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Oris Aigbokhaevbolo: CJ Obasi’s ‘O-Town’ is Overindulgent but Brilliant

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o-town-poster-2In O-Town, director CJ Obasi proves he is his own greatest subject. His earlier film was a zombie flick. Perhaps awed by the audacity of the endeavour, prize juries handed him awards. This time he has helmed a gangster story set in Southeast Nigeria. The town is O-Town, a lightly fictionalised version of Owerri, the filmmaker’s childhood city. By his own admission, the events covered are semi-autobiographical. Given the film’s violence, hopefully, this admission means what he observed rather than what he lived.

O-Town follows small time hustler Peace, who has quite the ambition: he wants to be head of the streets. ‘You want to be me,’ the street kingpin Chairman (played with relish by Kalu Ikeagwu) tells him when they meet. Paul Utomi as Peace is convincing, his face dark and hard for the role, so that his smile and open mouth cast an immediate relief against the rest of his face. Onscreen he is lean and lightly muscular and commands a presence that makes Peace believable in anger and in anguish. The camera has a lot of fun with the man’s face. Peace has a run-in with an artist known as The Artist. The Artist comes out poorly and seeks revenge. The trouble, however, is that Peace has formed an alliance with The Chairman. From that point onward there is big trouble for all involved, as vengeance, counter-vengeance and ambition all come to play in a small town.

This is good enough to establish a gangster story but it’s insufficient for Obasi. He is a lover of excess and although this is unmistakably a Nigerian film, Obasi is working from a rich template of American gangster/mobster movies. Brain DePalma’s Scarface, Coppola’s Godfather, Reservoir Dog-era Tarantino. And as such he has his characters speak near-perfect ‘American’. Many of his major characters carry no regional accent although they all have the small-town malady of thinking highly of personal slights. A small injustice is made larger when everyone and their mother knows you. Add the regular aggression of gangsters and this provides the motivation for all of the violence that shows up in O-Town. The political ramifications for such a film at this time in Nigeria’s history is anyone’s guess. And at the premiere of the film at the Africa international Film Festival, an actor expressed worry: what if this film is shown abroad?

It can’t be pretty for foreign audiences with a certain view of Nigeria. And yet, that is an extra-cinematic concern, at least for Obasi whose focus is what is on the screen. For him the screen is a mirror, not for his face but for his fantasies. Credit to him, he gives his characters the first two acts.
But he interrupts the third, tarnishing his own effort with narcissism, imposing himself on his characters. (A character is actually named Fiery, the director’s nickname.) It is not the first time an artist kills his demons while his audience watches helplessly but it’s probably the first time it is done accompanied by some inane, incoherent philosophy delivered by a voice over. This is the trouble with mavericks, they have a need to push their own agenda without creative assistance. (Obasi writes and directs.)

Before we get to that third act, though, Obasi has served a praiseworthy lesson in manipulating the elements, which is still a feat in Nollywood; transferring what he’s learned from other films and their cinematography; and being badass and knowing it. He uses light and shade brilliantly and deftly employs black humour, a quirk that connects his film to Kenneth Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa.

Obasi, it becomes apparent, is convinced of his own brilliance and wants you to know it. Unfortunately, the cinema culture of his immediate audience isn’t as sophisticated to see that beneath the scenic superfluity and indulgent stylisations of O-Town, is the work of an inventive filmmaker, one with a clear sense of what he wants onscreen and the means to achieving same. There are coloured lights, singing monologues, and layered flashbacks. If Obasi considered his audience, he never shows it. For the two hours our director is bent on his vision not once does he look over his shoulder to see if anyone is following—does he even care? His audience, he supposes, is as cinematically learned as he is. And if not, too bad for them. While this may be a sign of dedication, it is also a symptom of self-absorption. (O-Town could easily mean Obasi-Town.) He seems unaware that a projection of his grandeur will break his own heart because anyone erecting monuments to his own intelligence and learning is certain to be disappointed when no one else agrees with the self-assessment, or worse: when everyone else is indifferent.

When that heartbreak comes, his directing peers won’t protect him. Why? Because he has made a movie they don’t love in a manner they would love to adapt. The industry has broken a few of our younger filmmakers and now they have to make films assured of a return—which in practice means art on a financier’s whims. Following his own vision, Obasi has made O-Town in a style his contemporaries might wish they could adapt, if only to input their own idiosyncrasy. But then they want to continue making movies easily—a detail that means they have to follow the market.

