Transcript of a Keynote Lecture
Delivered by Filmmaker, DR. JOANNA LIPPER
-March 18th, 2021
Good afternoon. I am honoured to be here today to celebrate iREP’s 10th Anniversary. I want to begin by going back in time to when I first wrote this lecture for last year’s festival which was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Here is an excerpt from my journal dated March 18th, 2020:
My spirits sink as my hopes of being in Lagos for iREP’s 10th Anniversary Film Festival are dashed. At home in London under lockdown, the days blur into each other. I hear the familiar sounds of my children playing upstairs. Their school is closed. Our home is our refuge, our learning, working, feeling, thinking, eating, sleeping, dreaming and remembering space, our sole destination. Here in this room where I sit typing, my computer screen is my virtual window on the world. From my real window I see a dirt path meandering up a deserted hill dotted with daffodils and towering trees. The midday sun shines high in the sky, but not with the same intense, exuberant brightness I am accustomed to seeing at this hour in Nigeria.
My mind meanders back to a crisp, Autumn afternoon in September of 2019.
Filmmaker and iREP co-founder, Femi Odugbemi, was in London with his wife, Regina. We arranged to meet for lunch. At noon, I joined Femi and Regina at a restaurant. Femi surprised me with some wonderful, unexpected news: My film The Supreme Price had been selected for iREP’s 10th Anniversary Showcase of the top documentaries that had screened at their festival during the past decade. Femi asked if I would attend the March 2020 edition of iREP to present and discuss the film. I enthusiastically agreed. A few weeks later, I received the official invitation via email from iREP co-founder, Jahman Anikulapo. He wrote, “The anchor theme for the edition is ‘Africa in Self-Conversation.’ You are expected to speak on ‘Documentary Film and the Sanctity of Democratic Space’ which is a subject we are aware your award-winning film, The Supreme Price explores.”
I was struck by the weight of the word “sanctity” which for me evoked a sense of vital importance, inviolability, security and protection from destruction. Little did we know in Fall of 2019 what we all know now, nor could we have imagined that due to the Coronavirus, iREP and countless other events all over the world would be postponed, planes grounded, borders closed, theatres vacant, concert halls quiet, cinemas dark.
In the midst of the pandemic, it was video footage documenting the homicide of George Floyd while in police custody that brought people all over the world out of isolation in their homes into the streets in protest against systemic racism. Solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement was visible immediately in Africa and throughout the world. Powerful images featuring the masses bearing signs with slogans combined with voices chanting at protests communicated demands for an end to police brutality, insisting on justice, equality, transparency, human dignity and accountability.
In Nigeria, the ENDSARS movement gained momentum in October of 2020. The contemporary themes of democratic governance, justice, accountability and an end to police and military brutality that were so prominent in ENDSARS were also central to the historic campaign of M.K.O Abiola that culminated in Nigeria’s landmark June 12th, 1993 Presidential election in which Abiola emerged victorious. This election was then annulled, paving the way for a military coup that put General Sani Abacha into power. When President-elect M.K.O Abiola was arrested and jailed, his wife, Kudirat Abiola, became the leader of Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement. In direct opposition to the military regime, she organized protests and fearlessly spearheaded the Oil Workers Union Strike, the longest strike of its kind in Nigerian history. General Abacha’s brutal dictatorship was characterized by oppression of the masses and a wide range of human rights violations, resulting in Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and his followers. In 1996, Kudirat Abiola was assassinated by agents of the military dictatorship. These events form the core of my film, The Supreme Price, which you will see later today.
I am grateful to have this film in the festival programme as it is within democratic spaces and group settings that we are empowered to make, present, view and discuss meaningful documentaries. Thankfully, when we can’t travel, films retain the power to transport us to places where we have never been and allow us to glimpse moments in time that we were not present to actually witness. Whether alone with my thoughts or together with others on zoom as we are now, I am comforted by my conviction that documentary films will outlive this pandemic – and all of us.
By forcing us into online gatherings, the pandemic has functioned to shrink perceptions of geographic distances, transcending borders and time zones, bringing the populations of the continent and the diaspora into virtual proximity. Therefore, it seems especially fitting that here we are today in March 2021 gathering online to create a vibrant international community of film enthusiasts virtually attending two geographically distant but thematically bonded film festivals – iREP in Lagos Nigeria and African World Documentary Film Festival in California at San Diego State University.
