For its 40th anniversary TIFF once again rolled into town with a wide range of films—from the most gory (Raw; think cannibalism) and the most anticipated (Magnificent Seven) to the controversy-ridden Birth of a Nation. The festival has also had several films showcasing African stories with an incredible eight films emerging from Nigeria, one of them being the long-awaited '__76 from well-known Nigerian filmmaker, Izu Ojukwu. Four years in the making, '__76 is inspired by the 1976 military coup that saw soldiers usurp control of the Nigerian government from then Head of State, Murtala Mohammed. Throughout the film, Ojukwu weaves the politics of power, gender, and western intervention throughout the lives of his characters and creates a piece that is as timeless as it is deeply rooted in the fabric of Nigerian political society. VICE talked to the film's director, Izu Ojukwu, to find out why he chose to tell this particular story and what message he hopes to offer the audience.
VICE: Why did you choose to make a period piece during a time when everyone is so enthralled by the present?
Izu Ojukwu: There's a popular adage in my country that says, "A man cannot know where he is going if he doesn't know where he is coming from," and I think the past is something we can always learn from. 1976 was a very decisive time for Nigeria that saw us miss out on many economic opportunities. There was a big oil boom in Nigeria during this time, but because of political strife many investors were turned away from investing in Nigeria, because of this political uncertainty. The military coup slowed down the country and negatively affected the country's policies. I feel like this was a story that needed to be told so people could see the impact it had.
It's always difficult telling a political story as they are always rooted in some kind of controversy. Did you tell the people's story or did you take your own creative liberties?
The film has fictional content, but I did tell the people's story. As time has gone by I have noticed that there has been a steady scrapping of history from the school curriculums in Nigeria. From what I have seen, young people these days do not seem that interested in history. People have little respect for history and it seems to be going into extinction. Telling this story was my way of trying to preserve that history and making sure people never forget what happened and what the country has been through. Making a film that was both informative and hopefully interesting to watch is something I wanted to do so people never forget our history.
So I know one of the reasons the film took so long to make was the difficulty in getting approval from the military, who finally acquiesced. Did their involvement limit your story in any way or did it help move it forward?
The problem was getting the military to agree to be involved because I wanted their input to add authenticity and real life experience to the story. It took two years for them to finally agree to help me. But I wanted that authenticity and I wanted the accuracy their input would offer. I even had the chance to talk to the man who was the president at that time (Major Olesgun Obasanjo), who wanted to give his side of the story. When he saw the movie he liked that it gave the war a human aspect, which was one he had never actually thought about. During that time he was not thinking about the families or the lives of those involved in the war. As the head of state his main concern was National security and he never thought about the people whose lives were lost in the process. He believes that he should not be held accountable for their lives as his first priority was the safety of the country, and he was only following procedure.
Sidenote: After the assassination of Murtala Mohammed, those involved were tried and found guilty of committing a treasonous act, a crime punishable by public execution. The soldiers were also stripped of their military ranking and their families removed from the barracks, leaving many of them financially insecure and socially isolated because of the crimes of their loved ones.
How did you go about telling the narrative of the soldiers wives?
It was very intentional for me to include their side of the story as it's something you do not hear about that often. These women had married these men and were loyal to them and to their country, and they never bargained for their husbands committing treasonous acts. The original '76 soldiers were publicly executed and their entire military legacy was erased. It was as if they were never in the military. Their families were left with nothing and it was their wives, these women, that had to struggle to keep the family together and keep going. The names of their husbands, which they had taken as their own, made it very hard for them to live in Nigeria and some of them could not even enroll their children in school because of the negative legacy left behind by their husbands. This was something that I really wanted to show and also show my respect for these women.
Your story is based in Nigeria, but do you think it has themes that can relate to other parts of the world?
Most certainly. Military coups are not just a Nigerian thing. They've happened all over the world and continue to happen. We have seen them most recently in Turkey, Sudan, Mali and Guinea. This film is based in Nigeria but it's story is something that can be taken away by people from all over the world and I hope many people will be able to relate to it, not just Nigerians.
Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.