The most important question Slow Country poses has to be this: how does one pull off a believable Nollywood action drama on a low budget without adding to the pile of Nollywood misadventures where gunshot sounds that come minutes after the actual gun action has occurred are not out of place. In a film industry accustomed to making lemonades out of bad lemons, Eric Aghimien’s, second full-length action drama – which recently began showing in cinemas across Nigeria – offers a compelling answer.
The film tells the story of Kome and Osas, two lovers separated by teenage pregnancy, and later find themselves. In 2017, most action movies seem less concerned with plot and more concerned with impressive visual effects. However, Aghimien is concerned with a plot that will impress his audience. To do this, he relies on a classic Nollywood formula: two people in love fighting incredible odds to be together, but in his depiction of the dystopia that they fall into, Aghimien creates a remarkable film.
In Slow Country, Aghimien has made a world out of his colourful imagination. The dialogue flows with a street-style lethargy that rings true. Cocaine is called white garri and there is a finger smoothie.
Even the bad guys are vibrant. A rival drug lord called Brasko (Brutus Richard) who ‘kills for less’ and has a soft spot for Kome, is a talisman-loving, Afrocentric hard man complete with a nose ring, He plays mini-golf against the shaggy landscape of the scrap-filled mechanic garage where he hides out.
A lot has been said about Sambassa Nzeribe’s impressive acting, which was validated by his winning Best Actor at the 2017 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA). As Tuvi, Kome’s boss who presides over a prostitution and drug running ring from a night club, he confirms some of the hype. He is so consistently menacing that when Kome warns Osas that ‘Tuvi is a cold-blooded animal’ it does not rely on artifice to carry through.
But, as far as memorable characters in Nollywood go, Nzeribe does not become a definitive villain, even if this is what he is being typecast to be. Before Tuvi, there was Segun Arinze’s Black Arrow in Silent Night. Black Arrow, like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, is still used as the go-to synonym for the unyielding villain/hero in Nollywood.
The main character Kome, played by Ivie Okujaye, is a street-smart, gun savvy, sleep-deprived, but loving mum of one son, and a drug-running sex worker – a different kind of Nollywood female lead. As the favourite of a ruthless pimp, we are shown how exposed and vulnerable she is, but she is never reduced to an object of pity, and no simple redemption is offered as her way out. Okujaye’s realisation of this character is believable and resonant.
Gina Castel, who plays Kome’s sex worker friend Ola, is quite a discovery. In her brief scenes, she manages to become one of the most substantive characters, eclipsing the films’ other minor characters including old-timer Majid Michel, whose attempts to pull off the eccentric detective trope, are a gross miscalculation of what his character, Inspector Dave, is meant to be.
Kome’s ex-lover/baby daddy, Osas, is perhaps the character who threatens to break our suspension of disbelief most. Played by Tope Tedela, he is at the moral core of the movie. It is he who questions Kome’s choices and by extension the upside-down world of Slow Country. But he is more convincing when he is begging to be allowed to be a father to their son than when he is strong-armed into holding a gun to take a man’s life. He inhabits the complexities of this world with an uncertainty that makes it difficult to take him and his loss of innocence seriously.
Old Nollywood References
As problematic as the term ‘new Nollywood’- which often means the dismissal and erasure of the old – can be, it makes no sense to pretend that Slow Country is anything but a product of the new school. But, it still satisfies as an iteration of the Nollywood sex worker story first introduced to a mainstream audience in Domitilla and later, The Prostitute.
Where Domitilla was more concerned with calling prostitution a symptom of urban decay, Slow Country does not care to moralise. Its concerns are more introspective. When Ola says, after a particularly rough night, ‘This ashawo work don tire me,’ it does not indict prostitution as much as it calls attention to the vulnerabilities of being a prostitute in Nigeria.
The references made to the memorable 90s class indictment crime thriller, Silent Night, are noteworthy too. In Silent Night, a mechanic workshop functions as a car smuggling black market for university students turned robbers. In Slow Country, it becomes a more sinister site of drug transactions as well as home to a drug lord.
A Nollywood Thriller that Fails Better
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Slow Country: it is not too precious about its failures. It wants to tell a good story but it does not airbrush the rough edges. A classic eye-roll moment for Nollywood watchers and snobs alike is the ‘female character sleeping with full makeup on’ trope, but in this film, when Kome sleeps with her makeup on, it is at once deliberate and plausible. It is plausible because this is one of the first premonitions we get that she is a sex worker. Deliberate because it seems to ask: how much is your enjoyment of this story affected by its flaws?
To come to this film with an expectation of an action drama with Hollywood’s CGI perfection is to be met with disappointment. The shootout scenes go on for too long with too many awkward pauses and comically bad sequences. Most of the movie unfolds without urgency. Perhaps this is a metaphorical reference to the movie’s title. Or perhaps, the title is simply a nod to the song of the same name by the English virtual band, Gorillaz. But, the whole film is done with so much heart you want to forgive its transgressions.
Making Nollywood films that get the technicalities right is a noble idea but sometimes, making films that stand to the context within which they were made will have to suffice. And in taking on a genre as self-exposing as an action drama, Eric Aghimien makes a monument that may not stand up to criticisms of its form but manages to stay pitch perfect.
By the end of the movie, when Tuvi declares, ‘Love, what a senseless phenomenon,’ even this does not feel like a cheesy thing to say and you want to agree with him. In Slow Country, love is the underdog, so love wins.
Kechi Nomu is a poet and culture writer. Her culture writings have appeared in The Theatre Times, Voices of Africa, open Democracy, OlisaBlogazine, The AWDF Blog and HOLAAfrica! She is a Brunel International African Poetry Prize finalist.