shot straight onto video and sold direct to the public. One of the new, independent television stations, MBI, was the first to air a home movie every evening. The slot was so popular that the Government-owned Nigerian Television Authority quickly followed suit.

The main market for home movies is Lagos, the commercial capital and home to the majority of the independent stations, although the half-dozen leading production companies – Nek Video Link, O.J. Productions, Infinity Merchant, Contec, Andy Best and Amaco – are all based in Onitsha, the market town on the banks of the River Niger that spawned the equally popular phenomenon known as ‘Onitsha market literature’, which flourished from the late 1940s until the outbreak of the civil war in 1967. These were chapbooks inspired by the Indian pamphlets brought back by Nigerian soldiers who had fought in Burma and the Far East. They had titles like Beware of women, My seven daughters are after young boys, and Money hard to get but easy to spend. Like the home movies, which are in many ways their successors, they had no artistic pretensions, but were concerned only to reach the widest possible audience. They were churned out at high speed and quickly went out of print. Topicality was everything, which was why many of them weren’t even dated. Most sold between three and four thousand copies, although the two most popular, Veronica My Daughter (1957) by Ogali A. Ogali and the Nigerian Bachelor’s Guide (n.d.) by A.O. Ude, sold 60,000 and 40,000 copies respectively.

The chapbooks were soon eclipsed by the novels of a new generation of university graduates – among them, Achebe, Soyinka and J.P. Clark-Bekederemo. Their work was snapped up by London publishing houses, although Cyprian Ekwensi, whose People of the City (1952) was the first Nigerian novel published abroad, had already cut his teeth as a pamphleteer with two titles, When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and other Ibo Tales (both published in 1947). Unfortunately, neither is available – an indication of how low Ekwensi’s stock has fallen in recent years – yet in his best novel, Jagua Nana (1961), the story of an ageing prostitute (‘they called her Jagua because of her good looks and stunning fashions. They said she was Jag-wa, after the famous British prestige car’), he caught the underside of modern urban life in Nigeria with a racy realism which clearly influenced the liveliest of the market literature, notably Adventures of Four Stars by J.A. Okeke Anyichie and Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away by Speedy Eric.

Adventures of Four Stars is a first-person narrative by ‘a real tough, cranky, swell, level-headed kind of guy’ at large among the ‘backroom types’ in downtown Lagos:

Take a stroll right down the Idi-Oro bus stop. Directly opposite the station is a dilapidated 18th-century storey building. Walk straight in and you will be confronted with what it means to be an addict or dope peddler. The eyes of those mushroom or back-room type of guys is blazing like hell fire. ‘Yes, Gehenna.’ The only supposed hell fire visible on earth and it is situated on the South-Eastern part of Jerusalem. What happens to these fellers in the den or jungle of oblivion where the black becomes white, the white becomes the red is nobody’s business.

The story itself is rather aimless and mostly intended to demonstrate the author’s hipness. Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away, by contrast, is the sad tale of a young woman who, at the age of 11, is already possessed of the ‘terrible desire to taste a young man’, especially after she has witnessed the ecstasies of an older friend who ‘had a special way of shaking her waist’. At 17, she is seduced by a man with ‘a wild passion, a flaming desire that rendered him strong and blind and cruel’ as he ‘carried his meat into his room’, although the author, mindful of ‘my mother and father who may come across this book’, tells us that what transpired would be ‘better experienced than heard’. The pair get married but Mabel, having tasted her first man, must taste others because ‘I don’t get what I want out of life by tying myself down.’ By and by, she is caught cheating by her husband, who repudiates her. She flees to the bright lights of Port Harcourt, where she is in steady demand, and before long discovers she is pregnant. She overdoses on the prescribed medicine and ‘our 17 years old sweet honey’ poured away while ‘the rest of the outside world went on moving without even feeling that something had missed.’

