It is safe to say that these Nigerian filmmakers exploring political stories are mostly interested in capturing the violence and the apparent aesthetics of the brutality associated with Nigerian politics.
By Seyi Lasisi
When the two brothers, Tekena (Obinna Ekenwa) and Olotu (Sylvester Ekanem), two defiant lovers, Abbey (Daniel Ezekiel) and Oyinbrakemi (Adaobi Dibor), and activist duo, Boma (Jide Kene Achufusi) and Degbe (Levi Chikere), become stowaways by circumstance in Blood Vessel, one quote comes mind: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – an excerpt from “Home”, a poem by Somali-British writer and poet, Warsan Shire. This competent line carries the numbing feeling of fear and uncertainty about the future, one that people forced to leave their communities or countries sometimes carry with heavy hearts.
In the opening scene of this Moses Inwang-directed thriller, there is an attractive vibrant tone which becomes subdued with an air of gloom. Guided by a captivating voiceover, Blood Vessel informs viewers of how Nembe, a once thriving oil-rich community, is slowly losing its children and means of livelihood to the lethal drilling activities of Axis Oil Company. Boma, Degbe, and other disgruntled youths protest against these explorations in a bid to reduce the environmental crisis killing their people. As the protest continues, there is bedlam in the atmosphere, with shots fired here, arrests made there, and a soldier losing his life. Amid the chaos, elsewhere, Abbey and Oyinbrakemi (Oyins) are fighting an internal war. Ebere (Bimbo Manuel), Oyin’s father, is determined to shatter his daughter’s blossoming bond with Abbey. Away from the tension and love affair in the Nembe community, we find Tekena and Olotu, two brothers who are compelled to leave their community in search of comfort in Europe. At first clueless about each other’s stories, these characters – activists, lovers, and migrants – will eventually bond as stowaways in Igor’s (Alex Cyr Budin) ship.
Written by Musa Jeffrey David, the film follows a recognisable pattern. Nigerian filmmakers, now fascinated and seemingly concerned about the political tension in the country, are creating films and series that address variant political and historical issues in Nigeria. Blood Vessel tows similar lines as Gangs of Lagos (2023), Collision Course (2021), Dark October (2023), and The Black Book (2023), although with different vision and filmmaking sensibilities. These films are united as cinematic offerings geared towards understanding the political situation in Nigeria. Here, Blood Vessel, produced by Charles Okpaleke of Play Network Africa, chooses to explore the trauma caused by oil spillage in the oil-rich areas of Nigeria. While this is a noble cause, the film gradually loses grip of the charged political tone it began with in the opening scenes. Thus, with its political voice now muted, the film tumbles into the same hole as its other predecessors.
It is safe to say that these Nigerian filmmakers exploring political stories are mostly interested in capturing the violence and the apparent aesthetics of the brutality associated with Nigerian politics. Thought-provoking discussions which should push the depth of the films are absent. In Blood Vessel, the environmental crisis prevalent in the community and the neo-capitalist orientation of Axis Oil Company don’t get enough attention. To conclude my lengthy tirade, Blood Vessel sacrifices historical and political relevance for mere entertainment when both can peacefully coexist. Take Tunde Kelani’s Saworoide (1999), which finds a comforting balance between intellectual discussion and entertainment, as a classic model. The film, through meticulous use of characters, articulates its political intentions.
Blood Vessel tries passably to weave African mythology, Africa’s history of slavery, and the continent’s present social issues into a coherent whole. It relies on using the Izon language and a metaphor-heavy South-South variation of Nigerian Pidgin English to ease viewers into other Nigerian indigenous languages. This language choice arguably elevates the cinematic experience for speakers of the language who come into the film with a sense of familiarity and bonding. The poetic street argot, which is prominently used by Degbe and Boma, might elude the understanding of certain viewers. Still, you would register its calm embrace in your auditory sense.
Another identifiable trend Blood Vessel follows is the casting of new and seemingly obscure actors. The Kunle Afolayan-directed Ijogbon (2023) is memorable for Kayode Ojuolape and Oluwaseyi Ebiesuwa’s acting. Linda Ikeji’s Dark October introduced the mainstream Nollywood audience to the acting skills of Chuks Joseph, who also gives a memorable and believable performance in the Jay Franklyn Jituboh-directed The Origin: Madam Koi Koi (2023).
While the film gradually loses the tense and urgent atmosphere the opening scenes have created, and at a different point lags, the actors maintain the pace of their performance. As the film moves in and out of dissonance and towards inertia, Daniel Ezekiel’s acting revives it. Ezekiel’s calm disposition perfectly masks his lurking intrepid intentions, a veneer demeanour which Igor will perceive as fragility and benignness. Adaobi Dibor’s acting carries the sense of feebleness and dependency required of her character. Generally, the Nigerian casts give commendable performances, but the same cannot be said for the international cast, with Alex Cyr Budin leading the pack. Placed in the same scene with Ezekiel and other Nigerian cast, there is often something displaced about his and other international actors’ performances.
Nollywood films and series on movie streaming services are following a commendable yet dangerous pattern: these productions have a grand debut, garner attention from local and global audiences, and top charts of different countries and continents outside Nigeria and Africa. Market-wise, these numbers give stakeholders the confidence to invest in more Nigerian productions, which means more growth for the blossoming film industry. Blood Vessel, like its predecessors such as The Black Book, Jagun Jagun, and Ijogbon, has earned itself a place as one of the Nollywood films, on Netflix that has gone global. Only three days after its debut on the streaming service, the film has attracted 2.4 million viewing hours. On the flip side, the longevity of these productions is minimal, and days, weeks, or a few months after their successful run on the streaming platform, they fizzle out of existence, with the replay value reducing as they age on the platform. But, hurray! Nollywood is slowly taking over the world!
(Blood Vessel is currently streaming on Netflix)
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how they align with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex. Email: email@example.com.