FELA: 15 YEARS AFTER..... Constructing Fela’s Dramatic Narrative for Cinema
~ By Femi Odugbemi
For a nation with a vibrant motion picture industry, our response to the colossal resource that the life story of late Afrobeat impresario Fela Anikulapo presents is unsettling and queries our understanding and our appreciation of the narrative drama and approaches to which the “Fela phenomenon” lends itself. It is a damning reality that more than a decade and half since Fela’s death, not a single local production, feature or documentary or stage, has profiled any aspect of Fela’s life or captured the essence of his struggle. Our reluctance to embrace this incredible life story for its powerful dimensions of gripping drama and historical significance may be the greatest failure of our blossoming creative industries. Fela was the soundtrack that helped Nigerians confront and get through the worst of times with the military dictatorships and political avarice of corrupt regimes. Fela was about sex, an unsophisticated mating call captured in the sensuous gyrations of scantily-clad dancers in chicken-mesh cages. Fela was about drugs and addictions and the high cost of communal rebellion. Fela was resistance to systemic corruption and the oppression of power. Fela was a sacred communion between artist and audience – male and female, black and white, educated and illiterate, pimps and prostitutes, pastors and players, addicts and artistes. Fela was much more than the sum of his parts –he shouldered enormous risks and with unimaginable courage did things the rest of us can only dream of. The Fela story in film, is a narrative mirror that will afford us a glimpse at the naked soul of our national character from the prisms of our political history. Telling the “Fela story” is elusive to many filmmakers for daunting reasons. Firstly, it is a narrative that transcends the strict relation of facts and chronology yet affirming a personal vision that is both objectively informed and subjectively charged. And with an audience already fed fat by popular myth, the research exposes the filmmaker to an overload of myth that may or may not be historically false! Thus, there is from within the creative wells of the innocent narrator a contradictory insistence on both accuracy and license.
It is in the end a balance of understanding between biography and myth. The narrative of Fela’s life and times therefore is less about music than about a consciousness – his music was the soundtrack steering our experience of his philosophy and politics. It is trite but significant to repeat the obvious -Fela was a highly multi-dimensional subject with a varied audience.
The second challenge of creating a narrative of Fela’s life arises from grappling the very complicated character himself, as a protagonist and the various contradictions his life presented: The son of a reverend gentleman, who became the High Priest of the caricature “Shrine” that was home to his fiery performances.
A classicallytrained musician with a privileged education in England, who became the creator of a violent fusion of jazz layered with rich rhythmic percussions and lyrics in the colloquially visual pidgin language most accessible to the deprived and disadvantaged populations of Africa. For a filmmaker, a director, or storyteller trying to create a narrative of Fela, the daunting challenges in the immediate beginning will be to define what Fela was, what people’s expectation of that narrative would be and exactly what part of his life you would isolate to dramatise in the narrative.
Published on Jun 25, 2012 by Dvworx
Femi Anikulapo Kuti is no doubt a living legend whose music has helped to sustain Afrobeat with new energy and inspiration for upcoming musicians. Who is the Femi Kuti that we do not know?
Normally, biographies tend to take a portion of the subject’s life and try to dramatise it in a three act structure; whether it is documentary, drama, stage play or biography as a musical, the concentration is on aspects of the subject’s life that are most impactful and not usually the whole of the life.
The creative or interpretative challenge is to demonstrate certain values or incidences that are representative of the subject’s character and values, but more than anything, of the subject’s impact on a community or on an institution.
Strangely enough, I have been somewhat fated to experience at very close quarters a few brilliant visual narrators struggle to define the dimensions of Fela in a motion picture narrative. First, was celebrated documentary director John Akromfah of Smoking Dog Films UK, who has spent the last decade or so trying to piece together enough footages to construct a documentary narrative of Fela from a perspective that defines what his music and personality means historically and culturally.
I spent many hours with John in Accra ruminating on the difficulty of a Fela narrative simply because his life unfolded in measures drama unlike that of any regular biographic subject and the incidences of his life were so profound that they demanded individually in of themselves a film! For example, the whole story of how Fela’s house was burnt by soldiers and the drama and tragedy of that incident is a three-act film on its own!
And one loaded with intrigue, suspense, action and characters that were as compelling as any fictional explication could conjure. Before I met John though, I had also watched the French documentary Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon by StephaneTchal-Gadjieff and Jean Jacques Flori.
That was shot in 1982 and basically focused its narrative on Fela as avant garde, urban revolutionary whose music is inspired by the politics and poverty of his country. It was an interesting effort and I have since screened the film at one of our monthly documentary screenings at IREP. But that effort had a typical problem of films about Africa produced by filmmakers from outside of the African experience –its perspective betrayed a measure of condescension which I am sure even Fela himself would have found uncomfortable at best.
