Nollywood, Meta-Narrativity and the Challenges of Narrating History in Half of a Yellow Sun and Black November
Victor Osae IHIDERO
PhD Research Student
Department of Theatre and Performing Arts
Ahmadu Bello University (ABU)
Zaria, Kaduna State
One of the emerging ways by which most authors now preserve historical literature is by conserving it within the frame of films. Film within the context of historicity entertains, educates and reminds viewers of the trajectory of past events in relation to existing realities. As such, Nollywood is, more than before, becoming notorious for translating literary-text that expresses ethnic struggles into films. Before now, only a few famous works of Nigerian authors have successfully made a translation into films with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart making a transition to television in the late 1980’s. However, what commonly eludes the psyche of many film producers today is the fact that while translating historical literature into film, the history of the people that owns the historical material or shares the historical experience is being re-interpreted, rewritten, packaged and narrated as the factual version of the original history. Thus, in attempting to narrate people’s history from literature to film, other narratives are birthed. These new narratives are born out of the director’s voice in such films and the viewer’s rapport with the original history. This paper therefore, by means of nuanced meta-analysis of Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a film translated from Chimamanda Adichie’s book of the same title and Jeta Amata’s Black November, a film concerning the struggles of the Niger Delta people, examines the complexities of narrating history side-by-side the obscurities that emerge from the construction of Igbo and Ijaw identities.
Keywords: Nollywood,Meta-narrativity and History.
Nigeria’s film industry began many decades ago. The industry consists of films produced in English language, popular known as Nollywood, the Yoruba film industry, the Kano film industry (Kannywood) which produces films in Hausa, the Igbo language films as well as those in other local languages of Nigeria. The direct-to-video (VHS, VCD and DVD) distribution progression which is the motif of Nollywood was prompted in 1992 with the film Living in Bondage, “the first commercially successful movie shot straight-to-video” (Idegu 176). The commercial success of Living in Bondage brought about a new era of Nigerian filmmaking demonstrating what, Oyewole (3-5) note, could be achieved with few resources and lowering barriers to entry for many talented filmmakers who struggled to fit into the . Since the production of Living in Bondage, the hunger for Nollywood films and the indigenous stories they tell has been widespread with viewership of over six million in 178 countries (n.pag). The sizeable amount of viewership around the world has helped to improve the quality of Nollywood productions and increase the making of films with international appeal. This is evident in the rising amount of quality film productions which have made their way into international film festivals and enjoying premieres screenings in major film markets around the world. This success has placed leading Nigerian actors on the international scene who are being nominated for prized international awards.
One of the ways Nollywood is opening up new frontiers in film production is through international collaboration with the Hollywood and the British film industry; and more, with the retelling of historical events in Nigeria adopting a cross-cultural cross-performative narrative technique in its productions. Some of the historical events that has seen such cross-performative telling includes Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a film adapted from Chimamanda Adichie’s novel of the same titling about the Nigerian civil war; Jeta Amata’s Black November, a telling of the struggle of the people of the Niger-Delta as vanguard by the martyred Ken Saro Wiwa; Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen’s Invasion 1897, an account of the British invasion into the Benin Kingdom; and Kunle Afoloyan’s October 1, a film set in Nigeria against the backdrop of the Nigerian independence in 1960. Of these films and many more that attempts to historicize major events in Nigeria’s socio-political history, Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Jeta Amata’s Black November stand out; firstly, because of the narratologic nucleus of the two films which attempts to represent the identities of two different areas of Nigeria with distinct culture, their struggle for self-determination and their conquest; and secondly, the story that emerges from combining history and fiction. The ways and manners these two Nollywood films fictionize history and concoct a narrative for them throw up a substantial challenge for the Nigerian film critic to appraise.
