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Movie Review: ‘The Arbitration’ Takes on a Labour of Love

Originally published on the defunct lifestyle blog Olisa in 2015.

In The Arbitration, a Sexual Assault trial is exactly equal to the task of disintegrating a bulb of onion. But with fancy welding goggles. You may take this as literally as you want.

The movie is one long, arduous task. The entire plot unravels in one room, the setting of an arbitration panel, where the aggrieved parties of a classic he said/she said office rape case have met to decide if the case is light enough to be settled in that room or messy enough to proceed to a court.

But, you would be wrong to assume that this legal story is typical or contrived. The spectre of Kerry Washington’s Confirmation looms over it, but The Arbitration is a movie with a very Nigerian sensibility. It knows what it is and it takes its job quite serious.

It is perhaps important to issue a disclaimer at this point.

As a Nigerian whose critical thinking has been incrementally deadened by years of cheap thrill Nollywood movies, I may have become easy to please visually.

Still, it is fair to say the movie is easy on the eyes and easy to root for, even if its characters are not always easy to love. With the exception of Sola Fasudo, of course. His familiar affect is a pleasure to see again after what has felt like an unexplained absence from the circle of new box office hits.  As usual, he is broody and removed, but still very able to take over a scene just by being there.

And then there is Ireti Doyle. Ireti Doyle and Meryl Streep are, if this is possible to say, each other’s on-screen spirit animals. Their gestures are sometimes so alike, it’s uncanny.

Where Sola Fasudo (Bucknor) is the arbitrator, Ireti Doyle (Funlayo Johnson) is a formidable lawyer of repute and high taste. You could even close your eyes and imagine that this is her character from the movie Fifty, living an alternate life. Type-casting is inevitable when you are this good at it, I suppose.

The Arbitration
The Arbitration

Outside of these two heavyweights, the movie showcases a coterie of the new and beautiful breed. The characters at the centre of the play are Olugbenga Sanni (OC Ukeje) and Dara Olunjobi (Adesua Etomi) whose office love affair has spiralled out of its axis. The rape case is the fruit of their affair. And a young lawyer, Omawumi Horsefall (Somkele Iyamah), is eager to prove herself on this case, which is loosely dependent on the accounts of two witnesses played by Beverly Naya and Gregory Ojefua.

The movie may be concerned with how to resolve a sexual assault case, but it also takes on a labour of love: finding a consumable language for Nigeria’s technology infrastructure, even if it enjoys its official jargon and legalese a little too much. The overall effect of these preoccupations are both good and bad. Good because the movie takes its audience seriously. Bad because too many terms fly over our heads and take up too much space so that it is not always possible to enjoy the movie and meaningfully engage with it.

There is also the small problem of the Nollywood kiss. Or, the buildup to a Nollywood kiss. I take the liberty of doing the abominable here. The old and very imbalanced Hollywood vs Nollywood comparison.

Nollywood is not Hollywood. The Cinema of France does not try to be and is not expected to be anything but itself. But, where one can argue that romance depends on geography, the same argument cannot be made for a kiss. A kiss is a kiss is a kiss. And Nollywood has not learnt how to suspend disbelief with the buildup to the kiss or the kiss itself. The Arbitration makes good effort but does not fall too far from the tree.

The movie does well to disrupt two Nollywood myths though.

The argument that Nigerians are melodramatic and love their movies Melodramatic, falls flat in this movie. The unravelling of the plot is like a slow-burning. Also, The Arbitration is a feast of dialogues and pop (Nigerian) culture references. If you want a randomly sampled dialogue spoiler, try this: “I’m going to take your husband and fuck him six ways from Sunday.”

On a serious note, this movie shows just how important and definitive language is when rape is discussed. How we, as a people, talk about rape/sexual assault, not just within legal spaces, but in everyday conversations, is integral to bridging the empathy gaps between the vulnerable and the person whose job it is to make laws and mete out justice. But, even if the language of framing is important, it is necessary to point out that it is by no means the game-changer.

Even if this movie is more wishful thinking than it is rooted in any Nigerian reality, there is some satisfaction in seeing the women run the show. Also, as far as things go with soundtracks and great movies, Nina Simone is a god of sorts.

