Some of Our Favourite Films from the Recently Concluded iREP Festival
The ninth edition of iREPRESENT International Documentary Film Festival took place at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, from March 21 to 24, 2019. The festival prides itself on being a platform for filmmakers on the continent and the Black diaspora and curates content that is especially relevant in contemporary society. Like most documentaries, the festival’s select films deal with socio-political issues, but they are also heavy on style and thematic structure. In this piece, we look at some noteworthy selections that delve into identity, blackness, climate change, sex work, and indigenous African culture.
The festival opened with Beverly Naya’s documentary Skin, directed by Etim Effiong, which explores the problems of bleaching and colourism in Nigeria, problems that are deeply rooted in white supremacy and a colonial past. Watching the film, one is reminded of the infamous notion that anything fair is beautiful. Oddly enough, this notion continues to thrive in a culture that glamorises melanin—at least on social media. (In real life, dark skin is often disdained as unattractive and is associated with people from less affluent backgrounds). The film thrives in challenging viewers to understand the complexities and core of our identity—blackness—in its entirety, before anything else.
Effiong shares that his most memorable experience on set was interviewing Idris Okuneye (“Bobrisky”), who fascinated him during the interview because he displayed a bit of nervousness and vulnerability while speaking about his reality. “As we spoke, I was mesmerized at the sincerity of the interview and at the paradox of my condition. Here I was interviewing “Bobrisky” about the essence of black beauty—an individual who had successfully rebranded himself from, according to him/her, “a poor, ugly, dark-skinned boy into a beautiful, rich, light-skinned celebrity.”
They spoke confidently about their life choices and why they had made them, namely, because they were “unhappy the way God made [them] and how they were impatient with poverty.” “From time to time, Idris would steal glances at me as if to get some affirmation, and I would smile in return, more because I wanted Idris comfortable to speak his/her truth. After the interview, I had found a new respect for not just Bobrisky, but for humanity in all its different spectra of experiences. Seeing the way people reacted to his interview, which was arguably one of the highlights of the documentary, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with the brave, intelligent, and talented Idris ‘Bobrisky’ Okuneye,” Effiong shared.
When asked what angle he would explore in a second part of the documentary, Effiong said, “The concept of colourism is so broad and deep that there are too many areas that beg for wider and deeper exploration, one of which is the concept of heritage and returning to your roots, especially for Africans in the diaspora. The issue of being mixed race in Africa and being discriminated against is another interesting perspective to look into. For many, it’s a difficult situation, because you are never white or black enough.”
Macoconi: The Roots of Our Children
The cinematographer Fábio Ribeiro is known for documenting topics like marginalisation, social exclusion, and cultural identity. In his film Macoconi, the Roots of our Children he addresses the issue of climate change on the continent. Mozambique has the second largest mangrove region on the continent and suffers from major cyclones every year, which put it at risk. The film delves into the socio-political reality of conserving coastal communities in a hyper-capitalist environment. We see the painful irony of indigenes illegally trading off the very resource that their livelihood, habitation, and lifestyle heavily rely on in order to satisfy their immediate needs. These mangrove residents know the necessity of conserving the mangrove, but present needs cannot be ignored, and there doesn’t seem to be a third way. Ribeiro shows that, as the climate changes, devising responsible ways to combat its negative effects benefits us all over time. The film not only makes a political point, it fantastically documents the everyday routine of indigenes in the region: from crab hunting to summoning mermaid spirits, it reveals what ordinary life in a rural mangrove looks like in the 21st century.
Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace
The Rwandan genocide is considered one of the bloodiest massacres in the 20th century. It happened within a 100-day period from April 7 to July 15, 1994, and took the lives of about 1 million Rwandans, which constituted 70 per cent of the Tutsi population. The film Forgiveness: The Secret of Peace is a documentary on the life and work of Father Ubald Rugirangoga, who is committed to ending the ethnic tension that still afflicts Rwanda till today. During the genocide, Rugirangoga was a young Tutsi priest who pastored a parish with a wide audience including Hutus and Tutsis. He provided a sanctuary for 45,000 Tutsis on the church premises but fled to Europe after the Hutus discovered the hideout and killed all the Tutsis on site. Forgiveness tells a bold message of reconciliation, survival, and self-preservation. It posits that to go on in life means surviving the hardest experiences without hoarding bitterness and anger, as these mar our identity. By having interviewees open up about their involvement in the genocide—either as persecutors or persecuted—the film puts the viewer in a place to empathise with citizens who were pitted against each other by the political elite for selfish interests. Perhaps the film’s strongest point is how it attempts to address history in order to fully move on from the past. The catchphrase “If the truth is not discovered, can there be forgiveness?” becomes especially poignant.