Making The Supreme Price was a transnational process from start to finish. As a foreign filmmaker working in Nigeria, I could not have produced and directed this film were it not for the support and collaboration of Hafsat Abiola and her siblings; Dr. Josephine Okei-Odumakin, founder of Women Arise; and the immensely talented Nigerian crew I was privileged to work with, thanks to co-producer, Tunde Kelani and Mainframe Productions. The dedicated women and men at Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) were instrumental in the realisation of this film as were a few key international crew members who worked with me during production and post-production. United by our shared commitment to democracy and women’s empowerment, together as a team we negotiated sites of proximity and distance, finding vital points of narrative and thematic intersectionality, emotional connection and affective identification. This transnational collaboration made it possible for us to construct a documentary film that was accessible, relevant and educational for Nigerian and international audiences.
When I first arrived in Nigeria in 2010, the genre of independently-made, transnational, feminist, political, historical documentaries directed by women and focused on women’s lives and legacies was nascent. To provide some context for the climate for documentary filmmaking that I encountered as a foreign filmmaker working in Nigeria I want to emphasize Nollywood’s rapid expansion and broad transnational appeal; and to point out how the relatively low-budget approach and the presence of skilled crews with experience working on the many video films that Nollywood is internationally renowned for, helped set the stage for the inception and rapid development of a flourishing independent documentary industry, coinciding with the conceptualisation and creation of iREP in 2010.
iREP co-founder, distinguished filmmaker, Femi Odugbemi, credits Nollywood with paving the path for a new generation of flourishing independent documentary filmmakers working on the African continent. According to Odugbemi,
In every effective way, Nollywood is a form of pseudo-documentary-making, showcasing the issues and conflicts and complexities of living the African experience in a way that is practical and to which Africans are connecting. While fiction, its narratives and sources are based on realities and actualities. It is a powerful form that has also inspired a new generation of filmmakers across the continent who are energised by the opportunity to make their voices heard. In this emerging globalization, cultural distinctions and dissection aid understanding as well as protect and preserve diversity. Documentaries are critical to helping us express our individualities within the blurred boundaries of the global community.
In an interview with Nadia Denton for her book Beyond Nollywood, iREP co-founder Jahman Anikulapo explained the historical and political reasons for the then relative novelty of the independently-made documentary film genre in Nigeria back in 2010 when iREP was created to serve an unmet need in Nigeria. Reflecting on the censorship and propaganda that severely limited the range and scope of documentaries that could realistically be made in Nigeria historically, and on his own motivations for founding iREP, Anikulapo said,
The few documentary efforts that exist are lodged in the television houses, and because those stations (until very recently) are owned by the state and the establishment (the very institutions that have perpetrated deprivation of the people and dislocations of the societies through neocolonialism, misgovernance, corruption, and political inequities), the character of those documentaries are often unabashed puffery meant to caress the megalomaniac ruling elites even when such are corrupt and deficient in thought and action; thus further pushing the State entrusted in their care into degeneration.
Over the past decade, iREP has been a leader in the movement to fight against what they have called “collective amnesia” when it comes to “connecting the dots in Africa’s historical past.” While I was directing and producing The Supreme Price, my objectives mirrored iREP’s mission to identify, to address – and when possible – to overcome an array of postcolonial challenges related to archiving Africa’s visual history. My own work as a documentary filmmaker encompassed the dual roles of archivist and historian.
As a filmmaker, I am drawn to one particularly magical aspect of the historical documentary film genre: the power to breathe an illusion of immortal life into deceased characters on screen. When making The Supreme Price, I used archival footage to vividly portray Nigerian martyrs, President-elect M.K.O Abiola and his wife, Kudirat Abiola – as well as their antagonist – General Sani Abacha. When she was assassinated, Kudirat was forty-four years old and the mother of seven children. Her car was ambushed in broad daylight by six agents of the military dictatorship. She was shot multiple times in the head at close range. In my roles as director and producer, I was drawn to explore the question of how Kudirat’s life, her violent, untimely death and her subsequent legacy influenced her daughter, Hafsat Abiola, who founded an NGO named Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) in memory of her mother.
