Zina Saro-Wiwa’s ‘Phyllis’ and the subversion of Nollywood cinema

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s “alt-Nollywood” short film, Phyllis, is one of the weirder fifteen minutes of film I’ve seen in some time. “Using Nollywood to subvert Nollywood,” it is an atmospheric, impressionistic, and haunting film, chronicling Phyllis’s emotional states as she takes the wigs that form such a huge part of her identity on and off. 

A surname like Saro-Wiwa brings a certain set of expectations which Zina wisely avoids throughout her work. And while I originally thought she might be benefiting from her name, this is a unique and engaging film that’ll throw you for a loop as you watch. Experimental and unrelenting, it relies heavily on its soundtrack, juxtaposing empty space and powerful heartbeat thumps against popular songs from both the West and Nigeria. When Phyllis puts her wig on, everything is cool, and we’re eased into a more typically Nollywood film vibe. But when she takes her wigs off, her eyes roll back into her head, and as viewers, we’re reeling along with Phyllis as she descends into the emptiness of her wiglessness.

As Saro-Wiwa explained in an interview with Christian Niedan over at Camera in the Sun, there’s a “syntheticness of Nollywood that I’m appalled by, but also attracted to. I want to represent that, so I invented this character through which I could express my love and hate and fear and loathing of the syntheticness of Nigeria and this practice of wig-wearing… ultimately, Phyllis represents the gap between our true essence and the plasticity… she is ultimately doomed to a cycle of longing and short-term satisfaction. But people read all sorts of things into Phyllis, and she means different things to different people. I am totally open to interpretation of what this film means. I’m not even sure I know what the film fully means. And I made it…”

The film closes with a particularly unsettling gothic image that reaffirms the fact that this is not your typical Nollywood film — not by a long shot. And though Zina approaches Nollywood from the perspective of an insider-outsider, having lived in the UK and worked for the BBC, that’s a welcome development that more homegrown Nollywood filmmakers would do well to emulate.

The film was originally part of the “Sharon Stone in Abuja” exhibit that went up at Location One Gallery in Manhattan in November 2010. It is now being shown as part of Video Slink Uganda, an exhibition in New York City of a run of experimental films on video culture.

Watch it here.

2 thoughts on “Zina Saro-Wiwa’s ‘Phyllis’ and the subversion of Nollywood cinema

  1. I saw this film as part of the VideoSlink event at Tilapia in Kampala, Uganda. The concept of the show was to dub artists video in Luganda like many other foreign films are here. Quite interesting to read that the film is ‘heavily reliant on soundtrack’ an aspect that was completely lost as part of that screening.

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