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By Akin Adesokan

 

 

 

 

 

 

I: A Culture of Luxuries

Kongi’s Harvest, the movie, has all the stuff of a legend. Regard it with the magical aura of an ancestral spirit, present but invisible, a rare masquerade displayed on special occasions. Then it is locked up again. Too bad if you miss the show.

Or not too bad; you make do with stray images from the press kit, or the ear-teasing anecdotes honed from days on location. Fitful, revealing idle-talk. The actor playing Kongi can’t dance, but there is a scripted sequence showing him in dance, and perhaps the shots of the feet of a great dancer, actually a good actor, can be edited onto the moving image of the actor who can’t dance? The owner of the feet, as good on principles as he is on acting, will have none of that.

There are the mixed signals from the scriptwriter, author of the original play, who fondly distances himself from the finished work, but will not state his reasons, leaving rumors and speculations to fester.

 

Segi’s Night Club, in the movie… Courtesy of Calpenny Films


There are, also, the sneers from a distance, serious but seriously misplaced
cuts aimed at a business model, though on the butcher-block of radical film scholars excited at the idea of a film as cultural weapon but horrified at the idea of a film industry.

A masquerade appears in its season, at least every other year. What to make of a film, a big, majestic masquerade of a film, which has not strutted the streets in fifty years? A golden-aged legend of the silver screen in a time when even radios came in Technicolor, “if you listened to the news”?

Of the four or more ways to retrace the lines of a missed encounter between African cinema and cinema in Nigeria, grandfather of Nollywood, Francis ladele’s visionary production of Kongi’s Harvest points to a most arduous path. A path not taken, regrettably in hindsight, as it is with visions. In Calpenny Nigeria Films Limited, ladele proposed one of the earliest models of film production as a corporatized entity, fully integrated with the country’s economic structure, and at par with industry practices anywhere. On the other hand, in the late 1960s when he established the company, Nigeria did not have the technical, infrastructural or artistic capacity to pull off the production and distribution of a film on the scale of Kongi’s Harvest.

 


The screen version of W
le oyinka’s drama of a tyrannical African president trying to usurp the legitimizing rituals of traditional authority, the film was released in 1971 and directed by the African American actor, Ossie Davis. It was the first, commercial, full-scale feature film to be produced in the country. Before it, there had been two features: Freedom (1957), written by the exiled South African writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Bound for Lagos (1963), directed by the Caribbean actor Cedric Connor for Nigeria’s Federal Film Unit. Neither of these was a fully commercial film: Freedom was a social orientation work developed under the idea of “Moral Rearmament” to induce Africans toward clean politics, and Bound for Lagos never went through the cinema circuit. Outside of Egypt and South Africa, the only African feature films in existence were the early works of Ousmane Sembene such as Black Girl and Mandabi, besides the handful by Med Hondo and Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. None of these had circulated well outside of European film festivals or had a commercial pitch.

In production terms, Kongi’s Harvest offered one of the earliest examples in African cinema of co-production, the coming together of two or more national or business entities to finance a film and create a crew for it. In this case, there were three business partners. Investors from California, Pennsylvania, and New York were involved in the company at the start but, according to the sociologist Josef Gugler, author of African Film: Re-Imagining A Continent, “they had quit by the time Kongi’s Harvest was produced.”

 

Rasheed Onikoyi as Oba Danlola: “The King’s shattering laughter infects his retinue”. Photo, courtesy of Calpenny Films and the collection of The Centenary Project.


T
he show went on, regardless. Arthur DuBow of Herald Productions raised funds in the US, and Lennart Berns of Omega Films in Sweden supplied the crew. At $300,000.00, the budget was considered quite low in the circumstances. Pre-production got underway. Casting calls and auditions took placeat the company’s headquarters in Yaba, then at the Mbari Club in Ibadan, and the crew moved to location. Save a few glitches with local controversies, shooting went ahead without much interruption.


II: A
 Director’s Dilemma

“I was introduced to Francis ladele when I was directing Cotton Comes to Harlem,” Ossie Davis discloses in an interview taped with Jerry Carlson of City Cinematheque in 2002. Francis had been in Hollywood, he knew more people in Hollywood than I did. He had formed a company…His idea wasthat it was quite possible to set up in Nigeria all of the requirements that Hollywood studios might need if they decided to make films off location.”

 

Ossie Davis, the movie’s director: “I would love to have the chance to have done Kongi’s Harvest from the point of view of Wọle himself. Now he helped me, but you could only help the director so much.” Photo, courtesy of Calpenny Films and the collection of The Centenary Project.


Davis was a writer and an actor.
ladele, however, needed someone intellectually attuned to reflexive blackness, and his own experience of living in the US might have suggested Davis as a good candidate. (ladele’s wife was the sister of Maynard Jackson, an activist lawyer and the first black mayor of Atlanta.) Davis had lived in Liberia for nearly three years in the US Army Medical Corps during World War II, and at that time, he visited Nigeria. The trip for the production was a different opportunity. With the civil war entering its final stage, Davis went back in August 1969 to see the place for himself, with fresh eyes, takinghis family along. Shooting started in early March 1970, entirely on location, in Abokuta, Ibadan and y.

The task was not easy, as far as the director’s portion was concerned. My big problem expressed itself in the challenges that were small challenges,” Davis tells Carlson. “I found myself, as a director, looking for my actors to respond to me in the American style of acting. And I had no idea that that was how I was thinking about it, and that there might be different styles of acting. So, the rhythms that I’m looking for, are really not Nigerian rhythms. The attitudes, the postures, and all that I subconsciously [want], this is not how the people communicate.

Himself an experienced director, albeit for the theater, oyinka was a source of encouragement. Davis was grateful and accommodating. “It was a wonderful and yet an ultimately frustrating thing, you know,” he recalls. I would love to have the chance to have done Kongi’s Harvest from the point of view of Wle himself. Now he helped me, but you could only help the director so much.

 

President Kongo, played by Wole Soyinka. Photo, courtesy of Calpenny Films and the collection of The Centenary Project.


In the moment, other kinds of drama lightened the mood.
Going by the recollections of an unnamed unit manager published in the souvenir, the most dramatic, unscripted incident occurred in y:

There was the near-riot in y where we became part of a dastardly (but imaginary) ruse to install a new Alaafin by the back-door. The palace, because it was vacant, provided an ideal location for the palace scene sequences, and the y Mesi, the kingmakers, had given their approval…. Then someone noticed something wrong: the hostile silence building up into angry muttering was not in the script. Our team went into action and the kingmakers and the princes were produced to explain the true situation and our real mission. We ended up with a director’s dream — an enthusiastic response from the crowds and great cooperation from the chiefs and people of y.

Another incident rose from a loophole in the production design. A scene with the Carpenters’ Brigade had to be rehearsed repeatedly, and it took the unit manager some time to understand what was going on. The scene involved drinking palm wine, and the brigade insisted on rehearsal after rehearsal. The enthusiasmwith which the “carpenters” tackled the palm-wine was such that by the time of the first take, Bacchus had already taken over their spirit and the singing in praise of Kongi was several decibels below the artistic level.

After nine weeks, it was a wrap.

 

III: A Rough Cut

Following its premiere at the Glover Hall in Lagos on April 14, 1971, Kongi’s Harvest received good reviews in Nigerian newspapers, notably The Daily Times and The Morning Post. In the US, Mort Rosenblum reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times. After seeing its US premiere in Washington, D.C., the journalist Angela Terrell wrote in the Washington Post that “for many among the mostly black members of the audience, last night was an introduction to the African scene as viewed by Africans themselves. Over a wine, cheese and cake buffet after the showing, representatives of Washington’s black intellectual and university community — their own dress rivaling the spectacle of clothing in the film —predicted success for black filmmaking.”

 

Francis Oladele, producer of Kongi’s Harvest: He could not resolve the fundamental problem which, stripped bare, came down to the question of Nigeria as a place to do business…Photo, courtesy of Calpenny Films and the collection of The Centenary Project.


The drama of a power struggle between a tyrannical president and a traditional king takes place from late afternoon through the night to late morning of the day of the pivotal New Yam festival.
A high-stake palaver is afoot, and before long the opposed, redoubtable figures of ba Danlla and President Kongi take center stage. There is, in addition, a romantic sub-plot, the warming love affair between Daodu and Sgi, Kongi’s former mistress. President Kongi, played by oyinka, has kept Danlla (Rasheed Onikoyi), the traditional ruler, in detention, but would release him if Danlla consented to handing the new yam to him in public. That gesture is the symbolic transfer of the spiritual authority in the nation.

Plied by his brother, Sarumi (Banj olaru), whose son, Daodu (Dap Adelugba) is, in turn, importuned by Kongi’s hatchet-man, the Organizing Secretary (Fmi Johnson), the king seems to relent. In addition, Kongi agrees to free some dissidents awaiting execution, among whom is Dr. K.E. Gbenga (Orlando Martins), Sgi’s (Nina Baden-Semper) father. That same night, however, Dr. Gbenga is reported to have escaped. Kongi cancels the amnesty. ba Danlla clamps up. The festival must proceed, however, and the Organizing Secretary greases its creaky wheels. From the dais, Daodu, head of an agricultural cooperative, declaims an anti-authoritarian speech so progressively provocative that Kongi rises to assert his power. At that instant, a hidden gunman shoots him fatally and all hell breaks loose on the square.

 

Screengrab from the movie. Courtesy of Calpenny Films.


