Wednesday, February 10, 2016

OCTOBER 1 (2014)

Kunle Afolayan's October 1 is a far more ambitious Nigerian film in form and content than the populist entertainment identified with the "Nollywood" label. Though handicapped by bad acting, it soundly strikes its intended ominous note as deaths and prophecies of death shadow the coming of Nigerian independence from Great Britain on October 1, 1960. As the official handover of power nears, Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) -- "Danny Boy" to his condescending British superiors -- has to track down a serial killer in the town of Akote. The victims are virgin women whom the killer marks with an X -- or a cross, depending on your angle -- on their backs. Inspector Waziri faces more culture clashes in the town. While he speaks primarily in English, as does the Nigerian elite generally, he's of a different ethnic group from the Akote people, and the local police have to interpret for him when he interviews possible witnesses or informants. Even the Anglophone police have such thick accents and such limited English that their dialogue is subtitled while Waziri's is not. They're more superstitious than he, though he's assured that human sacrifices are a thing of the distant past. This is, in fact, correct, for the killings aren't sacrifices of any sort. They are acts of revenge on the whole community for a crime only one of them knows about.

You get the impression from October 1 that Nigeria is more a figment of the Anglophone elite's imagination than something the common people identify with. There's a nicely satiric scene in which a schoolteacher leads her class through the English lyrics of the new nation's anthem. When the first run-through proves too lackadaisical for her tastes, she makes them do it again with a threat of beatings. Yet this teacher, Miss Tawa (Kehinde Bankole) is one of the film's sympathetic characters, sincerely intended as an embodiment of the country's promise. We follow her renewed romance with Prince Aderopo (Demola Adedoyin), who's returned to his ancestral home before resuming advanced study in Britain. "Ropo" is stylish, sophisticated and sardonic. He's also pessimistic about the country's future, making an on-the-nose prediction that Nigeria will see civil war in seven years' time.

Before going further, a spoiler warning is in order, since this is a mystery movie.

*   *   *

Actually, October 1 is a mystery movie only until its midway point, and it actually ceases to be one before that if you pay attention to how the otherwise-unseen killer is dressed during one of the attacks. The film becomes a thriller when one of the policemen, pursuing a suspect through the forest after the latest kill, stumbles upon a bloodstained Aderopo, who takes advantage of the officer's confusion to silence him permanently. The prince himself is the serial killer, despite a seeming discrepancy between the first murder and his return to Akote, and after this revelation October 1 becomes a race against time for Inspector Waziri to figure out the truth after an innocent stranger is captured, blamed for the killings, and killed by a victim's father. At the same time, the film becomes a whydunit. Why is this westernized member of the new elite killing virgin women and carving crosses into their flesh? The answer places part of the blame for Nigeria's fratricidal destiny squarely on its British rulers, through the medium of that universal villain, the Pedophile Priest.

Aderopo has a school chum (Afolayan) who had gone to Lagos, the capital, with him a while but returned to Akote to go native. He initially refuses to speak English to Waziri, even though the inspector learns that he was a top student while in Lagos. Asked why he rejects the lingua franca, Agbekoya snarls, in English, "Western eduction is bad!" which is the usual translation of the words boko haram, the slogan and name of Nigeria's modern day Islamist insurgency. But Aderopo and his brother are Christians (Waziri himself seems to be a secular Muslim), so why should either of them think this? Well, you might think western education is bad, too, if it included being summoned for "evening prayers" by a creepy Anglican cleric. While Agbekoya couldn't take it and quit school, the prince wanted education bad enough to stay on and take it for years more. He then took his anger out on the priest, but that didn't satisfy him. He blames Akote itself for his pain, as if the town had sacrificed him to some evil god, and his plan is to kill one virgin for each year he suffered under the priest's ministrations. Tawa, supposedly his beloved, is his intended final victim. In a scene that shows clearly how irredeemably messed up Aderopo has become, Tawa asks why he intends to rape her since she'd give him love willingly. He doesn't want anything given to him, he answers; he only wants to take and make the whole community feel his pain.

October 1 succeeds in creating mood while stumbling in other respects. Once the director tips his hand and reveals the killer, it becomes too easy for Inspector Waziri to figure it out, though it's a telling detail in the overall context that the tune "God Save the Queen" is a crucial clue. Some of the actors, including Sadiq Daba as Waziri, and especially the few white actors in the cast, have a tendency to shout their dialogue, though Adedoyin as the prince and Bankole as Miss Tawa are admirable exceptions. Daba doesn't really give a bad performance, but the cadences of his English and a certain whininess in his voice take getting used to. He shows a healthy range of moral indignation, whether directed at the condescending or simply contemptuous Brits or at the raw horror of the Akote murders, that holds the film together effectively and emphatically. Overall, Afolayan's film, though flawed, is entertaining, and it's worth a look as a symbolically critical retrospective of the birth of a troubled nation.

No comments: