Abba Makama has taken Toronto twice.
The first time the Nigerian director, writer and visual artist was a guest of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), he was part of the country delegation participating in the now rested City to City program. This was in 2016 and Makama’s debut feature length, the experimental dramedy, Green White Green: And All the Beautiful Colours In My Mosaic of Madness (2016) was one of six films showing in the festival’s spotlight on Lagos city, Nigeria’s creative and commercial capital.
Green White Green offered a peep into Makama’s madcap world as he circled a loose narrative involving three bored teenagers trying to make sense of their lives. Makama took advantage of the visual medium to unpack the multitude of issues buzzing through his mind. Some of them were personal (growing pains, doing the right thing) but some were political (immigration, Nigeria’s decade old war against insurgency.)
No ordinary coming of age fable, Green White Green is many things, but it is ultimately the hopeful story of how a generation, brought up on pessimism and despair, chooses to engage with the idea of nationhood without being consumed by all the contradictions. While their parents could at least recall a time when Nigeria gave more than it took, the teens at the centre of Green White Green enjoy no such privileges. Everything is engineered to frustrate them and only their youthful exuberance keeps them going. Until the time when even that isn’t quite enough. They keep going anyway.
Together with the big budget – for a Nigerian film at least – historical drama, ’76 (2016), Green White Green left Toronto as one of the best reviewed films in the City to City section, with critics calling the scrappy tale ‘’endearing’’ and ‘’spontaneous” and Makama an exciting new voice.
Three years later and to no one’s surprise, Makama is back in Toronto with his sophomore effort, the surrealist comedy, The Lost Okoroshi, this time playing in the Discovery section.
In a quiet departure from his debut, The Lost Okoroshi has more of a straightforward narrative, but that doesn’t mean it is any less energetic or zany. A fast-paced, hectic romp through the city of Lagos, The Lost Okoroshi embraces abstraction as it considers identity, displacement and the forces – both physical and supernatural – that keep human beings grounded.
Raymond Obinwa (a solid Seun Ajayi) is a young man who works as a security guard in Lagos. He is clearly in the big city solely for economic reasons as he feels more connected to a quieter, more relaxed life in the countryside. Raymond is haunted by a recurring dream in which he is chased around by a purple masquerade that sends him to bursts of dancing fits.
Acting on the advice of an elder, Raymond stops running and embraces his fear only to wake up one day as the masked performer known as the Okoroshi. In character as the Okoroshi, a great and terrifying masquerade, Raymond then combs the streets of Lagos jumping from one adventure to the other as he seeks to understand his purpose in the grand scheme.
The Lost Okoroshi has a kinetic, organic pop that can only come from a mind as roving as Makama’s. The film blends all of his interests, from masquerades to dreamscapes, art, music, dance and even animation to give rise to a colourful, unclassifiable collage that is never static. The Lost Okoroshi, which Makama co-wrote, again with Africa Ukoh, moves with a rhythm of its own and sits right at home in the bustling and exciting city of Lagos where it is set.
Long fascinated with the masquerade cultures from childhood celebrations, Makama, whose nickname Dodorowsky is an amalgam of Dodo, the Hausa word for masquerade, and his idol, Chilean-French artiste and polymath Alejandro Jodorowsky, has with The Lost Okoroshi created a fitting outlet for all of his manic energies.
Like his debut, The Lost Okoroshi is made with a barely there production budget, immediately obvious from the modest settings and basic 4:3 aspect ratio cinematography that frames the shots. Rough around the edges with a stark minimalism that calls to mind the traditional DIY Nollywood films that Makama lampooned mercilessly in Green White Green, The Lost Okoroshi pays homage to and mocks the video films of the ‘90s Nollywood era at the same time.
The comedy isn’t quite as sharp as the writers assume, but the actors are all game. The subliminal messaging is layers deep and audiences will find themselves exercising mentally to unravel Makama’s thematic interests.
