In 2017, Tochi and Ebele Anueyiagu began documenting the most iconic looks and moments in Nigerian film history, carving out spaces for that national cinema’s resurgence and rediscovery through their project Nolly Babes, an ode to Nollywood’s female stars and contributors, both everyday and iconic. “My sister and I grew up in Lagos,” Tochi tells me. “We moved to the states in our early teens. In the early 2000s, on screen we were seeing white-centric work. Nothing on TV represented us. When we got our hair done in Atlanta, we’d watch these [Nollywood] movies. As we began to get older, we realized that a lot of this imagery was iconic. We wanted to capture them and put them together.”
This weekend, the Nolly Babes Film Festival is held at Anthology Film Archives in collaboration with Alfreda’s Cinema, the name under which Melissa Lyde has been programming films of the African diaspora across New York theaters since 2015. While Nollywood cinema has a considerable cult following in the U.S., Lyde and the Anueyiagu sisters agree that there is still much to be discovered. “Not many of the films are preserved. It was almost impossible to find these films,” Lyde says. “They were almost entirely unavailable. Nolly Babes had the DVDs and an amazing digital archive.”
The processes of assemblage and creative documentation are central to both the Nolly Babes and Alfreda Cinema projects, which revive interest in films that have been routinely ignored or erased by the broader culture industry. Their collaboration enacts the entrepreneurial and creative values found in the production and original distribution of the films they screen. Nollywood films provide portrayals of Nigerian life, and particularly the lives of women, that demand attention. “In a lot of cinema, ” Lyde says, “women’s survival is based on men; their roles are utilitarian, providing a living for their family. These characters [of Nollywood cinema] are scorned women. These films show an unfolding prosperity gospel—one that doesn’t leave the women on top, but still tends to their creative wealth that’s promised via sex.”
Runs (2002), one of four films screening at the festival, features several major Nollywood stars, including the iconic Geneveive Nnaji. The directors, Tarila Thompson and Elochukwu Anigbogu, unfold a story of four friends navigating their desires amidst the harrowing pitfalls of the international sex work industry: Adesuwa, Nene, Victoria, and Grace attend school and live together; all except Grace are involved in the “runs” to fund their university tuition. Advised by her aunt before she moved to Lagos (“Sex can be sweet—very, very sweet—but it can also destroy you.”), Grace takes on a protective, even preaching role, trying to talk the others out of their line of work.
While the characters’ womanhood is clearly defined by their relationship to cash, the filmmakers maintain their complexity, making use of flashbacks to elaborate on the reasons for their firm decision. For Nene, who has a history of sexual assault, the runs are about taking control over her body. Having found her fiancé cheating on her, Victoria argues that men are only good for making money. After Adesuwa’s father passed away, she was determined to find creative ways to support her glamorous lifestyle. Family members, friends, and boyfriends question the troupe about their plans to pursue their trade in Italy, yet the women develop an even more solid collective stance: they have big plans for their well-earned money, and “sex is sex.”
Runs delivers details of the sex trafficking industry—the choreography and caretaking between the friends; the flamboyance and grandiloquence of the matriarch; the negotiations between the women and the rich middle-aged men who patronize them; the extortion of their financier. The film resists the temptation to deal in consumptive sex scenes. Instead, it stays with the relational story, grounded in the letters that arrive at Grace's office desk. We’re left with the realistic images of friends and family who make sense of what they learn through the journeys of their loved ones.
In Tchidi Chikere’s Blood Sister (2003), an Igbo film, Nnaji appears again as Esther, who cunningly, brilliantly, and hilariously sabotages her older sister, from girlhood through adolescence. Her pranks build in severity toward a piercing image of sisterhood and betrayal. Chekeri illustrates their lopsided rivalry with moments of visual repetition: the sisters often wear the same blouse or skirt as one scorns the other. When Gloria attempts a consolatory conversation with Esther, she does so on a twin-sized bed in their shared room. The choreography of their bodies in the fight that ensues—arms entangled, a pillow in Esther’s face, their fray reflected in the bedside mirror—is strikingly intimate, contrasting with Esther’s ethos of pure destruction elsewhere.
Esther is so consistently unlikeable, bordering on evil, that she almost turns the corner. I caught myself wanting her to change. As viewers, we’re the only witness to Esther’s lies; Gloria is committed to the illusion of loyalty. Joined in secrecy to Esther, we’re driven to question our own relationship to her instincts: Where do we find resonance in Esther’s brutality toward her own kin? By the end, Esther is sprawled out in her sister’s home, as if this space was a debt she was owed. Enclosed in the film is a forbidden kind of liberation: although one may fall in love, love doesn’t replace money and ascendance. In her continued resistance to social enclosure and traditional roles, Esther represents her image, her life, as one created very much for herself and her own pleasure.
“Growing up, Nollywood films were considered low-brow bad taste if you enjoyed them,” Tochi says. “To some extent, filmmakers were just churning out content. But there’s something to appreciate in the many different portrayals of women: power houses in political scenes, juggernauts, power narratives. At the end of the movie, women may burn in the pits of fire, and it’s still a patriarchal narrative— but we still get real portrayals of women.”
When the Anueyiagu sisters visit Nigeria, they return with DVDs in their suitcases. The itinerant Alfreda’s Cinema is seeking a permanent home for its programming. Lyde founded Alfreda's for Black people looking for Black life on screen. “White audiences weren’t always interested in seeing Black films,” she says. “There was a dark cloud around Black cinema. And it didn't sell. . . . When I started this, I didn't know what I was doing. I’m creating because I have to. Working with Nolly Babes goes back to the same basic concept of ingenuity: they’re making waves.”
The Nolly Babes Film Festival continues this evening and tonight, November 12, at Anthology Film Archives.