When the Nigerian entry Daughters of Chibok was announced winner of the Best Virtual Reality Story (for linear content) at the awards ceremony of the Venice International Film Festival, the last of the “Big three” festivals to be held this year, Joel Kachi Benson, the film’s writer and director was not surprised.
Every festival has a peculiar tradition and for Venice, the awards ceremony is usually a fete for the winning productions. Joel Kachi Benson was informed the day before and he spent the next 24 hours working on his acceptance speech.
He knew the importance of the moment, and the message he wanted to put across. He sent his text to his wife and another friend and they all agreed on the final copy. Chibok, the sleepy agrarian town in Borno state that made world headlines when 276 girls were kidnapped from their secondary school in 2014 would be at the center of his address. Chibok was after all, the reason all of this was possible in the first place. Benson’s brief but potent speech ended with the words “Because of this award, the world will hear again about Chibok and remember.”
The world remembers
After the initial outcry that followed the Chibok incident, and the international attention that it generated. After the Michelle Obamas and the Anne Hathaways and the Mo Abudus had moved on. After Malala Yousafzai had come to town and left, and after 164 of the girls were brought home to their parents and accounted for, it seemed like the last had been heard about Chibok and about the famous girls. But the saga is far from over.
Joel Kachi Benson was in Chibok for a different reason when the story of Yana Galang, the protagonist of Daughters of Chibok came to him. He was making a different commissioned project that took his team through about five states in the north east. When they got to the now famous town of Chibok, his instincts got the better of him. While meeting and speaking with some of the indigenes, Benson was introduced to Yana Galang, a community leader. Galang welcomed them and served as the initial interface, taking the team around the community and advising on local customs.
Benson’s film was initially going to focus on Yana’s daughter, Laraba and stepsister to the still missing Rifkatu. Filming started and Benson’s team spent the first day filming Laraba and following her to school. But the focus changed the moment Benson sat down to speak with Yana on camera later in the day. Benson explains his choices, ‘’First of all it is Yana’s daughter that is missing so the emotional connection is there. As a filmmaker you want your viewers to have that emotional connection in the raw form.’’
Interacting with Yana, Benson was intrigued by her strength of character and the seeming ease at which she took up the leadership role that was thrust on her by events beyond her control. He observes, “She is such a complex character, on the one hand she is this strong woman. But she wasn’t born a leader, she grew into it through tragedy. She was the one who interfaced with government, welcomed girls who were rescued, hugged their parents and after every episode she still had to go home to ask herself, where is my own daughter, will she be coming back?”
Filming for the 11 minutes Daughters of Chibok went on for two non-consecutive weeks. Back in Lagos, looking through the footage generated during the first week of shoots, Benson’s team made the difficult decision to go back to Chibok for additional footage. Chibok isn’t exactly the most accessible place on the map. Getting to Chibok from Lagos would typically involve flying to Yola, Adamawa state through Abuja, passing the night, plus an additional 6 hours by road to Chibok early the next morning. Compounding matters was that this fell right into electioneering season, during the period when elections were postponed and there were worries about safety of crew and equipment. They went ahead anyway. In his Venice festival acceptance video, Benson saluted the courage of his team, a ‘’crazy bunch of young Nigerians who will follow me anywhere once I say let’s go.’’
What started as a passing curiosity for Benson soon took up a life of its own as he got closer to the women and listened to their stories and their real time challenges. The project became a campaign for the women who had no one to speak for them. A lot of the talk surrounding Chibok was rightfully about the missing girls, but Benson could identify so many gaps in the ways that the mothers of these girls were treated. These women were always portrayed in the media as passive, grief-stricken figures. A prominent author even accused them on Twitter of performing their pain to the entire world- to appropriate levels of backlash of course. But Benson could see their lives, the interiority, the agency and the pain. These women are in many ways, the pillars of their community. Even though their living conditions are closer to extreme poverty, they are the ones who take care of their children, send them to school, pay the fees, go to the farm, provide food and nurturing not only for the children but also the men in their lives. And they do all these with little or no psychosocial support, no mental health, physical or emotional therapy. They only have themselves. Benson observes, “I felt it was wrong on so many levels. So I resolved that the film would be used as a vehicle to get support for the women.”
