The fate of Eric Aghimien,- plus those of three of the principal actors in Slow Country, Aghimien’s second feature length,- is inextricably tied to the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCAs) presented by Multichoice, the continent’s largest pay tv. In 2013, Aghimien made A Mile from Home, a tiny action film on a shoestring budget that showcased his eye for bloodletting and gift for creating explosive visual effects.
Powered by votes from well-wishers on the internet who hadn’t necessarily seen the film, Tope Tedela, A Mile from Home’s lead was named Best Actor in a Drama, ahead of established stars like Majid Michel (Ghana) and Hlomla Dandala (South Africa). The win was so surprising, Genevieve Nnaji who presented the trophy could not identify Mr Tedela when he stepped up to claim his prize.
The year before, actress Ivie Okujaye- Egboh won the inaugural trailblazer award, a makeshift reward for encouraging versatile up and comers. Earlier this year, Sambassa Nzeribe,- he was also in A Mile From Home,– took home the Best Actor in a Drama trophy for his lead performance in Slow Country; another AMVCA surprise, as the viewers who voted for him must have done so for reasons other than the actual performance. Slow Country wouldn’t hit cinemas till May 2017.
The three actors, plus Aghimien have all gotten the boost that a platform like AMVCA can provide and are now stars in their own right. As in A Mile from Home, Aghimien is interested in telling the stories of those who exist on the margins of society, as misfits or pariahs, conditioned by life to make certain odd choices.
This leads him to a crime underworld where nubile young ladies are trafficked to Europe, an empty warehouse is used as hideout for a deadly criminal gang, and a used car dump serves as an exchange hub, where narcotics are traded openly amidst threat of gunfire.
Aghimen builds these world so credibly, the fear and desperation is palpable from the bleak but effective production design. He chooses his sets carefully and makes the visual component a strong part of the work such that one could be content just studying visuals of waste and despair that his characters are forced to exist in.
But every film needs characters on which to hang a plot and Slow Country becomes the story of Kome (Okujaye-Egboh), a young lady fallen on hard times who is offered a deal she cannot quite resist by Tuvi (Nzeribe), a charismatic sociopath. Tuvi proceeds to make her work as a conduit for his drug running business, when he isn’t pimping her out for filthy lucre.
Okujaye-Egboh has played this role before, in 2015’s Black Silhouette and that, perhaps more than anything informs why she was cast here. Same could be said for Nzeribe and Tedela who play variations of acts they have scaled in the past.
Of the three, Nzeribe fares best. His Tuvi is a delight to watch and he commands the screen so forcefully that it is hard to notice anybody else whenever he appears. His rugged good looks and menacing stare capture a red hot volatility that rises above the screenplay’s mediocrity. A star making performance this is, if ever there was one.
Tedela has done well for himself parlaying his earnest boy next door looks into playing these good guys who get all the luck even when they do not deserve it. He is in his comfort zone here fumbling only in the screenplay’s weakest moments.
Okujaye-Egboh is the weakest link. She isn’t an actress that understands how to rein in her emotions or effort and so every stare that she gives, every movement of her body, every line of dialogue is a transparent display of her process. You can see how she arrives at whatever it is she wants to pass across, and you can see all the effort she makes to get there. Sometimes you can even hear her. Less is more is a concept alien to her.
Slow Country moves with a deliberate pace until it gets to the bloody shootout that is really were Aghimien’s heart lies. He unspools a final act that is impressive in its stunt work and command of visual effects. Before he gets there though, Aghimien stumbles with an early chase scene where his camera wobbles unsteadily.
On his way to his precious ending, Aghimien loses track of the script and lets too many errors set in. His child actor is given lines that are fit only for an adult, his characters do illogical things, like policemen diving headfirst into a potential battleground without backup. Then the most unbelievable headmistress in all of film world makes her way into the mix.
A scene where Tedela’s Osas and Okujaye-Egboh’s Kome are reunited is overplayed and devolves into ridiculousness, yet Aghimien captures some powerful moments that do not involve action too. An intimate scene with Osas and Tuvi reveal the trapped hopelessness that both of them have dug their way into, (she questions why he pimps her out yet claims to love her).
It would be unjust to dismiss Slow Country as a minor work from a promising auteur as it is definitely much more than that. Pretty obvious Aghimien has plenty more things to teach Nollywood. Someone just needs to give him a budget worth his talent.