Historicity, Narration and Meta-Narrativity
Historicity is a broad concept in philosophy that identifies human beings as unique and concrete historical being. However, in drama as in film, it has to do with the actuality of persons and events, meaning the quality of being part of history as opposed to being myth, legend, or fiction. Historicity, Harre and Moghaddam explain, “focuses on the truth value of knowledge claims about the past – denoting historical actuality, authenticity and factuality” (94-120). Thus, actuality, authenticity and factuality are key concepts that could be considered in narrating history. According to Etherton, “actuality is what is to be depicted” in history, in film and/or historical film (59). He explains further that:
It is life, viewed by those who would seek to interpret it to their audience through their art. The first step in the process of transforming life into art, into drama or film is to cast it in the form of a story with the ‘history’ involving particularization (a time, a place, characters) and causality (one event leading to another). However, the history in itself is not the ‘film.’ The story which particularizes life now needs to be transformed into a scenario. The scenario gives the story filmic impact by its effective reorganization of the history’s event into scenes which cope with problems of time and space (59-60).
Narration plays the role of a motor in achieving this process. Defined as a story about events that took place in history or are taking place in the present, a narrative is the system of telling or retelling of (historical) events. Within the framework of film, a narrative usually has a dramatic plot that develops over time, with clear starting points and endpoints. Auerbach notes that, “a narrative is etched in the memory because of its internal cohesion, which is achieved by means of a clear and solid foundation based on the five elements known in media as the five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why” (101). “How?” was later added to the five W’s by Manoff and Schudson (n.page). The addition of “How?” validates the importance of narration in films. Nonetheless, how does this verifies the actuality, authenticity and factuality in historical films?
The genre of ‘historical film’ or ‘history film’ is relative and malleable to such an extent that it is possible to comprehend its real nature simply by examining the relationships it embraces with history, which is the only familiar denominator capable of validating it and of providing an angle of attack for dealing with questions which Bartholeyns such as: “Does this film conform to historical reality?” and “Is it a faithful reconstruction?” (31).
The difference between authenticity and f/actuality; and the concepts therein, is one of the problems that beset historical film-makers in Nollywood. Nollywood filmmakers utilize certain ‘methods’ to call forth history, by way of particular procedures of aesthetics or tangential types of representation. In spite of the divergent methods the historical filmmakers of Nollywood have employed, they have not been able to create, albeit successfully, balance between historicity and authenticity not to talk of exploring the schema submitted by Etherton (58-9). What they, as well as other film critics of Nollywood have been able to do is hide under the pretext of historiographic metafiction to examine historical films whereas the idea of metafiction is still a genre exclusive to literary text. This is rather an escapist approach considering the fact these historical films are national narratives that could find their ways into national archives and much so for the consumption future generation. As a genre, historiographic metafiction is subject of much challenge to historiographers even though it has been largely explored by filmmakers and literary writers. Normative criticism for metafiction is yet to be fully developed. What is present as criticisms are attempt to impose the genre on national narrative.
The historicity of a film Bartholeyns observe, “can legitimately be measured by external criteria: costumes, set and language. However, it should not be confused with the rare impression of authenticity, which is not dependent on what does or does not conform to the original” (34). ‘Authenticity’ has no relationship with historical accuracy. Thinking otherwise could be misleading because staying committed to accuracy on screen may as well miss the inner truths of the past or its soul. Bhabha acknowledges that “accuracy is neither the cause nor the consequence of authenticity, and should instead be understood as the character of that which expresses a profound truth about man” (19) in time and space. How this truth is kept and narrated over time and more so, with agreeable consistence in the changing space of time birth meta-narrativity. Meta-narrative is a story about and beyond stories. The term was brought into prominence by Jean-Francoise Lyotard in 1984 to mean narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience or knowledge.
On a broader note, Kupfer refers to meta-narrative as film stories that call attention to the importance of stories and storytelling in real life (3). Historical films tell a story of past and present events and has narrative as their subject; meta-narratives, deepens the human appreciation of these. Meta-narrative here refers to films that examine the narratives told by real and fictional people. It refers to films that make prominent the way movies tell stories. This study examines the narrative of two popular award-winning historical films, Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun (to be henceforth referred to as HYS) and Jeta Amata’s Black November (BN).
