Film Review: Ojukokoro is what happens when a fan of the Coen brothers jumps off a plane without a parachute

by Chi Ibe

There were about 14 of us at the cinemas to watch the new film, Ojukokoro yesterday. The 14 included my friend who I had dragged with me, because – as I told him – it had been highly recommended by two people I deeply respect, who know how excited I get about Nigerian movies that get it.

And so despite his dubiousness (he thoroughly hated the trailer), he allowed me drag him.

Two desperately, tortuously long hours after we were through with the film, many of us came out of the cinemas in slow motion, a dirge dramatically playing in my head. My friend was laughing deliriously at the inanity, I was struck dumb with disbelief.

The woman that walked passed me in anger hissed just as she moved in front of me: “Useless film, waste of time.’

The rest of us stood outside, some walking slowly as if in a trance. We felt like we had just been witnesses to a ghastly motor accident.

“That is the worst film I have ever seen,” the middle-aged man in front of me, also apparently in a state of shock, said to me, as if he were responding to my thoughts.

We locked eyes. “As in,” I said to him. “I cannot believe it.”

Certainly, ‘worst film we have ever watched’ is an exaggeration. But it is an exaggeration of fact, not an exaggeration of feeling. Leaving the cinema after being forced to suffer through 120 minutes of an intense and futile search for a story, I came off feeling – strongly – that this was the worst movie going experience of my life.

Desperate to find meaning in this experience, I descended on Twitter to see reactions to the film. And my dystopian nightmare was complete. Many of the comments from the people who watched the film at premiere were raving about it, just like my two friends.

So consider this a decidedly minority report.

In fact, based on the fact that too many intelligent people, who should know what they are talking about, say this is a great film – and I don’t mean ‘good’; they say ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘perfect’, the ‘best Nigerian film ever’ – take what proceeds with a grain of salt, and at least for the sake of debate, go and watch this movie for yourself, and see where you stand on it.

In the interim, let me tell you why this film was bad.

First, because the actors were bad.

They were not just bad, they were terrible. This is not to say they are not talented (Seun Ajayi, Zainab Balogun and the cast of this film, save for Wale Ojo are some of the brightest captains of the New Nollywood acting tradition). But it is to say they were badly directed, left to their own devices and punished by a script with nowhere to go.

Tope Tedela, for instance, is an actor with sprinklings of capacity, but anyone who pays attention knows that his timing is routinely off. And nowhere is this default clearer than in this film where his expressions are mismatched with his words, his movements go before the moment, and the screenplay comes out as stilts from his mouth. He doesn’t even pronounce his words fully and competently.

Timing in fact is a problem all through this movie. No one waits to be passed the ball before they catch it. The actors all – without fail, except for Somkele Idhalamah – miss their timing. They react as if premeditated, without waiting for action to precipitate reaction. Their emotions are forced, as if they are imitating something they have watched rather than actually acting. Scenes don’t follow a logical consequence of behaviours – everyone appears to be in a skit of their own, doing what they think they should do rather than being cooperative parts of one symphony.

Then there is the dialogue. Innovative in intent, admirable, even, in effect, it nonetheless is laborious, tiring and, to be honest, insistently ridiculous. One particular scene with Shawn Faqua and his sidekick in the car awaiting a robbery is the apotheosis of ‘what the fuck is going on here?’

You know what the filmmaker is trying to do with this scene. He is trying to present the dialogue as a thing of beauty, a coincidence of diction, dialect and language; as the actors move with some fluidity between English, Pidgin and native Nigerian tongues. But it is just nonsense. Nonsense. The dialogue didn’t move the story forward, didn’t take us into the motivations of the character. It was just dialogue for its own sake. And bad dialogue at that, full of non-sequiturs.

Just like the dialogue, the film itself was a festival of plot holes. To avoid spoilers, and perhaps to welcome you to the same hell I went through, I won’t share any of those.

But what is most important to note is the sheer inanity of the entirety of the scene progression. A taxi driver comes into a fuelling station with no fuel attendants, zero activity, a car with a door open, and it doesn’t occur him that something is wrong. Instead he goes onto a rant that might have effective in another film, in another story, but certainly not in this scene, at this time, for this story. Linda Ejiofor and her husband (in addition to his atrocious acting) have the most unnatural relationship between a loving man and wife that you would ever see, the whole cameo collapsing into a heap of farce at the end with a death that stretches reason, imagination and logic into smithereens.

