Thunderbolt will come as a bolt out of the blue to most Americans, even aficionados of African cinema. It is one of the best examples of the little-known but burgeoning video industry of Nigeria. Most films in this Library of African Cinema catalog ironically are seen more in the West than in Africa itself. Produced with European government grants and television subsidies, they function as an "art house" cinema independent of any marketplace. Nigerian video, in contrast, is wholly intended for and financed by a mass market. It is estimated that last year alone over 600 feature length videos were produced in Nigeria; one distributor reports selling over 500,000 tapes a year. The new Nigerian video industry is without doubt one of the most vibrant new developments in the world cinema today.
Videos are cheap to produce; with budgets as small as $4,000, shooting rarely lasts more than ten days or two weeks. The break-even point is 10,000 units sold and a successful title can sell over 100,000 copies. Videos sell for between 300 and 400 Naira (US$2.25 - US$3.00). There are over 30 stalls in the Lagos central market devoted to video. The majority of cassettes reportedly are bought by "housewives" affluent enough to afford a VCR. The poorer majority of Nigerians sees these productions in video theatres, originally little more than a spare room in someone's house but with the advent of video projection, discrete facilities.
Given the conditions of their production, it is hardly surprising that what results is hastily produced, inexpensive popular entertainment rather than art films. Most titles are heavily influenced by soap opera and focus on the Lagos elite, simultaneously ogling their material success while deploring their corruption. Infidelity and magic figure prominently often together. Thunderbolt rises above these by attempting to treat a political theme - national unity -important unfinished business for Nigeria in the aftermath of the brutal Civil War of the 1960s.
The first half of the film is in a sense a retelling of the Othello story - except the protagonists are not Abyssinian and Venetian but Yoruba and Ibo. Yinka and Ngozi met in the National Youth Service Corps; Ngozi is finishing her stint as a teacher in a village while Yinka already works as a construction engineer in a nearby city. The seeds of jealousy are planted when a friend of Yinka, like Iago in the Shakespeare play, suggests that Ngozi is having a secret affair because "Ibo are untrustworthy." Adding to Yinka's suspicions, Ngozi has recently inherited some money and so is a financially independent woman. In this half, as in the Shakespeare play or any standard Western melodrama, the action is propelled entirely by psychological motivations.
In the second half of the film a distinctly West African emphasis on the supernatural comes to the fore; curses and ritual cleansing take the place of psychological explanations. An old man (possibly the spirit of her grandmother) warns Ngozi that her death is imminent and will strike her like a thunderbolt. We later learn that Yinka has placed the curse of magun upon her, a curse reserved for those suspected of infidelity. Magun is described as "African AIDS"; any man who has sex with a woman infected with it will die - but not before crowing like a rooster, doing somersaults or vomiting blood. On the other hand if the woman does not have sex within nine weeks she will die. It is interesting how some knowledge of AIDS transmission seems to have been appropriated into popular folk beliefs.
Despite her skepticism Ngozi undergoes a long and painful treatment by a herbalist. This introduces a subsidiary theme in the film - the efficacy of traditional African medicine. A scene is interposed where a doctor scandalizes his colleagues by suggesting that the West has been arrogant in rejecting the wisdom of traditional healers. As the time for Ngozi's death approaches, neither her husband nor an old lover can be induced to have sex with her. She finally convinces Dimeji, a doctor who had previously offended her with his advances. He is immediately stricken and only saved by the herbalist. Ngozi and Dimeji are reconciled and will apparently become a couple and live happily ever after - despite her former antipathy and marriage. Ironically the curse has forced Ngozi to become what she was falsely accused of being - an adulteress - yet this is certainly poetic justice for the perfidious Yinka. Dimeji says he hopes Ngozi will not think all Yoruba men are cads; she replies with the moral of the story: "there are only two tribes, good and bad people."
The emergence of a vital and prolific popular cinema in Nigeria could be regarded as an important African response to the encroachment of Western pop culture in this age of global information flows. On the other hand Nigerian video films, perhaps inevitably, reflect some of the less attractive features of post-colonial society. There is a fetishism of material prosperity often in imitation of Europe and America; Westernization seen through African eyes. And one can't help wondering what the public health impact of validating traditional over Western medicine might be in a continent fighting the AIDS epidemic. An indigenous popular cinema will inevitably transmit and reinforce the priorities and beliefs of the society that finances it. An art cinema based in essentially non-profit filmmaking, on the other hand, can risk interrogating that society's values and suggesting alternatives. Nigerian cinema may soon face the same problem confronted by the U.S.: how to nurture and finance a non-commercial cinema, which can act as a critique and complement to its commercial counterpart.
Much of the information in these notes is taken from a posting by Steve Smith of Development for Self-Reliance (DSR) and Brian Larkin's article "Video Awudjo!" written for the 2001 New York African Film Festival screenings of Nigerian and Ghanaian cinema (www.africanfilmny.org.)
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"What come through in this truly remarkable Pan-Nigerian film engaging issues of ethnicity, gender, culture and identity are, Kelani's faith in humanity, a pluralistic view of 'nation' and sensitivity to areas of ambiguity around the existing paradigm of 'scientific' knowledge."
Jude G. Akudinobi, University of California, Santa Barbara
"A simple and edifying story immersing us in a culture of strong values, hard realities and contradictions. Truly epitomizes the new African videos - the "first cinema' of the anglophone region."
N. Frank Ukadike, Tulane University
"If the continuous laughter and cheering of our diverse New York audiences is any indication, this film has true international appeal."
Mahen Bonetti, New York African Film Festival
"Interweaving inter-ethnic romance with betrayal, magic and traditional medicine, Thunderbolt combines the cultural pride of classic African cinema with the melodrama of popular Nigerian video. Kelani, one of Nigeria's best known directors, has brought the technical quality of African cinema to Nigerian video."