Shortly before leaving for Venice, Benson and his team, in collaboration with a local NGO, raised some money and went back to Chibok. The money was used to purchase bags of fertilizers for 10 of the women. To ensure that the fertilizers aren’t lost in the whole humanitarian aid smokescreen that sometimes occurs when tragedies like the Chibok kidnap occur, Benson ensured his team was on ground, and the beneficiaries signed for whatever they got and that there was video evidence. Benson is not unmindful of the loop holes and the complexities of delivering aid to victims of disasters. He says, ‘’There was a company that wanted to support but the model they wanted to use I felt it was exploitative so I backed out. Our plan is to support 112 women, we haven’t even started yet.’’
Triumph of will
Benson’s journey to founder of VR 360 Stories, his own Lagos based startup production company is one of perseverance and an unflinching determination to succeed, despite the hard knocks of life. Born into a middle-class family in Lagos, Benson’s comfortable life was upended when his parents separated and his dad lost his job.
Benson stayed with his dad in Abia state while his mother moved back to Lagos with some of his siblings. After a while, his dad left entirely and a teenage Benson was left to his own devices. He took a night bus to join the rest of his family in Lagos but tragedy struck when he lost his mum shortly after.
A friend who was a production assistant introduced Benson to the world of Nollywood and he began to hang around film sets, running errands for the stars and writing screenplays on the side. Benson also began to play around with cinematography, video editing and got direct access to someone who could teach him the ropes. While his friends would visit all night cybercafes sourcing for ways to make a quick buck, Benson would spend all the time researching film schools he could apply to. “I knew all the fees for all the schools.’’ he recalls.
At this stage of his life, Benson tried everything including gospel music. His brother started a band, 6Team with his friends and Benson joined them. The band went on tour in London and Benson took the opportunity to enroll in a filmmaking course at the Central Film School in London, thus kicking off his career as a filmmaker.
He was drawn to documentaries because he could relate with the stories of resilience and the human spirit. This interest has taken Benson across the country and to festivals and programs in Italy, Berlin and the United States. He has been able to build this passion for documentaries into a sustainable career that currently employs a tidy team and trains them not just on filmmaking but on the latest trends in VR. Benson insists that his company is profitable and he does not owe salaries.His production company’s work with corporate clients is able to fund the personal storytelling like the Chibok documentary that he gravitates to as a filmmaker. Benson urges filmmakers to adopt similar models instead of complaining that documentary filmmaking isn’t profitable.
There are still countless stories left in him and Benson hopes to find the means and opportunities to tell them all. Some of his interests include human trafficking, climate change, the transatlantic slave trade and how it connects to contemporary living. Because the VR space is just opening up around the world, Benson sees it as an opportunity where no one has any undue advantages. Everyone is still in the process of figuring it out.
For Benson, his experiences- both good and bad- played a critical part in his life’s journey today and he regrets none of it as everything has brought him to this moment. Hear him, “I used to blame my father a lot for what I was going through at the time. I think the turning point in my life came when I intentionally decided that I will not blame him anymore for whatever happens to me. Whatever happens to me would be my own responsibility. The moment I made that decision I totally forgot about him and the opportunities I felt I had missed by him not being in the picture. I found the camera, found the media and it as a headlong dive into it, sink or swim.”
Sinking or swimming has translated into learning as much as possible on the internet, applying for scholarships and fellowships where possible and spending thousands of dollars on self-development. After he was challenged by a client to figure out the VR technology, Benson went on an education, picking up everything he needed to know. The internet in particular has been a useful tool for Benson as he has deployed it countless times in his quest for meaning. “Imagine if I didn’t have my own personal money to invest into this thing, this award would not be sitting here today.” He said to Techpoint shortly after his Venice victory lap.
Benson isn’t done with Chibok just yet. And he is hopeful that Daughters of Chibok still has a lot of blessings to deliver, especially for Yana Galang and the other mothers who are still waiting on their daughters’ return.
Some critics of the documentary form argue that it is a passive medium that at its best, does not do enough to show the total complexity of real life and at its worst, can be exploitative to the unwitting subjects. For Benson it is a good place to start understanding circumstances that are different from ours and VR in particular helps to immerse viewers into lives that are far from their own privilege. Which was one of his motivations for making the film in VR.
He shares a relationship with his subject, Yana Galang that has encroached into kinship- she now calls him her son- and during the interview, he puts her on the phone to remind her of an impending visit to Lagos to continue the work of ensuring that people remember the daughters of Chibok. Benson reiterates strongly, ‘’One of the things the women told me was that in the beginning it seemed like everyone cared but now the world has moved on. But we cannot move on. It isn’t over yet. 112 girls are still missing. We need to account for them.”
Interview by Isime Esene. Text by Wilfred Okiche