While producing and directing The Supreme Price, I utilised the historical documentary film genre as a living, breathing, constantly evolving archive, capable of containing, organising, preserving, reshaping and ultimately reconstructing and representing Nigeria’s past to more effectively illuminate and include the voices, political activism and contributions of Nigerian women. During the editing process, I made a conscious decision to situate the intimate, emotional mother-daughter story of Kudirat and Hafsat within the larger context of M.K.O Abiola’s biography, set against the epic backdrop of Nigeria’s tumultuous history.
Between 2010-2012, I conducted interviews that externalised and structured both individual and collective memories of Nigerians who were witnesses, interlocutors and active participants in key events that unfolded during M.K.O Abiola’s lifetime including his Hope 1993 Presidential Campaign; the landmark June 12th, 1993 Election, its annulment and his subsequent incarceration, during which time, his wife, Kudirat Abiola, took over leadership of Nigeria’s Pro-Democracy Movement. Subjects interviewed for the film included their eldest daughter, Hafsat Abiola, her siblings, Wole Soyinka, Dr. Josephine Okei-Odumakin and two former American Ambassadors to Nigeria, Walter Carrington and John Campbell.
Historical Documentaries are vital to the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and culture because they retain the power to transport audiences to locations where they have never been, offering glimpses into real historical moments that are inaccessible for many reasons, including the irretrievable passage of time. The Supreme Price functions to represent and preserve key aspects of history in Nigeria, filling a void in the Nigerian educational system where history as an academic subject was for many years eliminated from most primary and secondary school curriculums.
Intent upon capturing Nigeria in the present as well as in the past, I set out to capture the 2011 election as it unfolded in real time. Shooting footage myself while simultaneously distributing cameras to numerous Nigerian crew members throughout the 2011 election season, I aimed to record the registration and voting processes and related current events as they unfolded from multiple perspectives, ranging from my own as a foreign observer – to that of embedded locals.
Filmmaker Sydney Lumet wrote:
Making a movie is like creating a mosaic. Each set up is a tile. You colour it, shape it, polish it as best you can. You’ll do six or seven hundred of these, maybe a thousand. Then you literally paste them together and hope it’s what you set out to do. But if you expect the final mosaic to look like anything, you better know what you’re going for as you work on each tile.
In The Supreme Price I incorporated Abiola family photos, paintings on the walls of the compound, statues, commemorative street signs and memorials. Bricolage was central to my narrative process. Like a quilt made from many various fragments of precious cloth, each imbued with unique emotion, personality, shape, tone, texture and meaning, The Supreme Price incorporates many different components and perspectives including those of numerous Nigerian filmmakers who shot archival footage and stills that appear prominently in the film. In terms of gleaning, I found archival footage that other filmmakers might not have seen value in such as a silent gesture, gaze or facial expression that provided a window in the marriage of M.K.O and Kudirat; an inside perspective on their private moments offstage before and after speeches; and a view into their moments of communication, reflection, solitude and repose. Gleaning involves being able to see value in what others might overlook or discard – and then collecting and preserving it, presenting it to audiences for the first time in compelling and engaging ways that leave an indelible impression, etched into personal and collective memory.
I first met revered filmmaker, Tunde (“TK”) Kelani, when I approached him regarding my interest in licensing archival footage he had shot at Hafsat Abiola’s wedding. After watching a rough cut of The Supreme Price, TK wrote to me:
Your film will inspire our women and will encourage them to be more confident and take positive actions to demand more participation in governance and take their place in development of our country. I am convinced it will always be relevant. I wish to inform you at this time of our company’s interest in partnering with you by deploying our mobile cinema medium to disseminate the work. We have used the mobile cinema project, launched in 2000 to take cinema to urban, rural and hard to reach communities in Nigeria.
Once The Supreme Price was completed, it was TK who introduced me and the film to Femi Ogdugbemi and Jahman Anikulapo at iREP. From that point onwards, the team at iREP worked tirelessly to ensure that audiences gathered to see The Supreme Price at iREP-sponsored screening events in 2014, first in conjunction with Lights, Camera, Africa! as part of Lagos Book & Art Festival; then at LagosPhoto; and then at their own festival in 2015.
