The first Nigerian film produced in Australia, Gossip Nation follows Kemi (Edigue Omokaro), Emeka (Tony Jegde), Kabaka (Gideon Nweke) and numerous other African immigrants and refugees as they make a new life in Blacktown, Sydney.

New territory for Australian cinema.

INDIE GEMS FILM FESTIVAL: If you’re looking for something different in an Australian movie, then Gossip Nation could be the film for you. But first conduct an experiment. Walk down to your local DVD store and pick an Australian film off the shelf, preferably one with an urban setting (now there’s a challenge right there). Take the DVD home and fast forward through it and make a note of all the different races presented in the film. Then try to recall all the different people you observed between your home and the DVD store. Unless you live in a particularly monochrome area, the chances are you’ll note that the discrepancy between Australian image and Australian reality. The reasons for this could (or should) fill a book. I’m not sure that it can ever be compensated for with bureaucratic quotas or colour blind casting, but it’s important to acknowledge a kind of whitewash still rules our screens no matter how multicultural we say we are.

absolutely brims with characters with distinct problems and personalities unlike those normally seen in Australian films

So what makes Gossip Nation so different? Well firstly, the story is driven by the experiences of African – primarily Nigerian – immigrants in Sydney’s outer Western suburb of Blacktown. (One suspects the film might have been called Blacktown, if Kriv Stenders hadn’t got there first with his 2005 film.) The film absolutely brims with characters with distinct problems and personalities unlike those normally seen in Australian films: Emeka (Tony Jegde), the dispirited alcoholic who can’t motivate himself beyond his cleaning job; shifty car salesman Kabaka (Gideon Nweke, also the film’s executive producer), who cheats on his wife and wants to bed every woman he meets; and a rather naïve heroine teen, Amanda (Saabeah Aforo-Addo), who runs away from her abusive father to hang out with her street smart friends. There’s a multitude more, but you can already conclude that the film is not interested in constructing an artificial portrait of a tranquil community.

One of the more light-hearted sequences occurs when the white sales clerk (Taryn Brine) at an African DVD store (she’s the wife of the African owner played by Harrison Mgbemene) accidentally unifies the catty tongue lashing contest between some of the Nigerian customers and some Ghanian clientele by trying to mollify their swapping of insults with 'You’re all African, right?" It doesn’t exactly calm things down. In fact, when the African women next encounter each other things turn decidedly brutal.
I’ll confess to having limited exposure to Nigerian films (so I got the essence of the joke about the shop clerk not knowing who Ini Edo is but not the detail), but of the few I have seen (courtesy of an airline that regularly programs them amongst its Asian/Indian fare), Gossip Nation has a similar tendency to explode at unexpected moments. A couple of sequences host some shocking violence and wild plot twists. Unlike my previous experience of Nigerian films, there’s no magic. In fact, one character snorts derisively when a white character asks a hairdresser to work her 'magic". However, there is one ghost (famous Nigerian actress Monalisa Chinda), and in keeping with the character’s belief system, it is perceived as naturally as Hamlet and his father sitting down to have a chat.

The title Gossip Nation is a rather hopeful way of bundling the assembled stories together. Some of them don’t fit under that umbrella at all. Kemi (Edigue Omokaro) is the primary offender whose verbal indiscretions cause turmoil. The poisonous aspect of gossip is reinforced early in the film by another character, an elderly English immigrant who claims he left London for Australia to get away from black people. Interestingly, his racism is counterpointed by the equally naïve ripostes of his wife and daughter who say they like black people because they are 'hardworking" and 'cool". It’s a fatuous argument and the script makes sure we know it. These are people with individual problems, beefs and dreams and there’s no point trying to herd them all together under one label be that label be 'good" or 'bad".

The performances vary from engaging to rough to woeful, but regardless of their often unrefined talents, what a lot of these actors have is on-screen charisma and a vitality that will not be ignored. They need to work on their technique and some solid rehearsal time wouldn’t hurt either, but a smart Australian casting agent would be signing some of these people up pronto.

The direction by Mike Kang (a Korean-born Australian who has resided in Sydney since he was 10 years-old) has a strong sense of immediacy that is no doubt helped by being his own DOP. Some of the sequences feel improvised, but it’s also clear that writer (and producer) Daniel Okoduwa had a strong idea of where he wanted the film to go and that Kang worked hard to help the cast get there. Kang tries a few visual experiments. Some work, some don’t, but all contribute to the feeling of excitement that we’re watching something very different from your typical 'house style’ Australian film.