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.
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.