Kunle Afolayan’s October 1 arrives in theatres on the back of the Nigerian Independence Day. Much like the day it is set aside to commemorate, October 1 also serves us a paradox of how far we have come but, tellingly, how rooted we are in the murky waters of colonialism.
Afolayan’s film uses a latter-day colonial setting as a canvas for a mystery after violence engulfs a small town in the month preceding the end of British occupation. The script by Tunde Babalola is a tremendous novelty as much as it is an indictment in the sense that this is the most poignant and only Pan-African film I’ve seen make rounds in Ghana. It is gushing with the detail and art design of whence from the quaint highlife tunes to 60s apparel and the chilling totems of British occupation.
We find haughty British officials, the sharp contrast of the Union Jack flying over the green environs and indigenes along with the prominent standing of the Queen some thousand miles away from Buckingham. Never has the seemingly innocuous portrait of Queen Elizabeth conveyed such weight, filmed with overbearing intimidation. A chunk of the setting bears eerily similarity to contemporary society though . On the one hand we recognise the ostensive timelessness of how culture is projected by song, dance, beliefs etc. On the other, things like a culture of education that remains steadfast to the neglect and dysfunction of pre-independence. The only thing that has changed is the national anthem.
There is a middle ground, an ambivalence, found in the people we encounter with regards to points of communication, religion and identity. The film is well aware of this ambivalence and the fact of it being the only real change brought on by colonial occupation and subsequent liberation to mostly negative consequences. The central setting of Akote typifies this in that it is a trading post and the meeting points of varying culture, ethnicity, religion etc.
I say mostly negative but we are treated to scenes in a bar owned by an albino serving men and women, northerners and southerners, Igbo and Yoruba. This diversity, while welcome, goes to serve as a conduit of tension as the film unravels fuelling a sense of cynicism brought on by one of the film’s characters in response to Nigeria’s independence. Afolayan isn’t as subtle as he could be in this regard getting a little too preachy but a sense of poignancy lingers. Hindsight is crystal – almost a crystal ball taking into consideration the pathology left behind by the bane of Western occupation.
I have rambled on about Afolayan’s world building but there is a thread here: Police inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) is dispatched to Akote in Western Nigeria to investigate a couple of murders by his British superior (Nick Rhys). Independence is a month away and the British would rather no major cases remain on file when the baton is passed. Virgin ladies are being raped, strangled and left with peculiar markings which leads to suspicions of a serial killer in this small rural community. More bodies drop confirming this assessment.
The film is plotted like a conventional whodunit. Waziri arrives in Akote, asks a lot of questions and does some investigating with the local Sergeant Sunday Afonja (Kayode Aderupoko) at his side. The camera gets to look suspiciously at people and throw some red herrings our way but the film shows its hand towards the final act and positions itself as an exploration of the rot at the crux of the murders.
The detail may have suggested an overly serious tone but affairs here almost mirror the jolly simplicity of life on the country side. I was reminded of Fargo. There are no cool looking inspectors trying crack the case. Waziri doesn’t carry an intellectual swagger with a smoking pipe in hand. He sports the standard baggy uniform (with shorts) over his old skinny frail body and rides around on a “buzanga Volvo”.
Much like the heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson in Fargo, don’t let the surface get in the way. Waziri knows his police work. He comes to Akote with a reputation of closing a high profile murder involving a British man – of course. Daba plays Waziri well managing to project some authority through this seemingly unassuming persona. A look into Waziri’s eyes and we can tell he’s been around the block. We can also sense some weariness and guilt. Perhaps Afolyan uses him to project a spirit of a lost generation.
Waziri doesn’t speak the native tongue here and relies on interpretation from Afonja – almost like a British man. He is all about due process willing to overstep sacred instructions and culture of this society in the name of the law. There is subtle but disquieting naiveté at work in his character. The most excruciating moment sees him impose authority on a restless mob in the name of the Queen with Nigeria all but independent.
More depth can be found in the character of Prince Aderopo played by the smooth Demola Adedoyin (who probably leads this film under a lesser director). He is always clad in white as the film plays out. His initial scenes have him returning as Akote’s first ever graduate of the full western education system. Later on he dances to (what sounded like) western music playing on his gramophone. The excitement of Independence beckons but Aderopo looks to more time in the West pursuing a Master’s degree and he doesn’t have nice things to say about Nigeria’s future as a sovereign state.
Whilst October 1 is gushing with rich detail it is not without its flaws. The film starts to lag in the final act as the testing running time becomes apparent. Redundant flashbacks and exposition feature and a little more confidence in the audience would not have been remiss. There is still a tremendous amount to behold – character depth, nuance and subtext oozing out of the script, stellar cinematic DP work and Afolayan’s strong vision.
October 1 carries a rare sense of pensive cognisance and further provokes reflection on the part of its target audience. I hope more of the right people get to see it.