This year, the Sundance Film Festival was held online. For this Nigerian, this meant no snow, no hustling from venue to venue as I did last year in Park City, Utah, the US state that serves as the traditional grounds of the festival. Luckily, it also meant consuming an assorted platter of films not seen anywhere else just yet. You might gorge on what is available—you are encouraged to—but as with every edition of a festival with some magnitude, there is no chance you will be able to enjoy everything. You try but you won’t succeed.
Of the films you do see, there will be those that excite you and those that don’t quite do that. The hope at every festival is that the former surpasses the latter. What follows below are films from the 2021 edition of Sundance that I believe belong more to the exciting category, even if that word isn’t quite used here in the conventional sense of high action. Allow an oversimplification: by exciting films, I mean films that insisted on being written about.
Akinola Davies Jnr’s short film Lizard became the Nigerian story of the 2021 Sundance Festival when he won the grand jury’s prize. It tells the story of Juwon, a girl who patrols the premises of her mother’s church when she should be in Sunday school. She watches a pastor try to get with a woman who doesn’t quite seem to be of the same mindset as the pastor; in a different room, she sees what appears to be a financial engineering process.
These encounters with the venal aspects of adulthood reminded me of the James Joyce story Araby, where a child also collides with adulthood before strictly necessary. There is, however, a spiritual/metaphysical aspect in Lizard absent from the Joyce story. We never quite know if the child is changed by this precocious collision with adulthood but there is a chance that those glimpses into a world she can hardly understand will stay with her.
Shot on film, Lizard has a lived-in look complicated by its being shot in Lagos. And it is a testament to what is possible when Nigerian filmmakers tell stories that are genuinely Nigerian but have not been told 859 times already. Akinola Davies Jnr’s film was shot with British funds—but Nigeria can also lay claim to the film’s win: it was shot in Lagos with a Nigerian crew mostly. I’ll be hoping the film’s win gives Nigerian filmmakers a push towards trying for the global stage. I’ll be watching whatever the director does next.
Towards the end of the documentary President by director Camilla Nielsson, which follows the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe, the stunned members of the opposition MDC party wonder how a candidate can be declared winner “independent of figures”. I could sympathise with the sentiment, but I am Nigerian and part of what it is to be Nigerian of a certain age is to be familiar with the concept of electoral victories untraceable to voting numbers. Perhaps the main difference between Zimbabwe and Nigeria was the presence of big man Robert Mugabe, who was absent from that election—but yet present both in spirit and bodily, given that the eventual winner Emmerson Mnangagwa was a member of Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Hope, hope, hope is what we have,” the rival politician, Nelson Chamisa, says.
That could be the creed of the continent. The only problem is that it has been the same creed for decades. And at the end of the documentary, which, as you might imagine, is neither the product of a Zimbabwean director nor of Zimbabwean funds, you may think of the irony of its title.
Directed by Fran Kranz, it takes place entirely within the premises of a church and features two parents talking things over. Initially, it is unclear what the subject of discussion is; it gradually comes into focus. The pair of parents has lost two children, two sons. One of them lost his live in a mass shooting carried out by the other boy. There is grief, there are recriminations. Years have gone by but the wounds are raw. As the film is set mostly in one room, it recalls 12 Angry Men. And yet, the film I was reminded of is the relatively recent Carnage (by Roman Polanski). These films depend to a very high degree on the performance of the actors. And while the cast here do not quite reach the heights of those other films, they acquit themselves remarkably.
The film itself presents the real-life aftermath of a sensational news item. Mass shootings in schools often seem strange to readers outside of the west, but, as Mass shows, there is nothing strange about what happens after the reporters go home and the families of the deceased and the perpetrator have to live on.
Everybody loves Sesame Street—and if they don’t, they know about it. Watching episodes from it as a child, I never quite realised that it was even by then decades old. As the documentary Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street tells us, the famous children’s show started showing in 1969 in the US. The idea was an interesting one. “We are trying to sell the alphabets to pre-school children,” as someone says. A chunk of the funding came from the government, which should be particularly galling to a Nigerian who has to wonder about how all the children’s shows decades ago have practically disappeared from our screens. Is it even possible to get our country’s government to consider a project so impactful, even African kids, far away geographically and temporarily, were among the beneficiaries?
Away from the bad thoughts. Sesame Street got a host of talented men and women to create an exceptional programme for kids but it was hardly free from the politics of the time and from the interpersonal intrigue common to every workplace. A state yanked it off the air, one of the men behind it didn’t receive enough credit.
A lot of these issues, one suspects, could be the focus of a separate darker documentary but the filmmakers here are more invested in nostalgia and giving due to the original cast and crew of the programme who created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to show up on television.
As Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the people behind the programme, says to the late puppeteer Jim Henson in one interview, “It means that 200 years from now, people…will be looking at Bert and Ernie and Kermit the frog[…saying,] ‘interesting’” .Indeed. But not just 200 years later, 200,000 miles away, too.
Night of the Kings
Philip Lacote’s film Night of the Kings has ended up among the Oscar international film category shortlisted pictures after showing up at a couple of festivals including the Venice Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Sundance.
These are all prestigious festivals in global cinema and already suggest Lacote is in the big time. His film takes place at the MACA, a notorious prison in the Ivory Coast, where the inmates have their own rules. One of these rules concerns the leader: he must forfeit his throne and commit suicide if he becomes sick and can’t govern. When the film begins, Dangoro, the leader is sick but he is reluctant to go out just like that. He is bloodthirsty. He comes up with a plan when he sees a new inmate brought into the prison.
He asks the head of the prison for the young man and names him Roman, the storyteller of the prison. It appears a lofty role but…let’s just say it has its downsides, which everybody is being vague about. Nonetheless, to avoid whatever that downside will look like, the Roman would have to get smart about the length of his tale, if not the quality.
It is a plot that is intentionally reminiscent of Scheherazade, the famous lady who has beguiled many a storyteller since her appearance in Arabian Nights centuries ago. It is a remarkably filmed picture and one imagines the technical mastery required to film in a space as crowded with bodies.
Dropping Scheherazade in a dangerous African prison is a clever conceit and the film’s idea, if not quite its execution, is quite engaging—but parts of it feel like Lacote is putting on a show of black bodies for the benefit of a white audience.
Early in the film, a man in female clothing is harassed by a group of inmates and he strips and starts embarking on what looks like a sexual act before his audience get distracted. It is not a scene that adds anything substantial by way of plot or aesthetics to the film. The whole thing feels egregious.
Is Lacote trying to titillate his audience or provoke them. I don’t know, which is fine, but I doubt the director himself knows. Much later, the prison’s sole white prisoner offers some advice to the film’s protagonist and the politics of turning this white body in a sea of black bodies to a fount of helpful knowledge pretty much suggests that even with an African filmmaker calling the shots, the white saviour will still be relied on to save the day. Whatever else are the merits of this film, its racial politics are questionable.
There is a chance that Lacote is making a mythic representation of his embrace by the west in this film but, with his inability to imagine a different outcome despite using an Arabic tale as its scaffolding, the non-Caucasian viewer can hardly experience Night of the Kings without sourness.