As the film opens,
Davis himself, dressed in agbada and cap, appears as narrator, clearly intended to mediate the film to an American audience. It is shot without subtitles, and the producers probably figure that that demanding audience would likely struggle with the Nigerian-accented English. In the opening sequence, lively with panning shots of Isma and the daily doings of its citizens, Davis’s narrating voice lends a documentary feel to the film. It is brisk and endearing, without the cloying paternalism of ethnographic cinema, then quite popular in African cinema circles. This is a story calculated to “travel” by incorporating aspects of Nigerian culture that can appeal to African Americans and other culturally liberal US crowds in the context of Black empowerment. Putting fashion, cuisine, music, dance, and architecture in front, the story gives visual cues to things that African cinema, then barely a decade old, typically downplays, being more invested in variations on the theme of the colonial encounter.

The serial jump-cuts of scenes of preparation for the New Yam festival saves the story from sliding into ethnography. From the sound of it, the script captures all the poetry of the play, especially in the scenes between ba Danlla and Sarumi, and it retains fully the comic irony of the amoral Organizing Secretary. The sequence in which the king returns to the palace from preventive detention is beautifully filmed, charged, spacious and colorful, with sustained music flowing exuberantly into various royal activities. There is delirious drumming, the streets are lively, and Danlla‘s shattering laughter infects his retinue.

However, that is before the news of Dr. Gbenga’s escape from prison breaks. Once the twist hardens the will of both men, a new kind of tension rises, and the film’s look darkens with the coming of night.

The story ends on a note of pessimism. The ending, though somewhat rushed, comes across as more searching than it is in the play.

Of the four or more ways to retrace the lines of a missed encounter between African cinema and cinema in Nigeria, grandfather of Nollywood, Francis Ọladele’s visionary production of Kongi’s Harvest points to a most arduous path.

The editing is generally coarse and lacks subtlety, but in some scenes, the similarity in Danlla and Kongi’s personalities is hard to miss, and as Daodu says, both men share “a flair for gestures.” On the comic side, the king’s mock attempts at prostrating to the camp commandant (knowing he will be restrained by his courtiers) are just as hilarious as Kongi’s faux modesty when an international journalist appears in his cellar: “I don’t like being photographed,” he grunts, but continues to strike different poses, and looks forlorn when the shooting ends. Danlla treats his servant Dende (Wale Ogunymi) with the same kind of pointed aggressiveness that Kongi puts upon his Organizing Secretary.

The film’s ending is sudden, yet it displays effectively the streak of pessimism about power in Soyinka’s drama. There is nothing to choose between Kongi and ba Danlla, but the exhaustion of their powers holds little promise going forward, either. The new head of state, Dr. Gbenga, sits behind a desk, looking forbidding, a soldier to his extreme left. As the screen reddens and the camera zooms out, he repeats verbatim Kongi’s earlier megalomaniacal declamation:

The will of the state is supreme

Destiny has entrusted with us

The will of the state.

That is history repeating itself, in a matter of days. A few scenes earlier, the same man was behind bars, in khaki, awaiting the certain fate of public execution. In the bond between Daodu and Sgi, however, there are some glimmers of hope, and the color of the film used in this final sequence looks different.

 

IV: Taking it to the Market

Technical flaws the film has in some measure, but those could not have been solely responsible for the fate that befell it in the theater runs. At this distance, however, the critic is obliged to make deductions from factors that might otherwise seem unobvious or unrelated. Why was the official screening of the first cut for members of the Censors’ Board postponed, then moved to a different venue? Would it have made a difference if the producers had taken account of the vibrant theater culture in Western Nigeria at the time? For a split second, someone who looks like Duro Ladip, the famous theater director and producer, appears in a “walka pass” role in the New Yam festival scene. Is that him?

Theater and film are two different if related media, of course, but going by Davis’s retrospective analysis of his approach to directing Nigerian actors, it is part of technical finesse to know where certain differences may not matter. Early on, as he began his research into dramatic forms in West Africa, oyinka himself had lamented the state of things in the profession, a situation he summarized as a case of professional dancers who could not act, and actors who could not dance. Travelling theater artists might not speak the English that ladele intended for American ears, but they provided solution to some of the problems which Kongi’s Harvest encountered, as subsequent experiments proved.

One of the earliest hurdles in the way of the film was distribution. Nigeria, especially Lagos, teemed with cinema houses in the 1970s, and newspapers of the time ran daily advertorial insertions of film-screening. Drawn by the excitement of American B-rated releases, Hindi melodramas, and “Kung-Fu fighting” flicks, Nigerians thronged Jebako, Roxy, Casino, Pen, Standard, Oregie, Odeon, Scala, and many other cinemas across the country.

