It is fair to think of the 1960s as Nigeria’s most important decade. The country gained independence and became a republic in the first half of that decade. The second half, as if in violent compensation for the joys of the first, saw the first coup, a counter-coup, and then the civil war. However, by the time the 1970s rolled around, the Sixties were not over. A few more coups rocked the country. It was only in 1979, with the democratic government of Shehu Shagari, that the sixties ended. Not that military incursions into governance stopped…

Like the two films mentioned above, Ojukwu’s ’76 uses national events as the background for a smaller tale concerning a few citizens. His film is the best of the three and the best film to be released by Nollywood last year. Ojukwu, it should be noted, is on familiar ground: Back in 2004, his film Across the Niger also covered the civil war.

Like the two films mentioned above, Ojukwu’s ’76 uses national events as the background for a smaller tale concerning a few citizens. His film is the best of the three and the best film to be released by Nollywood last year.

The life of a military man

When ’76 opens, Joseph Dewa, a soldier, returns from a posting to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Suzie, in Ibadan. There they are disturbed by the party-girl partner of his fellow officer and neighbour, who plays her music loudly and at night. Apparently, her partner is fine with it, but Dewa isn’t. This causes a confrontation between the men. At work, their differences are magnified when Dewa comes under suspicion for his reluctance to join a plot involving his friend Gomos and other officers. His ambivalence threatens the plot and Gomos is required to bring him around.

But Dewa and his Igbo girlfriend have other problems. Her family is against their relationship and have refused Dewa’s bride price. They do not like his people, his ethnicity, which is never explicitly stated but is probably one of the middle-belt groups. Suzie is also worried that she is in love with an unknowable man: He has refused to introduce her to his family. All they have is love and, given that they are played by the good-looking duo of Rita Dominic and Ramsey Nouah, their handsome faces. As the film’s prevailing unease thickens, Gomos’s plot becomes a coup. The events leading up to it test the loyalty of the soldier to his country. The fallout tests the loyalty of Suzie to her man.

One aspect of Ojukwu’s achievement in ’76 is how much his approach shows us the nature of a military coup. A coup d’état is a two-act play. The latter act is dominated by women – most men having expired by the end of the first. Ramsey Nouah – mannered, defiant, stubborn – holds the first act together, delivering the performance of his long career. He will surely make a clean sweep of the acting trophies come awards season. On screen, he is a soldier and a man, not an actor.

Dominic anchors the latter half and delivers a performance that she has always been capable of but she hasn’t had material equal to her gifts. There is a scene in which she is grilled by a soldier (an impressive Adonijah Owiriwa) who is both good cop and bad cop. Her heaving torso and quavering voice convey agony, doubt and, finally, a powerlessness at what she assumes is the necessity of the heart-breaking act she is about to commit.

Superb acting throughout

In addition to both leads, the acting in the supporting roles is superb. Memry Savanhu is exceptional in her party-girl role, as is Chidi Mokeme as Gomos. These performances constitute a further achievement by Ojukwu, who is working in an industry that does not have too many actor-focused directors.

Using sound and by keeping the scenes concise, the director ensures that ’76 is well paced in a way that most of Nollywood has not managed yet. In an otherwise positive review, a critic at The Hollywood Reporter carped about the pace of the first act, but I think his summation is incorrect. By thinking of the film as a thriller, this Hollywood industry rag misses the dramatic nature of the material – or perhaps the Toronto Film Festival, where the film opened, screened a different cut from what has reached Nigerian cinemas.

Along with cinematographer Yinka Edwards, Ojukwu has made a film that can be described as semi Nollywood noir, and Edwards’s lens lends a dignity to the faces its captures.

There are vanity shots here and there, with the camera lingering on period paraphernalia to let us know just how well researched this film is. This is distracting but forgivable. Better are the details in characterisation. Suzie’s doubt at not meeting her lover’s family becomes a basis for a subsequent action. Nouah’s willingness to confront his neighbour because of the decibels of his partner’s music is tied to his sense of duty. Glimpses of Gomos’s wantonness with women and wine forecast his own indiscretion in taking part in the coup. Repeatedly and convincingly, Ojukwu knows and shows the inner life of his characters. It helps cover the obvious moments in Emmanuel Okomanyi’s script.

Along with cinematographer Yinka Edwards, Ojukwu has made a film that can be described as semi Nollywood noir, and Edwards’s lens lends a dignity to the faces its captures. An example is the scene that is dominated by the faces of Nouah and Mokeme in a medium shot, a light bulb suspended between them. At the climax, the bulb goes out. Next, in a wide shot, we see one of the men walking briskly in the night. It is unclear what has happened for some seconds until the viewer realises that Ojukwu has deigned to show violence. While in less confident hands, this could be seen as an evasion—how do you make a film that has a coup at its centre but no real scenes of violence?—in Ojukwu’s hands, it is connected to his theme. ’76 is not an action flick about coups; it is a drama about men in the military and the women who love them; about how both the duty and ambition of officers are tied to the pain of civilian lovers.

Still frame from 76 movie trailer

Even if the viewer misses this, it is still possible to enjoy the conceit of extinguishing that light bulb and dipping both the scene and the cinema hall into a broth of darkness. Another conceit involves the coup being given the black-and-white treatment. No blood, no gore, but the enacted images blend with the archived footage that the director obtained from Associated Press. Nollywood has been lauded for its creativity in making movies; it is refreshing to see some of that creativity in the film itself.

 

Making its case subtly

One last note: Because every film about a country’s real past is tied to its future, filmmakers may be pressed to say something about the present. After all, the film maker knows what happened. This impulse led to the absurd case of a character in October 1 accurately predicting in 1960 that the civil war would take place in seven years’ time. In contrast, ’76 makes its own case subtly. It proves that the past is not past – not in Nigeria, anyway. The failed 1976 coup made a head of state out of Olusegun Obasanjo, who returned as civilian president in 1999, and then he facilitated the election of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as his successor. Yar’Adua’s death, the first step in an unpredictable cascade of events, led to the return of retired Major-General Buhari to Nigeria’s top job. This recycling of military men is one of the tragedies of Nigerian politics. It is from this tragedy that, in Nollywood terms, Ojukwu has made an out and out triumph. From the gutters of Nigerian history, he has fashioned a path to the stars.