Unabashedly Nigerian, Andy Okoroafor’s directorial feature, Relentless, is most definitely not what you might describe as a Nollywood film.
A haunting story about loneliness, love and self-discovery set in Africa’s throbbing megacity, Lagos, Nigeria, that delicately explores the effects of war and loss. Obi is a peace-keeping soldier in worn torn Sierra Leone, where he meets Blessing, a Sierra Leonean woman. His life is devastated when he finds Blessing mutilated by rebels. His only option is to end her misery. On his return to Lagos, Obi is a man battling with the scars of war. By day he runs a small security company with Ola, his best friend and fellow war veteran, at night he walks the lonely streets of Lagos. It’s election time in Nigeria and a powerful politician hands Obi’s firm a lucrative contract to provide security for his candidate. Honey, a street hooker, abruptly enters Obi’s life, as she is seeking for her lost girlfriend, last seen with powerful politicians, and feared to be involved in a ritual sacrifice. The film explores the vast canvas that is Lagos today – powerful, dangerous, alive and uncompromising; fraught with deceptions and corruption yet thriving with hope, strength and resilience. This film celebrates Lagos as an African city bustling with energy, music, vibrant, full of culture and humanity.
Taking a very European and somewhat retrospective approach, tropes that are familiar to many Nollywood productions - prostitution, corruption, ritual slaughter… get the nouvelle vague treatment.
The narrative is far from being dialogue heavy and, with regard to performances, it must be said that Gideon Okeke as the quiet, introspective loner, Obi, gives a perfectly sublimely restrained and understated performance. And for her first film performance, Nigerian songstress, Nneka (Nneka Egbuna) doesn’t do a bad turn as the prostitute, Honey, although her performance isn’t quite as nuanced as it could be.
But while, the acting is somewhat uneven, the melodrama prevalent in your average Nollywood film is practically non-existent. In fact, existentialism and introspection are key themes that run throughout the film, and long, quiet takes are interspersed with rapid, short cuts symbolic of the underlying chaos of both Lagos city and the lead character’s inner turmoil. And in a country where continuous electricity supply isn’t a given, that the filmmaker committed to using natural light is no mean feat. No doubt, his use of 35mm film and an adept cinematographer is what gives the film in visual depth and texture.
But, given that Okoroafar studied film in France and has worked as art director in both the fashion and music industries and made his first film about young fashion in the early 90s, it’s hardly surprisingly that style is a key element in Relentless. Don’t get me wrong, nobody’s walking around in couture, there’s nothing pretentious or overly stylised about the film, but it is certainly styled to look right – not over the top or perfect, but right. If you’ve ever flicked through the internationally sold and influential creative magazine, Clam (which Okoroafor is founder of), then you’ll have an idea what I mean. It’s the kind of style that allows you to see through it without noticing it rather than, perhaps, the kind of style that takes your breath away in films like the visually sumptuous I Am Love by Luca Guardagnino, or the film debut by fashion designer Tom Ford, A Single Man.
If anything, with Relentless we’re talking the sensibility of Carravagio, i.e. a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, but without the dramatic lighting.
If popcorn and a fizzy drink, rather than thought and contemplation, are your usual film watching accoutrements then you might be disappointed, but the quietness of the film belies the fact there’s a lot going in Relentless. You don’t have to know anything about Nigeria to watch and appreciate it, but there are a lot of intentionally unexplained representations, imagery and symbolism (Okoroafor has no intention of spoon-feeding his audience), like the fact that Nigeria played a large part (though it’s rarely, if ever reported in Western media) in the UN peace-keeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, acclaim usually accorded to Britain.
And there’s 419, the byword for all those ubiquitous email scams, which is alluded to.
On a more universal note, and on the more existential side of things, Okoroafor also takes a swipe at religion and the role it plays in the lives of the poor and disaffected, without you needing to know that churches are big business in Nigeria.
And, I’d be remiss not to mention the music! From Tony Allen, late Fela Kuti’s drummer, to Nneka, the lastest Nigerian sensation, to Keziah Jones, DJ Farhot, Bantu, Kuku, General Pype, Chuma Obumselu, Oraminyam, the sound of contemporary Nigeria is very much present and correct.
So, Nollywood meets art house? Well… I’d prefer Nigerian art house, actually.
Does it work? In my humble opinion… absolutely! Relentless is a welcome and refreshing take on the exploration of contemporary Nigeria in film. Okoroafor’s next film will be set in Asia but, hopefully, he’ll return home to give more reflective context to the throbbing, complex culture and chaos that is Nigeria, and maybe Africa at large.
Relentless recently screened at the 2013/9th annual New African Films Festival will took place from March 7–12, hosted by AFI Silver Theater & Cultural Center, in Silver Spring, MD, co-presented by AFI, TransAfrica and afrikafé.
This year's lineup also included several acclaimed S&A highlights that you'll be familiar with, like Alain Gomis' Tey, Tosh Gitonga's Nairobi Half Life, Sara Blecher's, Kim Nguyen's War Witch, Saïd Ould-Khelifa's Zabana! and others.