It is six thirty on a Monday evening and I make my way through the skeletal tree lined wintry streets of Bloomsbury to the School of Oriental and African Studies where the UK premiere of Heritage, a film by veteran Nigerian film maker, Ladi Ladebo is holding. Shivering in my thick coat, I speak to Chuma Nwokolo, the Oxford based Nigerian lawyer and writer who expresses regret that he cannot be at the premiere. I make my way through the doors, flash my ID pass at the bulky security man standing at the barriers and find the Khalili Theatre where the event is taking place.
Outside the theatre there is a milling throng waiting to be admitted, it is seven o’clock, the time advertised for the film and someone in the crowd throws a quip about African time. The African Society at SOAS is organizing the event. Just then, the doors are thrown open and the crowd, a motley collection of all ages and races shuffle into the theatre. I bag a front row seat and marvel that the only visible equipment is a laptop and a projector. A petite black woman, dressed casually in a blue open necked shirt over black trousers fiddles with the lap top, inserts a disc, is satisfied and then clears her throat and shouts out over the hubbub of conversation that has filled the theatre. In an American drawl, she asks for silence and introduces herself as “Somebody” Ali Mazrui, I fail to catch her first name. She is a postgraduate student at SOAS, studying African cinema, and she introduces the film and its director, announcing that there will be a question and answer session with the director after the screening.
The film opens with the pulsing of Bata drums as images of various ancient Nigerian works of arts from Ife and Benin flash across the screen. There is a cut to the road leading from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and as the camera pans the road, the lush greenery at the roadside, the rickety molues on the road and the heaps of refuse, I recall my visit home to Lagos, a few months earlier. This airport shot presages the arrival of David (ably played by Anthony Ofoegbu a UK based actor of Nigerian-British parentage), a mixed race postgraduate student from the United States who has come to do research on missing Yoruba artefacts. He travels down to Ibadan where he is received by his old classmate (played by Bimbo Akintola, looking a lot more rotund than I remember her from her earlier roles in Nigerian home videos) and her friend. There are generous camera shots of Ibadan, the university and the surrounding areas and I am saddened by the deterioration of the buildings since my last visit to Ibadan almost ten years ago.
The plot of the film is simple; David comes in search of the missing artefacts and the Nigerian academic, Professor Fatu who has been imprisoned for years by the Nigerian authorities for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the sacred Sango artefact. In a whirlwind search, which features Yoruba culture, commentary on contemporary Nigerian society and humour, the film follows him in his search. Femi Fatoba is credible as the incarcerated professor and Kunle Bamtefa turns in a good performance as his civil servant brother. Segun Arinze is type cast as the evil torturer and his facial contortions draw laughter from the London audience. In the end, there are dramatic revelations, David is kidnapped and his eventual release is linked to Ifa rituals, which result in a well-timed lightning bolt striking his captors, in a scene reminiscent of many Nigerian home videos. There is a scene featuring a Reinhard Bonnke crusade in Ibadan, where masses throng in search of their miracles. The disembodied voice narrating at this point is difficult to place, but perhaps that is the director’s intention. The best scene in my opinion is in the middle, when Kunle Bamtefa’s character is asked to head a panel to review the organization of the local government and suggest reforms. His exchange with the local government chairman is authentic, humorous and yet sad. The chairman makes it clear that as long as he is able to “settle” the people that matter, nothing else matters. Wale Ojo also turns in a credible performance as Yomi who acts as David’s guide. Some of the characters speak impeccable English, while others do not, but I suppose that is characteristic of contemporary Nigerian society.
Innovatively, there are placements for Bond Bank and the Educare Trust in Ibadan, which receive publicity in the film. The director later reveals he had received support from these organizations as well as from the French Embassy in Lagos which paid for the services of a cameraman and some post production work in Paris.
The first question asked of the director is ” Who is your audience?” Without pausing to reflect, he says “Africans”. Ladebo, director of Bisi, Daughter of the River which starred Patti Boulaye and which I enjoyed as a child, reveals that he has stopped making commercial films since 1977. Since then, he has concentrated on what he calls advocacy films, which presumably explains why there is a strong whiff of the didactic about this film.