The Biaxial Narrative in Half of a Yellow Sun and Black November
HYS is a film that zigzags between the independent Nigerian state in spaces and time. Set in the turbulent 1960s, during the period of civil war that saw the country fall on the brink of division, HYS stars British Oscar nominee and Commander of the British Empire, Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Nigerian role of Odenigbo, the “revolutionary lover” who is caught up in the historic events of the time. Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) return to Nigeria after their education in England. They make decisions that shock their family. Olanna moves in to join her revolutionary lover, Odenigbo and his houseboy Ugwu (John Boyega) in Nsukka whilst Kainene takes over the family interests and pursues a career as a businesswoman, falling love with Richard (Joseph Mawle), an English writer.
Odenigbo, a lecturer at the University of Nsukka, spends his evenings, meeting with his group of like-minded intellectuals. All they do is talk mostly, drink, and argue and talk some more while civil war looms menacingly closer. High-handed tribal politicking and carnages against the Igbos follow. As the Igbos struggle to establish Biafra as an independent republic, the sisters become caught up in the shocking violence of the Nigerian Civil War and a betrayal that threatens their family coexistence.
Four characters: Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene and Ugwu form the pillars for Biyi Bandele’s chronicles of the country’s civil war history, as he zig-zags between time but in a move that is more visually expedient. Bandele narrows the plot to a linear narrative with Olanna as the centrepiece. The film uses short documentary videos of the Nigerian Civil War to establish different relevant scenes that the Nigeria state is still grappling with. The documentary videos play the role of a motor to drive home the cause of the war from Bandele’s point of view. However, despite the robust use of historical materials to establish the self-determinational struggle of the Igbos, Bandele’s HYS could be seen as more of a tale of lovers caught up in the time of war and their struggle survival than a historical document. Nevertheless, such appreciation is not the desideratum of this study. The ways and manners the film is narrated using a biaxial method of constructing historical fiction is the concern of this study.
The film’s use of recorded historical document and mixture with fiction makes the story biaxial; that is, two layered, with the interpretation of the history document into fiction bringing about a ‘para-gendered’ narrative, master-slave cum colonial narrative, post independence, war narratives and the media. HYS’s biaxially has para-gendered narrative on one end of its construction and war on the other. The both are neatly woven into the story with beautiful transition of scenes with John Boyega serving as the film’s narrator. Para-gender is a way of taking gender outside of its traditional context in order to avoid stereotyping. At a discursive level, this plays out in the film among the women in relation to the male characters.
The historical accuracy and authenticity of HYS is factual in presentation. It is a visual tapestry that shows Nigeria in the 1960s; its music, mood, fashion, thoughts and intellections of both the elite and the plebeian. However, in the reclination to the past and the interpretation of it lies the story of HYS, not the one the audience see at first view. The documentary within the film nourishes the development of plot in HYS. It shows the cause-and-effect build-up to series of event both before and during the war. Nevertheless, the sympathy of the director/screen-player in the course of narrating his story is as well caught up in the conflict of the war. He finds it difficult to maintain a neutral position without taking side with either the federal troop or the Biafrans. What the director/screen-player, Biyi Bandele ends up with is running a commentary on the war instead of a representation of it in frames.