After the first screening, eminent historian, Ed Keazor, joined Femi Odugbemi, Tosin Otudeko and Joke Silva to discuss the film in relation to the theme “Importance of Documentation to the Quest for Freedom.” This precisely articulated theme so aptly captured the essence of M.K.O, Kudirat and Hafsat Abiola’s deliberate usage of international media platforms to circumvent censorship in order to expose human rights violations and various forms of oppression perpetrated by the military dictatorship. Through the amplification and preservation of their voices across borders, these key figures strategically created archived, historical multimedia records of the pro-democracy movement and their opposition to the military regime in Nigeria. These audio-visual archival records enabled me to engage in a collaborative, cinematic process of remembering, repeating and working through individual and collective historical trauma with powerful corresponding evidence that made it possible for the historic moments described in present-day interviews to be assembled and brought to life on-screen.
Over the past ten years, iREP has stepped in to take on the huge responsibility of communicating Nigeria’s history through the engaging medium of documentary films. The organisation regularly holds screenings during which documentary films are used to educate, inform and inspire Nigeria’s vast, burgeoning youth population. When interviewed by The Union Newspaper, iREP Festival Manager Toyin Fajj said the purpose of screening The Supreme Price at LagosPhoto for secondary school students drawn from local public schools was:
…to guide the youths to raise their voices against political killings, gross ineptitudes, perennial deceit, governmental self-denials, cover-ups, and intolerable levels of corruption and non-accountability under various administrations of Nigeria’s governments. We want our younger generation to know where we are coming from, especially when the 2015 General Elections are around the corner.
In 2015, iREP screened The Supreme Price for a third time, this time at their festival. Their flyer defined their mission as “developing and promoting the practice of documentary filmmaking in Nigeria and on the continent of Africa….and showcasing documentary films that tell the story of Africa or about Africa from the perspective of Africa.”
While Nigerian filmmakers shot most of the archival footage that was used in the film, many did so while employed directly or indirectly by overseas news agencies and broadcasters such as Reuters, the Associated Press, BBC and CNN. These organisations contracted or subcontracted local Nigerian cameramen who then shipped their footage out of Africa to Europe for broadcast and archiving. Therefore, although a significant percentage of this archival footage originated in Nigeria and was shot by Nigerians, it was sourced from large, corporate, international archives owned by conglomerates that charged a premium for licensing fees. This issue is a source of debate on the continent as it is viewed by many African filmmakers as a colonial legacy which situates their visual history under ownership in archives in countries associated with Africa’s colonial past. With grants from Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation I was able to license this footage for use in the film.
Some of the most important footage in The Supreme Price depicting Kudirat and M.K.O Abiola on the campaign trail during the 1993 election was not found in any archive and might never have reached any audience at all. It came from the home of Stephen Wale Fasakin, a Nigerian cameraman who was engaged by M.K.O Abiola as the official videographer of the Hope 1993 Presidential Campaign. Fasakin accompanied M.K.O Abiola, his wives and the Abiola delegation on the campaign trail in Northern Nigeria in cities like Maiduguri and Kano as well as in the South. Using a ubiquitous fly-on-the-wall approach, he documented public events including speeches given by M.K.O and by Kudirat Abiola; motorcades greeted by rapturous crowds; and winding queues of Nigerians enthusiastically casting their votes on election day. Fasakin also documented M.K.O and Kudirat in private, behind-the-scenes, off stage moments. Although this was 1993, long before the advent of reality television, Fasakin’s style of filming this campaign was a preview of that genre with coverage including M.K.O and Kudirat Abiola and his other wives travelling all over Nigeria in private jets, complete with depictions of their public and private lives including welcoming parties, elaborate meals and social interactions with hosts and members of their entourage. This peek into M.K.O Abiola’s public persona alongside glimpses of his private life was a preview of the future fascination with the culture of celebrities and the idea of humanizing heroes, heroines and cultural icons by showing them both on and off stage in their daily lives on reality TV.
Hafsat Abiola learned of the existence of this archival footage from her father’s campaign trail very late in the editing process and immediately alerted me. Stephen Wale Fasakin was reluctant to part with his original videotapes, as they had never been copied, digitized or in any way backed up. Thankfully, he agreed to release them to our production manager in Nigeria, Steve Aborisade, so that he could send them to me at Goldcrest Studio in New York. Upon receipt of this shipment, my first step was to send these S-VHS tapes to a lab in the U.S specializing in restoration. They were transferred on to sturdier, brand new, timecoded D5 tapes as it was too risky to work with the original format even for previewing purposes. We encountered some disappointments when we came across parts of the tapes that were creased, dusty and so badly damaged to the point of unintelligibility.