The relationship between dreamscapes and masquerades is highlighted clearly foregrounded as Makama wonders aloud, in living colour, about the things that happen subconsciously while people sleep. He also ponders the significance of dreams and how commonly held beliefs shape eventual outcomes. No surprise here considering Makama has organised two exhibitions of acrylic paintings, Hypnagogia, and Images from the Collective Unconscious, both inspired by dreams and religious symbolism, in between his two film projects.
The Lost Okoroshi is also preoccupied with the conflicts that creep in when the quest for modernism and spirituality seeks to cast aside traditional rites and customs. The Lost Okoroshi ultimately makes a case for mutual understanding, for all sides to live and let live but this tidy resolution only leads one to imagine what kind of film might have emerged if Makama had chosen to be more radical and lean in on a particular side. Perhaps Toronto wouldn’t be so welcoming.
Carl Jung stated that the psyche is supposed to be like a balance of opposing qualities, the conscious as well as the unconscious. But Raymond, the protagonist of The Lost Okoroshi, isn’t quite balanced. He straddles the physical and subconscious worlds. Were you investigating this psychic imbalance?
I wasn’t even looking in that direction in terms of balance and unbalance. I was looking at it from the terms of displacement which is not really a Jungian concept but more of a Freudian concept. That is when someone is psychologically repressed and that repression manifests itself in a displaced form, hence the title The Lost Okoroshi. Raymond cannot quite see himself in the human world which he lives in as a person and even as the Okoroshi, he is still trying to find himself. I think the only Jungian concept that I probably pulled from is the idea of the collective unconscious, where all these spiritual archetypes exist from birth.
And the environment only serves as a trigger…
In this case, his dead-end job and his boring, unsatisfying life.
During your research what was the most fascinating thing that you found?
One thing that really inspired me writing and making this film is that I discovered that masquerades exist in almost every culture and tradition on planet earth and not just Africa. I saw a photo series by this French photographer Jean-Claude Moschetti who goes around West Africa taking pictures of masquerades and those are like the most beautiful images I have ever seen. They almost came to life from this two-dimensional plane I was seeing them from but then I saw another photographer, Charles Fréger, who did a photo series titled Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage and he documented costumes worn for ancient pagan ceremonies across Europe, Macedonia, Italy, Portugal. I got consent from both photographers to use some of their images in the end credit of the film. Some of the masquerades even look similar to the ones I see here on the continent and it just validated for me, the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious. What does this thing mean? We are all seeing it manifest in different ways and different shapes but eventually it is all the same thing. We have a guy who wears a certain costume and when he wears that costume, at that instant, he transcends or becomes a spiritual being, elevated to another level. That is what really intrigues me.
Sounds like you are a big fan of masquerades.
I have been obsessed with masquerades since I was a child. I am from Plateau state, my mum’s tribe is called Tarok and we would visit our hometown for Christmas or summer holidays. I remember there was a festival we looked forward to. In Hausa language, dodo is what we call masquerade or spirit. I just used to be so intrigued by this festival where by 6pm all of us, women and children, had to go inside and all these masquerades come out dancing, flogging people and whatnot. I remember lying in bed all night just obsessing over what was going on outside. I wanted to see what was going on. When I got older, I realised that it is a guy who is actually dressed up in this costume but the moment he puts on this costume, all of us agree that he is no longer human. He transcends into a spiritual being and we all accept it. It is a belief system and that itself is very intriguing and beautiful and I just kept on wondering, at that moment the guy who is wearing the costume, does he vanish? Does he go somewhere else? Where is he in his head? Is he conscious of the fact that he is human and playing this role of a spiritual being or does he vanish entirely and become a conduit? All those types of things just fascinated me and hence my exploration into masquerades.
I see all of these questions being investigated in The Lost Okoroshi but then again, the film also leaves the findings very open to interpretation. You don’t answer any or most of these questions particularly with the end, the way you leave it open.
I do that as a skeptic and also because I don’t really know. I am also asking questions. We don’t know anything when we deal with the supernatural. Everything is based on belief, so it is wiser to be subjective and leave it open to debate.
