Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Cautionary tales

'Mr. Nabokov is particularly lucky because his book was not censored in the United States, but in France of all places. What more could he hope for? The French ban was eventually removed and now this book written in English in the United States by a White Russian emigré can be bought legally in Paris where it was first published.'
So the National Film & Video Censors Board has banned Half of a Yellow Sun. I’m trying to work out the permutations. This is the novel by our hugely celebrated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which won the UK Orange Prize, and whose recent offering, Americanah, won the US National Book Critics Circle award. It stars, amongst other luminaries, Chiwetel Ejiofor, fresh from his recent triumph in 12 Years a Slave, for which he won a best actor award, also in the UK. The film, which has premiered the world over, was directed by Biyi Bandele, a novelist himself who has long made his name on the London stage
The film did actually manage to premiere in Lagos but was subsequently barred from general release because, according to the Board, it contained ‘objectionable materials’ which were ‘capable of inciting civil strife’ that needed to be ‘reduced or eliminated completely’, so as to avoid ‘racial, religious or ethnic discrimination or conflict’. The problem appears to be the already well-catalogued massacre of Igbos at a northern airport as they fled the pogrom following the 1966 counter-coup.  The rest is history except that it isn’t because we don’t teach history in school anymore (although we have lately introduced Mandarin), and even when we did the story of Biafra was reduced to a one-page summary of the main actors, who have been ruling this country ever since, having fought to keep it one under a meaningless slogan.
Chimamanda, who, like the majority of Nigerians, was born after the civil war, says that she was haunted in her childhood by its ‘shadow’ – her parents would never speak about it except by allusions – but nevertheless calls it a ‘seminal event’. She is right, of course, but what kind of event? I have argued elsewhere that Nigeria is really a fiction, which is why it has fallen on the novelists to write about it, the historians having rightly been ruled irrelevant for the wrong reasons. You can see this with our government officials – say Patricia Bala, the DG of NFVCB – who actually attended the Toronto premiere and gushed to a number of those in attendance ‘how much she loved it and why (such) movies should be encouraged … She was very encouraging, very positive and did not at any time express any reservations about the film.’
And then she returned to Nigeria, to her big desk in her big, important government office where everyone bows and scrapes – I’ve seen it first-hand for myself – and everything changes. She has left the real world where people have to raise $10mn to make a film and then go shoot it in Calabar, as Bandele did:
Myself and several members of my crew and cast got typhoid. Some even had malaria. Thandie Newton got typhoid too, but she was incredible. She was really suffering but didn't take a single day off work. It was like she was possessed by God knows what. The experience of shooting was tough, but every single day I woke up and wanted to be on set, because you just didn't know what was going to happen.

The work ethic would be a novel experience (as it were) to our ‘pompous asses’ (as Nabokov of Lolita fame dubbed the members of whatever censorship board, as who should know), and perhaps they are not overly concerned with the view from Toronto. But there seems to be a tremendous irony here, which is that Nigeria is only taken seriously because its artists – we haven’t mentioned some of the other stars of Half of a Yellow Sun, including Genevieve Nnaji, Reginald Ofodile and Onyeka Onwenu – have not been found wanting, a case of political ineptitude in inverse proportion to creative talent. We need go no further than the 276 missing schoolgirls for whose salvation the president, three weeks after their abduction, appears to have entrusted to his wife, who broke down in tears while the military of which he is supposedly commander-in-chief. tries to explain why it can do nothing. This being so, why must we not then endure the opinions of petty functionaries telling us what we can and can’t watch, read, think – what you will?
Or so they would flatter themselves. Leaving aside the endlessly documented fact that censorship invariably achieves the opposite of what it intends (if only because of the publicity it generates), the corruption the censorship board itself serves is the main worry of the filmmakers, who have refused point-blank to remove any ‘offending passages’. And what would be the point? It’s only a wonder that the Biafran-Nigerian traders at Alaba International Market haven’t yet pirated their sister (to say nothing of their brother), being themselves the necessary parasites of an unproductive system. The unexpurgated version would only up their profits.
All of this is acknowledgment that the Biafran-Nigerian war never went away, evidence for which are the guns and bombs that have not ceased exploding since, as the unfortunates at Nyanya twice discovered recently in the space of a fortnight. In amongst all this, the fundamental question remains: Do we want to remain together and, if so, how are we to do so even as conferences and dialogues are got up to that end, and where the un-representatives argue over oil revenues, the country’s raison d’ĂȘtre. It might be better if they said so more openly but of course they can’t, so they seek to ban films instead, in the process alerting us to the problem they would otherwise attempt to bury, much like the 276 schoolgirls they have forsaken, but which even the faraway St. Louis Post-Dispatch is fretting over.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce
A different version of this piece originally appeared in Hallmark, 6 May 2014
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers. The House My Father Built, a memoir, will be
published later this year.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

1 comment:

  1. As usual! This so called govt is forever chasing it's shadow! Second bass jare!