Izu Ojukwu kept us waiting so long for this movie that it almost started feeling like the second coming.
The news that the award-winning director of Sitanda, which was nominated for a record 9 awards at the 2013 AMAA awards was making a movie revolving around the February 13, 1976 coup sired excitement in its wake.
Young and uber talented, many waited to see what Mr. Ojukwu would come up with. It took all of seven years to make but what a meal it turned out to be.
76, the movie, is a deeply affecting study of the human condition and well realised piece of art. Starring Nollywood darlings Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic as the star-crossed Northern/Igbo couple, the movie appropriates the history of a nation and subsumes it under the quotidian domestic reality of two young lovers trying to navigate not just ethnic and tribal minefields but one made much more treacherous by the man’s job as a soldier in the Nigerian army.
Captain Dewa played by Ramsey Nouah is a principled, taciturn soldier who loves his pregnant girlfriend dearly. Obviously from the north, the middle belt, actually as his weather-beaten 404 shows by the J in the plate number, he has suffered some injustice which instead of making him bitter, leaves him more committed to righting wrongs.
His attempts to pay the bride price of his girlfriend is met with resistance from her father and brother. Frustrated, they elope and by the time Suzie’s father comes to visit, Suzie is heavily pregnant and expecting a baby.
Into this already charged atmosphere is introduced the cataclysmic events of February 13 1976.
Dewa’s friend, Captain Comos played by Chidi Mokeme is a fun loving almost hedonistic soldier whose life is at odds with his best friends.
“We have been friends right from the academy and have fought together and stood shoulder to shoulder,” he tells Dewa but when he tries to corral Dewa into participating in the planned coup, his principled friend declines and thus begins the tragic spiral.
Trying to force Dewa into signing on as a putschist and dropping his ID card, Comos pulls a gun on his friend. Dewa fights back, disarms Comos and escapes but not without injuries.
Dewa will not confide in his wife but his refusal to participate in “Operation Lion Den” has made him a target. The manhunt for Dewa in the barracks is a suspense filled twenty minutes that underlines Izu Ojukwu’s directorial acumen.
It is also a comment on the military code, the chain of command and a deep psychological study of man and the hunger for power. Suddenly, two best friends become enemies each not just intent on outsmarting the other but Comos ready to kill his friend and while all this is happening, Suzie is close to labour and completely oblivious of the tragedy about to befall her.
The coup takes place with General Murtala Mohammed paying with his life alongside those of his driver and ADC. The mix of historical footage and Izu Chukwu’s actors make for authenticity and rising emotional arc. But nowhere is this more beautifully realised than at the Bar Beach scene where Suzie arrives the beach on the day of execution and walks around the milling crowd intent on catching a final glimpse of her lover.
Izu Ojukwu manages to insinuate the Black Maria which conveys the coup plotters into a frame that captures the swirling waters of the Atlantic in a pure instance of filmic alchemy.
The story of 76 is therefore not just a period piece bringing to life a well-known narrative but one which beautifully appropriates a true historical moment to tell a universal story of love that endures despite the odds.
In that wise, 76 becomes a contemporary parable of the Nigerian state with all our ethnic, tribal and all-too-human fault lines in bold relief. There is Biafra, military incursions in politics, the economy, vaunting human ambition, betrayal and above all love.
When Suzie’s brother tells her that “unlike you I have a price” what we hear is a loud commentary on Dewa’s principled stand and the price that one pays for it as well as the ambition that drives men to murder.
When the chain smoking OC says “Mission accomplished” one can almost hear the jangle of 30 Shekels of silver.
Izu Ojukwu does suspense well. He has a gift for timing which is critical to good story telling because it is in silence and suspense and that which is left unsaid that the most eloquent statements are made.
When the phone rings, minutes after General Murtala Mohammed is ambushed in Lagos, the scared looks on the faces of the plotters before the OC picks up the ringing phone is worth a thousand words.
It is also there, towards the end of the movie, in the looks Suzie exchanges with the wife of their neighbour which show without words that despite all their differences their shared pain as wives of two detained officers has made them sisters of sorts.
Izu Ojukwu’s story brought to life by Emmanuel Okomanyi’s screenplay raises the bar as a beautiful exploration of character and motive and the casting does it justice. Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic deliver stand out performances. Their acting is understated yet emphatic and powerful.
Chidi Mokeme is a delight as the lothario modelled clearly after Dimka but the real discovery is Adonijah who plays the DMI interrogator, Captain VM Jaiye, who is saddled with unravelling guilt. His character is a study in control. A true sleuth, he is almost without emotion. His smile is nothing but a shadow of a snarl and one is never sure what he will do next.
Calm, controlled and intent on ferreting out the truth, he walks into Dewa’s cell and says “Congratulations. You have a daughter…I have two.” but then a little while later after a search of Dewa’s house fails to turn up what they have come to find, his ferocious side becomes apparent then when Suzie comes to him with a vital piece of information, he pockets it then turns icy cold.
“Some part of me that respects you is reason why you have not been arrested.”
The sense of controlled menace that attends his actions is akin to what the poet, William Butler Yeats called a “terrible beauty.”
There are a few missteps of course but the most obvious is the casting of Ibinabo Fiberisma as Dewa’s sister in an ill-advised move to provide a back story for Dewa. Ms. Fiberisima adds nothing to the movie, has the longest line in the movie and appears almost like a vestigial appendage.
Izu Chukwu has made a remarkably satisfying movie which mines history and uses it as an excuse to examine what it means to be Nigerian and following his robust explication of military life, one would not be surprised to find a bump in enrollment figures into the Nigerian military because his actors, in their military uniforms, make the Nigerian army look amazingly good.