Fair enough. About the masquerades, I also noticed that even though the culture of the Okoroshi is specifically of the Igbo tribe, in the scenes when the masquerades gather, you assemble masquerades from different parts of the country. Is this in keeping with the dreamscape that the protagonist is trapped in, where anything and everything goes?
Again, back to Jung’s theory of collective unconscious, which is where everything comes from. Nationality and ethnicity so to speak are kind of social constructs if you think about it. For instance, where does Tarok land start from geographically? Is there a line on planet earth that God or whoever, marked, that says this is Tarok land and this is Igbo land? Or did people just settle at a certain location and decide to make it their home? I would imagine that in the spirit realm, when I dream, I don’t have any nationality. Sometimes I am a woman in my dream. Sometimes I am white, sometimes I am an animal. There are times I have had dreams when I am on four limbs crawling, there are times I am in the sky levitating. I don’t know what I am at this point but I have a bird’s eye view looking down. What am I at that moment? In fact, half of the masquerades in the film are even fictional. I literally took creative licence so you have the familiar ones like the Ekpe existing alongside the Eyo as well, so just a nice mix. I just felt that since it is the spirit world, why not? The mask is from Adamawa. It makes so much sense for the imagery to not be exclusive to any ethnicity.
The film argues subtly that masquerades are in fact, super heroes…
My brother you are getting it exactly. Infact that is what I am trying to do, reintroduce the masquerade as some kind of superhero but not in a DC-Marvel way where all super heroes know kung fu and save the world. But who knows? Maybe one day, Okoroshi would be optioned by Marvel or whatever to do whatever they want to do with it. That would be interesting.
I am curious about the film’s animation sequence, where did that come from and why did you decide on that storytelling format?
The animation part is inspired by some of the books we used to read in primary school, books like Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl. That aesthetic stayed with me through the years and I was kind of channeling that vibe. Also, I just wanted to deviate and do something different and reference it to old Nollywood and childhood stories.
You speak passionately about dreams and they form a huge part of your work. Is The Lost Okoroshi an offshoot of that interest or did the film spark your interest in dreams?
I woke up one day and, just like a stenographer, I wrote a status on Facebook which is the opening line of the film where it says that the masquerades kept on dancing and dancing and then I realised this wasn’t an ordinary dance, this was a dance from our ancestors. That manifested from a dream and the moment I wrote that, that’s how the idea was kind of formed. I started it as a photo series. I went out with a mask and a friend and I started taking pictures of this mask and my friend in a black cloak. I was trying to do a photo series about a masquerade who is displaced and that is how the idea was born. I remember we walked into an uncompleted building, there was a security guard and my friend got up on top of a pile of bricks and hovered over the security guard and I took a picture and that is how the character of Raymond was born. This was in 2016, a few months before I went to Toronto and that’s when we did the photo series. Also because I was inspired by Jean-Claude Moschetti’s work, so it was definitely an extension of dreams.
Dreams are as important to me as waking life. We spend about half of our lives asleep so there is almost a reality that exists outside this present reality that we experience. We go there every day but when we wake up, that place is dead, almost like nobody sees a reason to explore dreams further. Except maybe when they feel dreams are signaling that something bad is going to happen or assume something good is going to happen then you go to your pastor or whoever for interpretation. Most people really don’t care about dreams, they just dream randomly but I disagree. Dreams are as important as anything. I document my dreams, I write them, I draw them, I paint them and I have done an exhibition on dreams. I am an artist as well. I have done two exhibitions, actually inspired by dreams. The first one was Hypnagogia, inspired by waking hallucinations, and the second was called Images from the Collective Unconscious. So the film is definitely an extension of my interests.
And then there are some people who would see the film and argue that the whole thing is a fever dream…
Now that you mention, it makes so much sense. Possibly. Sometimes I feel even this conversation is a dream in itself and that we are all dreaming awake in a weird sense. I don’t quite know how to put it. Every thought, every idea is, in some way, indistinguishable from the same source of our dreams. I feel like I may be in your dream right now, the same way that we are both in the dreams of whoever came up with the idea of Nigeria or Toronto or wherever. Everything that you see in real life is conjured up from a dream or an idea, hence my theory that we are all kind of living in different peoples’ dreams. I feel that when we die, we go to eternal sleep but then we wake up in another plane. If I say I am Christian and I believe in the idea of heaven, am I going to die here and wake up there? So when I wake up on the other side, does that mean I have fallen asleep somewhere else or am I dreaming? Just some of the pseudo-scientific ideas that I have bubbling in my head, I don’t know if that makes any sense?