Such directness and lack of inhibition are rare among the Onitsha pamphleteers, who generally favour dazzling frocks and delicate sensibilities. The heroine of Rosemary and the Taxi-Driver by Miller O. Albert has both in abundance:

If there was a prize to be awarded for falling in love at first blush, Rosemary would have been given the richest gold medal. She had been chasing around the romantic seaport of Lagos, with her flareful flush of romance. Her violet gown with vibrant colours and heavenly patterns vested below her knees. She wore a dazzling gold necklace, shiny ear rings and a botanical veil, stained all over with jet colours.

By the time the civil war ended in 1970, Onitsha market literature was all but dead. One commentator put this down to ‘the marketing activities of subsidiaries of UK and US publishers’ (principally Heinemann, Longman and Macmillan), now busy promoting the more ‘literary’ writers, but it may simply be that the audience had changed. The primary school teacher or motor mechanic enthralled by Mabel’s misadventures was unlikely to snap up the latest Achebe or Soyinka, which in any case was sold in ‘proper’ bookshops, mostly in the burgeoning universities. At the same time, educated Nigerians looked down on the lumpen literature as embarrassingly local and likely to make foreigners laugh, which is how they now see the home movies with their absurd storylines, indifferent acting and low level of technical competence – all of which are inevitable given the speed with which they are made. Yet their following remains enormous.

An average home movie is shot in a fortnight (although some take even less), with another fortnight for editing. All the money is provided up-front by the producer, who pays a one-off fee to the scriptwriters, actors and technicians, and takes all the profits. The dozen or so established actors who divide almost all the movies between them obviously command the highest fees, although a steady flow of wannabe stars from economically depressed villages and towns has kept a ceiling on their demands. One director I spoke with said that the most a single actor had ever received was 500,000 naira – about £3000 – but that was two years ago. Now they were lucky to receive half that. Supporting actors currently receive between N50,000 and N100,000, which is roughly what scriptwriters and camera crew get. Editing adds between N100,000 and N150,000, depending on the technology used. With location and editing costs, the budget for one of these movies comes in at anything between £12,000 and £20,000, although some of the smaller producers, who account for about a quarter of the thirty or so movies churned out every month, can do the job for less.

The producers make between 15,000 and 20,000 copies of the video and have only a few weeks to shift them before the pirates move in, counting on the collusion of a corrupt police force unperturbed by the notion of intellectual property, and tapping the expatriate communities in Europe and the United States, along with English-speaking Africa. One ‘frequent flyer’ businessman I met in Onitsha boasted that he had made a handsome profit by flogging pirated copies of Living in Bondage (1995) to his connections in Italy, where he regularly travelled to buy water pumps, generators and the like. Later, I was told that the major producers had taken to meting out punishment beatings to any pirates they caught, which wouldn’t be unusual in a town where vigilante groups occasionally torch police stations in frustration at the seeming impunity of armed robbers.

It’s not surprising that Onitsha, the largest market town in West Africa, should have produced a unique cultural phenomenon for the second time in half a century: the home movies, like the chapbooks, are commodities, after all; and the producers, who also deal in water pumps and generators, are simply traders looking for quick returns on their outlay. This is why every successful formula is flogged to death, and why visual effects are considered more important than dialogue or storyline. It also explains why many of the movies are obsessed with money, like the town itself, where traders’ apprentices hurry through the crowded streets with the ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags that hold exactly one million naira in fifty-naira notes. (Hence the high crime rate.) The traders were bemused that I had travelled to Onitsha by overnight coach from Lagos in pursuit of the home movie phenomenon, but as I worked my way through the (unofficial) top ten, it was clear that standards varied considerably and that to lump them all together was a mistake.

Among the most interesting was Wages (2000), which stars the experienced Sandra Achums as Chetan, one of two teenage children of a God-fearing, middle-class Lagos family that falls on hard times when the father dies in mysterious circumstances. His extended family, exercising its customary rights, descends on the grieving widow and seizes all the property, forcing her to return to the village, where she is condemned to the life of a poor relation. Taunted by her late husband’s relatives, who hold her responsible for their son’s death, she is doused with boiling water in the course of an argument. Her son turns to armed robbery, flourishes for a while but is eventually caught and ‘re-tyred’ along with his accomplices, whereupon Chetan – still very much the innocent – sees the futility of staying put and leaves for the big city, promising to send for her mother when she has made it. She gets a job in a designer-label boutique through the good offices of an aunt but soon discovers that life on the wild side is more lucrative.

