Yinka Olatunbosun reports on the homecoming of the England-based master cinematographer, Newton Aduaka, whose real world cinema held the Lagos audience spell-bound at the Nigerian Film Society’s screening of the award-winning movie, Ezra

Asmile played around this reporter’s lips while reading the caution at the entrance to the cinema hall: “Do not enter if the light is red”. But there was no bulb, by the way. The engulfing darkness leading into the screening hall at the Nigerian Film Corporation, Ikoyi always served as a reminder for footlights that should illuminate our paths between the chairs.

In retrospect, the Lagos cinema audience watched in awe and appreciation as Newton Aduaka, described as one of the most invisible film makers from Nigeria, evoked emotions and tugged at our collective conscience with the screening of a collection of his works. Born in 1966, a year before the Nigerian civil war, it is quite incidental that a lot of Aduaka’s works reflect the themes of war, apathy, humanity and existentialism.

With support from the Goethe-Institut Nigeria, the screening series spread across the weekend beginning from Saturday June 11. On June 12, Lagos saw his feature film, the pan-African movie, Ezra which earned him the grand prize at the Ouagadougou Pan-African Film and Television Festival in 2007. The movie had been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, an annual American film festival in Utah which is considered as the largest independent film festival in the US.

Ezra was the last movie to be screened last Sunday at the venue and it was worth the wait for that was the first time it would be screened in Nigeria. Described as harrowing by reviewers, it began as a fast-paced movie. The budget for the movie written by Aduaka and Alan Michel-Blanc is £ 1.6 million and the most difficult part is in categorising the movie. It can be classified under crime, war or psychological drama depending on the aspect of the movie that best resonates with a critic. What is very gratifying was the fact that Aduaka was present to field questions from the viewers whose interest rose with each movie screened.

But whatever impression the director made with each work, the story stays the same. The lead character whose name is the title of the movie, Ezra is a young Sierra-Leonean former fighter recruited as a child soldier along with his friends at school in broad day light. They were abducted in large numbers by heavily armed militants who took away their innocence and prepped them for blood-shed. It was everyday horror for the young ones as they watched the militants kill the school mates for refusing to take orders from the trigger-happy men. After the rigorous process of indoctrination, they were taught some rudiments of military routines including shooting sprees. With minds and bodies polluted, these children formed a large army that committed some of the worst crimes against humanity.

The technique of narration and editing is episodic with bouts of flashbacks to recount the central figure’s experiences. Ezra, who receives treatment at a psychological rehabilitation centre is required to appear daily before the national reconciliation tribunal to explain his involvement in the mass killings and destruction of properties in his home town. Sadly, he can’t remember anything. His sister, whose tongue was cut by the avengers, has all the details but can only scribble down the words for others to read. She is a key witness to all the crimes and has testified against her brother earlier in the tribunal.

Ezra is a hard nut to crack both at the rehab and the tribunal. Medically, he is found to be a victim of post-traumatic stress and has a violent temper. Before the tribunal, he seems to be covering up something. In the end, he explains that he was under the influence of the drugs called bubbles which distorts the mind and blanks the memory.
During the interactive session, Aduaka revealed more about the aesthetics of his cinematography.
“What caught me in film school is the real world cinema. I was influenced by new realism and social realism. I am interested in telling relevant stories, Russian cinema as well as American Independent cinema,” he began.

Aduaka does not mind if he is called a tragedist. For him, it’s legitimate art. Tragedies happen every day in various parts of the world and he won’t see turn his back on them to provide escapism for viewers. And the worst tragedy for any African film maker is to allow non-Africans to tell our own story in their own way.
“It’s a classic case of getting others to see your own story. If you want to stick to your own voice, you will have to pay for it. If not, you will compromise,’’ he observed.

Getting funds for such high-budget movie with strong global statements had been very difficult. Corporate brands often dodge war drama productions and most countries would prefer if the story is recounted to make the country look good, ultimately. For Aduaka, it is a continuous and frustrating wrestle to do war themes consistently in movies like he did.
“I wanted to stop making movies after producing Ezra,” he explained. There were things to say and I needed support to tell the stories. War movies are too damaging psychologically. Between 2002 and 2003, child soldier was a recurring theme in the media. There were lots of wars in Africa. And all the mechanism behind child soldier is beyond these puppets and puns put behind the bigger game. So, I gave voice to the black characters. When you sit with the children, it is heartbreaking. I can’t rehash that again because it is too painful.”

In the making of Ezra, Aduaka plunged into the sea of discoveries through his dogged research. He studied about Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Sierra Leone and other war-torn countries and found out that their war patterns are identical. Beneath the rubble of fighters often lay a common article of interest causing dispute, later snowballing into war. In the movie, it was diamond.

“I met child soldiers, psychiatrists and people at the criminal court at Hague. Altogether, the pre-production process took two years before the shoot,’’ he recalled.
Some in the audience wondered why the characters have different accents. It was not a particular concern for the director to hide the background of each actor since they were drawn from different backgrounds.
“Everyone is articulate in his own language,’’ was Aduaka’s argument when he examined the tendency for Africans to look down on their own indigenous languages. But as being a pan-African movie, English was selected as the language of expression.

“I didn’t want to say this is Sierra Leone. I wanted to show the picture of all the commonalities in African countries. My camera is chasing emotional truth. I don’t do cut-aways. If the rhythm works for me, I leave it that way. I am in a stage in my career where there’s no rule. The rest is intuition and work.

“People should know what wars are. If people know war is about, they would not even mention war or Biafra anymore.’’
Shot in Rwanda, Aduaka assembled the cast from different parts. Ezra, the lead character is from Sierra-Leone, his sister is French-Malian, while Mariam is from London. Nigerian-British actor, Wale Ojo also acted as one of the militants, although his only claim to lines was a few chants in a scene. The interactive session was moderated by the film maker and critic, Didi Cheeka.
pix: Newton Aduaka.jpg, A scene from Ezra.jpg and Nigerian-British actor, Wale Ojo.jpg