Ojukokoro is one huge mind-fuck. But not in the way the director intended – not in that ‘Oh let me weave you a tangled web that would stretch your mind and make you think’; but in a ‘what the fuck am I watching? What the fuck is going on here? Was there no adult in the room to yell ‘this doesn’t make sense?’ What the utter fuck?!

Let’s not even talk about the silence of women in the film. The cliché roles they are given – submissive wife, resigned lover, bound-up-and-chained woman. Let’s not even talk about their absence from a film that is supposed to reflect the Nigerian reality. Let’s not even go there. Because that one is another review all to itself.

Let’s talk, instead, about what this film is trying to be – and failed at.

It is a copy, directly and fully, of the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, right down to the central theme of greed. The plot navigates the same angles of confusion, gunshots, empty buildings, bumbling criminals and unresolved endings. But while of course Burn was a delicious mind-fuck of storytelling, acting and humour, this is just an imitation as banal and execrable as the ridiculous bowel emptying of Hafiz Oyetoro and Bolly Lomo.

It’s not complex, it’s just convoluted. And filled with directorial rookie mistakes – of continuity, timing and rhythm.

In between the poor copy of Burn, is the direct derivative of characters from No Country for Old Men. Mad Max – apart from being a transplant of a name that it is very impossible to imagine any Nigerian criminal living under the bridge in Apongbon giving himself – is a direct copy of the Javier Bardem character in Country. Right down to the scene where Bardem hides behind the car and manically turns to his side, breathless while holding a gun. As in, a direct copy. The only thing I enjoyed about the scene was seeing how exact the copy was.

In short, those who compare this with anything Quentin Tarantino has ever done in his life, are doing three things: 1. They don’t know Tarantino. 2. They don’t know Tarantino. 3. They are disrespecting Tarantino and denigrating his name, body of work, and legacy.

And all of this is even outside of my major criticism of this film: that it is simply not true to the Nigerian experience – and I think this is what separates the audience I saw this film with from the Twitter audience: are they enjoying the telling of a Nigerian story with a Nigerian sensibility (like, say, Izu Ojukwu’s ‘76, or Niyi Akinmoloyan’s The Arbitration or Kingsley Ogoro’s The Return) or the transplant of a Hollywood experience into Nigerian contexts?

Because beyond the excellent production design and the excellent makeup, everything else was contrived.

The entire relationship between boss and staff, attendant and customer, husband and wife, politician (and, oh God, can an actor do worse than Ali Nuhu?) and kidnapper were a complete misrepresentation of how everyday Nigerians act.

Instead this film was a projection. It took Hollywood noir tropes and simply transplanted them to a Nigerian location.  It is true to an experience of a culture that’s rich yes, but is just not ours, and cannot not be forced into a Nigerian reality, no matter how many words of Igbo are spoken.

I suspect this is what many of the favourable reviews are excited about. The idea of the film, the delicious complexity of the noir genre, and the fact that someone could take names, places and languages that we are familiar with and co-create a reality that correlates with Hollywood’s best offerings in crime, fantasy and fatalism.

We can praise the idea of a thing, however, while making it clear that its execution is nothing to be excited about.

And indeed that is what I came off thinking at the end of this long, terrible, incredibly boring experience. That Dare Olaitan is a gifted young man. His mind, his hand, his senses.

He has absorbed some of the best influences from global filmmaking legend. He is comfortable with complexity, and his mind works in mysterious ways. He understands the camera and knows what to do with locations, lights, design and sound. He has talent.

But this movie, Ojukokoro was no better than a final year film project by a prodigious graduate of any random European film school.

Which means it has good intentions, pays homage to excellent progenitors, is all dressed up, but in delivery and execution, has nowhere good to go.

For the sake of the immense potential that he has, and for the sake of an industry that actually has need for complexity of mind, emotion and intent, it is important that this truth be said.

He needs to go back to the cutting floor, and produce work that is actually worthy of his talent.

One that knows how to tell an actual story.

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