Three years pass. Chetan has forgotten her promise. Her mother turns up in Lagos only to be disowned by the glamorous young woman who cannot bear to be identified with ‘this thing’ in rags, as one of her friends puts it. Broken by the encounter, she returns to the village, where she falls ill. An operation is her only hope but she cannot afford it. Chetan, meanwhile, whose name means ‘Remember me, my child’, is betrayed in love and realises the shallowness of the life she has been leading. She hurries back to the village but it is too late. Stricken by grief, she makes her way slowly out of the hospital. A sudden commotion detains her. She turns to see that her mother has risen from the dead and is standing by the bed, beckoning to her. All is forgiven as mother and daughter are reunited.

The final supernatural twist, the contrition and the moralising are typical. In part they are a result of pressure from the growing Pentecostal churches, forever on the look-out for the devil’s handiwork. In Wages, the insidious effects of this pressure are visible from the outset, when the mother is slapped by her landlady for the most unconvincing reason and replies with a pitying ‘God bless you’; her husband, happening on the scene, underscores the piety of a family which turns out to be the pillar of the local church. Thereafter, no effort is spared to portray the mother’s goodness, even after she has been turfed out of her home, disabled and forced to gaze on the ashes of her son, all of which she accepts with superhuman forbearance.

The triumph of good over evil is also the theme of the aptly titled No Peace for the Wicked (2000), which stars Alex Usifo as Godfrey, the only son of a bishop whom we first glimpse in police custody, following his arrest as a member of one of the murderous cults that proliferated in Nigerian universities during the 1980s and 1990s – in bizarre mimicry of the violence of military rule. The movie opens with the bishop on his deathbed repudiating his wayward offspring and informing his daughter that she is to inherit his billion-naira church; but Godfrey has his own plans. Following his father’s death, he makes a pact with the devil that enables him to cure possession, which he proceeds to do – to the astonishment of his family, most of whom believe that he has been touched by the Holy Spirit. One of the few sceptics is his uncle, whose daughter he seduces and then murders when she tells him she is pregnant. He has already switched the results of a DNA test in order to make his sister’s husband think that their only child was fathered by her secret lover. Everything unravels when the devil proves unequal to God and is pursued into the church by the Avenging Angel, during what should be Godfrey’s triumphant sermon.

But you can get your come-uppance without being wholly evil. In Shame, which stars the country’s heart-throb, Richard Mofe-Damijo, and ‘the ageless’ (and Hollywood-bound) Liz Benson, it is enough to falter. Daniel and Rena are a happily married couple with three children whose life changes when Daniel loses his job. He is wrongly accused of theft and tortured by the police before his innocence is established, whereupon he returns home to discover that his youngest child and only daughter has fallen ill. He rushes to the hospital but cannot afford the life-saving operation she needs. When she dies, he throws himself into the path of an oncoming car but is rescued by an old school friend, Taribo, who happens to be driving by.

Taribo, a wealthy businessman whom Daniel hasn’t seen in more than a decade, offers him a job with a mouth-watering salary which turns out to involve drug-smuggling. His recent humiliations override his initial hesitation. Everything goes well until Taribo, who has taken a shine to Rena, informs him that the time has come for him to travel to London with a consignment of heroin. It’s a trap: Daniel is caught and imprisoned by the British authorities. When a distraught Rena is opportunely attacked in her house, Taribo insists that she move in with him. She does so with remarkably little resistance, only for Daniel to turn up, having fingered his employer as the godfather that both the British and Nigerian authorities had been seeking all along. Taribo is arrested and charged, whereupon Rena, who has meanwhile discovered that she is pregnant, begs her husband’s forgiveness. He will have none of it as he gathers his sons to him, promising them a new life.

