Elder’s Corner (2020)

There are no shortage of good music documentaries — even in the same film festival I’m covering this week on my blog (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects 2020) I saw Shut Up Sona and The Go-Go’s (and there were a few others besides that I missed). Nor is there any shortage of stories from the continent of Africa when it comes to music either — it’s an enormous place of course, with so many different cultures, languages and traditions — but even if African cinema may never have been given the chance to develop as much as that in the west, there has never been any lack of music. A few years ago I reviewed They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015), about music in Mali, for example, but this documentary deals with nearby Nigeria, which as the largest country in Africa has plenty of its own distinctive sounds and traditions.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, so you’d expect it would have a lot of stories, and when it comes to the arts, its music has provided the soundtrack to so many momentous events. Typically, it’s the work of Fela Kuti who gets the attention — and he is of course a force of nature with the kind of story filmmakers love to tell — but it’s great to see a film which largely focuses on other, less well-remembered, figures from the nation’s long history of music. In that respect, this reminds me a little of Faaji Agba (2015), which shares a few interviewees in common, though Elder’s Corner provides a lot more context. It’s told by an expatriate Nigerian, the writer/director/producer of this film (born in London, living in NYC), who is prompted to make the film by the nostalgia of listening to his friend’s record collection. We see these crates of amazing, obscure and well-loved records at the start, and it’s eye-opening, but the real journey is the one he takes in Nigeria, talking to a lot of the older generation, getting them to reminisce about the origins of Highlife music, of Juju and (yes, eventually) Afrobeat, and also to take about the changeable fortunes of the country, taking in the grand attempts to celebrate the country’s artistic heritage at FESTAC 1977 but also the governmental corruption that was behind that and its subsequent decline, but also the Biafran War before that, through which many of the musicians interviewed lived. As you can guess from the title, this is a film very much a film giving voice to the older generations of musicians, and the legacy they leave behind (a number of them have passed since interviewed for this film), and that’s a story that’s always worth celebrating.

Director/Writer Siji Awoyinka; Cinematographers Kay Hung, Oluwaseye Olusa, Awoyinka, Edel Kelly and Tunji Ladoja; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 8 July 2020.

A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, 1978)

One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.

This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).

As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.

At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.

Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)

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.

Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”

B for Boy (2013)

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.

B for Boy posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chika Anadu; Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska; Starring Uche Nwadili; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017.

Faaji Agba (2015)

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.

Faaji Agba film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Richards; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016.

The Supreme Price (2014)

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.

The Supreme Price film poster CREDITS
Director/Writer Joanna Lipper; Cinematographers Lipper, Lisa Rinzler and Richard Sands; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 26 May 2015.