Explaining his decision, he describes his several attempts to break into the world commercial market, revealing that his last commercial film shot with Hollywood actors and distributed by Columbia Pictures closed after six weeks. He asserts that the world is not ready for films from Africa, pointing out that after taking each film round the different film festivals, the interest dies. He argues that many of his African contemporaries have had similar experiences, citing the example of a Malian filmmaker.
Since the eighties, Ladebo who will be sixty two this year has only made “films that I can get sponsors for, advocacy films” and has worked with various international organizations including UNICEF on themes as diverse as vesico-vaginal fistula, population and development, female circumcision, drug misuse and now international smuggling of artefacts.
He recounts that the making of Heritage gulped a large part of his family’s savings and he is eager to recoup his investment. Asked why he has not ventured into the burgeoning home video market, he reveals that he ” hates the idea of going to video”. He asserts that celluloid is “cleaner and requires a different discipline” and reveals that he now tends to shoot on 16mm as opposed to 35mm.
The motivation for making Heritage arose from a series of news items in Nigeria in 2001 describing armed raids on various shrines and museums to steal artefacts. Ladebo was also inspired by his perception of how artefact stealing is affecting the cohesiveness of Nigerian society. He argues that the artefacts were made for a purpose and that their loss impinges on the society. He compares the looting to trying to steal the Statue of Liberty, which he jokes, could lead to World War III if attempted.
While refusing to be drawn into what he calls “religious controversy”, he marvels that in spite of many colonial missionaries condemning African artefacts as fetish and primitive, many of them still went ahead to collect them, using the example of the Catholic Church which owns a 2000 year old Ife artefact to buttress his claims.
More controversially, he refuses to blame individuals and museums in the West who buy these stolen artefacts, preferring to blame African governments and the elite who he argues have played a major role in the loss of these works, often manipulating the poverty of the common people. He asserts that the chances of getting them back are slim, a point that does not go down well with sections of the audience. In defence, he cites his advanced age and experience (he will be sixty two this year), and his numerous discussions with museum directors all over the world in the course of researching this film. He appreciates the role of the Western museums, which have preserved many of these artefacts, and argues that there is a need to create an awareness and demand for culture and heritage among younger Africans. He argues that only when this is done, and a generation of Africans who realize the cultural value of these works emerge, will the demand for return mean anything. He asks how many Nigerians visit the National Museum in Lagos to view the few pieces left there and queries whether these artefact mean anything to the average Nigerian.
Ladebo intends to make another film in this area and has been talking to gallery owners, museum directors and African governments to bring the debate into perspective. He is angry at what he calls the hypocrisy of African governments, on one hand demanding the return of the artefacts, on the other doing nothing to educate their young people about these artefacts and paying lip service to the entire arts and culture sector. He says,” Stop pointing fingers at Western governments, when you are the ones impoverishing your people” He laments that even where attempts are being made to raise community awareness and to reclaim these artefacts, as in Mali, the initiatives are instigated and often funded by Western governments, individuals and organizations. He avers that if museums and art are given their right place in African educational systems, “in ten to twenty years, no one will need to teach people about their heritage.
Going back to the question of returning these artefacts, he suggests that from his research, what may be feasible would be a situation where a museum that owned several pieces from the same area could return some. Others would be available as travelling loans or collections, which could move between the country of origin and the present “owners” He however laments the state of many of the museums in Nigeria, citing a case of returned artefacts which were stolen from the museum where they had been returned. He is therefore pleased when I tell him about Matthew Gansallo, the first Nigerian senior staff at the Tate Museum and his initiative to establish a world standard museum in Abuja.
The final question is about his strong use of folklore and the supernatural in the film. He rejects the prefix “super”, saying it is entirely natural and arguing that in the average Nigerian consciousness, many of these themes are not regarded as supernatural, admitting that he is keen to cater to a Nigerian audience.
It is obvious that the caretaker is eager to lock up and so Ms Ali Mazrui thanks Ladebo and the audience for a memorable evening. As I move to congratulate Ladebo, he reveals that he intends to take the film round the UK, probably starting with African Societies in different universities. Walking back into the chill of a London winter, I am warmed by images of home.
Anya, a Nigerian writer and doctor, was Founding Secretary of the Abuja Literary Society and is currently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine