ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Tag: abuja

ABUJA, THEIR ABUJA

 

Er….actually, you are not welcome

Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
These vagabond shoes are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York…

I have recently moved to Abuja in somewhat funny circumstances. It has to be about money right? Perhaps, but the truth is more fantastic, there’s the money but I could point you in the right direction.

It is from the Nicolas Cage movie Family Man. Really. There’s this scene where he tells his love interest: “If I leave in France, it has to be in Paris, if in Italy it has to be Rome…”

I don’t remember much from the movie- I don’t even think the quote is accurate- but the idea has remained with me, ever since. I think I saw the movie as a teenager. Anyway, there it is. My reality grounded in the shaky foundations of fiction.

Recently I was asked by a writer friend about the switch and I told him: “You know how those American writers were moving to France in the 20s, 30s claiming to be in search of culture…?” Yes, that is the way I feel about this place.

Cage’s character realizes his life is in the country eventually because of a woman, what else? This kind of disillusionment is the staple of art. But then they say art imitates life.

So I live in Asokoro in miraculous circumstance. And no, I don’t have a senator in my family or a relation that is a member of another money-grubbing class. The truth is much less glamorous.

Abuja, as I had told a girlfriend just as I was leaving Benin, is a place you have to incline your head so you don’t miss anything. It is beautiful as only places housing stolen money can be, check out Switzerland…

However there is this uniformity in beauty that prevents the individual areas from standing out. It is boring, like a long tough marriage with a beautiful woman. It may be laughable but there is character in privation- the width and depth of the potholes, the cavernous gullies, trash-filled gutters, dirt roads etc lend a distinct quality to a place. The frequency of the holes in the Benin-Ore road tells the regular motorist that he/she cannot be any place else.

Here, the bridges are the same, all roads are slick, and the squalour that produces originality is missing. Garki 2, Asokoro, Maitama have the same vegetation, same bridges. Plus there only few signs not obscured by a tree or shrub, like the planners figured everyone here is telepathic.

It would help to walk as nothing gives a personal sense of geography as trekking; the old saw about walking so much ones shoes know the route to a place. But not in Abuja. It is not a land for pedestrians. If shame doesn’t kill you, a driver, high on the slickness of the roads would, especially on the tens of zebra crossings. So, you have to take a cab, there are places you can’t take a bus to. Coming from Benin where everyone is a bike person, this is strange.

The bus drivers and conductors are not quite like the red-eyed ones in Lagos or garrulous like the ones in Benin. They actually have their own seats (I no dey carry overload! is a common refrain). I guess, give a man a seat and watch him transform.

I have actually seen a good looking conductor with skinny jeans and a mohawk! I don’t think that image is possible in Ring road.

As for the people, they live securely in huge houses. Where your only chance of fraternising is in Silverbird Galleria or Ceddi plaza where the fear of a 400 per scoop ice cream ought to prevent an average bloke from saying hi. A friend made a comment the other day about how a thousand bucks in your pocket made u king in Benin and in Abuja 15k means you are rather average.

That statement is only a partial hyperbole.

So what that means is there is this conspiracy to keep the rest of us where we belong- away from the ‘owners’. Hence, I’ve only met fellow immigrants, Benin, Benue, Akwa Ibom etc. The inhabitants I’ve met live in Kubwa, Karu, Mararaba, Nyanya etc, never mind I live in the city. It is one big refugee camp with offices in the city and tents in the camp so by day everyone looks alike from afar but ask them where they are going after 5pm. If you suspect a fib, call two hours after work, if they are stuck in traffic, then you know. For the authorities in the matter of roads, it is a case of quality above quantity or maybe no one really cares about refugees, from Asokoro to Wuse there are several routes but from Nyanya to the city there is a single one. Ditto Kubwa. So there is a horrific jam on these roads every morning and evening. But not to worry, the same authorities enforce 8:00 am resumption time and are unwilling to pay 18,000 as minimum wage.

For some of us, who via miracles live in the city, the guise lent us by our address is one we take seriously: if you don’t have a BlackBerry you can always say you live in Asokoro and watch mouths water. If it were possible, most of us unlikely owners would switch our names, like the Hausa, to the place name: Hello my name is Edwin Maitama, John Asokoro etc… whatever gets you through. That is not assurance that you would ever meet any important personality, it is like two immiscible liquids in the great vessel called Abuja. We might live together but there is no mix. Oil to Water: “You’d never be this dense.”

There are other status symbols; the most common is the accent. It ranges from American to British to Caribbean to a barely discernible concoction. Anything is fine as long as it becomes evident that you have spent time outside the country whether the travel is astral or physical is unimportant.

The other day I attended Infusion, a monthly literary reading which alongside the writers, visual artists and musicians also features a potpourri of accents. It was gratifying to see a particularly accented lady make an elementary grammatical error. I chuckled at the time but after attending with a friend who rose to speak and to my surprise had a different voice from the one I have known for years, I regret that chuckle. It must be something in the water…

A lot of people living elsewhere routinely point fingers at the Abuja inhabitants saying things like, “They are living a fake life.” I might add that they have a fake accent too. But I understand now, I mean I take cabs to places needn’t have to and I guess that is my own equivalent of pseudo-accent synthesis. Of Rome and Romans.

I am hoping I don’t get to the Nicolas Cage realization in Family Man, but I’d be lying if I say I don’t like the place despite the setting disillusionment.

A la Teju Cole, it is my own open city.

When I was preparing to leave Benin, it was Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York (which first verse is quoted above) that kept playing in my head: “I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep/ and find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap/ these little town blues are melting away…

I have loved several songs about New York and it is unfortunate that Abuja has not been given a befitting song in the manner of rock band U2 and their New York- I am talking of City of Blinding Lights, the aptly titled New York with its solemn eponymous chorus (even if it says in New York you “lose your balance, lose your wife…”) and their song on The Gangs of New York soundtrack, The Hands That Built America.

I have a fantasy involving speeding down a slick road in the real New York while Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York plays on the car stereo. I got close to it recently on my way to a reception held in This Day dome as the cab played Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind and Alicia Keys screamed “New York! Concrete jungle where dreams are made of...”

But reality hits hard. I am as close to the fantasy as I am to Peru. Abuja runs a caste system. The commoners move everywhere working or looking for work, while the privileged live in the centre enjoying the fanciful amenities available.

The more fortunate ones live in the centre hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive royal families.

It hasn’t happened; there is no indication that it will.

In the end, rock songs are oft for for the privileged; and may capture the fantasies of the rest of us only occasionally.

As we struggle to move up, while praying for that glorious chance encounter, it is a line from a well-worn hymn that captures the reality:

This world is not my own, I am just passing by…

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DAY 14: AN ANIMATED END

An Epic love story for Adults

Now that’s how you end a film festival!

Give the audience something to applaud. A sense of witnessing something momentous, an idea of being part of an epic journey, characters to root for: Give them the dandy Chico; give them the beautiful and feisty Rita. Give the audience the sensuous, quasi-erotic animated feature, Chico and Rita. The final film at the European Film Festival, Spain’s Chico and Rita is a love story set in Cuba and America. The film follows the on and off relationship of a couple— the eponymous characters. Their love story is told from 1948 through to present day. Chico, a pianist, meets the beautiful singer, Rita; through the help of his friend, Ramon, he convinces her to enter for a music competition with him which they win. A romance blossoms, but between a rich businessman, Ron who intends to make Rita a solo star and Chico’s cantankerous ex-girlfriend, Juanita they are separated as Rita is taken away to America, while Chico stays back in Cuba, depressed. He finds a way to America and an unlikely second phase of the romance begins, and abruptly ends when he is deported. But Cuba has changed. The little matter of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution places an embargo on the public performance of jazz— branded as imperialistic. So an older Chico abandons music and spends his days shoe shining, which is the point at which we meet him, as the film proceeds to tell his story in flashbacks. Nominated at the 84th Academy Awards in the Best Animation category, the most arresting quality of Chico and Rita is its unselfconsciousness— an attribute it shares with eventual winner, Gore Verbinski’s Rango. The film handles its unconventional traits with confidence: animated feature length pictures, (probably due to its historical affiliation with children,) do not show material that can be interpreted as erotic but Chico and Rita not only shows the breasts, nipples­ and the pubic hair of a woman during and after sex, but handles it like these are just another detail on a prop.  The manner of the animation is similar to those drawings you find on Calypso drinks evoking the Caribbean, which is at first disconcerting to the eye used to conventional animation but it soon settles, giving the love story at its center attention. The music propels and is a side story- the history of jazz music, its growth, its Cuban music influences and its restriction by politics is a subplot and a beautiful soundtrack that can stand on its own. Jazz enthusiasts will find it a great pleasure. Political history also runs through it: racism in America and Hollywood— Rita is bristled when a woman mentions the risk in featuring a black Latino as lead in a Hollywood feature, her career comes to an end when she speaks about racism in public; Chico is easily deported on drug charges; Chico’s benefactor is shot in an American bar when a drug transaction goes awry. But all of these are glossed over, Chico and Rita is a love story first and most importantly. Chico and Rita recalls that other famous fictional romance— that between Ricky and Ilsa in 1942’s Casablanca and the song Rita/Lily is as pivotal to the former film as As Time Goes By was to the latter; and often the character Ramon has lines that suggest he is a stand-in for Rick’s friend, the pianist Sam. That is perhaps a coincidence and not a drawback. If there is any detraction, it will have to be that the concluding half of the film does live up to the earlier, heady moments of the film. And while, Chico and Rita was definitely not the best of the screened films at this year’s festival, it did have sufficient charm to induce applause at the last kiss, suggesting that as far as cinematic crowd-pleasers go, it sufficed.

PS: This entry concludes the ping’s review cum coverage of the fifth edition of the European Film Festival, held in Abuja from May 10th to 23rd. 
As previously stated, some of the reviews have been carried in the Guardian and Thisday newspapers.

DAY 13: FOOTBALL AND OTHER ROMANCES

 

 

The second and final Serbian film at the European Film Festival, Montevideo: I Love You, chronicles the formation of the Serbian team sent to the 1930 World Cup.

Told from the point of view of a young disabled shoe shiner, the film’s central relationship is that between the the poor Tirnanic and the already famous Mosha. After some initial squabbles, they become friends when they both are selected to play for the national team. It is a friendship that is troubled by two women: new arrival Rosa and the enchantress Valeria. Nevertheless, the country is the lead character in this highly patriotic tale.

The actors are admirable football players, one can easily see the Hollywood version of this film featuring body doubles and computer generated images for the on-field scenes. Thankfully, we are spared brutish visual effects and given an often grey but beautiful picture in which the period details appear accurate.

There is just the little problem of the manner of recollections: how is it possible that the kid narrator will be privy to the bedroom encounters of the central characters?

Agreed, it is a technical problem that will not matter a jot when a lump of patriotism is caught in your like I assume will be the case of Serbians. Nigerians will enjoy the football, football politics and amusing dialogue. The patriotism? Not so much.

The film ends before the actual tournament, which might be a torment for some. But there is hope in sight: a sequel is in the works.

DAY 13: A CLASSROOM MELODRAMA

 

The song, We shall overcome in Nigeria indicates a cry for solidarity during protests against the establishment. In Drommen (We Shall Overcome), the second and final Denmark film at the European Film Festival, the establishment is a headmaster, Lindum-Svendsen, whose disciplinary methods borders on the sadistic, but who will probably fit right into the Nigerian system of corporal punishment. The year is 1969 and a law against such punishment is already in place but change is slow in coming. A student, Frits, lured to spy on the female bathroom is apprehended by Lindum-Svendsen and his ear twisted so hard he requires stitches. Buoyed by the speeches of Martin Luther King Jnr, Frits, and his parents decide to challenge the establishment as symbolized by the headmaster.

Frits (Janus Dissing Rathke), is a brooding type and appears to be too introspective for his age. A friend asks him, “Why are you so weird?” He becomes friendly with a young hippie quasi-teacher, who plans to rid the system of the old as represented by Lindum-Svendsen but also relies on the man’s approval to become a full teacher as he says: “If I don’t pass, I can’t change anything”

There is also the small matter of Frits’ father’s psychiatric history and his mother is the school nurse.

These details make Drommen is a heartwarming tale with elements of a coming-of-age story and an underdog tale. So it is an achievement that the film does not get stuck in the sentimentality that characterizes this particular subgenre. The only detail may be the simplistic view of Lindum-Svendsen as a caricature without redeeming qualities.

It is bound to make Nigerian teachers cringe. But students will jump for joy.

DAY 12: A HUNDRED GOOD INTENTIONS

Good intentions, questionable execution

 

The opening scene of Cento Chiodi (One Hundred Nails) is strongly reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code. A library caretaker’s screams are heard as he calls the police. Inside the library, precious manuscripts have been nailed to the floor using nails not unlike those used for the Crucifixion. Investigations point to a young professor; who flees, fakes a suicide and comes to reside among the rural dwellers living by the River Po. His grouse appears to be mankind has neglected human relationships for the knowledge that comes from books, as he says: “There is more truth in a single caress than in the pages of all these books.”

That first scene is merely a clever decoy for a film that is unabashedly religious: this professor is said to look like Jesus— a  villager asks, “Who took Christ off the cross?”; he recites Biblical passages to the villagers and is eventually looked upon as a saviour when the government, in Fashola style, decides to bulldoze illegal structures.

Almost painfully slow, One Hundred Nails requires the frankly majestic cinematography to keep the audience interested and the script is obviously a little more than a vehicle to drive director Ermanno Olmi’s ideas. Several minutes pass without any action, without dialogue and sometimes even without a character onscreen. Consequently, the film drags but is rescued by the compelling presence of Raz Degan who plays the professor cum Christ-like figure. The rural dwellers are very competently played too and the relationship that develops between the bakery girl and the professor, though apparently platonic (in keeping with the Christian symbolism) is based on genuine chemistry.

The brief arguments are compelling but the overall message is fuzzy. Is Olmi saying Christ will vandalise books to prove a point? Somehow, I do not think so.

If this were a Nigerian film, despite the good intentions, it will not be unimaginable that this will have ‘Blasphemy’ as a label.

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