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Taboos and the Reconstruction of African Cinema Realities

By Aseye Tamakloe

Storytelling mostly reflects the social, cultural and political aspects of society. Cinema in Africa has evolved since its inception and there is still a relentless effort to present new realities, while interrogating and deconstructing dominant narratives. 

This essay uses the concept of film as a medium of knowledge construction in the reading of the film October 1 (2014) by Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan. It also seeks to contribute to the pool of alternative narratives, informing historical and social reconstructions of African realities. 

Since the beginning of African cinema, many African filmmakers consider film as a tool for social, political and cultural discourse. (Cham and Bakari, 1996; Ukadike, 1994). There has been a collective effort by African filmmakers to use film to better the lives of Africans as well as interrogate different African experiences whether overtly or subtly. African cinema takes on a functional persona because the dominant narrative constructed by western societies about Africa is misrepresenting and offensive. Such narratives have imposed silences and ‘muted’ peoples. This is why it is prudent to recognize that ideas about culture have been at the center of the definition of ‘otherness’.     

Cinematic storytelling is essentially the art and act of revealing secrets and knowledge construction. This article locates storytelling at the heart of knowledge construction, while working within the framework of film as a social and cultural practice. My reading of the film October 1 (2014) centers African filmmakers’ efforts at constructing new African realities. October 1 for me, takes the same position as the novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Though set in Nigeria, the story indirectly applies to the life and history of most pre-colonial African societies, — one of the many reasons behind its acclaim. October 1, also set in Nigeria, indirectly represents the rest of Africa. I must state that ascribing to a continental ‘sameness’, is not to re-echo African homogeneity. For this article, it is useful to position Africa as  ‘together’ because of the shared colonial history, the universality and dominance of Catholicism and the Church as an institution. 

My reading of the film is a critical discussion about the storyline. I will not comment on the technical aspects of the film even though the film exhibits brilliant cinematography, editing, production design and ‘A’ class acting. A critical view of October 1 reveals it is layered with several themes, the dominant ones being the political history and ethnic tensions in Nigeria before Independence, with sub-themes of paedophilia and abuse. Other film reviewers and critics have pointed out that events in the film also hint at the post-independence Nigeria Civil War (also known as the Biafra war).

Directed by award-winning Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan and written by Tunde Babalola the film is set in 1960s colonial Nigeria. At the dawn of independence, Inspector Danladi Waziri, a police officer from Northern Nigeria, is summoned by the British colonial government to solve a string of murders in Akote, a Yoruba trading town before Independence. In a race against time to solve the mysterious deaths of young virgin women, terrible secrets and mysteries about certain notable people in Akote are unearthed. We learn that Aderopo, the only son of the Oba (the chief) of Akote and his school mate Koya, who were sent to Lagos for secondary education, were sexually molested by their guardian, Father Dowling . Koya ran away after 5 months, but Aderopo stayed on and endured years of sexual abuse just to complete his secondary education. He subsequently went to university and became Akote’s first university graduate.  Based on his experience, Koya declares Western education a scam that leads to evil. Aderopo also suffers from the pain inflicted by Father Dowling. 

 

Through the revelation of the two men’s past,  Afolayan and Babalola have touched on a taboo. The director and the writer’s vision to depict a particular set of historical facts in the hope of convincing their audience of the plausibility of these events during the colonial era is laudable. The use of the word ‘taboo’ is a provocation as scholars, experts and activists have bemoaned how abuse and paedophilia - in whatever form they have been presented - are seen as Western phenomena in Africa.   

The writer does not write in a vacuum because his social realities most often form the basis of his work (Achebe, 1965;  Cham, 1996; Sorlin, 1991). 

For many years we have been privy to reports about accusations of sexual abuse and scandals by catholic priests. Another film referencing this is Tom McCarthy’s Academy Award-winning film, Spotlight (2015). The film tells the story of an investigative unit of the Boston Globe newspaper whose investigations into allegeations of abuse by Boston Catholic priests, opens a national and global Pandora's box. 

There is a loud silence concerning the history of sexual abuse of young boys by white clergymen in Africa during the times of slavery and colonialism. This silence is reflected in October 1. Koya and Aderopo’s experiences are kept secret for many years and is only unearthed as a consequence of Inspector Waziri’s murder investigation. When child sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests emerge in Africa, they do not draw a frenzied reaction similar to what we have seen in the West. Speaking in an article titled ‘Africa is also grappling with clerical abuse, say Catholic leaders’ on catholicphilly.com, a concerned Catholic priest in Africa says,  “In Africa, clerics view the issue as too delicate and sensitive for the public, and many remained tight-lipped on the subject. I think the cover-up is very strong.”

I remember vividly the frenzy, chaos, global uproar and  the ensuing revelations of stories of abuse when Spotlight was released and nominated for an Academy Award.  However, I do not remember any news network in my country Ghana, discussing or doing a report on the Ghanaian situation or an African situation. This can be linked to our internalized denial of any such events.

 When October 1 was released it became a box office success but did not attract the same attention as Spotlight. As a filmmaker from Africa and a student of African cinema, I applaud the brains behind October 1 because they started a new conversation, a provocation and a contribution towards constructing new African realities. With Afolayan and Babalola’s film being available on Netflix their alternative narrative has the potential to reach millions of viewers across the world.  and hopefully have limitless impact. 

 Films are not only able to tell us about the world, they can also expand it by providing us with new perspectives and convey realities hard to articulate. Storytelling mostly reflects societies, and knowledge is constructed through storytelling.  The hegemony of colonialist ideologies, narratives and silences have affected image creation about Africa and to reconstruct these images is to reconstruct reality. The film, October 1 disturbs the equilibrium on a set of narratives about Africa. The disturbance of this equilibrium, thankfully opens up spaces for new conversations. 

REFERENCES

Achebe,  C. (1958). Things Fall Apart, Heinemann

Achebe,  C. (1965). English and the African Writer. Transition 4 (18): 29–30.

Afolayan, K. (2014). October 1 Golden Effects Production

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http://catholicphilly.com/2019/02/news/world-news/africa-is-also-grappling-with-clerical-abuse-say-catholic-leaders/