What does this mean for Obasi? Again, heartbreak. He’ll be acclaimed for his hyper-stylised filmmaking, for the breadth of his self-conscious references, and for his bravado but he’ll hardly earn a living off it. As our director himself has admitted, he couldn’t convert the goodwill and good reviews of his earlier film Ojuju into funding for O-Town. Eventually, he pulled it off, excesses and all, with what looks like an extremely low budget. Yet he has made a good film, cutting out his flamboyance and a hunk of screen time.

In succeeding despite constraints, Obasi proves he is tenacious, a quality required for artists in this clime. And his talent is obvious from the film itself. Talent and tenacity he has; subtract his excesses and we have a fine filmmaker. One that, barring extreme fortune, is destined for heartbreak, but also one for whom a level of greatness is within reach.

That is enough reason to watch this filmmaker. Start by seeing O-Town. Maybe twice.

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a critic and essayist. His writing on film, books and music appear in The Guardian UK and The Africa Report. He mentored critics at the Durban Film Festival and has attended critic academies in Germany and Holland.In 2015, Aigbokhaevbolo became the first ever winner of the Music/Entertainment Journalist of the Year award (AFRIMA). He tweets @catchoris.

11 Comments

  1. Truth be told

    November 22, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Let thunder fire the critic that dared to compare this film to Confusion na wa. I am glad I watched it for free at Afriff

    • Tosin

      November 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

      I still haven’t seen Confusion Na Wa. Who do I have to sug to get them bytes?

  2. O-town supporter

    November 23, 2015 at 3:16 am

    i think you are too harsh! haba. film is an expression of arts…Love it or hate it….

  3. Dada

    November 23, 2015 at 4:26 am

    There was nothing brilliant about this film. The style you so highly praise was sloppy at best. What is bad is bad. This was a bad film, from the pretentious and characters story, the terribly misplaced accents, to the director’s lack of disciple. Stop encouraging bad filmmaking please. And to blame criticism by his peers on envy is just petty. Different opinions about the same piece of work can and will continue exist. The industry will never grow if we cannot speak honestly about people’s work.

  4. Simon Says

    November 23, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Thought the main character’s name was Peace not Chris??? But good review. Its the first time I’ve seen a director insert himself in his own movie as a sort of “deus ex machina” something to save the movie. Its so meta!

  5. Tosin

    November 23, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Who wrote this? You excite me. I’m now feeling like Naija film is moving into that next great season.
    Who made this film? You excite me too. From the little I see, this is not my genre, though I would not mind seeing it, maybe, someday. And from the little I’ve read, you should make an adaptation of “I Do Not Come To You By Chance” omg great material.

    • Tosin

      November 23, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      Now I’ve read the whole thing. Someone needs to grab this film and Confusion Na Wa and ask me on a film-and-gist date.

  6. Naija film lover

    November 24, 2015 at 8:07 am

    This O-Town was a total waste of time, complete crap! I don’t understand how so much effort will be put into portraying our beloved Owerri in such derogatory light, bia CJ are you sure you are really Igbo? As your work doesn’t show you have a good Igbo background, and the worse part your arrogance during the question and answer session just showed you are not well brought up. If you are indeed a properly trained Igbo boy you will know you accept mistakes and move on rather than try to defend foolishness, if you think your film is great with all the swear words, bad casting, terrible story line then don’t show it publicly, play it for only you and your wife at home

    • Film Junkie No.1

      November 24, 2015 at 2:51 pm

      LOL! Sounds like someone pissed in your akamu! What are you really angry about? Obviously you watched the film free of charge during the screening at AFRIFF, so is it that you would prefer that the filmmaker portray your version of “igboness” in an Owerri that’s devoid of gangsters and swear words? Or that what you perceive as arrogance was merely the filmmaker’s awareness that art is subjective and ppl will take from it what they bring in, which for you was a rigid stance on who should make films and what those films should be about? Guy, park well. If you don’t like it, go and make your own film about Owerri where the sun is always shining, everyone has proper home training, and when ppl mess it smells like roses! Mtchewww!

  7. Bukola!

    November 29, 2015 at 4:38 am

    I think this movie is too dynamic for most viewers.
    The story has a serious tone. Gangster films have a serious tone. But the script managed to incorporate elements of comedies. The Artiste was a clown!
    The story touches a bit on controversy…and controversy sells, any day. First, you would wonder if the story tends to portray gangsterism, violence and dope dealing as cool. People would talk about stuff like this. Then there’s the issue of Fiery, The Disposer. If Fiery is a killer, people would wonder; on what moral ground does he stand to put other sinners/killers to death. Controversy, controversy.

  8. UNCLE CHIN-CHIN

    December 6, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    This movie is one of the best in recent time .CJ took his time to make it a successful one, don’t ask me how. I’m also a cast. Thumbs-u CJ OBASI

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