Best of Nigerian Cinema at TIFF
In April 2016, The Toronto International Film Festival announced that Lagos, Nigeria was their selection for this year’s City to City program – a showcase for filmmakers living and working in a selected city, regardless of where their films are set. The selections were curated by Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and among the list: Green White Green, a coming-of-age comedy from Abba Makama, and 93 Days, a drama from director Steve Gukas.
93 Days is based on true events surrounding the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and how the Nigerian government, World Health Organization and employees at the First Consultant Hospital in Lagos respond when foreign civil servant Patrick Sawyer (Keppy Ekpenyong) arrives with what is first thought to be malaria. Dr. Ameyo Adadevo (Bimbo Akintola) knows this patient zero is afflicted with something far more serious and despite opposition from colleagues, officials, and the patient himself, decides to keep him quarantined. Once the Ebola diagnosis is confirmed, she and a dedicated team of medical professionals lead by Dr. Benjamin Ohiaeri (Danny Glover) do all they can with the resources available to treat him while preventing an epidemic that has potentially deadly implications.
Bimbo Akintola (center) plays the late Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh in 93 Days
This isn’t a biopic about a single individual, but rather an in-depth look at how a group of selfless doctors and nurses risked – and for a few of them, lost – their lives trying to stem an epidemic. Danny Glover’s involvement with 93 Days was a bit of a surprise and is one of the few actual Western influences in the film. However, it is due to his personal connections to the country and its culture. According to writer Ayodeji Rotinwa:
“Glover while new to Nollywood isn’t new to Nigeria. He is a Chief and a titled man, the Enyioma of Nkwerre. The honor was conferred on him, in 2009, by traditional ruler of Nkwerre town, Eze Dr. Chijioke Jeki Okwara. The town reckons Glover’s roots can be traced to it; that his ancestors were some of those stolen from them in the trans-Atlantic slave trade era.”
Danny Glover as Dr. Benjamin Ohiaeri in 93 Days
What was very clear from the first to the last is that this film is about Nigeria, made by Nigerians and for Nigerians. Was 93 Days a story that affected lives on a global scale? Yes, however it let you know Nigeria and only Nigeria was the focus and everything else was extraneous. Everything from the costume design to the soundtrack was authentic and unapologetically local, making for a more immersive viewing experience and something that couldn’t have been done if the producers or director were outsiders. However, the script was penned by a British screenwriter and in an interview with Daily Trust, director Steve Gukas explains why:
“The decision to use a non-Nigerian writer was informed by the need to have a screenplay that is international, with a strong chance of cross over in the in global market. That’s not to say a Nigerian writer could not have written the story. The difference is in the flavour of language and writing style. I worked very closely with the writer to ensure that the ‘Nigerianness’ of the story was retained. So you could say I am an ‘uncredited’ writer as well. However, the writing is only one aspect of making a movie. We had a crew that was 100 percent Nigerian.”
Director Steve Gukas and TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at the premiere of 93 Days.
The cast of Green White Green
The same can be said about Abba Makama’s Green White Green – a pseudo-autobiographical comedy with social and political commentary on Nigerian identity, class, status and language. The three main characters, Uzoma (Ifeanyi Dike), Baba (Jamal Ibrahim) and Segun (Samuel Robinson) are from the 3 major ethnics groups (Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa), creating the perfect environment to play around with various ethic and cultural stereotypes while confronting prejudices, their parent’s generational demands, pursuing creative endeavors and contemplating their futures.
Their pre-university, pre-full-on-adulthood adventures are woven with hints of American cinematic influences from films like Dope, Boyz n the Hood, Clerks and The Warriors, but localized and adapted for Nigerian tastes. We get a sense of what it’s like to be young and carefree in Nigeria and tackle topics like the accessibility of art to all – something near and dear to Makama’s heart as an accomplished painter with a successful exhibition under his belt.
Abba Makama, director of Green White Green
The elements of tribes, class and language may not be wholly familiar to Western audiences as our cultural segregators are driven by other outside sources, but viewers get a primer on it peppered with humor. It’s a satire with sharp teeth but just barely bites through the tough skin of the lifestyles of the rich and bourgeois before it wraps up.
Nigerian cinema has been typically synonymous with minimal production costs and production values. From this year’s City to City roster at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s clear they are making strides in both areas. Narratives are more complex, editing techniques are sharper, production values are matching those found in the West. A refreshing element that continues to separate Nigerian cinema from its Western counterpart is the absence of non-African faces and White savior tropes. Nigerian cinema is about centering their identity. It’s made by the people, with the people and for the people. Western influences are mentioned and referenced, but are not centered. Both selections were a great representation of the current state of the country has to offer. 93 Days may have had the bigger budget and Danny Glover as part of the cast, but Green White Green had the heart and wit. Both films tackled important topics, but took great care in telling those stories their way – and it shouldn’t be done any other way.
Perhaps there are lessons Hollywood could take away from Nigerian filmmakers in the future.
This piece also appears here.