The Biafrans in HYS seem to be pursued by unseen spiritual forces than the Nigerian troops who is never seen in the film. The Biafran troops were not seen as well. Who fights a war without soldiers? The only time the audience comes in contact with anything that would have suggested a Biafran fighter or fighters is the recruitment and training of the Boys Brigade in the film. Not a bullet is shot by the Biafran in the film. No resistant or success of the Biafran troops recorded. Not even Col. Odimegwu Ojukwu’s initial claim of the readiness of Biafrans is represented. HYS presents the Igbos as if they are at war with themselves. Nothing is shown in the film or heard via radio broadcast of the federal troops. The few times a picture of war is seen in narration are in Boyega and Newton’s makeshift classroom and teaching of pupils in cleared part of the forest, the wedding ceremony of Ejiofor and Newton, camps for displaced persons and Rose’s disappearance. Even the character of Rose is not well established for the audience to sympathize with her or Mawle. What is her course in HYS? But who were the real enemies of the Nigerian state before the war and how is the narrative interpreted?
Nzeogwu’s radio broadcast coupled with the conversation between Ejiofor and his allies of intellectuals opens up another narrative interest. Nzeogwu says:
Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places who take bribes…. Those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office…. The tribalist, the nepotist…
But who are these people and to what tribal or ethnic grouping do they belong? M. Adebayo’s (Genevieve Nnaji) revelation, along with those of Anonymous airport staff in the airport seems to provide answers.
Ms. Adebayo: The BBC is calling it an Ibo coup and they have a point because mostly northerners were killed after all.
Professor: It was mostly northerners who were in government.
Odenigbo: But who put the northerners in government to dominate everybody. If we had more men like Nzeogwu in this country we’ll not be where we are today.
This dialogue indicts the Nigerian state. It narrates the distrust among the Nigeria state at the wake of independence and gives currency to present reality. But the Igbos are not saints themselves. The Anonymous airport staff at Kano airport gives his account of the Igbos thus:
Airport staff: (To Olanna). Would you like to read this?
Airport staff: They have finally removed that Igbo Vice Chancellor at the University of Lagos. The problem with the Igbo people is that they want to control everything in this country; everything. They own all the shops, they control the civil service; even the police. If you arrest them for a crime as long as they can say Ked a they will let you. And with this coup, they control the army.
Olanna: Its ke du? It means “how are you”
Airport staff: Are you Igbo?
Olanna: Yes Igbo!
Airport man: But you have a face like the Fulani
Olanna: No! Igbo!
The conversations above reveal the multilayered power structure and interaction between the peoples of Nigeria in ‘60s and furtive role of colonialist in fuelling the divide. Or could this be the real enemy Nzeogwu refers to in his broadcast or the Yoruba chiefs who, Odenigbo tells us, “go to the north to thank the emir for sparing the Yoruba people”?
Odenigbo’s revelation even gives us fresh information concerning this aspect of the event leading to the war thereby indicting the historiographers that omitted that part from the narrative of the civil war. The film concludes by asking Richard (The British writer and husband to Kainene) a question that Richard stutters at.
Odenigbo: What do you think account for the success of the Whiteman’s mission in Africa, Richard?
Kainene: Perhaps, you should first account for the failure of the Blackman to curb the Whiteman’s mission.
Giving the present reality in Nigeria as well as for the rest of Africa, this poser remains significant in the narrative of divergent challenges that confronts the Nigerian mind and identities. What effect could this poser have on the people of the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria and the making of Jeta Amata film, Black November?
Black November is a fictional film with subtle discursive documentation. The film derived its title from the month in which the activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995. Arugba (n.pg) notes that it is a reissued version of the 2011 film Black Gold. Approximately 60% of the scenes were reshot and additional scenes were added to give the film currency. The film falls short of a lot of things ranging from disjointed half-developed scenes, poor character development for the protagonist, and poor decorum to stereotyping in acting, dialogue and style. As Kan note, “BN attempts to be many things all at once; it is both advocacy and propaganda, Nollywood and Hollywood but it fails woefully in becoming something of character and substance” (27).
