PROTODISPATCH

PROTODISPATCH

A monthly digital publication of artists’ dispatches on the life conditions that necessitate their work.

APRIL 18, 2024


APRIL 18, 2024

OF QUIET MONDAYS AND LOUD OPPRESSIONS

Filmmaker Dika Ofoma and curator Innocent Ekejiuba discuss Ofoma’s film A Quiet Monday, which faces living in Nigeria and what happens when governments create a vacuum that allows violence to fester.

Dika Ofoma and Innocent Ekejiuba

Dika Ofoma and Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Behind the scene Photo by Eddie Eduvie, Enugu, 2023

Innocent Ekejiuba: Dika, we are having this conversation within the context of a Protocinema film screening program which is about artworks that address planetary tyrannical conditions. The program is about considering these conditions and thinking beyond what is offered. It is also about mapping and making visible some of these situations and, in a sense, creating a connection across all the different places from which the works are from: Cambodia to India, through Palestine, Iraq, and Nigeria. Your film A Quiet Monday is in this program. Would you tell us about the conditions that necessitated your film?

Dika Ofoma: I live in Enugu, Nigeria, and on May 30th, 2021, we experienced the first sit-at-home order, by IPOB1 secessionist group, which was planned in commemoration of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). On that particular Friday, I had planned on going to a concert by the highlife band The Cavemen, but IPOB, a secessionist group in the southeastern part of the country, issued a decree prohibiting anyone from going out. This decree marked the beginning of the sit-at-home orders. Following the arrest of their leader, IPOB declared that the sit-at-home directive would apply to every Monday. So every Monday, no one should go to school, no one should do business, everyone should stay in their houses. And it felt like a joke. It felt like a stupid joke, like this could not happen, and then, the first Monday, nobody took the order seriously. But we heard news of schools, especially in rural areas, where students were flogged because they had gone out to school; shops were burned and looted because they had opened on a Monday. That gave people a sense that this was serious, and the government wasn't doing anything about it. We thought it would just be for a while, but it continued. And then, around Christmas, that sort of stopped. That's Christmas of 2021, and people started going out again. But then I remember the very first Monday in Enugu after New Year, I had gone out—there was a job I was supposed to interview for—and all of a sudden, there was chaos in town, and, allegedly, IPOB had gone all over town and shot their guns into the air to instill fear in people. And so the following Monday, everyone just stayed home, and it continued from then on till today. There's been some attempts by the government to instill some confidence in the citizens to come out on Mondays, slowly schools and banks are opening on Mondays now. But Enugu still feels like a ghost town on Mondays. Living through these experiences inspired this story.

IE: There is an irony in the thought that the group IPOB has probably killed more Igbo people than they have anyone else, even though they claim to be fighting for the freedom of the Igbo state and the establishment of a Biafran state. Those who they claim to fight for are those whom they have harmed the most. I have tried to—sometimes successfully—speak with people who are sympathetic to the IPOB mission or people who are in the IPOB organization, and I know several writers and journalists have attempted, to varying degrees of success, to engage with them in conversations. I know how difficult this is. How did this tricky relationship affect making this film and its distribution?

DO: I faced a significant challenge in casting the role of Calistus. When I approached actors and explained the story to them, they would often decline. This reluctance stemmed from the fact that young men were often targeted by the group depicted in the film. While my intention wasn't primarily political, the film does contain some criticism of IPOB. However, my main focus was to depict the realities of the situation through the eyes of ordinary people, like Kamnonu and her brother Ogbonna. But I didn't foresee that I would have to go through three or four actors, who all said no to playing Calistus. The person who eventually played Calistus is my friend. The first time I went to him, he said no. After about four actors turned down the role, I returned to him. He's my friend, so I talked him into it. He is not a professional actor. He's a tech boy who I dragged into this film. Actors were also turning down Ogbonna’s role, it wasn’t just Calistus. I mean, Uzoamaka jumped up to play Kamnonu; she was happy with the character. But the male leads were difficult to cast. Also, just before we started shooting A Quiet Monday, a DPs we approached to work with apparently had gone on another shoot in the state of Imo. They were shooting on a Monday, and IPOB had come to attack them, so he had PTSD from that experience. When we approached him, he told us he wouldn't be interested in shooting in Enugu or anywhere else in the South East due to security concerns. This also instilled fear in us, so for a while, we were considering shooting in Lagos instead. This delayed shoot from November 2022 till January of 2023, when we eventually shot the film in Enugu. But it was a struggle to get people on board for the film.

IE: Do you think that it's possible to be political without being overly explicit about it?

DO: You're right, and what I meant to convey is that it's not overtly didactic or preachy. While A Quiet Monday does include political criticism, the primary aim was to emotionally engage the audience with the story of these siblings navigating their daily lives amidst the challenges posed by the decree. So, yes, in essence it is a political story, but the focus remains on connecting with the audience on the emotional level of what it is like to live within the fear and constraints of that group.

