The entire cinema was suspended in respectful silence, stunned for more than a full minute – as the movie, 93 Days ended and just before the credits began to roll.
Half of the cinema remained in its seat, taking it all in, processing what we had just seen, what we had just been privileged to witness, those walking out the cinema only moving out reluctantly, slowly, with reverence – as if they wouldn’t deign to leave the venue of an essential ceremony.
The rest of us sat still, watching the images of a story that continues and those credits; a veritable honour roll.
And then, holding hands tightly, my companion began to cry.
What had we done to deserve such beauty?
This wasn’t a film (and where you detect effusiveness, interpret as confessional). It was a monument to being Nigerian at our very best – not just because of the significant slice of history that it tells with excellence, but because of the film itself.
When last did you see a contemporary Nigerian story told in the now like Snowden or Lincoln or Diana or 127 hours, Jobs, even The Social Network?
How often, truly, is it told with the beauty it deserves?
Steve Gukas did this with 93 Days – a story capturing the ethos of the introduction of Ebola into the Nigerian psyche, and the elevation of a people’s narrative from one of relentlessness philistinism to a common understanding of our shared humanity, and of the triumph of the Nigerian spirit, when, where and how it counts.
The first thing that hits you as the film progresses is the symphony of casting – every character well and fully developed, and, through the two hours, airtight – and how masterfully the stories of both Ada Igonoh (Somkele Idhalama) and Stella Adadevoh (Bimbo Akintola); (the two heroes of Nigeria’s Ebola victory and the two heroines of this movie) are weaved, none outshining the other.
It is through the story and the actors that this film delivers its punch –Keppy Ekpeyong-Bassey introduces us to Patrick Sawyer immediately as a flawed, selfish but ultimately very human player in this tragedy, who – as Danny Glover reminds us at the film’s end – was only a “sick and terrified man”.
And then there is a revolving door of brilliance. Significantly, the film answers the question of fear; how we all react to it, and how ultimately the best of us rise from it to a place called Courage. Adadevoh deals with her fear through denial and a manic focus on others (when she is summoned by her boss demanding that she turns herself in to be tested, my heart breaks when she says instead “What do you need?”).
Jato Abdulkadir (Adebola Williams) deals with his fear with a shallow Nigerian sanguinity that can ultimately be futile, Maurice Ibeawuchi (Gideon Okeke, complete with a well-executed Igbo accent) deals with it by reverting to that familiar bravado we come to know from Nigerian men raised to be powerful but suddenly powerless, Bankole Cardoso (Charles Etubiebi Ebi) deals with it through a peculiar petulance one can only find with Nigeria’s upper middle class children and which I am yet to decide if the movie captured deliberately or by default – yet with brilliance.
And Igonoh deals with it by projecting outside her self, serving others and willing them to live because, together, as victims, and ultimately as humans, we win better when we fight together.
Then there are Nollywood’s great, whose underserved brilliance (bastardised by the churn-machine of our Asaba-based ‘Old Nollywood’) is elevated in this one film, finally. Franca Brown is silent throughout, but every dazed move of her head from her daughter to the house she must abandon, and the random glance in the church as Glover delivers a stem-winder of a clarion call, spoke more than a bucket of scripted words could deal. There was Francis Onwochei, who brought back the entire force of the virtuosity he put on display in 1998’s Raging Storm – unveiling one of Nollywood’s true goodies who deserves a place in the screens today, and always.
Then there was Tina Mba (impressive in Tango with me), who took her character (as Special Assistant to the Lagos governor who must balance politics with priority) by the neck and squeezed life from it – at last, someone capturing one of the essences of being Nigerian; the complexity of good people compelled to work in deeply corrupt systems, balancing self preservation with common good, again and again. In it, she (and all of us) are neither Saint nor Devil, the best or the worst. We are simply human, Nigerian, caught up and caught in. “Yes,” she reminds the perplexed but ultimately sympathetic Adadevoh. “In Nigeria, everything is politics.”
