Thursday 18 April 2013

Ninah's Dowry (2012)

Director: Victor Viyuoh
Stars: Mbufung Seikeh and Anurin Nwunembom
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Ninah's Dowry is one of those features that thrives on the festival circuit, screening to audiences who don't require multi-million dollar budgets and relish films that take them to places they have never seen before, however brutal and shocking those places might be. It took home the audience award at the Phoenix Film Festival, as it did at the Big Muddy Film Festival earlier in the year; it'll surely pick up more such awards as it works its way around the circuit and writer/director Victor Viyuoh will become gradually less surprised as those awards start to rack up. His leading lady, an actress by the name of Mbufung Seikeh, will also find that the best actress in a foreign film award she won at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival will be but the first of many. However, Ninah's Dowry is also one of those features which deserves to be seen by a much wider audience and I truly hope it finds that, not just here in the States but back home in west Africa too.

The story appears to be as simple as they come: Ninah has run away from her abusive husband, Memfi, who eventually tries to bring her back home. The depth comes not only from discovering why she ran and what she goes through to be free, but from the cultural norms that explain why this is not only commonplace but frankly ignored. We watch this story unfold with western eyes and find ourselves shocked that it isn't seen by the characters as horrific, unsanctionable and inhuman, but of course farmers in rural Cameroon don't look at themselves with western eyes. However many recognisable western brand names crop up in the most unlikely places and at the most unlikely moments, they have their own customs and laws, built up around their own culture, and they live their lives according to them. Viyuoh's fascinating Q&A at the Phoenix Film Festival highlighted how few rights women actually have in Cameroon.

And so to the details. For a start, Ninah didn't marry Memfi because she wanted to; she was sold to him by her father, who received the payment due. That means that she remains his property unless she refunds that dowry to him, which of course she doesn't have. Reading up afterwards, I discovered that Ninah is twenty years old at the start of the picture, seven years into a marriage in which she has given her husband three children. That means that she wasn't merely sold into this life by her father, she was sold at the age of thirteen. The most impactful section of Viyuoh's Q&A was when he explained that this is effectively a true story; what Ninah goes through in this film, Viyuoh's cousin went through in real life, except the reality was much worse than he could viably adapt to the screen. She's safe and doing well, he told us, away from her abusive husband, but, amazingly, that same abusive husband, also named Memfi, showed up on set one day.
In the movie, Memfi is a bearded farmer who looks like a Jamaican yardie. The violence he dishes out is rooted in the streets, right down to his penchant for kicks to the gut. I came in a couple of minutes late, as he was brutally beating one of his young sons. Why he was doing this, I have no idea, though it's not likely to be anything substantial, but it's enough for Ninah to say that enough is enough and to walk out right in front of Memfi and their kids with her head held high. It doesn't work, of course, as Memfi promptly stops her in her tracks, beats her for the effort and hangs her by her arms from the farm's ceiling for the night. It isn't all brutality, as there's a lot here about face, especially shown in front of others. It seems to be culturally worse for her to leave in front of her kids as to just leave. Similarly, when Memfi reaches the limits of his tab at a bar, it's seen as worse for the landlord to deny him more credit in front of his son than it is to just deny him.

There's a lot more about face after the kids cut Ninah down and she leaves more surreptitiously. Beyond trying to leave Memfi just because of the constant abuse, she's also trying to get back to her seriously ill father before he dies, not to spend precious time with him but to berate him for what he did to her and her life. Her brother takes care of the funeral and isn't happy with her for staying indoors instead of taking her place at the grave. He doesn't appear to feel for his father either, but he has to run through the motions for the sake of face, apparently hiring professional mourners to wail at the graveside and spending money they don't have on a lavish funeral feast. When Ninah explains that the money would be better spent on the living, she isn't being selfish; she's bitter enough to not care about face. After all, after seven years as one of Memfi's animals (her words), respect is clearly not something easily given.

