76 the movie: Mining history for cinematic capital – Toni Kan
Izu Ojukwu kept us
waiting so long for this movie that it almost started feeling like the second
The news that the award
winning director of Sitanda, which was nominated for a record 9 awards at the
2013 AMAA awards was making a movie revolving around the February 13, 1976 coup
sired excitement in its wake.
Young and uber
talented, many waited to see what Mr. Ojukwu would come up with. It took all of
seven years to make but what a meal it turned out to be.
76, the movie, is a
deeply affecting study of the human condition and well realised piece of art.
Starring Nollywood darlings Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic as the star-crossed
Northern/Igbo couple, the movie appropriates the history of a nation and
subsumes it under the quotidian domestic reality of two young lovers trying to
navigate not just ethnic and tribal minefields but one made much more
treacherous by the man’s job as a soldier in the Nigerian army.
Captain Dewa played by
Ramsey Nouah is a principled, taciturn soldier who loves his pregnant girlfriend
dearly. Obviously from the north, the middle belt, actually as his weather-beaten
404 shows by the J in the plate number, he has suffered some injustice which
instead of making him bitter, leaves him more committed to righting wrongs.
His attempts to pay the
bride price of his girlfriend is met with resistance from her father and
brother. Frustrated, they elope and by the time Suzie’s father comes to visit,
Suzie is heavily pregnant and expecting a baby.
Into this already
charged atmosphere is introduced the cataclysmic events of February 13 1976.
Dewa’s friend, Captain
Comos played by Chidi Mokeme is a fun loving almost hedonistic soldier whose
life is at odds with his best friends.
“We have been friends
right from the academy and have fought together and stood shoulder to
shoulder,” he tells Dewa but when he tries to corral Dewa into participating in
the planned coup, his principled friend declines and thus begins the tragic
Trying to force Dewa
into signing on as a putschist and dropping his ID card, Comos pulls a gun on
his friend. Dewa fights back, disarms Comos and escapes but not without
Dewa will not confide
in his wife but his refusal to participate in “Operation Lion Den”
has made him a target. The manhunt for Dewa in the barracks is a suspense
filled twenty minutes that underlines Izu Ojukwu’s directorial acumen.
It is also a comment on
the military code, the chain of command and a deep psychological study of man
and the hunger for power. Suddenly, two best friends become enemies each not
just intent on outsmarting the other but Comos ready to kill his friend and
while all this is happening, Suzie is close to labour and completely oblivious
of the tragedy about to befall her.
The coup takes place
with General Murtala Mohammed paying with his life alongside those of his
driver and ADC. The mix of historical footage and Izu Chukwu’s actors make for
authenticity and rising emotional arc. But nowhere is this more beautifully
realised than at the Bar Beach scene where Suzie arrives the beach on the day
of execution and walks around the milling crowd intent on catching a final
glimpse of her lover.
Izu Ojukwu manages to
insinuate the Black Maria which conveys the coup plotters into a frame that
captures the swirling waters of the Atlantic in a pure instance of filmic
The story of 76 is
therefore not just a period piece bringing to life a well-known narrative but
one which beautifully appropriates a true historical moment to tell a universal
story of love that endures despite the odds.
In that wise, 76
becomes a contemporary parable of the Nigerian state with all our ethnic,
tribal and all-too-human fault lines in bold relief. There is Biafra, military
incursions in politics, the economy, vaunting human ambition, betrayal and
above all love.
When Suzie’s brother
tells her that “unlike you I have a price” what we hear is a loud commentary on
Dewa’s principled stand and the price that one pays for it as well as the
ambition that drives men to murder.
When the chain smoking
OC says “Mission accomplished” one can almost hear the jangle of 30 Shekels of
Izu Ojukwu does
suspense well. He has a gift for timing which is critical to good story telling
because it is in silence and suspense and that which is left unsaid that the
most eloquent statements are made.
When the phone rings,
minutes after General Murtala Mohammed is ambushed in Lagos, the scared looks
on the faces of the plotters before the OC picks up the ringing phone is worth
a thousand words.
It is also there,
towards the end of the movie, in the looks Suzie exchanges with the wife of
their neighbour which show without words that despite all their differences
their shared pain as wives of two detained officers has made them sisters of
Izu Ojukwu’s story
brought to life by Emmanuel Okomanyi’s screenplay raises the bar as a beautiful
exploration of character and motive and the casting does it justice. Ramsey
Nouah and Rita Dominic deliver stand out performances. Their acting is
understated yet emphatic and powerful.
Chidi Mokeme is a
delight as the lothario modelled clearly after Dimka but the real discovery is
Adonijah who plays the DMI interrogator,
Captain VM Jaiye, who is saddled with unravelling guilt. His character is a
study in control. A true sleuth, he is almost without emotion. His smile is
nothing but a shadow of a snarl and one is never sure what he will do next.
Calm, controlled and
intent on ferreting out the truth, he walks into Dewa’s cell and says
“Congratulations. You have a daughter…I have two.” but then a little while
later after a search of Dewa’s house fails to turn up what they have come to
find, his ferocious side becomes apparent then when Suzie comes to him with a
vital piece of information, he pockets it then turns icy cold.
“Some part of me that
respects you is reason why you have not been arrested.”
The sense of controlled
menace that attends his actions is akin to what the poet, William Butler Yeats
called a “terrible beauty.”
There are a few
missteps of course but the most obvious is the casting of Ibinabo Fiberisma as
Dewa’s sister in an ill-advised move to provide a back story for Dewa. Ms.
Fiberisima adds nothing to the movie, has the longest line in the movie and
appears almost like a vestigial appendage.
Isu Chukwu has made a
remarkably satisfying movie which mines history and uses it as an excuse to
examine what it means to be Nigerian and following his robust explication of
military life, one would not be surprised to find a bump in enrolment figures
into the Nigerian military because his actors, in their military uniforms, make
the Nigerian army look amazingly good.