Shame’s unforgiving, Old Testament misogyny, which dictates Rena’s willing self-abasement, also rules out any credible male characterisation. That Taribo goes to great lengths to frame Rena’s shallow husband, in the process jeopardising everything he has worked for, is hardly in keeping with the portrait of a drug baron who thinks nothing of murder. The only convincing scene in an otherwise abysmal movie occurs when Taribo’s henchman, ordered to eliminate a man who has double-crossed him, taps his intended victim three times on the back of the head with the flat of his hand before the door closes on the dark deed. This momentary understatement is a rare virtue in movies which trade in casual violence. In Deadly Proposal (2000), the character played by Pete Edochie procures the freshly severed head of a young woman which he requires for ritual purposes – an echo of the discovery in early 1999 of a cannibal by the name of Clifford Orji, who had been trading in body parts under a busy Lagos bridge for two years or more. In Lost Kingdom 2 (2000), muscle-bound thugs in tight T-shirts and dark glasses (nothing is left to chance) are hired by Igwe (Chief), played by Kanayo O. Kanayo, to shoot up a wedding and kidnap the bride, who had spurned his earlier advances. In Deadly Affair (1995), these same or similar thugs (it’s difficult to tell) are used by Isabella (‘you don’t get anything these days by merit, not even your life … you don’t have to feel sad about it’) to cure her boyfriend of his infatuation with a younger lover, played by Sandra Achums. In Escape from Congo (1999), a group of crazed soldiers kidnap the children of top government officials and execute two of them when their ransom demands are not immediately met, although the leader, again played by Alex Usifo, inexplicably shoots one of his men when he finds him attempting to rape the Vice-President’s daughter, as if it could have mattered to him either way.

Another rape is unconvincingly aborted in Slave (1999), the first Nigerian movie to address the issues raised by the transatlantic slave trade. ‘He’s trying to have sex with one of the slave girls,’ a native collaborator says of a white trader in mild astonishment, thus squandering the obvious metaphor of slavery itself as an act of rape. In general there is a coyness about sex that is difficult to fathom, given the number of explicit foreign films available in any video rental store, although perhaps the home-movie producers are as conscious as Speedy Eric was of their parents’ sensibilities. Or perhaps, again, it’s to do with the growth of the churches. In Shame, Daniel and Rena are shown in amorous embrace in the privacy of their bedroom – on the bed, in fact – but contrive to remain fully clothed. In Wages, a film which trades on women trading on sex, Chetan wakes up beside her boyfriend after a night of debauchery wearing a leotard and a hairnet. No Peace for the Wicked comes closest to suggesting what happens when consenting adults lock the bedroom door, but we’re only teased with a shot of the leading lady’s bare shoulder as the incorrigible Godfrey bears down on her.

Bare breasts are anathema, even in the minority of films shot in villages, where any number of breasts are on display in real life. At the same time, nobody thinks anything of Sharon Stone showing all to Michael Douglas because, according to my informants, everybody knows that America – ‘the West’ – is morally degenerate. But then there’s a Christian cleric and an imam on each of the country’s three regional censorship boards, in Kaduna, Lagos and Onitsha, although more than one producer told me that the brown envelope worked the same magic here as in any other Nigerian Government department. On the other hand, acknowledging that Christianity and Islam are themselves foreign imports would entail an examination of traditional African values that went beyond the tedious simplicities presented in Slave.

The template for the movie is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), which wants us to imagine that everybody was happy before the arrival of the Europeans. Slave goes one further by portraying a village without goats, dogs, chickens and rubbish heaps; where all the men are robust and all the women are fine; where there is no disease and nobody quarrels; and where the elders, invariably male, are apt to mouth inappropriate proverbs – à la Achebe – in the name of an ‘authenticity’ which cannot hide the fact that the elders happen to be speaking in the language of the conqueror. To take one example: ‘It is said that when a rattlesnake loses its poison and attempts to strike it becomes nothing more than a piece of rope.’ The fact that rattlesnakes are unknown in Africa is just another embarrassing oversight (like the fact that the enslaved women manage to keep their jewelry, along with their honour) in a film that is hardly less fantastical than Roots, but merely exploits a greater technical proficiency to pretend that Africans aren’t as guilty as Europeans for the part they played in what was, after all, their own enslavement.