IE: Nigerians view film predominantly as a form of entertainment, which reflects Nollywood's influence and has resulted in the industry's financial success2. Consequently, many Nigerian filmmakers tend to approach filmmaking in a binary manner: creating either purely entertaining films or hardcore documentaries focused on singular topics. You, however, approach storytelling slightly differently. Maybe because you watched a lot of soap operas when you were growing up, there is an element of interwoven storytelling in your films. Do you intentionally use storytelling as a way to address critical sociopolitical conditions in an approachable manner?

DO: Some of my early introduction to storytelling was from reading African novels and while they entertained, they passed social commentary, sometimes the stories were set against a political backdrop, and these made the stories richer and more compelling. One of the African filmmakers I made a conscious effort to study when I took a serious interest in storytelling was Ousmane Sembène. His films were critical of the Senegalese government and her leaders and were even banned sometimes. The Senegalese government's resistance to these films underscores the power of storytelling in raising awareness among people. And this is the kind of awareness that comes when we reflect things back to people, sometimes things that we had hitherto overlooked. When we hear stories, they can often feel distant, like mere headlines amidst our daily challenges. Issues like sitting at home due to IPOB directives may seem like just another inconvenience. But what film does is remarkable—it bridges the gap between us and those experiences, fostering empathy. This ability to understand and share the feelings of others is a powerful force in driving activism. Many leading activists are not directly affected by the issues they champion. It's the empathy they feel for others that propels them forward. That's what film can do. Empathy.

IE: Sometimes empathy is all about finding the right language, communicating your work, and ensuring that the message gets across. A key consideration in that conversation is language itself; how language is used to communicate empathy, and how it sometimes falls short of what is necessary. How did you arrive at the decision to have the language spoken in the film to be Igbo, which is then subtitled into English?

DO: Most of my decisions were about what felt true. The primary language in Enugu is Igbo. Most people who live in Enugu speak Igbo, so if we are making a film about people who live in Enugu, it automatically makes sense to make it in Igbo. But then, also, it is a film that I intend to show to Nigerians, and many Nigerians outside the SouthEast do not speak Igbo. So, what language would unify my audience? And so, I made the decision to subtitle the film in English.

IE: Going back a bit to IPOB, what they claim to want is secession, but, in my opinion, what they really want is anarchy. Given the history of Biafra in Nigeria and the uneasy history of the Igbos in Nigeria—with all that happened pre and post the civil war—is secession really the answer, as IPOB claims?

DO: Growing up in Gombe, a town in northeastern Nigeria, I always saw myself as Nigerian and Igbo3. Both identities were not in conflict. I grew up speaking Igbo, Hausa, and English, and I identified with Gombe when people asked where I was from. People often say to me, “But you are Igbo,” and then I have to say, “Oh, yeah. My parents are from Imo.” Still, I find contentment in my Nigerian identity. Yet, when it comes to the idea of secession and IPOB's vision of Biafra, it's like envisioning a utopia—a place where all the South East's problems vanish, akin to how Christians speak of heaven. However, I ponder the practicalities. What have IPOB leaders done for the Igbo people? Even if Biafra were to materialize, wouldn't it be the same Igbo elites governing, with little change? Renaming the South East to Biafra and adopting new symbols won't work magic. IPOB's tactics, like sit-at-home orders, aim to oppose the federal government but hit everyday Igbos hardest. When Buhari was in power, IPOB shutting down the South East did not faze him the same way it is not fazing Tinubu now4. Ordinary folks who are unable to work or attend school suffer the most. So, I question the utopian IPOB promises. Personally, I don't believe in secession.

IE: Are there any questions from the audience?

Audience Member: What struck me about your film was the authenticity of the characters. Kamnonu remembering to pray just before eating felt genuine, reminiscent of my Catholic upbringing. Did you have to redo scenes often, or was it more about working with actors familiar with the language and culture? Was it primarily about casting the right actors, or did you face other challenges to achieve that realism?

DO: It started with writing. I knew what I was going for. I was going for a documentary-esque feel for the film, which also influenced how the camera worked. For the performances, I sent film references with naturalistic acting styles to the actors to study. We also held several rehearsals, particularly to ensure the accuracy of the Igbo language. It was essential to rehearse from the start to ensure clarity in dialogue delivery and timing. Despite the logistical challenge of having actors in different locations, we conducted Zoom meetings and dry runs on set. Ultimately, the authenticity stemmed from the dialogue I drew from real-life experiences, such as my upbringing in a Catholic Igbo family, and aimed to capture genuine sibling interactions on screen.

Audience Question to both speakers: When it comes to filmmaking, do you think intention is greater than impact? Do you believe the viewer response theory is more important than a pragmatic criticism?

DO: Do you mean my vision versus what the audience takes away from it?