Nightfall in Lagos
Sex work has long been frowned upon in this part of the world, as society fails to acknowledge women and their unique complexities. Most of the general conversation about sex work in Nigeria demonises the profession and workers. However, Nightfall in Lagos feels like a breath of fresh air as it doesn’t attempt to tell women to curtail their sexuality in order to “find a man” or to police their bodies. The strength of the film, according to Denise Eseimokumoh, was being able to “hear directly from the horse’s mouth, as it gave a lot more perspective. It is a conversation that a lot of people are having in Nigeria, but it is not a conversation a lot of people understand, basically because sex work is really frowned upon.”
In an information-saturated era, the first step to effectively dispel a negative stereotype is presenting verified information. The filmmaker, James Amuta, was able to show all sides of the issue, an approach most male directors might not even consider. According to him, the second part of Nightfall will feature the people who enable this service. If society is to move on from the habit of constantly blaming women in this line of work, it is extremely important to understand the economic limitations that afflict them in the first place.
According to a 2018 report by The Global Gender Gap, Nigeria ranks below the global average. It is one of the highest in the world with under-represented women in higher paid positions. The National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria also reports that 65.3 per cent of senior positions were occupied by men between 2010 and 2015. 
“The film’s ability to showcase other forms of sex work was also vital, as we witness the banker with the nine-to-five job enjoy exotic dancing because of the rush and liberty that her bank job may never give her,” Eseimokumoh adds.
The film also highlights the significance of this profession and the need to legalise it in the constitution. According to Amuta, “The hypocrisy we exhibit towards matters related to sex has prevented us from looking at this industry and having an honest conversation about transactional sex. Should we legalise it or should we regulate it? Should we enforce the laws more strictly? Or should we be more proactive in reforming these men and women? What about our attitudes towards those that engage in transactional sex with the help of technology and social media? What are the long-term consequences of this? How would it encourage sex tourism, sex trafficking, and mass migration? How many of these girls are underage and…inadvertently become prey for people involved in the multimillion-dollar sex trade? Nightfall in Lagos is just an introductory documentary, just a glimpse at this world. And we tried not to judge or moralise the issue. We approached the film from the point of view of the average guy prowling the streets at night, looking at this world. Our reactions are meant to mirror the average Joe’s reaction to this world.”
The movie simultaneously devastates and empowers the audience. On one hand, it exposes the sex trafficking mafia and the marginalisation plaguing females in Nigeria, and on the other hand, it empowers women to unashamedly celebrate their freedom and sexuality—an interesting paradox that has long been discoursed in feminist theory.
The festival closed with the legendary photographer and filmmaker Tam Fiofori’s Ogbu-Oja Eze, which featured an oja flutist of Igbo heritage. It follows the main character, Eze, as he talks us through the components of this simple, traditional musical instrument that has long constituted his career. The film challenges our perception of indigenous music and recommends ways to incorporate Western influences into our local music without adulterating our indigenous sound.
The show becomes especially moving when Eze is seen performing alongside Ayetoro, perhaps one of the most progressive and innovative new-breed Afrobeat bands present today. They symphonically fuse Sun Ra Monk with diverse instrumental textures: traditional Yoruba bata drums (played by Cubans), Nigerian talking drums, and Ghanaian membrane drums. According to Fiofori, “A very good friend of mine, Funsho Ogundipe, has always encouraged and experimented with incorporating diverse traditional instruments from Africa and the Black diaspora, as well as musicians from Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Cuba, and the USA in his orchestras and recordings for over a decade now. Based on this, I introduced Gerald Eze and his oja flute to Funsho, and they clicked immediately, rehearsed and made a recording and performed live, which I ended the film with. It was also a fulfilment of Eze’s mission to elevate the oja and present it as a valid musical voice in popular, Afrobeat, jazz, blues, and classical music, as well as various genres of world music.”
Somehow, the oja, traditionally used to “talk” to masquerades, dancers, and chiefs in eastern Nigeria, is transformed in Eze’s hands into a sophisticated organ able to blend symphonically with traditional Yoruba music in a way that reveals the beauty in harmony. Fiofori said, “Really, it goes well beyond ethnicity into incorporating new musical textures from diverse instruments…some supposedly simple and old with…modern/Western instruments like [the] piano, saxophone, and trumpet. In fact, there was a jazz band that used the traditional Okrika water pot-drums. Again, it’s all about progressive musicians searching for new, original sounds.”
 World Economic Forum, Insight Report, The Global Gender report 2018, (pp 9 – 14)
 National Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Report on Women and Men in Nigeria 2016, (pp 7)
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