Monday, March 13, 2017

Why '76 is Definitely Worth Watching

That Izu Ojukwu’s excellent film, ’76 clinched five awards at the 2017 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards a week ago – notably earning laurels for best movie and best director – is just reward for one of the most ambitious projects to emerge from Nollywood recently. Starring Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic and working off a screenplay by Emmanuel Okomanyi, with a $3 million budget, ’76 was a gamble that paid off and bodes well for the prospects of new generation film makers.

The movie’s strongest point is its rigorous attention to historical detail. It adroitly simulates the sights and sounds of the mid 1970s, through an uncommon diligence in assimilating the right period props and an intelligent use of historical footage. The viewer is transported back in time to an era now increasingly dim in the national memory. By the time, the movie ended to the strings of Bongos Ikwue’s Cockcrow at Dawn, I was positively nostalgic. Part political thriller, part romantic drama, it is the story of a military intelligence officer, Captain Joseph Dewah (Nouah) who is drawn into the conspiracy to topple the Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed.

A key subplot involves his relationship with Suzie (Rita Dominic). As an Igbo, her family, represented by her incensed father and a pesky younger brother, are opposed to her relationship with Dewah, a Middle Belter, who fought on the other side during the civil war and for whom she is now pregnant. Their relationship, fraught with filial mistrust, and burdened by Dewah’s own thoroughbred dedication to duty and his compulsive secrecy, is also a metaphor for the nation’s post-war reconciliation. It is a microcosmic human experiment interrogating the possibility that love can surmount the constant pressure of bitter memories and inter-ethnic antipathies harvested from the grim experience of the civil war.

Shot on location in Mokola Barracks, Ibadan, ’76 realistically portrays the sometimes claustrophobic nature of life in the army barracks; the altercations and rivalries that flare up from having too many alpha male egos in close proximity and the ease with which enemies are made in such circumstances. It also accurately captures the atmospheric dread, mutual paranoia and recrimination that pervade the barracks when a coup plot has been uncovered and its terrible impact on families, especially women – wives, sisters, lovers – who pay a price for the (mis)adventures of the men they love.

In one poignant scene, a fellow army wife tells Suzie that marrying a soldier is akin to accepting to serve the nation along with him. The costs and consequences of the call of duty are shared by the spouses. This is a truth I have seen seared into the eyes of widows that lost their husbands to the lethal inquisitions that followed abortive coups during the military era.  

As one whose family carries the stamp of the failed 1976 coup d’état, I can testify that the movie masterfully projects the thin line between conspiratorial involvement and being in the wrong place and the right time; how the utter caprice of circumstantial evidence and an official vengeful disregard for establishing guilt beyond all reasonable doubt could mean either death by firing squad or an eleventh hour reprieve. In this sense, ’76 is a reminder of a sad chapter of our history when good soldiers were lost not to wars but to insidious vendettas and miscarriages of military justice.

The era of military rule was a bloody episode of Nigeria’s odyssey not just because of the costly civil war but because of the cycle of coups that inevitably followed the military’s incursion into politics. We lost some of our best and brightest in the vortex of violence sprung open by the vaulting ambitions of soldiers who often saw themselves as messianic revolutionaries. The military itself arguably was the institution that was most subverted by its political adventurism. As ’76 shows, treasonous conspiracies destroyed the camaraderie between soldiers and ripped families asunder. Warriors who had fought side by side in wartime, ironically, became enemies because of the intrigues of peace-time coup-plotting.

’76 is not a political thriller in the order of Eddie Ugbomah’s 1983 film, The Death of a Black President which focuses on the political, ideological and mythic significance of Murtala. If Ugbomah’s film deals with the allegedly grand imperialist conspiracy that ultimately consumed the Head of State, Izu Ojukwu’s take deals with the dramatic consequences of such plots on the lives of those further down the totem pole. These are the people who are often unremembered and anonymous. They are the unknown soldiers and nameless civilians and the collateral damage consumed by the internecine coup-plotting and conspiratorial subversion that defined the military era. ’76 is a political thriller told from a compellingly human angle.   

The success of ’76 heralds fresh cinematic possibilities for this generation. Much of our history is uncharted territory and the urgent task of acquainting Nigerians with their own antiquity cannot be left to educationists alone. Film makers can wield their craft and use pop-culture at large as a vital history teaching aid. ’76 also showed what is possible when the government and armed forces collaborate with the creative sectors of civil society. There are many stories that should be told and such collaboration bodes well for the industry. This does not, of course, mean that Nollywood should reduce itself to the propaganda arm of the state. But it does mean film makers have a role to play in the all-encompassing enterprise of nation-building and the government should give them all the support they need

Finally, ’76 marks the coming of age of a cinematic movement that might be described as Nollywood 2.0. Its first shots were fired by Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine and October 1st. Movies like Steve Gukas’s 93 Days which deal with serious subject matter are on the same creative arc. We have come a long way from the pioneering days of Living in Bondage. A new generation of film makers is now moving away from the tropes, clichés and stereotypes that have long inhibited Nollywood. They are positively obsessed with high production values, and intent on playing for higher stakes and on grander stages, is keen to push the boundaries of storytelling. It has been long in coming.        

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