As I have stressed time and again at the iRepresent Documentary Film Forums, the abiding challenge for Africa in these narrative expression has always been who is telling the story of the African experience and from what perspective? My second memory of interrogating a motion picture narrative of Fela’s story is the aborted autobiographical film The Black President produced by Fela himself and directed by veteran professional Alex Oduro. Of course the bulk of the footage already shot was lost in the inferno that erupted after soldiers invaded Fela’s home in Idi-Oro in the “unknown soldier” saga.
But the bits I had the privilege of viewing from the rescued footage gave interesting insight into what Fela himself viewed as the most engaging drama of his life. He obviously viewed the irony of his upbringing in a strict Christian family and the African cultural ethos he would embrace in latter life as the heart of his biographical narrative –the son of the reverend gentleman now the Ifa priest of the Africa shrine! If there was anything that was clear from that, it was that Fela himself had an acute sense of the drama of his own life and wanted the opportunity to steer the narrative of its historical archiving.
The contradictions was truly the narrative of the drama of Fela. For any storyteller, the more interesting aspect of Fela’s subconscious motivations as the central character of this narrative must be his rugged individualism which ensured that his political interventions, for instance, as founder of the political party “Movement of the People” (MOP) may be his best forays in improvisational art, because he simply made it up as he went along.
Yet in his espoused political philosophy, he projected an idealistic view of what constituted political revolution and saw himself in the mould of transformational political heroes like Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara, Cuba’s Che Guevera and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. My next encounter with the ‘Felastory’ as film was several months ago when UK filmmaker, Steve McQueen, came into Nigeria to walk the physical spaces of the Fela legend and recce locations for the shooting of the much-rumoured feature. I was McQueen’s local fixer. We visited the sites of Fela’s life story –from the old family house in Abeokuta to his resting place at Kalakuta Republic in Ikeja.
Steve McQueen, a wellawarded experimental film director had, prior to his visit, buried himself for months in everything and anything he could find as research on Fela. Yet, by the time we would sit and talk with Femi Kuti and hear the inside stories of Fela taking a coffin to Dodan Barracks, the seat of government in 1979, McQueen had found a slice of narrative in Femi Kuti’s reminiscences that best demonstrated Fela’s most enduring character profile –his contradictions -courage, daring, impetuousness, recklessness all wrapped in a bravura that left his most rabid antagonists speechless! My most recent and perhaps most rewarding encounter with a narrative of the Fela’s story, however, was the most filmic though not designed for film.
The award-winning Broadway play, FELA! produced by Shawn Jay Z Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, which came to Nigeria and played to sold-out audiences at the shrine and at Eko Hotel Victoria Island, Lagos. It was perhaps the first definitive explication of Fela’s biographical narrative that may also now have defined the smartest creative approach. FELA! on Broadway expressed the narrative of the Fela phenomenon in a three dimensional presentation that I think may finally have defined how all storytellers in the motion picture realm must layer their profile of Fela’s life story. The music is one dimension. Fela’s Africanist ideology is a second dimension.
And of course his confrontational activism is the third dimension. Fela on Broadway revealed that rather than looking for the events and timelines in Fela’s life to guide or form the three act structure of the narrative, perhaps the dimensions of his experiences can be tracked in small digestive capsules, with the music being representative of melodic timeline of the story’s structure. Going forward, everybody that seeks to create a narrative of Fela must now speak to those three dimensions, whether it is film, book, play or musical.
What FELA! on Broadway did was create for us a template with which to attack the biographical narrative of this African colossus. In this milestone of the anniversary of his passing, Fela’s life story looms as an important part of our history we owe the future generations of this country to experience. The timelessness of Fela is demonstrated in the unprecedented global acceptance of his Afrobeat music.
Today there are over 100 Afrobeat bands in global hotspots like New York, Paris and London and Hong Kong. The music is finding definition and new expressions. The blasting of horns, the violent beat and the jazz defined solos, have all become a staple of world music.
The most interesting revelation of my encounters with the Fela story, 15 years after his passing is that the narrative is open-ended. His consciousness is like a body of prophecy that is gradually, but continuously manifesting long after his death.
The things he talked about -our country, the confusion, the political defections, the lack of democratic ethos, the poverty and the corruption are still there. When Fela labelled himself the Black President, maybe we were mistaken in imagining that he fell short of his ambition at his death. His voice is immortalised as that beacon of popular leadership and courage for Africa and Africans in the diaspora. Now, we need filmmakers and visual storytellers who will immortalise in cinema, a Fela narrative structure that acknowledges the dimensions of his impact and honours the “truth” of his character.
~Femi Odugbemi is Co-Founder/Executive Director of i-Rep International Documentary Forum and MD/CEO of DVWORX Studios Lagos.