Toronto 2022, blog 1

Death, taxes and royalty

The King’s Horseman

Wilfred Okiche reports from the Toronto film festival, where three films investigate the history and current effects of colonialism in Africa.

The death of Her Majesty queen Elizabeth II of England has been responsible for reigniting passionate discussions about the impact of British colonialism on former territories around the world, many of which are now a part of the commonwealth. The most enlightening of these discussions; complex and uncomfortable as they have been, have seen former colonies daring to engage with both past and present, finding connections in a collective trauma. In 1975, the acclaimed Nigerian writer and scholar, Wole Soyinka published his play, Death and the King’s Horseman which appears now to have foreshadowed some of these conversations.

Forty-seven years later, the play, considered in some circles to be Soyinka’s magnum opus has been adapted by Netflix for the screen. Directed by Biyi Bandele (Half of a Yellow Sun) – who tragically passed away in August – The King’s Horseman, as the film adaptation is titled, is set in old Oyo Kingdom, sometime in the forties.

The king has died, and tradition dictates that his horseman (or Ẹlẹ́ṣin Ọba as the character is called,) the most esteemed of his high chiefs be buried along with him. The Ẹlẹ́ṣin must commit ritual suicide on the day of the king’s burial in an elaborate ceremony. This occasion is all important for both dead and living as the dead king can finally join his ancestors while the balance between the universe and the afterlife is maintained. The Ẹlẹ́ṣin tarries in carrying out this responsibility and the British colonial administrator, eager to keep the peace while hosting a visit from the King of England, is determined to put a stop to an act he considers barbaric.

The King’s Horseman is particularly relevant today as it contends with imperialism and the structured traditions surrounding the death of a monarch. How should beloved monarchs be honored? What is the place of tradition and what right does anyone have to declare the practices of another culture outdated. It is a powerfully observant play that Soyinka structures and director Bandele appears to be in thrall- perhaps too much- to Soyinka’s original vision that he changes very little in his adaptation.

Bandele’s major thing here is translating the play to the Yoruba language and giving the British characters at least a solid grasp of the language. But he fails to open up the play to the demands of the big screen and the film never quite unboxes itself out of that theater structure. The film relies on Soyinka’s lean but solid sense of plotting as well as strong acting performers by lead performers Odunlade Adekola and Shaffy Bello.

The tensions existing across cultures that lies at the heart of The King’s Horseman show up in a different way in Free Money, a subtly efficient documentary directed by the duo of Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko.

Free Money goes to the impoverished village of Kogutu in Kenya where GiveDirectly, an American NGO is conducting a social experiment around the concept of universal basic income. Kogutu is one of the villages selected for a program in which GiveDirectly hands out monthly stipends of about $22 to some of the poorest people in the world, for twelve years. Free Money chronicles the first four years of the program revealing the highlights, challenges, consequences and limitations of such a program on the village.

The film takes a dispassionate stance even when it takes plenty care to platform the stories and essence of the people of Kogutu who would otherwise be reduced to data points in the grand scheme of things. Free Money will be sure to spark serious conversations not only about universal basic income but also about the tools and practices that are often used to deliver foreign aid and philanthropy.

Angela Wamai’s Shimoni (The Pit) is another film set in a Kenyan village to have its world premiere at Toronto. Shimoni is a dark and often unforgiving tale of second chances, community and absolution that quietly establishes Wamai, a professional film editor as a major filmmaking voice in her own right.

Shot with a sparse precision that finds beauty in the brutalities of life, Shimoni tells the story of Geoffrey (a formidable Justin Mirichii) who is recently let out of prison after serving time for committing an unspeakable crime. Upon release, Geoffrey is taken to his ancestral village where with the assistance of the local church he is expected to find his way back into society. But can this community handle an ex-convict living amongst them?

In Wamai’s confident hands, Shimoni becomes an excavation into the pit that is repressed trauma and a critical study of church culture. The film isn’t the feel- good movie of the year but Wamai’s delicate dance between tragedy and mild humor in the sharply observant screenplay ensures that just enough light is let in.