Initially the direction of the film is about Ninah's escape from such conditions, first to her brother Robert's house and then into town, where she starts a small restaurant called Ninah's Eatery. Life is hardly worth shouting about, but compared to enduring the farm with Memfi it's bliss. She even finds a smile on occasion, which is more than welcome in a film with a tone as oppressive as this, but the title was always going to come back into play. It does so when Memfi discovers that Ninah is pregnant again, not to him this time but to some new boyfriend called Yunus. So Memfi walks the long road into town, with a couple of friends in tow, to take her back home, ready to use force if necessary and quite likely even if not. Because she was sold to him, she can't resist unless she pays back that dowry and that's clearly not an option. So off they they process, all through town, with her being carried or dragged, pushed or pulled, whatever works.

Where it goes from here is something you'll need to experience yourself, and I use that word very deliberately. This isn't a film to watch, it's a film to experience. We can't help but put ourselves in Ninah's flipflops (only men have shoes) as she struggles to find a way to escape her situation. The way that Seikeh plays Ninah is mostly sympathetic, as indeed it would be hard not to be as she suffers through this film, but she's no angel. We don't wonder at her resolve but we do wonder at why she doesn't even attempt to take her kids with her. The fact that she has every reason to be bitter doesn't alter the fact that she's very bitter indeed. The powerful ending, which I won't spoil but which I will say unfolds in a highly appropriate manner, audibly not visually, the camera remaining throughout on Ninah's defiant face, is a morally ambiguous one. Some viewers will lose some sympathy for her because of it, though others will applaud her actions with a cheer.
The most obvious comparison I can reach for is a strange one indeed: The Passion of the Christ. In that film, Mel Gibson showed the torment of Jesus in every detail, flinching from nothing. The point was to make it impossible not to realise what he went through. Viyuoh's aims are similar here. The point of Ninah's Dowry is to make it impossible for us to fail to realise the dire straits that women like Ninah find themselves in, often through no fault of their own, and the laws and cultural mores that make it almost impossible for them to find a way out again. It does offer a little hope, though only a little and in a backhanded fashion, but it ably illustrates the mindset of a country. There's a telling scene when one of Memfi's friends tries to explain to him a parable about crabs in a bucket. His point is that the Cameroonian people are like those crabs because while one can simply climb out, two can't because one will pull it back in. Memfi simply cannot understand the concept.

The standout here is Seikeh, who has no prior credits at IMDb but who has apparently appeared in a number of short films and three previous features, though this is her first leading role. She owns this film, pure and simple. While many of the supporting actors get moments to make themselves noticed, they quickly vanish from memory because the whole story is so fundamentally about her and she dominates so utterly throughout. Only Anurin Nwunembom is able to stand up and fight for our attention, as indeed he should as the abusive Memfi. His brutality is seared into my brain, though he's not a black and white character. He's deliberately painted not just as a man but as an archetype of the rural Cameroonian farmer. He does seem to care about some things, such as his kids, but his ignorance, violence and stubbornness mean that they don't do well once Ninah is gone. Nwunembom was also important behind the camera, as the unit production manager.

Like most of my fellow festivalgoers, Ninah's Dowry hit me hard. It has a strong message delivered just as strongly and the real life background Viyouh provided after the screening enhanced that. The acting is uneven, but generally much better than I'm used to seeing in African cinema, though to be fair my experience is mostly with shot on video Nollywood films, so not particularly high up the quality scale. Seikeh's performance is amazing and dedicated and truly grounds the picture. The scenery is gorgeous, especially in long shots, and the quieter moments of African culture are fascinating: the influence of Christianity in a people who still fear witchcraft, the way superstition shapes honesty and the mixture of English, pidgin and Cameroonian dialect. In a country of 19m people, which is half English and half French, there are 270 spoken languages. In the end though, this is a call for awareness, a shaming of a culture and a plea for change. It deserves to be heard.

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