A number of documentary films have been made about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Afrobeat maestro. These include MUSIC IS THE WEAPON (1982) and FINDING FELA (2014). So, when you see FREE FELA! on the line-up for the 2017 iREP International Documentary Film Festival, one is elated that yet another seminal documentary is on its way.
The film title echoes the theme of the 2016 Felabration, an annual week-long musical event hosted to commemorate Fela's posthumous birthday. However, this viewer was utterly disappointed that FREE FELA is pedestrian at best.
Deji Ajose-Ojikutu, the film's director, chiefly relies on performances from Felabration 2016, some of which mimic the style of the maestro himself. The 45-minute film fails to give deep insights into one or more of the numerous incarcerations suffered by Kuti whose crime was singing songs that military governments found offensive.
Much as the performers - Aduke, Eda Oto, Perfect 4 String Quartet, the Crown Troupe, etc.. - live up to expectations on stage, it is difficult to state what FREE FELA!'s thrust is because the interviews tend to merely reaffirm how great Fela was; a trite point indeed.
Granted that film, especially the documentary film genre, is a powerful tool for x-raying the past, assessing the present and predicting the future, FREE FELA! could have reminded the audience that repression is still alive in Nigeria today.
After all, in 2012, the government banned FUELLING POVERTY (dir. Ishaya Bako), a documentary that exposed massive corruption in the oil and gas industry. Produced by Theo Lawson, FREE FELA! could have reiterated the fact that "a people conquered by force are a people only half conquered."
Ultimately, the lack of a well-defined focus and failure to incorporate any relevant footage of any sort make FREE FELA! a run-of-the-mill picture.
By Amarachukwu Iwuala
First published in iREP 2017 Newsletter - Issue 1, edited by Derin Ajao, with support of iRep FilmFest and Goethe-Institut Nigeria. Courtesy iREP.