The prominence of Nigerian film on the 2016 film festival circuit represents something of a sea change. Long withheld even from Pan-African film festivals and institutions, Nigerian cinema is finally being embraced on the international stage for its sheer diversity and capacity to adapt to dramatic technological and infrastructural shifts. The dam broke when in 2013, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) finally abolished its controversial “no-video” policy, which had long excluded Nollywood films shot and distributed on VHS, VCD, and DVD. More recently, with the rise of the so-called New Nollywood, video formats have been supplemented with a capital-intensive return to celluloid film (both 16mm and 35mm) as a technology of production, distribution, and (in rare instances) exhibition.
Boasting a “Spotlight on Nigerian Cinema,” the 24th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), which runs from tonight to December 11th in New York City, features the U.S. premieres of four Nigerian films—all of which were recently presented at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of its Lagos-themed “City to City” program.
Shot on 16mm by the great cinematographer Yinka Edward, Izu Ijukwu’s historical drama ’76 (2016) is set against the backdrop of the abortive coup that led to the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s head of state for just six months in 1975 and 1976. In an Army barracks in Ibadan, Captain Joseph Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) lives with his pregnant wife Suzie (Rita Dominic). Their interethnic marriage (Joseph is from Nigeria’s Middle Belt, while the Igbo Suzie is from the southeast) is repeatedly tested by Suzie’s father, a veteran of Nigeria’s civil war, and by her brother, a self-serving bigot who derisively refers to non-Igbo ethnic groups as “those people.” The theme of tribalism places ’76 in a venerable Nollywood tradition, and Ijukwu, whose 2004 film Across the Niger depicts the Biafran War, is attuned to the historically specific dimensions of ethnic prejudice.
Set just 6 years after the defeat of the Biafrans, ’76 explores some of the civil war’s cultural and political reverberations, as when Suzie’s father, who has vivid memories of wartime atrocities committed against the Igbos, confronts her about Joseph’s ambiguous past and possible role in the conflict. Mostly, though, he falls back upon an ethnic-nationalist aversion to anyone who isn’t Igbo, as he defiantly informs his daughter, who replies, in Igbo, “Love has no boundaries.” As Suzie, Nollywood star Rita Dominic gives what may be her greatest performance to date in a role that, in quintessential Nollywood fashion, requires her to juggle multiple languages. Her costar, Ramsey Nouah, plays a man who, against his will, gets swept up in the attempted coup, as its architects privately engage in debates about inflation and denounce Mohammed for “abandoning our traditions and ideology” and appearing to serve Communist interests.
As a period piece, ’76 is a thrilling success. Edward’s 16mm cinematography cannily evokes an earlier era of image making—elegantly grainy and muted, with the look of old color photographs. (The celluloid factor represented a welcome change for Ijukwu, who, in order to approximate the look of 1960s documentary, had to digitally add grain to his film Across the Niger.) Shot on location at the Mokola Barracks in Ibadan and on Bar Beach in Lagos, ’76 is full of impressive, period-specific details best appreciated on a big screen: an array of Afro wigs, bell-bottom pants, and platform shoes; historically accurate military attire; vintage bottles of Star lager; and sporadic evidence of Nigeria’s oil boom, including a palatial movie house where Joseph and Suzie enjoy a raucous Indian comedy. In addition, Ijukwu incorporates archival footage of the coup and its aftermath, along with snippets of actual radio broadcasts, which contribute to the film’s docudramatic power. And then there’s the music: Bongos Ikwue, Nelly Uchendu, Fela Kuti, Prince Nico Mbarga and the Rocafils, and Miriam Makeba provide the intoxicating sounds of the 60s and 70s.
The three other Nigerian films in ADIFF’s lineup are set in the present. Steve Gukas’s 93 Days (2016), starring Bimbo Akintola, Keppy Ekpenyong-Bassey, and Danny Glover, tackles West Africa’s Ebola crisis, dramatizing the medical response to a diplomat (played by Ekpenyong-Bassey) who brings the virus to Nigeria after becoming infected in Liberia. Elegantly shot by the prolific Yinka Edward, and featuring dazzling images of Lagos, 93 Days is among the best Nigerian films to seriously consider the local effects of Ebola, and it is the first to dramatize the extensive (and ultimately successful) efforts to contain the virus in the country.
Part of a growing trend in Nigerian cinema, Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration (2016) is set in the high-stakes world of tech companies, where the worst imaginable fate is to cede a modicum of corporate control to an ambitious rival (while remaining a multimillionaire, of course). Adesua Etomi plays Dara, an up-and-coming tech professional who accuses her boss, Gbenga (played by O.C. Ukeje), of rape. That Dara was involved in an often-volatile affair with the married Gbenga complicates her case, as she quickly discovers, bitterly observing, “Apparently, the mistress of a married man can’t be raped.” The question of consent is soon eclipsed by financial considerations, however, as the eponymous mediation comes to focus on ownership and management of the 115-million-dollar company of which Gbenga is the CEO.
Rounding out ADIFF’s program of Nigerian films is Daniel Oriahi’s remarkable Taxi Driver (Oko Ashewo, 2015), an urban comedy that is at once uproariously funny, unsettlingly mysterious, and profoundly beautiful.
The setup is familiar: a village man moves to the big city (in this case, Lagos) in order to “make it.” The execution, however, is electrifying, as the hapless Adigun (a superb Femi Jacobs), derided as a naïve new arrival—a “Johnny Just Come”—must learn to navigate the streets of Lagos at nighttime, having inherited his late father’s taxicab (dubbed Tom Cruise). Guided by the swaggering Taiwo (Odunlade Adekola), Adigun encounters a range of memorable characters—some comical, others threatening—in Oriahi’s exuberant tribute to Lagos Island.