It stands to reason that in a country where life expectancy is 55 years, every minute counts. And I’ve just wasted 128 minutes watching Swallow. So, if I die before 55 years, look no further than Mr. Afolayan and Netflix. Both have conspired to abbreviate my life through the malicious purloining of 128 minutes.
Look, I’m pissed. Really pissed. I had high expectations. This was no random guy making a movie. This was Kunle Afolayan. The Kunle Afolayan. The guy who gave us The Figurine, Irapada, Roti and October 1. I don’t care what you lot think, but he is the best storyteller in Nigeria in the modern era. His plots are riveting and his appreciation for craft is unmatched.
And he teamed up with Netflix. The Netflix. The Two Popes, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Roma and Marriage Story. That Netflix. You can therefore understand why I expect Swallow to be awesome.
I was quite excited that Swallow was not going to be a series. I don’t like series much. The first series I ever saw was The Crown. Followed by The Queen’s Gambit. Since then I’ve seen Amend, Lupin and Clickbait. I can tolerate limited series if the first two episodes pique and sustain my interest. But multi-season flicks? Ain’t nobody got time for Downton Abbey.
But the purported joy Swallow gave by not being a series, it took away by being a miserable sop.
For emerging markets like Africa, Netflix tends to shun existential mood pieces. They tend to favour comedy, action dramas or remakes of proven hits. You know, hedge their bets. So I found it curious that they went with Swallow. I suppose the brand equity of Kunle Afolayan persuaded them to bite. Their teeth must be on edge now.
Is Swallow that bad? Yup. I don’t know about you, but the reason I watch a movie is to be entertained. Or be confronted with new perspectives. Swallow isn’t the least entertaining. I might as well watch Arsenal.
Kunle Afolayan is the master of the thrilling plot. Of riveting twists and turns. The plot of Swallow is however so linear a ruler probably drew it. Yea, people swallowed cocaine in the 1980s, so what? We know there have been reported cases of the cocaine wraps bursting in the bellies of carriers. We know about the danger of that trade. But Swallow doesn’t take us further. It gives us no new information, neither does it strum on the cords of our heart as we would expect a cocaine story to. There was so much foreplay yet an underwhelming climax.
There is, of course, the subplot of misogyny and female sexual harassment. The scene between Mr. Salako and Tolani (Niyola) was more comical than anger-arousing. Mr. Afolayan tried to draw a line between sexual harassment and drug trafficking. It’s an unconvincing line.
And Niyola can’t act to save her life. Well, as far as creative license goes, you can’t fault the characterisation of a movie. But you can fault the performance. And the performance was dreadful in many places. I know the movie was trying to situate Tolani and give us proper context. But I’d question if the characters of Mrs. Durojaiye (Eniola Badmus) or Mama Chidi (Chioma Akpotha) added any substantive value to the story.
I suppose there’s always something good in every bad happenstance. For Swallow, it is the production design and cinematography. Production design is creating the look and feel of a movie. It is creating the physical world of the story. Put in other words, it handles all the visual elements of a movie. Production designers work with props, costumes, set, locations department, and cinematographers to create a credible milieu for the movie.
Kunle Afolayan excels in this space. He tried to recreate a Lagos and Osogbo of 1985 and he executed it rather well. From the danfos, molues and taxis, to the rooms and offices. From the costume to the temperament of the period, the production design was brilliant. The icing on the cake would have been to see a bottle of Tandi Guarana or Green Sands Shandy.
Oh, I did see a plastic telephone in Mr. Salako’s office though. That orange rotary dial telephone. Very plastic.
Yea, I’m that type of guy. Art direction OCD.
The cinematography was good too. I like the camera angles. I loved it where the camera moved between roofs and descended to ground level in Tolani’s compound. It was beautiful.
But in the end, Swallow missed the forest for the tree. A movie is not stellar only because of good production design or cinematography. All other elements like plot, characters, dialogue, sound design come to play. The plot, characters and dialogue in this flick were especially weak.
Which brings me to the role of Netflix in all these.
Now, I don’t know the inner workings of streaming services. I don’t know how they license, agree on the copyright or manage creative control. But it seems to me that in Nigeria, Netflix’s role is limited to putting down the moolah. I would hazard a guess they are not as interested in the quality of story and output as they are in producing “content for Africans by Africans.”
If I look at King of Boys 2 and now Swallow, save for the money required to produce those content, Kemi Adetiba and Kunle Afolayan could well have produced those work themselves. In cinematography, sound design, special effects and other artistic nous, KOB2 was not significantly better than King of Boys. Neither was Swallow creatively better than October 1 or Roti. Yet those are areas I’d expect Netflix to bring its influence to bear.
If there’s an awesome cinematographer in Papua New Guinea, strap him in a plane and ferry him to Kemi or Kunle. If there’s a great sound or special effect studio in Berlin, hire them for productions in Nigeria. You see, Nigerian movies are beginning to mint money on their own through cinemas. It’s hard work but the penny is dropping. What we now need are best-in-class production values and compelling stories. Areas of strength for Netflix.
Look, I get it. There’s a limit to the investments Netflix can make in Africa. Subscribers in the whole of the continent are projected to hit 2.6 million by end of 2021. South Korea alone is over 4 million subscribers and Poland has 2 million.
South Africa accounts for the lion’s share of Africa’s subscriber base with estimates of 300K – 400K subscribers. Nigeria is obviously less than 300K subs. An estimate puts our numbers at around 60K. Which is of course laughable.
And don’t come at me with a “since-Nigerian-movies-are-on- Netflix, other-regions-of-the-world-will-watch-it-too” repartee. No, they won’t. Have you seen the home screen of Netflix US, Brazil, UK or India? Nigerian movies don’t figure. You have to search for them. Like Nigerian churches abroad, the only peeps who attend are Nigerians and Africans. I will hazard similar viewership demography for Nollywood flicks outside Nigeria.
Which does no favours to Netflix’s “Made by Africans, Watched by the World” battle cry.
My point in all this is that eyeballs have to justify the investment. Will you spend $2m on a Nigerian production if only 300,000 people are going to watch it? Maybe not. But if Nigeria’s viewership numbers get to say 2 million subscribers, then we can talk about Hans Zimmer. The maths has to make sense and I’m with Netflix on this.
Of course, I may be talking rot and have no clue what goes on between Netflix and Nigerian film producers. You’ll have to humour me. Swallow got to me so bad that I’m seeing enemies in every shadow.
Well, if Netflix can’t give us Hollywood-type production, they can at least ensure they produce only great stories. They have to be interested in the quality of the story. Clickbait wasn’t stellar because of the production values. It was stellar because of the story and plot.
We’ve got a good thing going on in Nollywood. Netflix should take us higher and further.