Frenzy on the staircase. A packed cinema lobby and sold-out screenings. No, Disney did not spring a Black Panther sequel on us out of the blue. It was Peter Sedufia’s latest feature, ‘Aloe Vera’, that holds the torch as the biggest film released in Ghanaian cinemas so far in 2020. The support from the Ghanaian cinema-going public felt like the real victory for ‘Aloe Vera’ in a dysfunctional creative landscape. That it was largely a competent film was the icing on the cake.
Operating along the lines of a romantic parable with strong garnishes of satire, ‘Aloe Vera’ tells the story of the fictional commune with a deep-seated division that dates back to an unnamed number of years to a hilarious spat between two kids in a debate. Time has flown by and the community is divided by a seemingly endless red band with the sky-blue clad Aloes on one side and the blinding yellows of the Veras on the other.
The band only comes down for duels between the selected champions of the two side when the slightest trace of one’s existence encroaches on the other side. We get the first taste of this when kids playing in the Aloe side lose their ball to Vera territory. The Veras’ leader, with his nostrils, perpetually flaring, charges up the troops with his equal on the other side doing same.
The Aloes and Veras are essentially two sides of the same coin physically and ideologically; a reflection of each other’s prejudices. Their schools are back-to-back, shops too. And even the daily pervasive propaganda seems to be going off simultaneously on either side of the divide like clockwork. But a crack in this mirror begins to show.
Amid the asinine furore a spark flickers between the kids of the two community leaders. The fleetingly charming duo of Aloewin (Aaron Adatsi) and Veraline (Alexandra Ayirebi-Acquah) begin to fall for each with the cute innocence of four-year-olds. It’s a relationship with the coyest of foundations that defies taboo to blossom into something that challenges the way the community thinks about each other.
Glances are stolen across the divide, paper planes fly around with probing messages and musical sequences enacted in surreal plains. But Aloewin and Veraline have to be on their toes as their parents (more like fathers) sniff around looking to quell their apparently forbidden love. Streams of empathy offer hope when their mothers come into play.
The plot is as straightforward as they come. Love will conquer all and yada yada. You can also expect a certain secondary colour to dominate proceedings at the film’s buoyant coda. A lot of the talk ushering in ‘Aloe Vera’s’ premiere was of the setting and community that was built from scratch on location in the Volta Region. It’s a simple setup with elegant wooden huts that still manage to dazzle with the nuanced blues and yellows.
There is a vibrant symmetry to the production design giving you a slight Wes Anderson vibe. ‘Aloe Vera’ also owes some debt to the staging of a 2013 South African short film called ‘KanyeKanye’. Sedufia’s direction offers none of the American directors’ aggressive idiosyncrasies. His decisions behind the camera are largely functional in the way they highlight the fraught divide between the two peoples.
There is a lack of edge that kept me from investing too much in the story. ‘Aloe Vera’ hits harder if it leans on real-life ethnic divides or maybe if it decided to make our love interests much younger than they are here. Going back on Wes Anderson thread, think ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. And for all the fuss about the production design, it bugged me that the community did not really feel lived in most of the time.
Concerns notwithstanding, ‘Aloe Vera’ works well enough to keep you engaged. The satire is effortless if at times underutilised. This, however, allows room for the comedy to fall into place and there are laughs aplenty. The script even offers some sly meta wit, like gags that seemed to be in conversation with the Kofi Adjorlolo’s (who stars here) real-life persona.
‘Aloe Vera’s’ heart is there for everyone to see, and it’s definitely in the right place. The screenplay has the weight of a feather and it isn’t moving any narrative mountains. But the predictability doesn’t stop it from being the feel-good hit I didn’t see coming.