If there was one book that caught the minds and imagination of young Africans across the continent in the past century, it is Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart.
Written in 1958, it captures an Africa in transition politically, economically but most earnestly, its customs and traditions in a post-colonial time.
Unknown to many however, is that a film adaptation of the book was made in 1971 by German producer Jason Pohland shortly after the Biafra War, starring then Ugandan lawyer, diplomat and fashion model Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of the Tooro Kingdom and Nigerian Johnny Sekka.
Shot on location in Lagos and Ibadan in Nigeria, it combines elements from Achebe’s second novel, also a classic, No Longer at Ease.
The film premiered the same year in Bonn, Germany and in Atlanta, US to much acclaim but much of the production material got lost for decades and little was known of the production company and crew and the circumstances around the creation of the book adaptation.
It was rather coincidental therefore that more than 2,000 unpublished film stills, various production papers, correspondences, as well as a film print of the production from 1971 were found in the estate of Pohland, on the 50th anniversary of the adaptation of the book.
Although the film had been screened several times in Nigeria, including earlier this year courtesy of Modern Art Film Archiv Berlin, for the first time the curators are sharing their archive findings of the entire film production at the Uganda Museum at an exhibition curated by Berlin-based Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi and the German freelance curator Gisela Kayser.
The exhibition in Uganda opened on October 27 to mark this year’s Unesco’s-World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, and guests were treated to a screening of the making of Things Fall Apart, a first in Uganda.
The exhibition, running to December 12, also features the newly found trove of film stills, production papers, correspondence and film print found in Pohland’s estate. He died in 2014.
The exhibition, titled The Making of Things Fall Apart was well attended by Uganda’s film fraternity and general creative community.
Actress and film director Eleanor Nansibo Nabwiso said that ‘’the two stories were interestingly well fused to tell a great story,” refering to the both of Achebe's classic novels.
“Judging from the time it was filmed, it was well done considering all the different energies that were combined from the different talents and people of different origins,” added Nabwiso, a director at Nabwiso Films.
Actor and musician Mike Musoke, said, “The two stories were well captured and I liked the juxtaposition.”
Bolaji Alonge thought the 91-minute long film is a work of genius, with colours and sound that have stood the test of time despite being locked away for decades.
“I noticed the big difference in the production techniques then and now,” said Nabwiso.
“The cameras are different now, so we have better pictures but the filming angles are similar making the shots creative. Cinematography has changed, I am sure if someone was to redo the film now, it would be quite something. But considering the time it was shot it is quite a good production,” she said.
“We have to expose our work as a means of preserving it because then people get to know that it exists particularly if it is good work,” said Musoke, who is the lead vocalist for Percussion Discussion Africa.
On display in the exhibition is a selection of photographs that were shot by Stephen Goldblatt during production showing Achebe on set, Princess Bagaaya, as well as actor Orlando Martins — Nigeria’s first international film star — in his last role as Obierika; John Sekka and the co-founder of the Lagos Freedom Park, Iyabo Aboaba in her role as Bisi.
Other items on display are biographies of the actors, documents, correspondence and newspaper cuttings.
The film premiered four years after production in the US and correspondence on display reveals that one of the reasons for this delay was the apparent difficulty in finding a distributor for this first “black-oriented” film.
Film aficionados in Kampala were not only treated to the rare screening of the film but also also dived into background stories of Achebe’s masterpiece and got insights on the film through introductions and question and answer sessions led by the managing director of the Modern Film Archive Berlin, Mareike Palmeira and curator Akinbiyi, in a segment under the theme Stored and forgotten — Film Stills by Stephen Goldblatt and the making of Things Fall Apart.
Palmeira, who is also the caretaker of Pohland’s estate, told The EastAfrican that she and Pohland’s daughter Britta Braun discovered the archive material by chance in the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, while searching for something in the satellite storage of the Deutsche Kinemathek.
“These materials were not inventoried and only staff of the Deutsche Kinemathek has access to this storage, I am an absolute exception. So it was an unexpected fortunate find,” Palmeira said.
On the public reaction to the 50th anniversary of this film adaptation, Mareike, said: “At first there were only the findings, film stills shot in Nigeria in 1970, figures and faces, names of cast and crew, many questions and very little knowledge.
Everything had become vague over time. The materials had been stored over decades and then been forgotten. But as traces they were there, still present in the archive, in the waiting room of history.”
Adding that the Uganda Museum has expressed interest in taking the exhibition around the country with their Mobile Museum.
Palmeira says the current state of the film print, a 35mm, is not suitable for a restoration and the state of the negative, which is in the possession of the son of Fern and Edward Mosk in Los Angeles is not known.
The film stills were all digitised and restored to a high standard, while most of the correspondence, production papers, script and even newspaper articles were digitised and accessible at www.modernartfilmarchiv.de, on a virtual exhibition for all and sundry.
The film was jointly produced by Nigerian, German, and American firms at an estimated cost of $600,000. Francis Oladele (1933-2015) and Wolf Schmidt were the executive producers and the screenplay was by Fern Mosk.
Palmeira said of the 50th anniversary of this film adaptation: “After this discovery an extensive research project together with contemporary witnesses, family members, scientists and artists from all over the world followed, until a picture slowly emerged.
The reactions were manifold. Many people were just touched, discussions on how to deal with African film heritage came up and about the memory of societies, what is remembered and what is consigned to oblivion, the impulse of art and culture in times of changes, the intensive exchange with the first generation of African filmmakers or just the joy of discoveries.”
In a nutshell, the screenplay is an adaptation of the story of Obi Okonkwo, a wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior who lives in the village of Umoufia, in Nigeria. Okonkwo is a revered leader, farmer and is a wrestling champion, who has returned from journalism studies in England, and finds himself in a Nigeria marked by rapid industrialisation and deep political change.
But first he must deal with personal issues of traditions that will not allow him to marry his sweetheart Clara Okeke (Princess Bagaaya) a freshly graduated nurse because she belongs to an outcast clan. The two love birds are welcomed with traditional dance and song.
On community level he experiences the spreading corruption, the dominance of the Europeans and the conflicts with the values of traditional societies.
His downfall is caused by his inability to deal with the conflicting value systems of Igbo culture and his English training.
There are plans to bring the exhibition to Nairobi and there is a proposal from a professor of architecture to accompany the presentation with a panel on “Art in Public Urban Space.”
Also screening in Kampala is Mandabi (1968) a film written and directed by the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. It was also produced by Pohland in cooperation with Cine 3 (Berlin), Calpenny Nigeria Films Ltd and Nigram (USA).