The film begins in a Warri Prison in the Niger Delta where a knot is being set up to hang Ebiere (Mbong Amata). Action switches to Los Angeles, California; where the hostage taking of Tom Hudson (Mickey Rourke), the CEO of Western Oil is kidnapped on his way to the airport by the “United People’s Front for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta People of Nigeria”. The hostage taking is executed by the leader of the movement, Tamuno (Enyinna Nwigwe), Timi (Wyclef Jean), Opuwei (Akon), Timi (Razaaq Adoti) and Pere (Robert Peters) after arranging a motor accident near the Second Street Tunnel. Also kidnapped is the reporter, Kristy (Kim Basinger) and her cameraman. Tom Hudson, his wife (Kristin Peterson) and Kristy, together with several others at the accident scene are captured and held hostage within this tunnel which has already been closed off on both sides by the group. Seven hours, no communication is heard from the tunnel - the police, the anti-terrorism unit and the general public have no idea who the “terrorists” are or what they want. Meanwhile in the tunnel, Tamuno tells Tom that they are in Los Angeles to save Ebiere and declares that if Ebiere is eventually hung in Nigeria, then the “truly guilty” ones (Tom Hudson and Americans) should go with her. He releases the women and children and instructs Kristy to record what is happening in the tunnel.
The film flashes back to 21 years earlier during military era as Tamuno narrates their ordeal to the public via Kristy's camera. Ebiere is born in Warri during the Military era; she concludes high school and is offered scholarship by Western Oil to study overseas. A few years later, an oil pipe in the Niger Delta bursts and the people of the community go to fetch petrol from the pipe, Dede (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), a fisherman discovers that fishes in the river have been killed by the oil spillage. The police arrive at the spillage site and demand that the Villagers vacate the area, but no one listens to them. Ebiere arrives in the village – her home, and is told her mother and siblings are getting fuel from a spillage site. On her way to the site, the site explodes killing her mother and siblings. The explosion appears to have been an accident, caused after one of the police officers sent to disperse the oil collectors lights a cigarette after having failed to do so. He is killed as well. Ebiere speaks up at a consolation visit of Western Oil staff (An oil rig American company based in Warri) and is applauded by members of the Community. This establishes her as one of the speakers for the Niger Delta Community, she is approached by Kate Summers (Sarah Wayne Callies), a reporter who likes her speech and says Ebiere is different from the rest of the community people, Kate becomes one of Ebiere’s friends and supporters. Ebiere starts to organize peaceful protests and mass rallies for their voice to be heard, fighting for the Niger Delta to be cleaned up and well maintained - they are mostly beaten, raped, killed and/or arrested by the Military in the process. Ebiere is offered bribes severally by Western Oil representatives to stop her from instigating the people, but she always declines.
Dede, whose wife and only child died in the explosion however believe protests will never solve anything and that the Government can only listen through violence. Dede starts to have people on his side (including Tamuno, who was a dedicated Police Officer) after an incident in which the Army invades their village and rapes their women, right in front of them. Ebiere continues with her protests while Dede forms a militant group, showing their displeasure through violence, vandalism and kidnapping Western Oil officials. Western Oil eventually convinces Ebiere (who is now Dede’s love interest) to help ask Dede and his group for dialogue with government. It turns out to be a ploy to get them arrested. A shoot-out occurs, leading to Dede and his group being killed.
Chief Gadibia (Isaac Yongo), one of the Chiefs who have been receiving bribes from Western Oil, and also embezzling funds meant for community development, tells his fellow elders that he’s no longer interested in the “unclean” money and he wants to return his share to the people. Gadibia dies the following day after the Elders poisoned his drink the previous night. Peter (OC Ukeje), Gadibia’s son whom he has already confessed to, explains the incident to Ebiere and how sure he is that his father was murdered by the Elders. Gadibia’s stolen fund is discovered in his house and the other elders involved are captured by the community people, led by Ebiere. Ebiere wants the Elders to be reported to the police, but the people refuse to listen and set them ablaze instead. Everyone at the vicinity of the crime is arrested by the Police; Ebiere however claims responsibility for the crime and is sentenced to death by hanging. The film shifts back to the present in the Los Angeles tunnel; Tom Hudson calls Nigeria’s Head of State and tells him to do something to stop the execution of Ebiere, but his request is not granted. Angela (Vivica Fox) of the US Anti-terrorism unit advises that the United States make a diplomatic call to the Nigerian Government, but the head of the department says they do not negotiate with terrorists. They eventually resolve to issue a deceptive press release, stating that Ebiere has been released. When the emancipation movement is informed about the release, they drop their weapons as a result and also release the rest of the hostages, including Tom Hudson. They are arrested by the United States Police, while Ebiere still gets hanged in Nigeria.
