AFRIFF and the Witches

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By Yinka Olatunbosun

The Wait. It was long like a maiden’s skirt, but for the hot mixes from the wheels of steel at the red carpet, it could have been a bore, leaving many high-heeled feet sore. The wait was for the first movie screened at the opening night of African International Film Festival (AFRIFF), the seventh edition, which took place at Genesis Deluxe Cinema, Oniru, last Sunday. Actors, filmmakers, movie producers and other stakeholders in the industry arrived in trickles a few hours before the screening of the first set of movies for networking and if you like, glass clicking.

All seemed set as the special guest of honour and Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, surrounded by his entourage, walked in briskly.

Not so fast. A hand restrained this reporter from following the media team that gathered around the minister into the cinema hall. “Use the other entrance,” the stern looking, light-skinned lady said. It was about five minutes away. At the other entrance, after showing proof of invitation, a text message, entry was denied again. “Please, use the VIP entry,” another lady said, which should have cheered me up except for the fact that entry had been denied there at first.

Sensing that there was a disconnect between the very cultured organisers and the persons manning their entrances, this reporter demanded loudly why journalists from electronic media gained entry without scrutiny while others were given the run around.

The intimidation. With a voice towering above my height and the sum of those of the bouncer and “stern lady”, I gained entry into the venue as the soft-voiced explanation failed to work.

“I screamed my way to get in, do I need to scream to get a seat?” I gently asked the usher who quickly got a seat for me in the front row. It was later discovered that many colleagues who got in to witness the opening night were denied entry several times. Some never entered.

Recovering from the private fear of being turned away after driving for two hours on a light traffic Sunday, I settled into the cool temperature in an atmosphere of banters, kick-started by the Commissioner of Information and Culture, Lagos State, Steve Ayorinde. He promised that his speech would not be as long as Herbert Wigwe, CEO, Access Bank, a major sponsor for the festival. He welcomed the visiting stakeholders to the state which is hosting the festival for the second time.

“Lagos has always opened its arms and doors to visitors, ideas and collaborations,” he said. “The art, tourism and entertainment sectors are major doors through which engages in collaborations with the world. It is important to inform you distinguished guests that Lagos welcome the colours and glamour that AFRIFF brings to the state because we identify with education and entertainment values that the festival brings to the screen. We cannot have enough of such platforms especially in a 21 million city state like ours. AFRIFF is only seven this year. But it has already made remarkable impact such that this might as well be its Golden edition given that this year’s festival is coming at the time that Lagos just celebrated the 50th anniversary as a a state.”

Ayorinde further described Lagos as “a city with a vibrant artistic soul”, a fact that resonates in the spirit of the nightlife entertainment.
Earlier, in his speech, the CEO, AccessBank, Wigwe drew parallels between his financial institution’s mantra and the dream for the movie industry in Nigeria.

“We need to take our future into our hands,” hesaid. “My partner and I went from country to country, mobilising the private sectors to prove a point that we cannot keep waiting for the international community to support us. We have raised a lot of money and tripled the awareness.”

“What Access Bank is doing in the film industry is that we want to raise the standards, invest more in infrastructure so that we can compete across the world,” he continued, as he microphone projected a few noises. Were the witches to blame? Well, Wigwe didn’t say but only added, “it will get better.” The audience was amused.

In his opening remarks, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed highlighted the key objectives of the festival and why it has been consistently successful.

“For the past seven years, AFRIFF has continually created a rendezvous for film-makers from Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world, not only to exhibit excellent movies but to engage in creative
conversations to improve the profession and set a new agenda for the motion picture bloc,” he began.

“We are pushing for a single-digit interest on loans for infrastructural developments for the Industry. We are supporting the building of 100 community cinemas to be evenly spread across the country. We are close to having world-class pre- and post-production facility using the current NTA infrastructure with a few additions.

“We want to ensure that in the focus on studio facilities,  one is located in every geo-political zone of the country. And on the back of the DIGITAL SWITCH-OVER of our television, we are ensuring that the set top boxes are enabled to allow our 24 million TV households to buy our movies with and without the need of data. This way, the home goes digital.”

Meanwhile, the opening movie that night is a one-hour, thirty-minute long film set in Zambia titled, I Am Not a Witch. Directed by Rungano Nyoni, a debut film-maker, this impressive story of an eight-year-old girl, Shula, accused of witchcraft, proves to be an expose on how absurd bureaucrats profit from the culture of witch detection prevalent in many African societies today.

Shortly before the screening, a short CNN interview of former Akwa Ibom State Governor, Senator Godswill Akpabio with Becky Anderson was previewed. In it, he spoke extensively about his efforts then as a governor to stamp out random accusations and stigmatisation of suspected witches in the state. While acknowledging the existence of deadly supernatural powers, Senator Akpabio revealed that in most cases, women and girls are marginalised and ostracised on the basis of suspicion. This compelled him to enforce a legal framework that protects the rights to life and dignity for all indigenes of the state, witch or not.

Finally, the movie we had all come to see was loading on the screen. Titled, I am Not A Witch, it captures the sheer agony of a girl child wrongly accused of witchcraft, being groomed for marriage, and forced into a travelling witch show organised by a profiteer cum public official.

At the witches’ village, she was received with mixed feelings as she was the youngest of the lot. The witches, inspite of themselves, showed her love, devising means of letting Shula listen to the lessons at a nearby school, within ear-shot. Eventually, they gave her a “befitting ceremony” after her death. Her death was painful- a shocking stab to the hearts of many seated in the auditorium.

Undoubtedly, through this movie and several others screened at the week long event, AFRIFF has remained an eye-opener on the powerful role that African cinema can play in telling our stories with a view to expose societal foibles and propel necessary change.