Biafra in the film archives

What personal and collective memory is evoked when we encounter films from a historical period?

Photo: Daniel lam, via Flickr.

The discovery, in 2015, of a batch of films from Nigeria’s post-colonial and post-war history in the abandoned rooms of the old Colonial Film Unit in Lagos, led me to reflect about the possibilities and challenges that arise from it for public memorializing. Their seeming sudden presence triggered the question: What process of forgetting triggered this mass internment?

Perhaps, the answer lies in two titles we kept encountering as we began the initial process of analyzing and documenting the cans: Shehu Umar, a film about a kidnapped boy who rose from slavery to become a sage. It is based on the title novella by Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, the late Sir Tafawa Balewa, who died in the coup staged in 1966 by radical young officers of the Nigerian army that led to the Biafran War. The second film was The Nigeria Civil War, footage shot by federal forces documenting the Biafra War.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the situation for film archiving was quite good, Nigeria was a fine example of how to organize state archives – until the Biafran War. Following the war, archival considerations quickly deteriorated. The abandonment of Nigeria’s film archives, therefore, originated in the experience of trauma: the Biafra-Nigeria war. Encountering this archive is, thus, a re-encounter with trauma, as well as an attempt to understand it, to reflect on and engage with the biography of the material, the gaps and political controversy that exists within its history. The initial response was how to present this history, the memory stored in these cans. To compensate for the lack of prior encounter with film archives, a series of films, among them Jonathan Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” – about anti-communist, state-sanctioned violence in Indonesia – was screened to illustrate how remembering could be deployed, not only to excavate history and memory, but also how audiences can contribute to coming to terms with the past and negotiating personal and collective trauma.

But, there were misgivings. In a world where terrorists have staged executions, how do you watch murderers in elaborate costume enter character and stage acts of torture and killings they perpetrated? Especially, that terminal sequence when one of the murderers asked to be taken to the venue where the most heinous acts took place and, unable to endure his own memories, began to throw up. I have mixed feelings over this scene – should Oppenheimer have turned off the camera? Incidentally, the attempted coup and subsequent mass killings in Indonesia in the mid-1960s bear similarity with Nigeria’s and was separated by just a year. (Indonesia recently opened discussions on this dark past, one of the bloodiest events of the 20th century, with a public symposium.)

The question, 50 years after the start of the Biafran War, is: how could a national archive of films contribute to the practice of memory and coming to terms with the past 50 years, and events of 1967? Could this archival practice, as a site of public memory, be a beginning symbol of closure? Both my parents were survivors of the war, but they lost everything. My first experience of the act of forgetting was my father’s silence, his refusal to talk about the war.

To paraphrase literary scholar, Cathy Caruth, history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, it is precisely the way we are involved in each other’s traumas. What I have tried to do with my own work, as an archivist, is to invite viewers and readers to consider how we are involved in each other’s history and trauma. In this instance, we seem to be involved with each other as victims, perpetrators and collaborators. The great thing public memorializing can do is allow us to look at each other’s memory as if through each other’s eyes.

Implicated in this invite is that history, especially with regard to Biafra, could be reclaimed, not through purely academic discourse, but rather, through archiving as a site of public memory. This rediscovered archive represents not just a curatorial challenge but also a political and psychological one, the mechanics of breaking personal and collective silence. How do we remember, how do we come to terms with the past when official history encourages collective forgetting, collective migration from memory? What is it about the present that makes us unwilling to let the past go? Why concern oneself with an archive of films that is hardly known, and talked about only in a postcolonial sense?

After 50 years we still cannot look at the past dispassionately. This was the most traumatic event of our national history, yet there has never been an intellectual or artistic engagement with it. There is still unwillingness to confront the historical truth, to acknowledge it, however difficult or painful.

The debates about who was actually responsible for the war serves to confuse the real issue. To lay the blame on this or that individual, on this or that accidental event only obscures the real cause of the tragedy that was the Biafra-Nigeria War, in the sense that the Biafran secession and war are never linked to other post-independence crises in Africa. The inevitable failure of trying to construct a modern, viable African state under neocolonialism is never raised.

From film cans of the 2nd World Black Festival of Arts (FESTAC) to the National Arts Festival (NAFEST), this archive contains many chapters of national memory and history. Among the images that stand out are the enforced parade-ground military marches instituted in Nigerian schools. This archival research – including artists, historians, curators, archivists and academics seeking to engage not only with the biography of the material, but also the gaps and political controversy that exists within national memory – is an attempt to reverse the militarized migration from memory.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.