Rather than taking the route of ‘is-this-film-Nollywood-or-not’, I’ll take a minute to consider ‘Phone Swap’ on its own merits. The context of Nollywood can help us recognise many of the tropes and comic structures in the film (read more about this here), but as the movement of ‘New Nigeria Cinema’ tries to distance itself from many of the things associated with that industry, perhaps reviewers should try and follow their lead.
There is nothing strikingly original about the plot itself – a classic mistaken identity tale that sets up a dynamic contrast between the city and the village, following the characters as they overcome new obstacles and begin to realise the need for change in their lives. What makes the plot engaging in this particular film are the performances from its all-star cast, and a visual range in its cinematography that allows us to see more of Nigeria than any claustrophobic Nollywood film could ever hope to do. Nse Ikpe-Etim plays the indecisive character of Mary, a dressmaker in Lagos who needs to return to the village near Owerri to sort out a family problem. Her simultaneous sense of warmth and vulnerability is set against the stubbornness of Akin, the man with whom she accidentally exchanges phones.
One could almost watch the film for Ikpe-Etim’s outfits alone – the striking colours and patterns of the fabric creating an effective visual motif that enhances the overall cinematography of the film.
Those of you used to seeing Wale Ojo as the often absurd character of Bayo in Meet the Adebanjos will struggle to recognise him as the stern, career-oriented professional Akin in Phone Swap. Ojo definitely impresses with his versatility as an actor in taking up this role, and manages to balance the austere qualities of Akin’s character with a sense of compassion.
But for me, the most funny and entertaining performance is by Hafiz Oyetoro who plays Akin’s assistant Alex. With no qualms about accepting bribes from his boss’s mother and girlfriend, Alex’s character exists in a fine balance between subservient and sneaky that is pure pleasure to watch.
This film has some great moments in it, and deserves to be enjoyed by a big audience on a big screen. By taking the approach of high-budget, theatrical release for this film (in contrast to the production and distribution models that have dominated Nigerian cinema over the last twenty years or so) it was necessary for Afolayan to source corporate funding. Although the BlackBerry product placement can be distracting at times, overall it seems like a small concession for the sake of producing a film of such high quality.
The Q&A session that followed Saturday’s screening generated some exciting discussions about the Nigerian film industry (some of which were continuations of the issues raised in the Nollywood event at Africa Utopia earlier this year).
This film is part of the BFI’s African Odyssey’s programme and the Film Africa 2012 festival.