In the first few seconds of “Palaver”, shot in 1926 in the vast savannah of Nigeria’s North-East, an opening title appears on the black screen, along with a short subtext that reads like a mission statement.
This movie was shot “among the Sura and Angas tribes on the Bauchi Plateau” — the text says — “less than ten years ago, these tribes were cannibals”.
Over the course of 107 cringe-worthy minutes, the movie then goes on to depict Nigerian tribes at their most crude and misrepresented.
There’s everything that the average English man in Liverpool in 1926 would have expected to see in Africa; guns, spears, bows and arrows, alcoholic kings and unintelligent chiefs, a benevolent Englishwoman who tries to save the cannibals from themselves.
Even though it carries the title of Nigeria’s first feature film, Palaver was written and produced in its entirety by George Barkas, a British filmmaker who later gained renown for his work in documenting the Second World War.
In the 1920s, colonialism was Britain’s biggest export but the growth of the colonies coincided with a dearth of the country’s filmmaking culture.
According to the Royal Society of Arts Journal, dated June 3, 1927, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin had called for action in 1925, noting the “danger to which we in this country and our Empire subject ourselves if we allow that method of propaganda [film] to be entirely in the hands of foreign countries”.
Succinctly, Britain had to protect and project its image both home and abroad and film was the way.
Out of the rubble of the British film industry came New Era films. It announced in that year that not one, but three feature films would be released on consecutive days in September.
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Palaver, shot as an examination of Britain’s interaction with Nigeria’s primitive cultures in the North, was one of them.
Today, the Nigerian film industry has moved down south to Asaba, where actors gather in hotels to shoot entire movies in one weekend; Lagos, where flashing lights bring the content into focus and 51, Iweka Road, where money and movie exchange hands.
In that time, Nigerian films have grown into a behemoth, trailing only the United States and India in size and quantity of production. The tone of stories has also evolved.
Questions of morality and justice defined the golden age of Nigerian film in the 1990s; the films of today cover issues as harmless and relatable as cultural wedding tropes and practices (Wedding Party) and as thematic and political as tribal relations during military rule (‘76), a stark departure from that era.
In 1927, where the world knew little about the African continent, Palaver only enforced streotype that had led many to call it the “dark continent”.
The movie was built around the story of a young English nurse who gets caught in a love triangle between Captain Peter Allison, the British District Officer and Mark Fernandez, a tin miner and economic mercenary.
Apart from this relationship, the protagonists are the members of the royal court of the Sura Tribe, but where they are depicted, they are shown not as independent individuals but as a function of the British people that have foisted themselves on their land.
The culture of the Sura tribe is rich; before westernization interfered, the people mostly got around on horses in small villages. They built large communal structures on avenues bordered by cactus plants with vast, open fields for each family.
None of this makes its way into the movie; instead, every scene, every conversation, every reference to Sura men is filled with imperialist stereotypes.
The movie begins by enhancing two of the biggest tropes that define the West’s “exotic” view of Africa till this point.
Yilkuba, the witch doctor is shown warning his king, Dawiya of the prospect of war. He advises him to be wary, in the context of the white men and their intrusive and domineering policies.
The idea of a witch-doctor, as Yilkuba is referred to, advising the king on war fits into the British imperialist ideal that the native population was a primitive, uncultured batch of people who revelled in regression and satan worship.
It is worth noting that relations between the King, Dawiya and Allison, the district officer break down after the latter hears complaints against the King. He pays his royal residence a visit, only to find him drunk on “unlawful liquor”.
Later in the movie, Dawiya was only convinced to declare war by Fernandez who falsely tells him that Allison is planning war against him. Dawiya is then shown drinking large quantities of alcohol to gather courage.
The image here is simple; the native leader is depicted as a simpleton who is easily misled; a coward, who has to drink to go to war, a not-so-subtle jab at the integrity of indigenous leaders.
Even though it was produced in Nigeria, Palaver was made for the British audience. There is no error in that the narrative was consistent with the popular idea sold in Europe that the colonial masters were doing Africans a favour by colonizing them.
