“Yahoo+” Review: Ebuka Njoku’s Searching Inquiry into a Popular Superstition

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Ask a Nigerian for the danger of being chums with a Yahoo boy, and they’ll probably say, “they can use you.” By which they mean you may wind up as the unfortunate human sacrifice in the Yahoo boy’s fevered search for wealth. Owing to the country’s high rate of unemployment and other socio-economic plights, Yahoo boys—slang for young Nigerian men who are cyber-fraudsters—are as rife in Nigeria as is a belief in the potency of money rituals, the cruel practice of sacrificing people and their internal organs to deities in return for riches. Or sometimes in return for a mystical power of persuasion, so called Yahoo plus. With Yahoo plus, romance scams need not be a hassle, many Nigerian scammers believe. You simply command your American or European victims, and they, bewitched by your words, will wire their life savings with a thank-you note attached.

Ebuka Njoku’s first feature-length film Yahoo+, which premiered in cinemas last July and on Netflix days ago, investigates how cyber-fraud intersects with the diabolical. Working with the slenderest of budgets, as evidenced by its limited locations and small cast of newcomer actors, this film tells a story of youthful anxiety and diabolical derring-do in a way that is intimately human.

Two young men and long-time friends, Ose (Keezyto) and Abacha (Somadina Adinma), both have failed film careers. Hence they resort to cyber-fraud but have also failed at it. So they decide to do Yahoo plus; and a certain Ikolo (played with a masterly assuredness by Ken Erics) has made the arrangements. We first meet the hapless pair as they converse on a balcony, a laptop and a glass of palm wine atop the table before them, the former a marker of their identity as cyber-fraudsters, the latter foreshadowing future events. As far as prejudiced police profiling goes, they even look like Yahoo boys: Ose with his blond hair; Abacha with his locs and studs. 

The boys have similar longings: wealth and an escape from the country. But unlike Ose who is a decided Machiavel, moral spasms seize the more sensitive Abacha as he contemplates the difficult deed ahead of them. But Ose manages to assuage him, his rhetorical coup de grâce delivered in the form of a knowing apothegm: “life is all about sacrifice,” Ose tells him, in one breath recalling that popular joke on the internet about actor Kanayo O. Kanayo, and in another winking at the bloody task which lay ahead of the boys. Apparently, this film revels in gallows humor. And with that scene, it summarizes the angst and longing of the Nigerian youth, namely anxiety over the country’s dire economic plight and the subsequent solutions they find in cyber-crime and economic migration.

Central to this film is a clash of ontologies. The boys, fed fat with the superstitions of their society, believe money rituals are at the heart of Yahoo plus. Conversely, the men—Ikolo and Mansa, the latter a forbidding voice on the phone—know better. They know what society takes as money rituals is simply the surgical business of organ harvesting and trafficking. Scalpels and medical doctors, rather than charms and native doctors, are all that are involved. 

Caught amid this ontological clash are two girls of university age: Kamso (Echelon Mbadiwe) and Pino Pino (Ifeoma Obinwa). Victims of the same economic scourge afflicting the boys, the girls essay into the dangerous world of transactional sex. In terms of moral constitution, they mirror the boys, too: like Ose, Pino loses no sleep over her decision; like Abacha, Kamso is laden with the guilt and anxieties common to first-time offenders.

Keezyto, Ifeoma Obinwa and Echelon Mbadiwe in “Yahoo+”

In Ose’s eyes, however, both girls are indistinguishable and, as they are sex workers, deserve no pity. Ose’s casual misogyny mirrors that observed in the aftermath of a crime in which a female sex worker has been murdered. With the hawkish gaze of a gumshoe, this film captures the small, ugly but crucial details about Nigerian social life. 

It’s also on a corrective campaign, its raison d’être to right the misconception people have about money rituals. This film traces the miseducation to old Nollywood pictures, many of which furnished the Nigerian imagination with the visual vocabulary surrounding the myths about money rituals. As Ikolo tells Ose, “maybe your perception is flawed by the so many misrepresentations in films.” Yahoo+ doesn’t just tell a story; it is also invested in activism. 

Though whiffs of the metaphysical lurk in the corners—the image of a crucified Jesus is a haunting motif; and a lady, also a sex worker, has a premonition which comes to pass—this film mostly adopts a materialist worldview. Native doctors, and their promise of wealth-by-human-sacrifice, are impotent in this world. Holmesian objectivity is the ideal, and this film’s lavish use of wide shots creates an aura of rational detachment. Key to this rational paradise is winding, intelligent dialogue, especially between Ose and Ikolo. Rich with enquiries and analogies, the conversation between the two men seem like a scholastic activity, a sort of Socratic dialogue. Superstition and non-empirical beliefs truly have no chance in Njoku’s nigh-atheistic universe.

The dialogue recalls Quentin Tarantino, as the director is known to use it to prevaricate, to diffuse a serious situation with wanton, incredulous silliness. His Pulp Fiction (1994) and Django Unchained (2012) contain examples. In the former, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson play two henchmen who engage in prosaic banter in the moment leading to, and during, their shooting of some college kids. In the latter, some members of the Ku Klux Klan, set to rain hell on characters played by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, have a silly argument over the size of their pointy masks. A similar streak runs through Yahoo+: Ose and Ikolo, faced with the sombre decision of whether or not to spare a life, fall into a mundanity: they discuss the Nollywood classic Living In Bondage. If there is any doubt about this film’s Tarantino lineage, consider the Tarantino-esque way it splits its story into chapters. Or consider the filmmaker’s life: Njoku is an avowed Tarantino stan. He once said about Reservoir Dogs (1992), “this movie got me going apeshit.”

Although there’s much to praise about this film, there’s a handful about it to eye askance. Its central flaw, however, is its excess. The dialogue, for instance, is mostly charming; but then it drones on until this film is guilty of over-explaining its ideas. The scenes with Ikolo are the most guilty of this sin, but the closing shot presents a most egregious example: Abacha, through a voice-over, reveals Yahoo+’s overall message: “I wish someone had told me that easy money was the hardest to make,” he says. One wishes this film trusts us to infer that for ourselves. 

You’ll also dig your nails into your hair as Yahoo+, even with its dogged campaign for logic as a sentry against superstition, commits a number of non sequiturs. Picture this: a chance to make a clean break from a den of kidnappers presents itself. Do you scram? Or do you first check a mirror to see if your swag is road-worthy? Some of this film’s characters take the second option. Sometimes, Yahoo+ makes its characters act implausibly vacuous for the sake of complicating its story.

Overall, the film makes the most of its scant resources, as it tells a story of immense social consequence in a way that is observant, intimate and riveting, while presenting a refreshing counter-theme to the dominant ideas surrounding money rituals. It also shows the miracles of storytelling and direction that are possible even on a widow’s mite. Though its production quality leaves much to be fancied, one ought to make the ultimate sacrifice of overlooking it and focusing on its positives, of which much abound. After all, as one Machiavel said, “life is all about sacrifice.”