AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

In the discussion that followed the first public screening of Kenneth Gyang’sConfusion Na Wa’ (2013) at the Lights, Camera, Africa Film Festival in Lagos, audience members drew comparisons to Crash, Pulp Fiction, and Quartier Motzart as none of us could quite find a reference point for Gyang’s film within Nigerian cinema itself. But ‘Confusion Na Wa’, which won AMAA‘s 2013 Best Film, may find a timely reception among Nigerian viewers with a growing desire for variety and novelty in homegrown media.

Here’s the trailer:

This postmodernist dark comedy traces the criss-crossing paths of a handful of strangers. When Emeka (Ramsey Nouah) drops his phone during a scuffle in traffic, it falls into the hands of a couple of slick pidgin-speaking wiseasses, Charles (O.C. Ukeje) and Chichi (Gold Ikponmwosa). Their ploy to sell the phone back to Emeka by barter or blackmail sets in motion the film’s tangled but playful plot of coincidental encounters.

Charles and Chichi are young hustlers looking for any opportunity to get ahead in a city full of dead ends. Though Chichi dreams of something bigger for himself, Charles lives on familiar terms with poverty, the police, and a mother this close to disowning him. Snatching Emeka’s phone is no ticket out but with the information they find on it, the two pranksters expect to collect N150,000 for its return. It’s a ludicrous sum but, according to Charles, scams follow the basic laws of market economics: the cost of sensitive information all depends on “wetin people dey willing to pay for am.”

Babajide (Tony Goodman), a righteous man who fancies himself the “ideal citizen,” notices changes in his son Kola’s behavior that sparks in him a deep sexual paranoia. The father tries everything to set Kola straight: lecturing him on how to become a man, giving him a day job to learn responsibility, and even initiating painfully awkward banter about the female secretary’s bodily attributes. Ultimately, out of fear for one immoral persuasion, Babajide pushes his now embarrassed son toward a more orthodox set of vices. Kola (Nathaniel Ishaku) cannot make heads-or-tails of his father’s delusions. He is more concerned for his sister who, while dad obsesses over his son, has an unfortunate encounter with Chichi and Charles.

Everyone in the office sees Bello (Ali Nuhu) as a sap, someone you can dump your extra workload on before you head home early, someone so naive he wouldn’t know a bribe if landed before him on his desk. His wife, Isabella (Tunde Aladese), who openly mocks his cowardice, has found satisfaction in the arms of a lover, Emeka. The two carry on a sexting relationship spiced with such absurd euphemism it had the festival audience in stitches.

If this synopsis seems fragmented then it is close to capturing the film’s narrative style which toys with the relationship between causality and coincidence, or rather order and confusion. Gyang and his co-producer Tom Rowlands-Rees masterfully demonstrate that the act of telling a story is often more important than the story itself. This story is couched within a narrative frame: death opens and closes the film. A narrator’s voice jokes in direct address about how in life, you’re born, something happens to you, you die, you soil yourself, and then you meet God.

Irony marks the telling of this story, and not the irony of sarcasm (though there is plenty of that too), but irony as a technique creating distance, as when Charles and Chichi joke about film in Nigeria today and how in the West “their cartoons don pass our film.” Chichi has The Lion King in mind, what he thinks is a masterpiece of colonial ideology. This immensely bores Charles, who has always liked the Disney movie. After all, he reasons, his own scams and pranks fit right into an urban African “circle of life,” not some sentimentalized racist stereotype of Africa, but rather the arch of felicitous mixups and sometimes fatal coincidences they live through each day. (The careful viewer will relish the film’s “signifyin’” on the The Lion King and western stereotypes of Africa generally.)

The attitude seems to characterize the creative direction of Cinema Kpatakpata, the movie’s production company comprised of Gyang, Rowlands-Rees and Yinka Edwards, one of the best cinematographers working in Nigeria today (Figurine, Phone Swap, Lions of ’76). They find standing out preferable to fitting, Gyang explains and, made on an astounding USD $27,000, this movie does not fit the “New Nollywood” trend of costly production and marketing. Gyang, who cites South American filmmakers Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Fernando Meirelless as influences, is gaining national and international recognition as one of a younger generation of savvy Nigerian filmmakers. He was in official competition at the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2006, has worked with BBC World Service Trust as the director of ‘Wetin Dey’, and won “Screen Producer of the Year” at the 2010 Future Awards for co-writing, co-producing, and directing Televista’s series Finding Aisha. It is important also to note that ‘Confusion Na Wa’ was one of four scripts selected by the influential Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

So, is the country mired in confusion or abiding in a macabre circle of life? Both possibilities take a particular sensibility to appreciate, a particular ironic vantage point that one finds in the eponymous Fela Kuti song “Confusion.” Family values, moral decency, the virtue of hard work, anything that could anchor an ethical message is dragged into the confusion. This comedy embraces the freedom of uncertainty over the drudgery of moral dogma. Its story depicts murder, drugs, adultery and foul language in a way that only gently pushes the envelop of decency while investing more energy in making a snide joke of all the righteous and virtuous characters (uptight men really) who bemoan the “moral decline” of the nation. Still, the filmmakers manage to keep this one as light as a dark comedy gets.

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Connor Ryan

Connor Ryan is doing a PhD at Michigan State University, but currently resides in Lagos, Nigeria.

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