iREP 2018 and the new frontiers of narrating Africa

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Film experts, U.S.-based Prof. Niyi Coker (left); Nigerian filmmaker, Mr. Tunde Kelani and U.S.-based Prof. Awam Amkpa at iREP 2018… in Lagos

When the curtains fell on iREPRESENT International Documentary Film Festival 2018 at Freedom Park, Lagos, over a week ago, festival-goers in their large numbers from across continents had a glimpse of the seamless narrative that Africa continues to offer.

Sadly, it is a narrative that offers very little cheer although hope abounds. Many, if not all the documentary films shown, offered one stark, ironic reality after another and which characterises Africa’s contradictions that defy commonsense and logic.

In most cases, the documentaries that were offered from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Burkina Faso, to Ghana and Nigeria and beyond pitted the people against their governments.

It is how the people are trying desperately to overcome and escape debilitating poverty, lack of development for the good life, but how, ironically government forces drive the people further into what they seek to escape.

Whereas the governments continue to offer no roadmaps out of the grinding lack, they also hamper the peoples’ efforts to save themselves.

And so from one narrative to another, it is one tragic irony after another, with the only sunshine coming from individual efforts to stubbornly trudge on in spite of the continent’s governments’ cluelessness on all fronts.

So, from Ishaya Bako’s Read, Recite, Memorise that aptly captures the almajiri, child-beggar system in northern Nigeria to Milo Rau’s Congo Tribunal in the DRC, Ujuaku Akukwe’s Afia Attack: Trading Behind Enemy Lines to Lara Lee’s Burkinabe Rising: The Art of Resistance in Burkina Faso and Johannes Preuss’ Galamsey: For a Fistful of Gold, the documentaries tell audiences that Africa is still faraway from the march towards civilization.

However, there were a few redeeming documentaries though that told of the extraordinary efforts ordinary people are making to impact their communities and how such efforts are paying off.

Tourism expert, Pelu Awofeso’s White Lagos about Lagos’ foremost Eyo masquerades, ‘Laitan Adeniji’s Hope Restored: The Artistry of Freedom Park and ‘Deji Adesanya’s Ijebu Development Initiative on Poverty Reduction provided counter-narratives to the gloom and doom that characterised the other documentaries.

Ishaya Bako’s Read, Recite, Memorise is about the almajiri system that is largely abused by some Islamic clerics, who turn innocent children into street beggars against the norm of scholarship that these unfortunate children from poor homes are subjected in the guise of Islamic education.

While experts and laymen alike are agreed that the almajiri system has been abused, it appears governments and everyone concerned are not capable of putting an end to it or revamping it so it could serve the young ones better.

And so it continues deep into the 21st Century, as a monument of a failed system that cares less about the welfare of the vulnerable members of society.

Some fear that the almajiri system provides ready hands for mischief, the sort that feeds crimes like Boko Haram insurgents and other criminal behaviours.

Rau’s Congo Tribunal in the DRC evokes the tragedy of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where natural resources are exploited by state-backed multinationals that do not see the need to empower the local people much less improve their environments.

What results from such willful neglect is chaos, as local communities that feel cheated resort to self-help and provide their militias to fight the government and the multinationals to get a piece of the natural pie.

The DRC is rich in natural resources that enrich the larger international community. But the locals are excluded and impoverished from these natural riches in their lands. What they get in return are poverty, wars and criminal neglect perpetuated by the government.

The hollow responses of a federal minister at the Congo Tribunal echo across the continent; it seems governments in Africa are unanimous in appointing buffoons into public offices to ridicule the rest of society.

Congo Tribunal has strong resonance with the travails of oil-rich Niger Delta, where multinational oil giants willfully neglect host communities while mining crude oil.

The documentary serves to alert local communities on the need to tackle such companies from start and to draw up articles of business relations that must seek to empower the local community in terms of jobs and infrastructure.

The shinning example of Bonny Island and Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Ltd is worthy of emulation for business to thrive.

Akukwe’s Afia Attack: Trading Behind Enemy Lines is a historical journey into the less known Nigeria Civil War and how Biafra survived while the needless war ragged.

It is the story of the women of breakaway Biafra and how they stole behind enemy lines to get much needed food items to keep a dying young nation alive.

It is the story of resilience and courage in the face of extreme danger and how the women showed they are not always the weaker sex label credited to them. Those awesome women became the livewire of a premature nation struggling for survival.

Their story is harrowing and gut-retching. At the end the women affirm that ‘never again’ would such tragedy happen, ‘never again’ would they wish for such tragedy.

With so little known about the Nigeria-Biafra War in the larger Nigerian society, Akukwe’s Afia Attack: Trading Behind Enemy Lines would very well provide the history lesson the rest of Nigeria needs to learn so they do not forget what happened as Nigeria was just emerging from colonial rule back in 1967-1970. It is such an important lesson Nigeria should never forget.

Lee’s Burkinabe Rising: The Art of Resistance in Burkina Faso provides insight into the 2014 popular uprising that sent Blaise Campoure packing from the seat of power in Burkina Faso.

Foregrounded in Koudougou, the country’s second largest city that is also home to the country’s culture and artistic ferment, the documentary takes viewers to the heart of the resistance that changed the political equation.

It offers hope to a continent often blighted by bad leadership and temporarily returns power to the people, who often do not know how much of it they actually wield in deciding the political fortunes of their countries.

Through artistic ferment and consciousness, the Burkinabe discover they have the will to withstand the guns and armoured tanks and jackboots and topple an unpopular government, which has become a liability to a country’s wellbeing.

Preuss’ Galamsey: For a Fistful of Gold offers another perspective on the continent’s poverty trail. This time, it is Ghana, where there is gold rush.

The poor locals, the young men mostly, with little or no opportunities, dig deep into goldmines abandoned by the Chinese to eke out a miserable living.

They are aware of the dangers their activities pose to the environment, but they don’t care, as no other opportunities are open to them. Even the local police are not innocent bystanders; they are neck deep in the gold rush.

Violent deaths often occur and the stakes go high.

However, Awofeso’s White Lagos about Lagos’ foremost Eyo masquerades and Adeniji’s Hope Restored: The Artistry of Freedom Park provide counterpoints to the bleak narratives of earlier documentary films.

These two films, together with others such as Adesanya’s Ijebu Development Initiative on Poverty Reduction give insight to the endless possibilities individual and group action can achieve when they work with a purpose.

Particularly Hope Restored: The Artistry of Freedom Park that tells the story of a colonial prison turned into a park for artistic activities. iREP and other cultural events have found a home at the park.

iREP 2018 turned out the biggest gathering of film experts, enthusiasts and students from all over the world for a weeklong festivities. Master classes, workshops, lectures, panel discussions and film screenings characterised its loaded offerings.

Such big names in film – Jonathan Haynes, who launched his book Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres, Femi Odugbemi (Executive Director of iREP), Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, Chidi Maduekwe, Ilemakin Soyinka, Chike Maduegbuna, Paul Nwulu, Mr. Tunde Kilani, Mr. Mahmound Ali-Balogun. Prof. Awam Amkpa and Prof. Niyi Coker turned up and played prominent roles at the festival.