Stories by Vanessa Obioha
Recurring feedback from the recently-concluded iREP International Documentary Film Festival was how the opening and closing documentary films felt like a movie. The films did not toe the familiar path of interviews with the subjects but rather follow the actions of the characters without interference. This allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions based on the actions witnessed.
The opening film ‘President’ by the Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson had its camera on the political turmoil of the 2018 national elections in Zimbabwe following the ousting of the country’s longest autocratic ruler, Robert Mugabe from power.
His removal was supposed to signal a political shift to democracy but as depicted in Nielsson’s 2021 film, the road to democracy was still a thorny one.
The main character of Nielsson’s gripping film was the 40-year-old charismatic activist lawyer Nelson Chamisa whose campaign message of transformational change on the economic and political landscapes resonated more with Zimbabweans than that of Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling party, Zanu-PF.
Nielsson captured these moments delicately. From the rallies, and the inside campaign meetings at Chamisa’s party MDC headquarters to the polling booths. All of this signalled victory for Chamisa when compared to the sparse population at Mnangagwa’s rallies.
Yet, the hope of a transparent election was dashed as the election results were delayed leading to protests. Fearing a revolution, the army was brought in and ended up shooting and harassing civilians. The horrific scenes were remindful of the #EndSARS campaign two years ago that suggested protesters were shot at by soldiers.
Although Nielsson and her crew could not capture all the assaults on civilians, the impact was nonetheless conclusive.
As the film progressed, the fragility of democracy in the battered country became obvious. Attempts by Chamisa and his team of lawyers to question the credibility of the election results which favoured Mnangagwa continuously met a giant brick wall.
However, as much as ‘President’ ended with the inauguration of Mnangagwa as the new president of the African nation, Chamisa’s audacity and resilience resonated with the audience more.
Moumouni Sanou’s film ‘Night Nursery’ which closed the festival offered a different lens through which to view sex workers. Filmed in the county town of Bobo-Dioulasso, near Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, Sanou’s film followed the lives of two sex workers Odile and Farida, who depend on the services of Ms. Coda, an elderly lady who has been caring for children whose mothers earn their living on the streets at night. Like ‘President’, ‘Night Nursery’ humanised the lives of the flesh hawkers. The camera brought an intimate look to their lives, from the housework, the innocent children, banters and of course the amusing tales of the women’s experiences with their various clients. For instance, in one scene, one of them narrated to her colleagues how his client always wanted him to knock his head to attain sexual pleasure.
While both films resonated with the theme of the festival ‘Unfiltered: African Stories. Stories from Africa’, they reflected the thoughts of the documentary filmmaker Cheryl Uys-Allie who quoted Michael Moore’s advice in her address at the festival: ”Do not make a documentary, make a movie.”
Uys-Allie referred to Moore’s documentary film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ which grossed USD100 million, the highest for any documentary. She attributed the success of the documentary film to Moore’s ingenious version of infotainment.
“I believe if we can get that right we can shift documentary to the mainstream. With OTT and VOD platforms making documentaries increasingly accessible, …it is a time of renaissance for documentary, and yes we do need to adapt our model to make documentaries that entertain our audiences.”
Indeed, mobile technology is changing the form and structure of documentaries. With the introduction of micro-docs which are produced via mobile phones, filmmakers used to long format documentaries are adapting to the changes.
However, Uys-Allie added a caveat.
“The essential differentiator remains that documentary is fact, not fiction.”
“Documentary must merge history and individual stories through the lens of a Collective ‘I’ that gives voice to the voiceless – the documentary filmmaker speaking on behalf of this ‘collective’,” she said, quoting the Cameroonian documentary filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno.
“We need to acknowledge we are subjective. We are not journalists. We are not simply reporting the facts. We have an agenda. Telling our story is making sense of the chaos around us and sharing what we’ve learnt with our audience. Emotional responses by the filmmaker and characters in our films are not constructed. They are honest. The power of documentary is transformative,” she added.
This year’s iREP returned to physical gathering since the pandemic started. It was in partnership with the African World Documentary Film Festival and over 60 films were screened virtually to audiences across the world. The four-day festival also featured conversations, training, workshops, mentorship sessions and producers’ roundtable among others.