by Okon Ekpo
It is the film that launched a thousand countdowns, most of them premature.
The long-in-the-works, much postponed historical romance thriller directed by Nollywood fav, Izu Ojukwu is finally here. Produced by Tonye Princewill and Adonijah Owiriwa, -who shares a supporting acting role,- ’76 (formerly Lions of ‘76) is an ambitious passion project that makes thrilling viewing out of historical events.
It has been at least 7 years since Ojukwu and his partners first conceived of the project and the years have been spent putting everything in order to ensure a worthwhile experience. Although proudly made in Nigeria with a local cast and crew, ’76 wants to play in the big leagues where the best of world cinema comes out to party. Going by the finished product, it does stand a chance.
The events of the year 1976 aren’t exactly our finest moments as a country. The Lt. Col Dimka led coup that culminated in the assassination of the military head of state, General Murtala Muhammed in Lagos was thwarted at the last minute and the Nigerian Army began an investigation to bring to account all the perpetrators and instigators. It is against this interesting and mysterious back drop that Ojukwu and his writer, Emmanuel Okomanyi situate their fictional tale.
In this account, 1976 is the year that newlywed Captain Joseph Dewa from the middle belt geographical region returns from a prior posting to resume life with his heavily pregnant fiancée, Suzie (a glowing Rita Dominic). The newlyweds have only the matters of a troublesome neighbour with a penchant for playing loud music at odd hours, plus fierce opposition on the part of Suzie’s family (she is Igbo) to trouble them. But all these domestic matters are nothing compared to the storm that is to follow when Dewa manages to get himself involved somehow in the coup attempt to assassinate Muhammed.
’76 starts sluggishly but chugs along with a relaxed determination as the plot unfurls steadily. The first half is Ramsey Nouah’s showcase as the screenplay takes viewers into the world of highwire military politics and intrigue. Nouah shows his range as an actor as he brings his considerable experience to ground the film with a solid performance that plays down the needless histrionics.
The production design anchored by veteran Pat Nebo is in a class of its own and the picture has a grainy feel to it, making it appear dated. The film was shot in Mokola barracks Ibadan, having received the blessings of top military brass and the lack of maintenance culture that ails us as a nation serves the film’s purpose well as the production has this rich, decaying source material to work with. The director is able to build this vibrant but dangerous world and immerses his audience completely into this period when possibilities were both limitless and limited for the players involved.
At times Ojukwu gets carried away and cannot trust his film speak for itself. In these moments of weakness, he draws unnecessary attention to the props in some look-at-what-we-have-here shots that tend to distract from his story. This happens every time he lingers his gaze on the period dinnerware bearing pictures of political leaders. It also happens when he shows serious looking military officers bearing official folders with the words ‘SECRET’ emblazoned, and when he draws (too much) attention to the funny looking costumes and vintage cars of the period.
Hair and makeup team show up with a vengeance. You will probably not see another Nollywood film anytime soon where the characters have such divine hair dos. The costumes, especially by the civilians are representative of the times and the soldiers, led by Nouah, Chidi Mokeme (who for once is quite impressive) and Owiriwa all carry their uniforms splendidly.
Shot on 16MM cameras, ’76 shows weakness during night scenes as even the super trained gaze of Yinka Edward fails to light up the screen adequately. But the soundtrack is a lovely mash up of 70s popular music from acts like Nelly Uchendu, Sir Victor Uwaifo and Bongos Ikwue.
For strategic reasons that must surely include budget and capability, Ojukwu stresses a downplay of the military, action-ey angle for a focus on the minutiae, the near-tragic love story and stays with his star crossed lovers even when the bullets are going off around. He retreats quickly into the safety of avoiding choreographed fight scenes and takes the lazy route in an early scene involving a physical altercation between Dewa and his friend, Gomos (Mokeme).
’76 is as much the woman’s film as it is the male soldier’s and Dominic’s Suzie who starts her journey as pampered and without much of a spine, eventually rises to the responsibility of snatching her husband out of death’s claws. The film flexes some feminist chops as it showcases the strength and durability of the women who love our uniformed men and follow them into battles both professional and personal.
Apart from Dominic’s Suzie, the characters of the hard partying Eunice (Memry Savanhu) and aunty Mary (Ada Ofoegbu) speak to the circumstances and resolve of these women. In this way, ’76 becomes a balanced gender portrayal. Ibinabo Fiberesima’s Angela would fit into this mix but the actress is too weak to make anything of her one note role.
The attention to detail is hard to fault and the story works as a straightforward narrative. The screenplay while thrilling and dotted with plot twists has its issues. It delves into melodrama on more than one occasion (especially the weakened second half) and the dialogue can get overbearing. Because of his Nollywood background, Ojukwu cannot quite recognise such moments. The tidy resolution is also less than impressive and hints to some sort of mental unwillingness to stretch on the part of the writing team.
Ultimately, it is hard not to fall in love with Ojukwu’s vision. Shot in English and Igbo, ’76 is perhaps the most complete piece of work to hit cinemas in a while. The effort put in is all displayed on screen. It speaks to the Nigerian experience, touches on various themes (inter-tribal marriages, ethnicity, history) and manages to present them all with a lightness of touch that must have been troublesome to nail. The acting is rock solid and the technical elements complement one another. Movies do not have to be perfect to work and this one is proof.
It is an all round triumph.