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Lidudumalingani on Hats, Jazz and What it Means to Write About Place

Originally published in the defunct lifestyle blog Olisa in 2016

I spend a good portion of the first few minutes learning to pronounce his name: Lidudumalingani. To get the final four syllables right is a trick of accents. No English name was discarded in favour of an authentic self. No, he has never considered not claiming his name. And no, it is not a political choice. It is his name. He fiddles with a can of Gulder as he offers a very abridged version of his genealogy in which I learn that his name is quite common in his village.

One bio I find reads: Liduduma’lingani is from the Transkei, in the Zikhovane Village, where he herded cattle, moulded goats from clay, and later grew fond of words and images. ‘Grew fond of words and images’ is of course shorthand for the essays and fiction he writes including the Caine Prize winning short story Memories we lost, the pictures he takes and shares on his Instagram page and the script for a feature film he has been working on for two years. He is a guest at the 2016 Ake Arts and Books Festival.

This interview takes place in a car park at night, away from the loud music coming from one end of the cultural centre in Kuto and the hum of Ake festival goers. For the interview, Lidudumalingani is without a hat. I notice because on all the other days he has worn hats, bucket hats. This evening his hair is out. When I ask because I cannot resist a promising detour, what his thing is with bucket hats, he says, “Oh no, I love all hats. If you sell me a hat, chances are I will buy it.” And then, to prove this, he reaches into his bag and shows me the latest addition to his collection. A gift: the Fila.

The interview proves to be full of these promising detours, punctuated by some attempts at serious questions. I start by bringing up his 2014 essay on Fela Kuti. This is Abeokuta after all, where to dig just beneath more than a decade’s worth of democratic rule in Nigeria is to be confronted by the old tensions between power, the voices that speak against power and the people caught in the crosshairs who still remember. This is Fela’s Abeokuta, he was born here. But first, I want to know what kind of music Lidudumalingani listens to besides Fela. And here, I have expectations.

For some reason, in the ways that music has travelled, particularly in the last ten years, through the pop culture machine that is satellite TV, I am certain that one of these names Cassper Nyovest, Liquideep, Lira, Hip Hop Pantsula will be mentioned. But, Jazz, he says, and then he reels off a list of names, Kyle Shepperd, Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli, none of which I am familiar with. We talk about what music means to the person vs the community and how well music travels outside of a subculture. When I ask him if this sort of movement has had a big effect on Jazz in South Africa, he notes that there is always that tension between the broadening of appeal and the retention of authentic forms.

Next, I want to know what things he was concerned with when he wrote that essay. He does a mock-groan here and says “I was so young when I wrote that piece.” Age is something that will come up a number of times in the course of the interview, but mostly as humour. And perhaps (I wonder much later?) as a boundary enforcing ‘armour’ against the coziness of an unlit car park where he is sitting alone with two women in a car. He is relaxed though. As if this, to be interviewed in a car park at 7:30 pm, is the sole reason he has come all the way from South Africa.

fela_2_1763932b
Stephanieobi.com

In the essay, he says of Fela! the musical written by Bill T Jones and Jim Lewis:

It Is Burdened With The Problem Of Depiction. The Burden Being That A Depiction Can Never Be Adequate, Especially When It Tries To Depict Something Perfectly. It Is Better When It Falls Short. When Depiction Does Not Fall Short, When Something Is Over Depicted, It Becomes Obvious That It Is Being Staged.

This reduction of Fela from complex phenomenon to sensational curiousity, and/or selective over depiction, is what is at stake in his essay. We talk about what it means that these stories of Fela have been told by the external gaze and what it means to show the screening of a documentary on Fela at the Castle of Good Hope. At some point, all this Fela talk resolves itself to this: the fraughtness between history and time, and this devolution that progress demands or expects as its price. The things that say in overt and subtle ways: ‘to go forward, we must drop some of our weights. Fela must beget Wizkid and Jazz must clean up and go to a posh club in the city.’

We finally get around to his Caine Prize winning story and its exploration of mental health, but he has some reservations. He tells me he has been in situations where he has been made into a mental health expert of sorts in possession of answers, something he is not altogether comfortable with. The point of the story was to suggest that a singular prescriptive formula is not possible if we must talk about mental health.