But when ladele and his staff approached exhibitors with the new print, the simple and legitimate matter of presenting Kongi’s Harvest to the public grew cumbersome. A company that had done everything by the book found that it must operate in a terrain of “varied and highly complicated problems,” as described in a publicity statement. The problems were of two kinds.

A country with just a decade of political autonomy under its belt, a third of it wasted on a fratricidal and utterly destructive war, Nigeria did not have the human and technical capacities for the kind of business that Calpenny set to conduct. The lack of adequate laboratory facilities, film recording studios, the scarcity of trained professional artistes, a capital market in a fledgling stage–these were some of the obvious obstacles. Imagine that a director could not review his takes during production, and had to shuttle between Lagos, London and New York, and the aesthetic issues that Davis encountered on the set folded into technical ones. The producers must worry about getting the right mix of sound, movement, and image, while looking over an editor’s shoulders in a New York or London studio. Sembene complained about the same problems, in Vieyra’s behind-the-scenes documentary on Ceddo, his film from 1976. Tunde Kelani felt free of the handicap only in the last decade or so.

Less obvious, but no less important, the owners of the exhibition halls had their way of doing business. Several of the cinema houses dotting Lagos were Nigerian-owned, many belonged to Lebanese businessmen, but they were part of a complex structure in which companies owned and controlled by foreigners had long enjoyed the monopoly of film distribution to cinema houses. Through the American Motion Picture Export Corporation for Africa (AMPECA), and its local agents, those cinema houses were contracted to exhibit only films distributed by one or two of these companies. In that way did they determine what people saw. It was a problem that would slow African cinema down for a long time, but it was especially acute in Nigeria where the market was large, and the demand for entertainment was very high.

Calpenny tried to solve the second set of problems by obtaining 16mm copies of Kongi’s Harvest, which the management took to school and college halls, town halls and clubs at very low-ticketfees. Students paid twenty kobos (two shillings at the time)while non students paid thirty. In any case, by this time, ladele had completed another production, Bullfrog in the Sun, the screen adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, and continued to produce documentaries as well as offer industrial services, in order to keep his business afloat.


He could not resolve the fundamental problem which, stripped bare, came down to the question of Nigeria as a place to do business, as he found out during pre-production for Eye of Life, his next big project. Between the planning stage and the actual move to location, the currency devaluation of 1986 shot the production budget up to nearly hundred percent.

He did initiate a revolution in African cinema, however, although not in a manner that would show immediate visible effect. Toward the end of his City Cinematheque conversation, Davis makes a point of great insight. To his Nigerian colleagues, his work on Kongi’s Harvestwas not a sentimental handshake across the ocean; it was a business proposition. We were looking at the romance of [the African past] but they kept insisting on the business side of it.” He adds that the most glorious time for him during the filming was when he “was exposed to the pure Africanity of some portions, the pure Yoruba enthusiasm, and color and freedom,” but the message is clear. We can be brothers and sisters but we also have to work. And eat. (There are large issues about African arts and their scattered, unevenly engaged audiences that a simple recourse to “business” cannot change too quickly, but getting work out at least serves to generate discussions about them.)

Within that decade, other producers and directors emerged. la Balogun solved the two problems by working with the traveling theater professionals, thus making the monopoly of distributors redundant with films that, as he puts in Férid Boughedir’s Camera d’Afrique “people wanted to see…and just had to be shown.” He would later part ways with the Yoruba theater folks, but the collaboration was decisive for the culture. Kelani’s early work in video picked up from there. From the modal Yoruba films that Balogun directed between 1976 and 1982 came Nollywood’s creative template. To avoid the compromised orientation of European-sponsored African filmmaking while thriving right under the nose of a largely negligent Nigerian Film Corporation, held hostage by Federal Character.

Jab Adu (Bisi, Daughter of the River), Sanya Dosunmu (Dinner with the Devil), Adamu Halilu (Shehu Umar), Adeymi Aflayan (Kadara), Eddie Ugbomah (The Death of a President), followed by several younger director-producers, expanded the terrain, each trying a combination of the models already in place, including television drama. The “golden age” of Nigerian cinema was here, and it was just a few years to Living in Bondage and Glamor Girls. As a matter of historical fact, filmmaking has continued in an unbroken pattern in Nigeria since that Calpenny experiment. Françoise Balogun, author of Film in Nigeria, has told this synoptic story in a 2004 essay enticingly titled “Booming Videoeconomy.”

There is no need any more to dwell on what celluloid has on videofilms, and now Netflix streamers. There may be one, though, for “Kongi’s Harvest: The Remake.A producer for Netflix Naija would, in outlook, be someone like Oladele’s grandchild. As the earth moves….

 

Akin Adesokan is a Nigerian scholar and novelist with research interests into twentieth and twenty-first century African and African American/African Diaspora literature and cultures. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and is currently the associate professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America. He exerts influence on Nigerian cultural environment through commentary, advocacy, and writing.

 

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