Tuesday, September 19, 2017

INVASION 1897 (2014)

How much should you hold limited resources against an ambitious filmmaker? If his resources aren't adequate to the requirements of his vision, or to conventional standards of verisimilitude, should he even bother with the project? To put it differently, is there any way to discuss the possible artistic merits of Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen's patriotic epic without bringing up his hilariously horrendous costuming of his 19th century British soldiers? Imasuen is a typically prolific "Nollywood" director from a national film industry now increasingly represented in the Netflix streaming library. IMDB hasn't been able to keep up with his output; looking there, you'd think Invasion 1897 had killed his career. An unforgiving eye would think that just desserts. Imasuen wants to show the last stand of the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) against British imperialism, describing its ruler (Mike Omoregbee) inaccurately (the Negus of Ethiopia says hello) as "the last African king." Were he a director in an authoritarian country, he might have gotten the resources -- money, costumes, extras -- such a story requires, but Nollywood directors are largely on their own, as far as I can tell. Authentic uniforms or authentic-looking Britons were beyond his reach. He appears to have rented the next best things -- to uniforms, that is -- from some costume store, with no regard possible for how they fit his white "actors," none of whom, as a matter of grooming, looks remotely like a 19th century British soldier. Worst of all, the costumes clearly weren't meant to help anyone pass for a soldier. The blatant, apparently irremovable "Anarchy" patches (complete with circle-A logo) suggest that they were made for some rock or punk band, if not simply for goofy parties. Is it possible to take Invasion seriously with this glaring handicap constantly recurring?

Note Anarchy patch on the soldier in white, amid the spectacle of British headquarters,
including a portable radio in 1897!

The best answer is maybe, if Imasuen were as ambitious in form as he is in content and could make genuinely creative use of anachronism. Unfortunately, he's extremely conventional in some ways and a vulgar sensationalist in others. I was about to write that he begins Invasion in most conventional fashion, with a framing sequence, but then I remembered that the film actually begins with an absolutely gratuitous beheading scene, highlighted with a lingering shot of blood spurting from the decapitated neck. Then we get the framing sequence, set in modern London, where Igie (Charles Venn) studies African history and learns that the famous Benin art treasures captured by the British were the kingdom's way of recording its history. This realization inspires him to break into a museum in a failed attempt to confiscate some of the bronzes and other sculptures. He pleads not guilty to attempted theft at his trial, daring the court to prove that the treasures had been sold or freely given to the museum by their original owners. These purely modern scenes are easily the most competently shot, and for what it's worth, they allow Imasuen to disclaim racial animus by giving Igie a sympathetic white girlfriend (Annika Alfoti).

The main body of the film is Igie's evidence for the theft of the Benin treasures. Benin is suffering hard times before the British get aggressive, as people seem to be dropping dead en masse while the king (or Oba) seems increasingly detached from reality. The Oba is as much a spiritual figure as a temporal ruler, and the film shows him and his inner circle experiencing a portentous vision, as a long-departed elder predicts doom for the kingdom. Meanwhile, the British show increasing disrespect to the Oba, finally provoking the massacre of a small unit that provides the pretext for a full-scale invasion.

To be fair, Imasuen makes good use of the one impressive prop he had, a gunboat that looks appropriately menacing, packed with Britons and native auxiliaries (in better looking uniforms) as it motors into Benin territory. He gets even better service out of it in the best single shot of the picture, a long take of the deposed Oba orating about the transience of victory and the mortality of all men as the boat takes him into exile. The rest of it is an ill-paced, overlong mess at less than two hours, turgidly punctuated with meandering dialogue scenes in which the Oba's retainers react with great deliberation to his latest utterances or the latest bad news from the front lines. Worse still are any scenes requiring British soldiers to talk to each other. Interlarded throughout are battle scenes showing superior British firepower -- illustrated with bargain-basement CGI explosions and flames -- occasionally outmatched by Bini mastery of native terrain. The sporadic mayhem keeps things somewhat lively, especially when the Binis get to use edged weapons, but the only real momentum comes from the Oba's seeming spiral into madness. Almost as an afterthought, British soldiers are shown stuffing the art treasures into sacks. If any flaw of many here can be singled out as fatal, it's probably Imasuen's failure to develop any character into a proper hero on whom we can focus our attention. Maybe there was none, and maybe it's to Imasuen's credit that for all his clear cultural patriotism, he doesn't really idealize Benin. But his rough approach to the subject leaves it little more than a bunch of bad stuff that happened, with the added moral that white men back then had a bad habit of going where they weren't wanted.

Returning at last to modern times, we learn that Igie's narrative, for which the main body of the film stands in, was enough to get the judge to drop the charges against him and advise him to contact the International Court of Justice. As his supporters celebrate his freedom, including his gone-native girlfriend, one can't help wondering whether simply having Igie tell the story in the courtroom would have been a better movie.

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