These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.
Shot in that sort of vérité style that relies (perhaps too much) on handheld camera, this is a fascinating insight into familial dynamics in Nigeria. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) is nearing her 40th birthday, pregnant with her second child, and meanwhile her mother-in-law is desperate to know if it’s a boy so her late husband’s family name can be continued. She even has a contingency second wife lined up for her son, which, needless to say, creates a bit of tension within the household. What’s particularly on point here is that we don’t see any of the male characters exerting this pressure: such is the noxious ingrained nature of patriarchal expectation, it has all been internalised by the women to the extent that they at times literally gang up on Amaka. She has some difficult decisions to make, and even a plot development that leads her to wearing a fake pregnant belly doesn’t seem absurd by the time we’ve got to that point.
Director/Writer Chika Anadu; Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska; Starring Uche Nwadili; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017.
In a manner not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary tracks the efforts of Kunle, the owner of a Lagos, Nigeria-based record shop and label (Jazzhole Records), to bring together a disparate group of largely-forgotten or underappreciated older musicians from his country’s history, so that they can record their music and pass it on to a new generation largely unfamiliar with this musical tradition. His friend Remi Vaughan-Richards was on hand with a camera, and in due time (six years after she started filming in 2009) brought the footage together into this 90-minute film. Sadly, by this point many of the musicians have passed, but their legacy is vividly rendered here. There’s a lot of great music, in a variety of traditional styles (not just Afrobeat and Highlife, but others far less familiar to Western audiences), and some excellent footage of these musicians, as they come together, rehearse, bicker, fall out, reconcile and eventually put on a show in New York City. And although getting the music out to the Western world was never precisely the point of the project or the film, but it’s still obviously a big deal for the group and is given a fair chunk of the running time. The film itself is largely a one-woman operation, so there’s not a great deal of polish to the filmmaking itself — the camera jerks around shakily at times, while the editing tries to cram a huge amount of material in and so everything seems hectic and a bit rushed — but given the means available to Vaughan-Richards and her producer Kunle (i.e. next to none), it’s all fascinating and enjoyable stuff which conveys a great sense of change both in Nigerian music and in Lagos itself.
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Richards; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016.
I think it’s easy to criticise the predominant style of talking-head documentaries, but when dealing with a complicated and (certainly to me, and I imagine to many western audiences) largely unknown political situation, it can be good to have a point of entry and a linear structure to a story. In this case, the situation is Nigeria since its independence from the UK in 1960, and the point of entry is the story of Hafsat Abiola, the daughter of deposed president-elect Moshood “M.K.O.” Abiola and his second wife Kudirat. Director Joanna Lipper shows a firm sense of structure in the early parts of the film, expertly widening it out from what starts as a story of Nigeria’s military dictatorships interrupted in 1993 by Abiola’s free and fair electoral victory. As we learn how this victory was quickly overturned by General Sani Abacha’s newly-installed regime (who imprison Abiola the following year), the film moves on to become a story of his family and the country as a whole, where the “supreme price” of the title is the murderous force used by the oil-rich and corrupt dictators to shore up their power. Employing interviews with the Abiola family, as well as US ambassadors to Nigeria, and their Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, we learn of the work Hafsat’s mother Kudirat did to continue MKO’s cause for democratic freedom while he was imprisoned, as well as being given a background to Nigeria’s ethnic and cultural mix, their reliance on oil, and the traditional marriage arrangements for men (which the testimony of Hafsat’s brother proves are still a strong force within the country). There are so many strands in play by the end that the structure somewhat disintegrates, but for the most part this is a clearly articulated film about the work that has been and continues to be done in the country. Hafsat’s work challenges traditional patriarchal attitudes while continuing to agitate for democratic freedom — still only imperfectly realised in the country — not to mention justice for her family (though that seems to take a back seat given what else is at stake). It’s a fascinating work for anyone interested in the pitfalls and promise of democracy.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joanna Lipper | Cinematographers Joanna Lipper, Lisa Rinzler and Richard Sands | Length 75 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 26 May 2015