J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: Ojuju

There is no greater public health crisis than a zombie apocalypse. In this case, it is directly linked to a contaminated water supply, but high population density, unprotected sex, and some wicked strong weed are also contributing factors. Once infection takes hold, it runs like wildfire through a Lagos slum in C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Ojuju (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

People think Romero (hat tip intentional) is a little strange, because the slacker actually seems to be serious about fulfilling his obligations to his highly pregnant girlfriend, Alero. Nobody is more confused by this then his former hook-up Aisha, but his buddies Emmy and Peju also have a hard time adjusting to his domestic bliss. Alas, it is not to last.

The first victim we see fall prey to the shufflers will be Fela, the local drug dealer, who has been selling some particularly potent product lately. He also samples the wares more than he should, so the strange figure staggering towards him just doesn’t set off the alarm bells it should. Inevitably infected, he and his crony begin the feverish process of transformation, despite the local prostitute’s efforts to care for his mystery illness. Soon, nearly the entire neighborhood except Romero, Emmy, and Peju are part of the shuffling horde. Unfortunately, there are limited egress points for the largely self-contained slum, so getting out of Dodge will be a tricky proposition.

Those who might be expecting the weird Evangelical perspective often reflected in Nollywood films can just forget it. Ojuju will not begrudge its socially disadvantaged characters a little sin while the sinning is good. Everyone tokes up a little to get by, even the incredibly foul-mouthed adolescent known simply as “the Kid.” What really makes the zombie (or ojuju) outbreak so devastating are the hard facts of life in a Nigerian slum. Obasi gives us a vivid sense of what they are like, including the bottleneck exit and the razor wire encircling it.

While Ojuju was obviously shot on a micro-budget, the gritty, low-fi aesthetic nicely suits the zombie genre. Obasi delivers enough gore to mollify genre fans, but the sweaty, claustrophobic vibe is what really generates the mounting dread. He also tacks on a long, almost entirely unrelated coda, but it largely works as a short film in its own right, so just consider it a bonus.

Perhaps Ojuju’s nicest surprise is the ensemble’s professionalism. Ranging from solidly presentable to legitimately polished, they are consistent in a good way, with Gabriel Afolayan and Chidozie Nzeribe particularly intense standouts as Romero and Fela, respectively. Making a virtue of its rough edges, Obasi exceeds expectations for his scrappy upstart zombie film. Recommended for undead fans, Ojuju screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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