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The Palaver Pressbook, a pamphlet which accompanied the movie, captured the idea of this “heroic work” more than anything else — ”Here, as elsewhere“, the publicity document stated, “men of our race have plunged into the Unknown, and set themselves to transform chaos into order and security. Battling against slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism, against torture and devil worship, against famine and disease, they have worked steadily on, winning the land for the natives under the Imperial Crown”.
As the story unfolds, the inner workings of the love triangle affect the relationship between Dawiya, his people and the British under Allison. The two go to war and Dawiya puts up a good fight but there has only been one winner from the beginning.
Allison’s troops overrun the Sura warriors but in truth, the victory belongs to thinly-veiled racism and the long arms of British imperialism.
In retrospect, the only thing Nigerian about “Palaver” was the location and the actors. The movie is told completely from the perspective of British actors. It never strays from the conventional depictions of what the World expected from “A Romance of Northern Nigeria”.
The natives are exhibited as primordial and unsophisticated people who are steeped in quaint traditions that have locked them in inane religions. Where the situation gets a bit complex, as with Dawiya and Fernandez, the movie suggests that Africans prefer to resolve it with violence.
In the words of Dr. Tom Rice, a lecturer of Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, “The idea of turning chaos into order shapes the narrative in Palaver. Such a message may be largely familiar, both in print and on film, but Palaver sought to extend and directly present this message to future generations.”
For example, the press book for Palaver noted the importance of these ‘boyhood tales of peril and adventure’ in shaping the young men who ‘court hardship and danger in the furthest posts of the Empire’.
Now 80 years later, such imperialist narratives are still told, if subtly in movies, but where the Nigerian story previously lacked the means and the audience to change these misconceptions, the birth and growth of Nollywood have empowered three generations of storytellers.
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There are filmmakers who recognize the importance of telling local stories and portraying Africans with context, nuance and truth but a majority of movies out of Nollywood are still easy-watch material; fast-food inspired reiterations of common plot-lines and basic values.
For every 76, there are ten movies that start with a young, broke and hungry man who decides to join an armed robbery group (with the perfunctory funny member), only to meet a painful end after realizing that every man must die for his sins.
The question is simple; why have our storytellers refrained from telling counter-narratives that depict our culture and heritage for what it is?
Imoh Umoren, the producer and director behind “The Happyness Limited” and “Children of Mud” thinks it’s down to the people who finance movies, and their preferences.
“The problem is multi-layered…”, he tells me in an e-mail interview, “While cultural films are big on Pay TV channels like Africa Magic and the rest, the distributors seem to favour a more bourgeoisie depiction”
“Now I assume this may be as a result of the financiers and wanting to see more of their lifestyle and less of the “suffer head” storylines….”, he continues.
The idea of telling complex stories is all noble and grand but when it comes down to what matters, investors and financiers want to see a return on their investment.
It is only natural that they stick with what has always worked; thinly-veiled materialism and aspiration.
In retrospect, the British movies of the “Palaver” era also had an economic purpose; inspiring confidence in the British experiment in Africa. The pro-British narrative also ensured it could get a run in the cinemas.
As difficult as it may be to admit, Palaver’s goals were achieved. It’s easy to understand why such movies and a culture of subtle racism will affect the average European’s perspective on Africa.
But even more subtly, such narratives and years of colonialism have affected the African’s view of himself. For this, and many other reasons, imperialism, and to an extent, movies like “Palaver” are the reason why our storytellers have stayed away from responding with our own narratives.
It’s difficult to fight something when you already see it as superior.
“As Africans, we’ve somewhat been programmed to think that western representations are superior”, Imoh Umoren says “…So the accent, styling and locations try to represent this Shangri La that people are aspiring to”
One must admit that any effort to change the depiction of African society must be subtle yet direct; making a reverse-racist movie would completely defeat the point.
Perhaps, we ask for too much, too soon. Before African storytellers try to change the way Africa is viewed by the rest of the world, they must first change the way they see Africa.