In November 2018, a trailer was released in the Nollywood film space, a character played by Zainab Balogun parks her car on 3rd mainland bridge, climbs over the rail and then lets gravity do its thing. It stirred debates in WhatsApp groups and the Twitterverse, Did she really jump? How did they pull it off? What else does the film have to offer?
The Film, God Calling(2018) directed by Bibi Sasore who helmed Banana Island Ghost(2017). By it’s December release viewers watched a film about a crisis of faith when disaster strikes on the doorstep, It’s one of the 1st faith films made by new generation Nollywood filmmaker released theatrically.
Faith Films are not new to Nigeria, Mike Bamiloye through his Mount Zion outfit has made evangelical films for over a decade, most famously the “Agbara Nla” films which thrilled, called to repentance and gave sleepless nights to many Nigerians. These films sold on VHS were almost guaranteed to be found in any Christian home in the 90s.
Unfortunately Christian films worldwide set in modern times have been known to be cheesy, with low production value, bad writing and poor acting, usually, with non-actors, every scene is essentially a sermon and screen storytelling is secondary or an afterthought. Little wonder even Christians avoided them for years. Many of these films were directed and produced by people who weren’t filmmakers but evangelicals and pastors seeking to pass a message.
The period films fared better, like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ which stood out from every other film made about Jesus over the decades. It was one of the best films of the year, heavily supported by churches around the world making $611,899,420 at the box office on a $30m budget, personally financed by Gibson. Making it one of the most successful independent films in modern cinema history.
With a supposedly 50% Christian population, if there is a potential demographic for Christian centred films, Nigeria is it.
But just as people don’t like being battered over the head with social or political messages in NGO sponsored films, even Church folk generally don’t like a sermon in their movies. A story should not take a backseat to a message or any sort of agenda, a well-told story will resonate and permeate.
Audiences worldwide connected with Luke Skywalker, Neo, Frodo Baggins, John Q, Erin Brokovich etc because of their journey and through them we learned powerful lessons to apply in our own lives. Some secular films have taught a lot about faith and hope embraced by viewers.
A secular film American Christians embraced in the 90s was The Shawshank Redemption(1994). The thematic thread of the film “Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free” was illustrated in the resilience of Andy Dufrense who despite all odds, unjustified imprisonment, was a positive influence on the other prisoners as a beacon of hope and strength of the human spirit. Many American Church folks saw him as a Christ allegory causing many to reexamine the trials and suffering in their life and find meaning.
Hacksaw Ridge(2016) also directed by Mel Gibson tells the true story of Pfc. Desmond Doss a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon while serving on the front lines of a brutal war. Despite the persecution and hostility he stuck to his belief, saved many lives and was later awarded the Medal of Honour the first won by a conscientious objector. It’s one of the few positive and inspiring portrayals of a Christian in any Hollywood studio film, one that even agnostics and atheists could find little to object. Giving credence to the saying, “Your life is the only Bible, some people will ever read”
This is a more effective path which doesn’t make viewers throw up defences or cringe where every scene or line of dialogue feels shoehorned for an altar call.
Faith films don’t have to sermonize to effectively reach the audience – The protagonist, mentor, supporting character who is living out their faith through the worldview of their creed, learning lessons, overcoming odds in a conventional hero’s journey or fish out of water story will be compelling. Their challenges, struggles, trials and strength of character through it all. This is why the lives of Moses, Joseph, Daniel, David and other heroes of the Bible remain resonant and inspiring 2000+ years later.
With Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) church-going population, well-told faith films made as well and better than secular commercial films they already love is a huge market.
“God Calling” was an interesting effort and hopefully a catalyst to many stories by the new generation of Nigerian filmmakers. Films which inspire faith, hope, tenacity, the strength of character and fortitude in the face of trials, unjustified and unfair treatment are necessary.
In a country like Nigeria, we certainly need more of those.