Even when the Nigerian film presence at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) appears non-existent this year, Nigeria’s most important cultural export, Fela Anikulapo Kuti pulls off something of a saving grace in the form of the winning documentary, My Friend Fela (Meu Amigo Fela) directed by veteran Brazilian filmmaker, Joel Zito Araújo (Raça, Daughters of the Wind).
Debuting in Rotterdam, as part of a larger focus on Afro-Brazilian cinema, My Friend Fela situates Carlos Moore, Fela’s official biographer and author of the book, Fela: This Bitch of a Life as the film’s throbbing anchor. Moore who met Fela back in 1974 through the help of filmmaker, Ola Balogun remained close enough to the Afrobeat icon long enough to condense several hours of interviews into a uniquely compelling if cluttered biography.
Now resident in Brazil where he has been spending time teaching and researching about Latin American culture, My Friend Fela quickly traces Moore’s roots as a rounded citizen of the world but one with sufficient roots in the Afro-Caribbean experience. His work with civil rights icons like Malcolm X and Maya Angelou is duly recorded, alongside mentions of his fugitive experience in his native Cuba. It seems the early sections of the film are intent on establishing Carlos Moore as a reliable narrator, a necessary move as Moore’s scholarship rigor has been queried in the past.
But the larger than life story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti- and of Afrobeat, the throbbing, intoxicating brew of jazz, fuji, highlife, funk and soul which he birthed- transcends place and time and so a contained study of the man, his music and his legend would always come across as insufficient. Araújo recognizes this and scales his film to give a deeper account of Fela through his friendships with some of the most important people in his life.
Thus, Carlos Moore becomes the guide that leads audiences through the complex, thrilling and occasionally disturbing life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. My Friend Fela opens as it should, in Lagos, Nigeria, attempting a study of the pathology of black life through the song Why Black Man Dey Suffer.
Some of the characters who show up on My Friend Fela such as Lemi Ghariokwu- who designed some of Kuti’s most arresting album covers- and drummer, Tony Allen have been seen in the 2014 Alex Gibney directed documentary Finding Fela. While their conversations take a different route on My Friend Fela, the recordings are also complemented by figures who contribute to the Fela discourse either intimately or professionally. These figures include Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son, Grammy nominated for his latest album, Black Times, Ray Lema, Congolese jazz musician who has paid tribute to Fela in his music, and Babatunde Banjoko an illustrator and photographer who contributed to Fela’s album covers.
Their conversations throw up a portrait of a deeply troubled man who took the burden of his genius seriously and did his best to advance the dignity of the black man through high wire activism and socio-political commentary. But did this come at the detriment of women who loved him and surrounded his Kalakuta Republic shrine?
Not exactly, according to My Friend Fela as Moore draws a line from his own political awakening inspired by the work of Maya Angelou and connects it to Fela’s own revival at the feet of Sandra Isidore, the American activist and singer. Isidore herself remains a forceful presence who retains all of the charm and intensity that must have drawn Fela to her years ago and is easily the documentary’s beating heart. My Friend Fela also ruminates on Fela’s powerful relationship with his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and some of the 27 women whom he famously married in one fell swoop. There is a reluctance to delve deeply into his complicated relationships with the women and a mention of his affair with one of his wives, a tender fourteen years old at the time, is quickly shrugged off.
My Friend Fela makes use of a heady combination of found footage, images, interviews and music to present a comprehensive, intimate picture of Fela Anikulapo Kuti as seen from the eyes of those who knew him the most. Not much new information is unearthed but Moore and Araújo handle the material with the right amounts of respect and the overall picture is a warm, humanistic portrait of Fela as man and musician. Little myth.