by Wilfred Okiche
Kunle Afolayan is the most important ambassador the Nigerian government does not know it needs yet. If the entertainment sector is the next big frontier, as gleaned from the country’s recent rebased GDP figures, then Afolayan, a filmmaker and actor, has for the past 5 years been a walking advertisement for the tenacity and vast potential of the industry.
…he proves once again and maybe for the first time in film this year, that ambition is good and no one can represent Nigeria better than Nigerians.
That can-do spirit, regardless of adversity and stubborn insistence on triumphing against the odds has seen him bounce back from an aborted union with Globacom’s Mike Adenuga to secure a fresh bromance with Chief Michael Ade-Ojo of Elizade motors, all in his quest to secure funding, perhaps the most difficult part of the Nollywood filmmaker’s journey.
He may also be the most patriotic filmmaker working today.
The New York Times described him in 2012 as “a Scorsese in Lagos”, referencing the legendary, Oscar winning, Italian-American director. But anyone who has followed Afolayan’s work, from Irapaada to Phone swap can tell that the man is proudly Nigerian and wears his Nigerianness on his sleeve.
His ambitions of scale and of storytelling do little to cover the fact that his movies at their core, are very pro-Nigerian, conceived and manufactured locally for the most part, with minimum foreign involvement.
His most popular film, The Figurine preyed on our collective superstitions as a people to deliver a shocking climax that indeed, only few saw coming. And his last effort, Phone swap, for all its drawbacks, saw him take on a more crossover audience, with Igbo characters taking a significant portion of the film’s running time.
In a perfect system, Mr Afolayan would not just represent the establishment, he would be the establishment. And instead of hosting a private screening event for a certain first time female director shopping a fantasy romantic comedy, Aso Rock would have had Afolayan’s number on speed dial.
His latest film, October 1 is his most patriotic film of all. Which comes as no surprise, the title alone is a dead giveaway, with its obvious hints of patriotism and ties to independence day. Thankfully, the flag waving is kept to a minimum as instead of a didactic history lesson, the film chronicles tragic events in a fictional town of Akote, in the days leading up to October 1, 1960 when Nigeria became independent of Her Majesty’s Britain.
October 1 is hard to put in a box. The plot is set up as a murder-mystery, and the lead character, Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) is a gangling police detective nursing scars from his past, posted to the scenic town to investigate the disturbing murders of a couple of village maidens. The colonials who send Waziri on this mission do not particularly empathize with the victims, nor is the safety of the peaceful folk upmost on their minds. They would rather seek to avoid the embarrassment and bad publicity that the murders would attract at such a pivotal milestone and Waziri has proven to be a reliant tool, willing to bend to British dictates.
So off Danny boy goes, only to discover that there may be no end to the list of suspects as the town has now become an important trading post thus, representing an ethnic melting pot of independence era Nigeria. He strikes up a tentative friendship with Afonja, the town’s popular chief police officer (played with scene stealing hilarity by Kayode Aderupoko) and the later helps him navigate the peculiarities of small town life.
October 1 is also a comedy and this is obvious immediately the old fashioned, awkward Afonja appears onscreen. As a foil to Mr Daba’s strait-laced Waziri, their culture clashes make for some pure comedic moments. For warmth and humour, audiences are able to find comfort in Afonja’s self effacing antics. He is the Christoph Waltz’ Doctor Schultz to Jamie Foxx’s Django in the 2012 Hollywood film, Django Unchained and the support easily upstages the lead.
The film is pretty to look at, as the rural setting and standout attention to detail recreates life in the 60s impeccably. Costuming provided by Deola Sagoe (who also makes an unnecessary cameo appearance as Madam Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti) captures the idyllic innocence and excitement of the era.
Waziri’s assignment leads him to a wide array of local characters; there is Aderopo (Demola Adedoyin), the crown prince of Akote who is also the village’s first university graduate, Miss Tawa (Kehinde Bankole), the village belle who is also a primary school teacher, and Agbekoya (Kunle Afolayan), a mysterious farmer who does not subscribe to western education.
October 1 boasts a sprawling cast that stretches across the film’s long running time (2hrs, 23 minutes). Sadiq Daba makes for a capable leading man. His role is not a showy one but it demands plenty discipline and investment into the character’s journey that not many Nollywood actors can pull off. Daba makes a credible effort but maintains a cool distance for the entire running time. There is a hurried attempt to tack on some back story towards the end, to make him a bit more sympathetic but this does not work and inspector Waziri ends the film as enigmatic as he started it.
Kehinde Bankole who plays the school teacher and last of the village damsels gives the kind of performance that should be a star making turn. She stays in character throughout and wins the audience with her subtle tracing of her character’s arc.
Whatever Mr Afolayan is, he is not a particular observant director of actors. Most times, he just leaves them to their own devices and it takes a disciplined actor to blossom under his direction. He is also not the most gifted actor and even though his performance shows some improvement from his The Figurine days, the technical lapses are still present. Kanayo O. Kanayo and Bimbo Manuels make brief appearances.
The film takes a sharp detour from The Figurine, Afolayan’s other major work of psychological terror by revealing its villain pretty much early in the picture. The challenge involved therein, is not in identifying whodunit, but how, and why human beings part with their senses and devolve into madness. In some ways it is a character study of the damage that abuse can do to an individual’s mind and in other ways, October 1 plays as a metaphor for the big lumbering mess that Nigeria has become, tracing the origin of the pathology to the white man’s selfish logic of forcing a diverse group of people into a union that has proved mostly unproductive.
According to the screenplay by the dependable Tunde Babalola, the signs of our discontent have been there from the start and nothing we are passing through as a country presently is new under the sun. The ethnicities have always engaged the other with distrust and Nigeria has always been a ticking bomb waiting to explode. The reality that the union has held on for so long may be the biggest surprise of all.
There are still some niggling issues with live action scenes and vivid stunts but Afolayan gets scores for effort. The pacing is slow, deliberate and he takes his time with arriving at his intended destination. That climax may not augur well for some but it is a conversation that needs to be had. The film also gives a crash course in history lessons, making use of archive footage and fleeting dialogue to touch on the prominent actors and sweeping moments of the day.
In many ways, October 1 is a typical Kunle Afolayan film, what with the ensemble cast, big budget, period setting, ambitious story and dark psychological suspense. But where he does not leave an indelible mark on the film, one that will in future days be identified as the Afolayan touch, he proves once again and maybe for the first time in film this year, that ambition is good and no one can represent Nigeria better than Nigerians.
Nollywood is rising indeed. And October 1 is a shining example.