The work of making the archetypical movie thriller has become harder with the advent of technology. How does a script get around the ubiquity of the cell phone? How do the main characters not solve the riddle immediately with a single SMS? Filmgoers recognise the solution of the battery-depleted-at-a-most-inconvenient-time trope for how lazy it has become. But what about just taking the events of the story to a time before technology paralysed this genre?
Izu Ojukwu’s film, 76, is at its heart a film in the tradition of a 1970s paranoid Hollywood thriller. Protagonist Captain Joseph Dewas (a superbly cast Ramsey Noah), lives with his pregnant common-law wife Suzie (Rita Dominic) in an unnamed barracks next door to a caricature of a superior officer and his loud hard-drinking wife. It is early 1976, a year which some will recognise as the date of Nigeria’s first unsuccessful coup d’état. This is six years after the Nigerian civil war, a fact that is well-handled in the conflict between Captain Dewas and his Igbo in-laws. It is also beautiful the way this conflict is not presented as just an incident, but as an event that has some consequence in the plot.
So, what is the plot of this beautifully-shot film? In washed-out sepia tones, we find that Captain Dewas, recently redeployed from the presidential mansion, used to be an intelligence officer. His best friend and civil war buddy, Gomos (a perfectly-cast Chidi Mokeme shines in this role) is involved in the coup plot and needs Dewas for some unclear reason to be part of the plot. This leads to Dewas being on the run in a tightly-knit second act that in combination with the pounding score builds the tension to gigantic levels. It is one of the best parts of this two-hour picture. This sequence is what the entire film aspires to.
The performances are another highlight of the film. The casting director deserves praise. A filmgoer will easily forget that many of the characters being portrayed were in their late twenties and early thirties during the musical-chairs chaos of Nigeria’s military era coup culture. We believe in Rita Dominic, who deserves special praise for her turn as Suzie, heavily pregnant at the start of the film. We are convinced by Memry Savanhu’s Eunice, happily nasty wife of the next-door major, as she rocks her afro and changes vinyl records on the turntable. The labu trousers and platform shoes rock and are worth the price of admission to see the actors in.
Everything is important in Izu Ojukwu’s film. There are almost no wasted scenes (almost none: see two paragraphs below) and the concept of Chekov’s Gun (if you show a pistol in the first act of your story, by the third act someone must fire that gun) is adhered to quite satisfyingly. Never has so much consequence dwelt on the dripping of a leaky radiator.
Izu Ojukwu’s film wears its nostalgia proudly. In pivotal scenes, just out of focus, we glimpse a non-anachronistic album sleeve featuring Ebenezer Obey, a painted steel pot with Nigeria’s founding fathers, a basket wig-holder on a dressing table, Crittall Hope windows, and in one particularly skilful instance, properly-coloured Naira notes, when we should be looking for a missing ID card. It is praiseworthy, this fidelity with setting, even if it does get a little bit show-offy. Izu Ojukwu seems to be saying, these are the things that show I did my research, off-focus, so you do not think they are as important as we all know they are. It is good work and this reviewer praises him for it.
This review will not be complete without some knocks for the film. Nollywood now has a vocabulary and Mr. Ojukwu, as much as his skills as an auteur might try to paper over this, speaks the language a little too well. The camera dwells a millisecond too long on cultural dance scenes, and a chase through a children’s birthday seems to have been shot for the sole reason of bringing those black-and-white photos of birthday parties of this director’s (and this reviewer’s) generation to life, complete with the Oxford Cabin biscuits (this got a standing ovation at the screening this reviewer attended). There is still some distrust for the audience’s ability to deduce what is happening on screen, something that is painfully illustrated in the film’s only major failing, a too-long backstory info dump by Angela, Ibinabo Fibresema’s character, in the overly muddled third act of the film.
The ending of the film was very satisfying, oddly so, because as a Nollywood cynic, this reviewer went into this screening fearful of being disappointed. Was it relief that the curvy plot was coming to a close, or was it that despite my cynicism, Izu Ojukwu got to me? Bah! Humbug!
I first came across the trailer to the film, 76, more than 3 years ago. This fact was reiterated at the post-screening Q&A by a member of audience in the theatre where I watched the film. It has been a long journey for the filmmakers; a long journey that has come to a very satisfying end. Go and see this film.