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by Jay Seaver

"Welcome to Nollywood; hope you get out alive."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Ojuju" is a zombie film from Nigeria, and there can be very little doubt that its place of origin is the most notable thing about it. Horror fans have seen this sort of movie a lot, usually done much better, and only in part because filmmakers in Lagos don't necessarily have a lot to work with. That said, curiosity is a valid reason to watch this, and in some ways this sort of genre film may be a way to soften expectations when dipping one's toe into an incredibly fast-growing cinematic scene.

It starts with a couple of weed dealers (Chidozie Nzeribe & Brutus Richard) shooting the breeze, at least until some guy looking really sick comes stumbling toward them and... Well, guess. After that, we meet Romero (Gabriel Afolayan), trying to be a better man now that his girlfriend-he-doesn't-wear-a-condom-with Alero (Meg Otanwa) is pregnant, although Aisha (Yvonne Enakhena) still flirts with him, Alero's friend Peju (Omowunmi Dada) doesn't trust him, and buddy Emeka (Kelechi Udegbe) still talks to him like he's a stoner. Today, the subject is how something really weird seemed to be going on at Fela's house - Fela being one of the two from earlier.

Lots of people make zombie movies when working on tight budgets and with limited resources; if you want to make a film that people will watch, it's an achievable goal and the basics are known to work. Give writer/director/editor/producer C.J. "Fiery" Obasi some credit for seeing it as a great fit for this setting and working to make it be a bit more than the undead in Nigeria, though: He explicitly connects his plague with the dismal supplies of clean water in his country, and sets the film in a slum whose one entrance/exit and barbed wire walls makes for both practical containment and symbolic import. Not only is food and clean water in short supply, but meat is specifically mentioned as something very hard to come by, an ironic early request by many characters early on. There's meaning to this take on a familiar situation.

Unfortunately, while Obasi seems to have plenty of ambition and ideas beyond churning out genre product, he and his crew are still pretty rough in terms of the practical matters of shooting a film and cutting it together. There are lots of moments when the camera will be out of focus just long enough for it not to feel like an artistic choice, or where scenes are just too long and focused on something that never feels like more than a side note. Action direction almost always seems to be built around what can't be done rather than what can, and the scenes of the "ojuju" meandering through the slum are extended enough to lose the audience, especially since the ojuju all acting differently can feel more like the extras not being on the same page than everyone suffering from a disease differently. It's not the complete disaster one often sees from complete amateurs trying to make a feature, but it feels very much like the work of self-taught people still in the process of gaining experience.

The same can be said of the cast - there aren't a lot of folks here that you could easily pluck from Nollywood and immediately drop into a big American production - although you can see potential there too. Gabriel Afolayan is a nice, grounded center for much of the movie as Romero, and Kelechi Udegbe plays well off him as the joking Emeka. Yvonne Enakhena and Meg Otanwa play simple characters, but all right with them. Omowunmi Dada seems to have real potential as Peju; she seems fairly capable of whatever Obasi throws at her and has that little extra jolt of charisma that makes her stand out just a bit more in her scenes.

So, even though everything from the gore to the acting is probably in the lower percentiles if you compare "Ojuju" to the flood of movies in its genre from all around the world, there's potential here, and it's maybe worth a bit of attention even for those who aren't sticking pins in a horror movie world map. Nigeria, after all, is pumping out a lot of movies that are developing a following all across Africa; fans of world cinema are going to have to start paying attention to Nollywood soon. "Ojuju" is one of the first chances to do so, and it will be interesting to see where things evolve from here.

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originally posted: 07/22/15 15:07:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi

Written by
  C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi

  Gabriel Afolayan
  Kelechi Udegbe
  Omowunmi Dada

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