The 1897 Invasion of Benin Film and The Discussion

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The Film based on the British Punitive Expedition of Benin (current day Edo State Nigeria), in 1859 was screened at the British Film Industry BFI Southbank venue in London.

The films focal point centres on the British Government’s thirst for Palm Oil, Power and African Territories. This aspect of the film is depicted well in some parts whilst the most crucial Political undertones have been missed out. An example being the fact the British Government was well aware of the Benin Holy Month where foreigners are banned from entering Benin City. However, the British went ahead and sent a 21year old Captain with no local knowledge to enter Benin City by all means. This led to his eventual death and an excuse for the British Africa Corps to invade, loot, murder, pillage and to eventually capture Benin City.

The setting of the film was in my opinion fairly good, and the idea that the film was recalled in flashback, was also a good idea. In view of the fact that he was self financed the setting was pretty well done.

However, there are a number of areas where the film lets itself down.  The fact that in the film the lead actor who attempted to steal the Benin bronzes, compared the plunder, looting, and pillage and destruction of Benin City to someone stealing “a judges wig and gown”. I feel this makes the film was very weak indeed, it trivialized, the plunder of African artefacts, the attempted destruction of an African culture and what should be considered as a major crime against its’ people.

Secondly, the fact that the lead spokesman, in the court scene and beginning of the drama was actually attempting to steal the bronzes back and was hence considered a thief, also trivialized in my opinion the main theme of the film and particularly weakened his status, speech and reason for acting.  It shows a confusion between the theme of the film, historical trivia and historical facts.

The acting performance, especially by the Europeans was extremely disappointing, and the Oba of Benin didn’t come across as very convincing by any measure.

The Oba of Benin comes from a lineage dating as far back as 250BC. He has always been very strong leader, very knowledgeable and strict. Mike Omuegbe, who played the Oba of Benin is a Nigerian Church pastor in real life. A pastor in Nigeria, always preaches against Traditional Religion, African Cultural Value Systems and most recently are encouraging followers to adopt European names and abandon their African Heritage. Such an actor that views most things African as fetish and demonic and moreover an actor whose career only started with this role, it being his first live film- wasn’t a good choice for such an important film.

Too much time was spent on the battle scene.  Benin lost the battle and while it was good to highlight how much the men suffered, showed heroism, and so on, the bottom line is that they lost, so in my opinion, this scene should have been kept to a minimum as there is a lot more political aspects that the film could have focused on.

Using a white woman as a girlfriend to the lead actor of the film wasn’t right.  It was as if the director, Iwueson was apologising.  He said that he wanted to prove that we’re not racist or discriminating against anyone.  His film was not an attack against anyone, he was merely portraying an account of a historical fact.

There was also a lot of spelling mistakes in the subtitles. For a film, this shouldn’t be the case, it doesn’t show Nigerian film makers in a positive light, especially since, Iwueson actually has 20 years experience in the industry.

As a film set in the traditional era, I feel that Iwueson should have shown some more of the positives in Benin culture other than the marriage of his daughter to appease discontent amongst his people.  For example show something which showed the well organized trade networks, the World renown Benin Bronze Works that the kingdom was known for.

There’s a war against our culture and as Malcolm X rightly said, “there needs to be a cultural revolution to un-brainwash the majority of our people” is an accurate statement of how our culture/traditions are rapidly dying out.  This and other movies is an excellent opportunity to show case not just Nigerian culture, but African culture as a whole.

As an independent film maker able to write and direct the content of his own films, a director who wasn’t dictated to by Nollywood film marketers, I think the film failed to portray the gravity of crimes committed by the British, against Benin.   African suffering before and during colonialism hasn’t been adequately highlighted, its been suppressed.   Iwueson hasn’t adequately told the Bini people’s story in my opinion, not so much in terms of content, but in the quality of the film making.  The Jews never allow people forget their suffering during the holocaust, so why should the Great People’s of Benin?

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