’76’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

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Courtesy of TIFF
A Nollywood thriller with Hollywood aspirations.

Grounded in real events, Nigerian director Izu Ojukwu’s politically charged love story premieres in Toronto this week ahead of its London launch next month.

Set against a backdrop of tumultuous events in modern African history, ’76 has commendable aspirations to make a dramatic impact much bigger than its limited budget allows. Despite its culturally specific setting, the centerpiece of TIFF’s City to City program of Nigerian cinema is primarily a universal mix of love story and political thriller. While director Izu Ojukwu does not entirely transcend the stilted, low-rent mannerisms associated with the prolific “Nollywood” film industry, his latest feature has potential to reach beyond local audiences and play internationally, especially in cities with large expat Nigerian communities. Following its world premiere in Toronto this week, ’76 will screen at London Film Festival next month.

In February 1976, a group of army officers launched a coup against Nigeria’s new military leader, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed. In power for less than seven months following an earlier coup, Muhammed had inflamed tensions at home between different ethnic groups in the nation’s north and south, and also made enemies abroad by endorsing the Soviet Russia-backed MPLA in Angola’s civil war. The plotters succeeded in assassinating Muhammad and his aide in a roadside ambush, but their coup ultimately failed and the leaders were swiftly executed. Martyrdom cemented the 37-year-old General’s folk hero status. His face now adorns Nigerian bank notes, while Lagos international airport bears his name.

Ojukwu uses these real events as context, though very little background knowledge is required to enjoy ’76. Indeed, Muhammed is never even mentioned by name, his death only fleetingly evoked in a brief monochrome sequence. Instead, the dramatic focus is on Captain Joseph Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) and his heavily pregnant wife Suzy (Rita Dominic), who are awaiting the birth of their first child while fellow officers at their army barracks begin finalizing coup plans.

Dewa resists pressure to join the plotters, but consents to remain neutral as his mind is preoccupied with imminent fatherhood and marital tensions. Fearing their cover may be blown, the mutineers try to prevent the Captain from leaving the barracks, using force if necessary. They also resort to blackmail and mind games, playing on the hostility of Suzy’s disapproving family, who belong to a different ethnic group. Arrested during the clampdown that follows Muhammed’s assassination, Dewa’s murky ties to the plotters arouse suspicion. Just as his child is being born, he seems destined to face a firing squad.

Handsomely shot on Super 16mm film, ’76 is a cut above most straight-to-DVD Nollywood productions, which are typically cheap and amateurish. But to novice viewers from other cultures, there are still some jarring technical and stylistic issues here. The pacing is sluggish, especially in the first act. The music soundtrack offers a rich tapestry, from bustling jazz to bluesy torch songs to vintage Afrobeat, but sloppy mixing means that it sometimes drowns out dialog entirely. Alternating between English and Igbo, some of the lines are jarringly on-the-nose while the performances frequently stray into soapy melodrama.

But beyond these forgivable flaws, Ojukwu ultimately hits the target more than he misses. Nouah gives a rock-solid lead performance, radiating calm authority and moral unease without a flicker of histrionics. The period-perfect nods to Afrocentric fashion, music and hair are great fun, while Dewa’s dirty-dancing party-girl neighbor Eunice (Memry Savanhu) deserves her own spin-off movie. A crash course in Nigerian cinema for international viewers, ’76 is a worthy effort, striking a healthy balance between educating and entertaining.

Production companies: Adonis Productions, Princewill’s Trust
Cast: Ramsey Nouah, Rita Dominic, Chidi Mokeme, Memry Savanhu, Larry Williams, Adonija Owiriwa
Director: Izu Ojukwu
Screenwriter: Emmanuel Okomanyi
Executive Producers: Adonijah Owiriwa, Tonye T.J.T. Princewill
Producers: Izu Ojukwu, Adonijah Owiriwa
Cinematographer: Yinka Edward 
Editor: Emeka Ojukwu
Music: Hyacinth Ogbu
Sales company: Shoreline Entertainment
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (City to City)
No rating, 118 minutes
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