IE: Roland Barthes ​​famously wrote about the necessity of the author's death and the birth of the reader to achieve meaning-making. For me, impact and intention are equally as important because, without intention, there won’t be any vehicle for impact. For example, the appearance of the army to arrest everyone, the relationship between Ogbonna and Calistus, and how all these events affect Kamnonu in the film. This could have a lasting impact on individuals watching the film depending on who the audience member is.

IE [to DO]: Beyond the politics of Biafra, there is also the politics of relationships between siblings or romantic partners. Are they both important to you?

DO: As you say, they are both important. The audience is also not a monolith, so everyone will draw something different from the film. I'm happy that the work is impactful. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, some of the impact is a reflection of my intention.

Dika Ofoma and Blessing Uzzi (Producer, A Quiet Monday), Behind the scene Photo by Eddie Eduvie, 2023

Audience Member: My question is about this screening’s video/ film curation. It seemed, initially, that the series of films addressed tyranny and were only looking to the global south and thank god for Michael Rakowitz’s film, where we finally got a glimpse of the role of the West or the global north in how tyranny comes to be sometimes, and who sometimes facilitates tyranny. So how much of that was conscious, or was that like a little Hail Mary?

IE: When Mari Spirito and Laura Raicovich curated this screening, they were very conscious and careful that these artworks transcend the limitations of oppression. In the research process they found that there were artists who were facing the monsters/oppressors/West and other artists who were facing the creation of new worlds. These were intentional decisions on the side of the artists and curators. The Ballad of Special Ops Cody isn’t the first work in the lineup that reflects on the role of the West in upholding tyranny. Rattanna Vandy's Monologue reflects on the bombing of Cambodia by the West and the impact it left on his family.

I do not believe in spending the time and energy with which we could uplift and critically engage our ideas and communities on Western entities that constantly seek to control our ideas and communities. I believe that the best opposition is to provide visibility for our communities and center our philosophies, ideas, and movements, rather than centering and providing more visibility for the oppressor.

This reminds me of Gabi Ngcobo, who was once asked if the choice to paint the walls of the Center for Historical Reenactment black was in direct response to the “white cube.” She replied that she was not thinking of the white cube when she chose to paint the walls black. The walls were painted black because that suited the project they were working on. The focus was not on finding a place to put the Western powers in the narrative. What was more important for us is the narratives being told by these artists and filmmakers, full stop.

Audience Member [Addressing DO]: If your main focus as a filmmaker is to tell the story of ordinary people, do you sometimes struggle when people hyperfocus on politics because everything is political?

DO: I will say no, and this is why the filmmaker makes the film that they want to make, and the audience is allowed to see the film that they want to see. And yes, this film is deliberately political. Of course, I did not make a film about the politics of Biafra and Nigeria and then come out to say that I was not making a political film. It was. However, my main focus was reflecting on the ways politics affects the lives of ordinary people.

A holistic conversation on Biafra can’t be encapsulated in a twenty-minute film. The story of Biafra goes as far back as the 60s, beginning in the 1966 pogroms that led to the death of thousands of Igbo people in Northern Nigeria. Those deaths have been unaccounted for. When the people, who were later known as Biafrans, decided to break away from the rest of Nigeria to safeguard themselves, the Nigerian government attacked, and a three-year war ensued, leading to the death of millions of Igbo people. What happens in A Quiet Monday is the trauma of those events, a depiction of the aftermath of that war. It shows that although the war has ended, these people have not yet recovered nor healed.

And while, yes, the federal government bears a large responsibility for the Monday curfews in the South East and how it handled the calls for secession from the group, this doesn’t absolve IPOB of the violence. Even in the film, Ogbonna says: “The same Nigeria that’s left us in this ungodly darkness.” Here, he points directly at the ineptitude of the Nigerian government that has allowed secessionist sentiments to fester.

* All images (unless otherwise stated) are courtesy Dika Ofoma, Still from 'A Quiet Monday', 2023

  1. IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) is a secessionist and separatist group founded in 2014 by Nnamdi Kanu. See “Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu: The man behind Nigeria's separatists,”BBC News, May 5, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39793185.
  2. See “Nigeria - Media and Entertainment,”International Trade Administration | Trade.Gov, June 6, 2023, www.trade.gov/country-commercial-guides/nigeria-media-and-entertainment.
  3. For some background on geographical conflict in Nigeria, see Frances Jumoke Oloidi and Leonard Ilechukwu, “Ethnicity in Nigeria in Post Colonial Era and Implications for Reader-Centred Library Collections,” Library Philosophy and Practice (2021), https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=13384&context=libphilprac
  4. R. O. Okonkwo, “The trouble with IPOB’s sit-at-home orders,” Premium Times, January 23, 2022, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/opinion/507361-the-trouble-with-ipobs-sit-at-home-orders-by-rudolf-ogoo-okonkwo.html.

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