Altogether, this project was a casting triumph – because it assembled the very best of Nigerian stage and film (from both Old and New Nollywood) including Seun Ajayim Patrick Diabuah, Paul Adams (you will remember him from Checkmate), Zara Udofia Ejorh, Bimbo Manuel, Charles Okafor, even Yoruba actor Kayode Olaiya (brilliant in October 1 last year) who sealed the deal with just one scene.
But it is Idhalama who is the undisputed star of this film, if only because she is a revelation.
With Akintola, those who know Nollywood expect brilliance, and so this was only a reminder (even if, by God, what a reminder). But Idhalamah (uneven in ‘The Arbitration’ and mis-directed in ‘The Department’) doesn’t come with any expectation, and so she is a breath of fresh air.
She was resplendent in the role of Igonoh, showing a range of emotions we have not seen in any actor since (yes) Akintola shone in The Widow, almost a decade ago. In her face, striking in grief, stunning (and I mean that also as a physical attribute as much as acting chops) in excitement, the entire film’s pathos finds itself displayed – duty, fear, resentment (for Sawyerr), adoration (for Adadevoh), love, panic, distress, anticipation, determined recovery, and eventually triumph (you have to look for the scene when she emerges from the clinic having gloriously defeated Ebola, a random glance back at the disease she left behind saying more than a thousand words could express).
She is matched in revelation by Alastair Mackenzie (Dr. David Brett Majors) – a hero of the global war against Ebola, if there ever was, stealthily ensuring Nigeria’s over 20-million Lagos residents don’t cause an international catastrophe. Mackenzie represented the very best of Hollywood’s acting – so immersed in the role you forget he is acting, and even he must forget, because how else does he disappear into character with such vehemence?
Both are excellent in a way that invites comparison. Mackenzie understated, and Idhalama pronounced in the way that is distinctive to Nigerian moviemaking. But in both there is a revelation: what makes Hollywood special stands out, and what makes Nollywood compelling stands strong.
A coincidence of budget, brilliance and bravery, 93 Days tells a deeply Nigerian story with the nuance, insight and clarity it deserves.
Everything spoke authentic Nigerian – every mention of ‘madam’, every ‘mumsy’, the taxi driver’s meltdown when he realizes his passenger has Ebola, the initial refusal of underpaid ambulance drivers to take part in the rescue efforts, and finally religion – woven in a non-obtrusive but significant way. When Onwuchei (as Dr. Abaniwo) prayed it was with a dignity of a layered believer, and when Idhalama places her phone by Ejorh’s despairing bed without asking permission, to share a song of Christian encouragement, it validates who we are as a people. Our embrace of faith is not always the cartoonish mockery novelists insist upon, or Asaba’s Nollywood revels in; it is something important, and textured, and largely good.
It all leads to a film that luxuriates in precision – deliberately slow as the doctors have to be as they fight the virus, dignified. No one manipulates emotion because no one needs to. Tears come, delayed, at the end of the film because it is the overall effect of a script that pulls its punches, allowing the feeling seep through gently, steadily, firmly.
It tells a gorgeous story and then retreats, job expertly done.
Which is enough to make one cry.
You see, we have had many great Nigerian films, many valiant efforts, many admirable products… but there have always been ‘buts’.
October 1 was unwieldy, Violated suffered technical inferiority, Hostages was immature, Ije was uneven, Beast of no Nation wasn’t really Nigerian and Half of a Yellow Sun was devastatingly overwrought (plus being an embarrassment to its sublime source material).
For each of these films, this grateful viewer, and Nigerian, was willing to make excuses, lower expectation, discount for ‘we are getting better’.
But 93 Days?
This was a film utterly without fault. Nothing needing to be excused.
And for that, Gukas, you deserve thanks.
PS: One of our three companies, Red Media Africa is credited for managing public relations for this film. My co-founder, Adebola Williams, who is also excellent as cast in the film, leads that company. So give this review, if you may, a discount for bias. But by all means, see it for yourself.
*Jideonwo is editor-in-chief of Y!/YNaija.com.