Memories we lost presents itself exactly as this: anti-prescription. It is a story about two sisters who are deeply connected to each other, simply that. It takes its time to celebrate ordinary communal moments, away from the weight of its subject and when it does talk about mental illness, it is ‘this thing’, that gets in the way of what would otherwise be an unbroken stretch of idle. In the story too, a Sangoma holds the answer to curing this thing as much as a sister convinced that her love and the connection they share is enough to make her sister ‘comeback’ every time the schizophrenia attacks begin. This is both the glory and burden of Memories we lost. The story, in the ways that it is told as existing at some point between heart and gravitas, invites the reader to trust the author with their own concerns and personal stories. Lidudumalingani says that people have walked up to him to ask him entirely clinical questions about mental health. He is concerned by this.

In the past, he has said consistently, that as a writer he feels a responsibility to tell his stories the way he wants to. But I ask him now, again, was there a moment when he worried about the question of pandering, when he flirted with the idea of writing Memories we lost in a way that might facilitate a different reception? He wastes no time in answering, “I write about things that I deeply care about…and I think my focus when I write is how best to share what I want to say, but I suppose in fiction you are disguising that as a story. I was never really concerned with how people were going to read the story because, I think that the only way writers write is write the stuff that they like to read. I mean you don’t make a conscious decision to write a certain way, but when you look at what you write and what you read, you realise that they are almost sort of similar.”

He adds that he wrote Memories we lost the way he writes everything else, more concerned with the poetry of a sentence, than its structure.

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Credit: Lidudumalingani

We go back to talking about place, about the way that longing for place is hard to miss in the story. Beyond the poetry he finds in describing a place, what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, place means a number of knotted things to Lidudumalingani. For me, he says,  the kind of writing that I really like, the kind that I want to do, is one that is both concerned with the character in the narrative and where (location) the character is, because I think that’s importantWriting about a place gives you the politics of the place. He is concerned with how much of place is this tangible reality that holds the things we love. How much of place is lost to dislocation. What it means when boundaries are redrawn for the people who have to belong to this arbitrarily reconfigured, new and inchoate thing. How much is given up in that kind of disorientation that makes one say you know what, fuck that, I don’t want to be like this anymore, I’m just going to go out and drink on a Monday night… This would be a good time to ask what writers have influenced him but I only realise this after the fact. Thankfully, he has mentioned at some point in the course of the interview that the writing that interests him is the kind of writing that holds onto secrets.

On my phone, I see that an hour has gone by. I find a good pause to mention this and apologise for stealing him away for this long. With his now familiar up is down left is right humour, he says something sufficiently rebuking and then notes that he genuinely has to make himself available for mingling.

For the last question, asked between shutting car doors and wondering about the possibilities of pulling off a passable selfie in bad lighting, I want to know if, for a multidisciplinary arts person (aka the creative), the subjects that concern him in a particular moment choose the form they want to be expressed in. He says, I am not quite sure if I have figured what the process is. It is unique for every situation, and I suppose there is then a conversation between the subject itself and how it wants to be released to the universe.

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Elsewhere

Featured in

Interviewed on: Ventures Africa, Africa in Dialogue

Shortlisted for The Brunel International African Poetry Prize in partnership with Commonwealth Writers March 2017

Interview Essay with the 2016 Caine Prize Winner Lidudumalingani on Hats, Jazz and What it Means to Write About Place

Thoughts on the Nigerian Theater scene: Crown Troupe at 20: On 3rd Mainland Bridge and Keeping a Subculture Alive

Thoughts on Poetry: Of wars, words and men

Opinion in Open Democracy: Thoughts on religion, human rights and the intersection points

Poems Profiled in: No destination, New direction By Okoduwa Tanko and Hands, Fingers and Phalanges

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Opinion

Should it matter how the mass is mobilized?

On the streets of Nigeria, some of the more prominent banners vying for fence space and billboard prestige are religious, mostly Christian. They promise the same kinds of transformative experiences with catchy phrases, from health to wealth and everything in between. Christianity has always been popular in Nigeria. And it is even more so now.

Especially popular is a cool brand of lifestyle Pentecostalism that, at first glance, seems to transcend the problems that exist in the real world (e.g., class, tribe, gender-based violence, etc.).

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