It doesn’t have to. But I notice you trying to make sense of it in the film with the character of the psychiatrist, who goes about painstakingly asking questions and documenting his findings. Does academic research help with understanding these spiritual concepts or is there a futility to the practice?
Absolutely, research is important, academic, clinical and social but because of skepticism, we don’t always want to surrender to what we can learn. Look at Raymond’s wife who doesn’t necessarily believe in what the psychiatrist was doing because she relied on an entirely different system of belief, her Christian faith.
Speaking of, in my village, we have a big masquerade culture. Every first day of the new year, there is this big parade where the masquerades come out. At the same time there is the church trying to clamp down on these masquerade cult activities because they are considered fetish for whatever reason. I even had my cousin who joined the masquerade group and they are trying to bring him out of it, so there is also that clash. Do you think the masquerade culture is being endangered?
I think it is being endangered but not even entirely because of Christianity. More because the masquerades themselves have demystified themselves. I don’t know if you have noticed but there are a lot of videos and memes where you see a masquerade at a betting centre, placing bets or you see two masquerades flogging each other. There is another video I saw of a masquerade on the floor and mobile police were beating him and you could hear him crying and begging. So yes, it is Christianity, but it is also indifference, western civilisation and technology because if it wasn’t for smart phones and whatnots, we wouldn’t have access to some of these practices. It is kind of an endangered thing. Religion is just one aspect but there are other factors.
One of the characters in the film speaks of a haphazardness in returning to our African roots and cultural tools. Do you think this is something we should be more deliberate about?
I think it is something we should be conscious of. I speak Hausa fluently but I cannot speak my mum’s native language. For people like me who were born in the ‘80s or ‘90s, there is a huge chunk of us who literally speak only English language. I know so many friends who have been educated and their parents did not think it necessary to have them speak their native language. I think at a point we were bewitched by the idea of western education and this has caused some form of identity crisis within us. A lot of us don’t know who we are. Within the past couple of years however, there has been some kind of renaissance in black wokeness whether it is with Black Panther or Burna Boy, or the world now gravitating towards our music and fashion. People now want to be associated with all that and that’s where that haphazardness comes from. There is still a lot of ambivalence and confusion within the identity but at least for a change, it seems cool to be African.
Like there is a natural and permanent sort of displacement that comes with being African or being black?
Absolutely, which is why I feel as an artist if you are in the entertainment business, your job is to entertain and to make films that people enjoy. But I also feel that as a human being, as a black African in this day and age who is still in the process of self-awareness, I also have to share ideas and concepts with other people. If they accept them, fine, if they don’t, fine still, but I would have done my own part in society to make it a better place. If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are going to and you could easily be misled. So yes, I think it is an important thing.
The Surreal 16 Collective which you are a founding member of (completing the trio are filmmakers C.J Obasi and Michael Omonua) started out as a counter to the prevalent Nollywood aesthetic. Did you expect results so soon and are you proud of the work that you guys have done so far?
Absolutely, we have two films this year that are showing at two top tier international film festivals back to back, The Lost Okoroshi and Omonua’s The Man Who Cuts Tattoos which premieres at the London Film Festival in October. I mean it is evident that what we are doing is working somehow. The three of us feed off one other in the sense that Michael was my director of photography on The Lost Okoroshi and I produced his film. C.J is deep in pre-production for Mami Wata and travelled around the world last year with his short, Hello, Rain. I feel like we are literally ushering a new chapter of cinema from West Africa and this is the beginning of many things to come. There are going to be different filmmakers who are going to be inspired by this movement and I am quite happy with the direction things are going.