Black November adopts ‘captivity narrative technique’ to tell the stories of the Niger Delta peoples. One of the traits of captivity narrative is that the protagonist is captured and describes his experiences. BN falls within this technique. The film without knowing attempts to provide answers to Odenigbo and Kainene’s poser using captivity narrative. The success of the Whiteman’s mission in Africa is the default system that estranges the plight of the masses from their government. This is expressed in BN through the activities of Western Oil and the identity construction of Nigerians. The conversation between Ebiere, Gideon White and Tom Hudson in the ‘negotiation scene’ is a testament.
Gideon White: This is Nigeria, Ebiere. Think like a Nigerian.
Ebiere: Am I supposed to collect a bribe to be Nigerian?
This dialogue throws up the complexities of being Nigerian; and/or how the West and their agencies draw an identity of Nigerian. Hudson’s comment later reverberate this.
Hudson: What Nigerian does not accept a bribe?
Ebiere’s personality and total refusal to accept any bribe or succumb to the wiles of the system is resistive and shows the individuality of the Nigerian character. Again, the narrative on the birth of militancy can be seen biaxially. The story itself ends up to become either a political drama mixed with international diplomacy or a propaganda whereas the environmental degradation and pollution were essentialized in the beginning of the film. The socio-economics of the Niger-Delta environment set the background of the film. However, the story moves from addressing the environmental issues it establishes at the beginning to politics, diplomacy and propaganda making it difficult to comprehend the commitment of the film. Even the essence of Ebiere’s emergence in the struggle for better and cleaned up environment was swallowed by the emotion the film released making it a kind of agitprop drama.
The narrative of the brutality of the military government is richly explored. The brutality feeds the gradual birth of militancy in the Niger-Delta from lens Jeta Amata’s BN and defines the turn which the struggle takes. Ebiere’s visitation to the creek is revelatory. She asks Dede (Hakeem Kae-Kazeem) thus:
Ebiere: Is this what you have turned into; a mere criminal? What has become of you Dede?
Dede: I have become what the government has made me be…. This is no longer about the money. It is about a movement for us. It is about our land.
This suggests a gradation of the guerrilla warfare that ensues in the film. Again, the Odenigbo’s poser resurfaces. What is the role of the West in the Niger-Delta conflict? The film shows in quick succession the trade that takes place between the militants and an unseen Whiteman; his face removed from the viewing of the audience. This technique narrates the artificiality of the West in resolving the conflicts of the Niger-Delta region. The film ends without resolving the conflicts it create. However, its narrativity, in spite of the film’s shortcomings, is prefigured in a way that it uses flashbacks to establish the present.
Nigeria has a robust film industry which is now the third highest sources of income for the Nigerian government. Recently, Nollywood, as the industry is popularly known, is experiencing a massive rise in the exploration and interpretation of historical materials for films contributing to the growth of a genre known as Historical Fiction. These films in themselves are products of a history and could become history as the future generation may refer to them in national conversations in near future. However, the ways this genre of film is narrated births other layered stories and discourses within the film that are important but inadequately portrayed. Producers and directors of historical fiction face this (narratological) challenge in attempting to submerge history to fiction or fiction to history. Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Jeta Amata’s Black November are testimonials to this challenge.
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