Review: Up North is big, beautiful and bland

up north

Geography was big in Nollywood in 2018 with films like Lionheart, King of Boys and Kasala looking within to reflect worlds and create narratives that are distinctly local. While the former films spread themselves across various regions in the South, Anakle, a digital media agency took the road less travelled- at least as far as mainstream Nollywood is concerned- and headed North for the agency’s feature length debut.

Collaboration is the spirit of the game as Anakle joined forces with industry leaders, Inkblot Productions (makers of The Wedding Party movies) to produce Up North, a visually splendid but ultimately lukewarm coming of age drama that appears to have more than basic entertainment going for it.

Directed by Tope Oshin who helmed Inkblot’s New Money earlier in 2018, Up North is a pleasant enough family film that wears its good intentions proudly on its chest. In just under two hours running time, Up North manages to pack in subtle lectures on integration, tolerance and acceptance.

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For a film with such noble intentions, it makes sense then that the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program- created in 1973 as an avenue for reconciliation and nation rebuilding following the devastating effects of the civil war- would serve as the backdrop for the introduction of the film’s nation building bonafides. While not strictly government propaganda in the full sense of the word, Up North comes dangerously close, and is the type of film that will enjoy a lengthy life span beyond the theatrical life cycle, on television and in special screenings doing the kind of work that the NYSC was originally created to do.

Bassey Etuokong (Banky W) is a thirty-year-old rich kid coasting along comfortably off the family fortune. Much to his father’s dismay, Bassey has no intentions of joining the family business nor settling down into the strategic marriage that has been arranged on his behalf. As punishment for his selfishness- his sister Idara (Michelle Dede) is already firmly planted in the business- Bassey’s monthly allowance is slashed and he is dispatched to Bauchi state to take part in the compulsory NYSC scheme.

Although Bassey heads to the North kicking and screaming and encounters some social status shock for the first few moments, he settles in easily and is determined to make the best of the situation. Social media comes in ahandy and his adventures in camp and outside are detailed and shared with the world via his social media platforms.

Outside the camp, Bassey and his newfound BFF, Sadiq (Ibrahim Suleiman) are posted to teach in a secondary school in Kafin Madaki, a rural community and it isn’t long before his liberal ways are clashing with the community’s more structured conservatism. Oh! and he finds love along the way.

But can he keep it?

Written by Chinaza Onuzo and Bunmi Ajakaiye, both working from a story by Anakle’s Editi Effiong, Up North is very tastefully done and quite eager to please everyone. The story is heartwarming, shies away from scandal or any tough questions and the picture is scrubbed to a shiny gloss. There is almost nothing not to like about it and this accessibility will surely broaden the film’s appeal.

Up North would be mind-numbingly basic though without the visual flourishes that makes the film stand out from its PG ultra-conservatism. Oshin generously makes use of bright colors and eye-popping set design, particularly in scenes set in Bauchi to build her world. The film is peppered with gorgeous vistas of the Bauchi countryside; with hills, waters and breathtaking greenery captured by elaborate drone shots. Oshin also shoots around a lavish Sallah Durbar and is able to demonstrate a strong capacity for handling scenes involving large crowds. These visual flourishes alongside the sound design and musical elements give some agency to Up North’s cinematic claims and help elevate the story.

As with countless Nollywood films gone before, the problem with Up North lies in the story. It just isn’t arresting or stimulating enough. The modest, feel-good objectives of the project guarantees that nothing is ever really at any risk including the lead character’s arc.  Banky W’s Bassey completes the film essentially the same way he started it, only with a different love interest in tow. His journey isn’t clearly projected and the film feels like it is just ticking boxes instead of allowing the hero organically go through the challenges that he has to pass through to deepen his appreciation of life and country.

The central romance of Up North, between Bassey and the widow Maryam (Rahama Sadau) does not quite hold up. Sadau has put in a stronger outing in a similar role (see 2017’s Hakkunde) and respectful conservatism is no excuse for lack of chemistry as is clearly visible in the sub-plot involving Suleiman’s Sadiq and Zainab (Adesua Etomi).

This makes it all the more harder to root for the central pair. Doesn’t help that Up North peaks early in the first act and manages to maintain a safe plateau that is far from exciting. Supporting turns from Rekkia Attah, Sani Mu’azu and Funky Mallam help enliven a narrative that is so big, so broad, so beautiful, yet so bland.

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