Let’s talk Nollywood.
The exact definition of “Nollywood” is surprisingly vague and woolly, but it can at least broadly refer to the growing industry of Nigerian feature films over the past 20 years or so. It definitely seems a problematic term: for one thing it is a name given to Nigerian cinema by American journalists, and there is something post-colonial about referring to African cinema like it is an imitation of commercial American film. For another it presents Nigerian cinema as something united and homogenous, when in truth a cultural melting pot of its kind is more of an interwoven and overlapping set of cinemas. Nigerian cinema may have been a novelty for Western audiences and critics for the past two decades, but it has been a part of the country’s cultural landscape for almost a century. Historically speaking, there have been waves of activity since then, notably in the 1970s and 2000s. Today Nigeria produces more feature films annually than any other country bar India – and it strikes me that the Indian screen industry, with its multiple cultural, religious, and linguistic contexts, is a much better comparison for Nigeria than Hollywood. It also strikes me that, being the size that it is, film critics like myself should all be paying a lot more attention to Nigerian film.
So here is a start. All Na Vibes is a 2021 Nigerian film that has recently been released by Netflix. Directed by Taiwo Egunjobi, it follows three young adults named Abiola (Tega Ethan), Lamidi (Molawa Davis), and Sade (Tolu Osaile) during a widespread schools strike. Abiola is an aspiring musican with a crush on Sade. Lamidi wants to gain popularity in the neighbourhood by throwing a monster party, and wants to hold it in Sade’s house. Sade, meanwhile, is hiding a secret relationship from her friends and her politician father (Jide Kosoko). This is very much a film of two halves, divided on-screen into chapters as well as by the party Lamidi so desperately wants to run. To avoid spoiling the plot, we will focus on that first chapter.
There is a sharp and powerful contrast throughout All Na Vibes, between the teen drama that is foregrounded by Isaac Ayodeji’s screenplay and the bleak realities of life in Ibadan that stir underneath. The teen drama elements could largely come from anywhere: the leads are all on the cusp of adulthood, considering their futures and under pressure from their parents to make a suitable career choice. Throwing a party is an identifiable goal for anyone who finished high school, and wanted to exit this phase of their lives on a high. Angsting over sexual feelings for classmates, ineptly trying to source drugs, and learning to play and write pop music are all familiar elements and common fodder for teen stories. These scenes are all appealing enough. While not particularly original they do gain a level of frission from the Nigerian context.
That context is what lifts All Na Vibes from a by-the-numbers story to a decent one. A schools strike has left youths out on the street for what seems like months, and with no end in sight. Radio and television broadcasts relate incidents of street violence, riots, and political assassinations. The lead-up to an important election raises tensions across the board. This background is crucial to the film’s success, because it is in that second chapter that the foreground story and background detail collide in catastrophic fashion.
Despite a very low budget, All Na Vibes is well shot and visually interesting. It sparks with inventive shots and framings, and belies its modest scope by hinting at a much larger world just off-screen. Performances vary. None of them are bad, but they range from the powerfully naturalistic to the heightened and theatrical. It does cause some tonal problems: taking Abiola and Sade’s father as an example, they are performed so differently that they feel like they are from different movies. A brief running time helps to keep things moving quickly, although the third act would benefit from slowing the pace down just a little.
This is a small, enjoyable drama that presents global audiences with a valuable insight into Nigerian culture. It is well worth experiencing, not only for Tega Ethan’s strong central performance but also to broaden the viewer’s horizons. The gradual expansion of African cinema into other countries and cultures in a most welcome phenomenon.