Ultimately, we found seven precious minutes of Kudirat in short clips scattered intermittently throughout the tapes, each only a few seconds in length. She appeared in 1% of the total footage. I had been hoping for much more. But I soon realized that I had the power of a historian in the context of presenting this never-before-seen footage in The Supreme Price.
I was determined to use that power to adjust and redefine this ratio to more accurately represent Kudirat Abiola’s vital role in Nigerian history.
In the final seventy-five-minute cut of The Supreme Price, Kudirat appears in approximately 38% of the aggregated selected scenes that I culled from Fasakin’s tapes. I increased the ratio of Kudirat’s presence by nearly forty times what it was in the original archive that I received from this one crucial source in Nigeria thus magnifying her visibility and screen time relative to that of her husband, and more accurately representing her historical contribution in her role as a wife, confidant, public speaker, interpreter and translator from Yoruba to Hausa language, manager of campaign funds and essential political advocate for her husband on the campaign trail. This precious archival footage of Kudirat, scarce as it was, proved to be crucial when combined with stills from Abiola family albums and the press as well as other archival footage of Kudirat, M.K.O Abiola and Abacha from additional sources such as Reuters, BBC, CNN and INA.
In Nigeria, where organisations like iREP are now holding conferences and film festivals on issues related to archiving and digital video and distribution platforms, the story of African filmmakers discovering huge volumes of decaying precious film rolls and videotapes in desperate need of salvaging and restoration is an all-too common one. The iREP newsletter contained a summary of a discussion that followed a presentation at the film festival made by Marion Wallace, the Lead Curator for African Collections at the British Library,
Archives begin as memories, data that are privately owned. The challenge is getting all these memories together in one place or platform so that the collection is available to the public. This is how the world’s biggest archives are built, something that Nigeria has been unable to do effectively.
The final cut of The Supreme Price functions in some ways as an archive, identifying, presenting, synthesizing and organising historical footage that was previously unavailable to the public in a restored, organised, digestible, contemporary format. Canadian archivists Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have written eloquently about the power archivists have:
In the appraisal and selection of a tiny fragment of all possible records to enter the archive, in approaches to subsequent and ever-changing description and preservation of the archive and its patterns of communication and use, archivists continually reshape, reinterpret, and reinvent the archive. This represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going.
At iREP Film Festival in Lagos in 2015, Awam Amkpa, iREP-co-founder, playwright, filmmaker and Professor at NYU, shared his views on the shift from broadcast to narrowcast platforms.
He explored the development in the digital era of films streaming via the internet to numerous devices including smartphones and looked at how that created a culture of digital commons, changing the way audiences perceive films made at specific locations. Amkpa said:
So we will say there is something called Senegalese film, there is something called Nigerian film or Ghanian film, well that isn’t true because…it’s goodbye to the idea of national cinemas, rather, it is welcome to transnational cinemas and transnational filmmaking where our communities, our ideas of ourselves are no longer articulated through nationalism but now are articulated through a broad transnationalism.
iREP’s early validation of The Supreme Price in Nigeria, helped position the film to succeed at a wide array of film festivals and screenings throughout the continent and globally. The film went on to win Best Documentary at Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), was nominated for a Grierson and an African Movie Academy Award; and won the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Award. The film was released theatrically in the U.S and UK and was distributed in cinemas in Europe by the U.N in their Ciné Onu Film Series; and by Women Make Movies in North America. It was broadcast on Africdocs in 49 African countries on October 1st, 2015, the Anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence.
iREP’s authentic and broad-reaching democratic policy of inclusion has empowered me personally and professionally as a filmmaker. iREP has honoured my vision by interpreting my documentary filmmaking practice as an act of transnational, multicultural solidarity, collaboration and synthesis resulting in a final film that is a hybrid artefact – simultaneously feminist and African. I will always be grateful for the essential role that iREP has played in ensuring that The Supreme Price is seen, contemplated and deeply valued in Nigeria and around the world.
I am looking forward to celebrating many more milestones with iRep in years to come.
Dr. Joanna Lipper, PhD