A few months ago, I got an email from the NGO MIND (Media Information Narrative Development) associated with the NGO Cordaid asking me if I would be willing to review a documentary The Daughters of the Niger Delta. Not knowing what to expect from a documentary made by an NGO, I was a little reluctant to promise to review it, but I told them to send it to me, and I’d see what I thought. When I watched it, I was blown away. It is an important documentary made by nine woman that tells the story of the Niger Delta (and directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun) as seen through the eyes of the women Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi. Since I first published my review in Weekly Trust
on 3 August 2013, which I’ve copied below, it has won awards at two film festivals, the Best Documentary Award at the Abuja International Film Festival and the Best Documentary award at the LA Femme International Film Festival, and has been screened at nine other film festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival, The Kansas International Film Festival.
The film will be showing today, 11 November 2013, 2-3pm, and on Friday 15
November, 1-2pm, at the Africa International Film Festival in Calabar. The venue is Filmhouse Cinema, Tinapa Resort, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.
It will also show at the Eko International Film Festival in Lagos on Friday, 22 November.
It has also received several other rave reviews:
My “The Daughters of the Niger Delta Speak Out Through Film” in the Weekly Trust on 3 August 2013.
Sa’adatu Shuaibu’s “Humanizing Poverty: the Daughters of the Niger Delta” in Leadership on 14 September 2013.
Gimba Kakanda’s “The Blues of the Southern Women” for Blueprint, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times etc on 8 November 2013.
You can read a 13 October 2013 interview with the director Ilse Van Lamoen-Isoun in the Sunday Trust, and watch her TV interview with Kansas City Live, and watch a trailer copied below:
And finally, here is the review I wrote in full. To read it on the Weekly Trust site, click here.
- Category: My thoughts exactly
- Published on Saturday, 03 August 2013 06:00
- Written by Carmen McCain
The song can be read as addressing many forms of oppression, but it is used over images of a Niger Delta riverside in the 2012 documentary film Daughters of the Niger Delta to comment specifically on what Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, following Mao-Tse Tung, calls the “mountains” on the African woman’s back. In “African Women, Culture and Another Development,” Ogundipe-Leslie identifies six mountains, which include “oppression from outside”; patriarchal “traditional structures” that devalue women’s work and seek to control her own body; “her own backwardness,” which includes poverty and ignorance; men, who refuse to give up their privileges; and finally race and a woman’s own self-defeating internalization of patriarchal ideologies.
Many of these forms of oppression and structural inequalities become evident in the testimonies of women featured in the documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta (55 mins) made by 9 women from the Niger Delta trained by the Abuja-based NGO Media Information Narrative Development (MIND), directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun and sponsored by the German Embassy. The documentary seeks to challenge disparities in media coverage. While the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the focus of the global media, there has been far less attention to the much greater oil damage in the Niger Delta region. Even recent accidents, such as the December 2011 off-coast Shell Bonga oil spill or the January 2012 Chevron gas explosion in Finuwa, Bayelsa, barely made a blip on the international news radar. Similarly, as the voiceover at the beginning of the film points out, headlines about the Niger Delta often focus on oil output, kidnappings and violence in the resource-rich Niger Delta. However, in fact, as we learn by the end of the documentary, the maternal mortality rate in the Niger Delta is the second highest in the world and 65,000 children under the age of five die each year in the region due to lack of adequate health care and related issues such as pollution and nutrition. These numbers far outstrip the number of those killed due to armed conflicts but the poverty that causes these deaths is also one of the causes of the conflict. Such stories are often invisible not only to the world but also to other Nigerians. Yet it is only with the recognition of these stories that change can come.
The film focuses on three women: Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi. Hannah Tende, from Bodo City, Rivers State, is a widow who makes a living collecting
periwinkles from oily mud and working on other people’s farms. Her own home and the land she once farmed was taken over by her husband’s family when he died in 2005. She wants to send her daughter Uke to university, but does not have the money. In fact, her children now survive on two meals a day instead of the three meals they had when their father was alive. But Hannah has limited possibilities, as remarriage for widows is forbidden and her livelihood is threatened by the pollution of the rivers.
Rebecca Churchill, from Tuomo, Delta State, was married at fifteen to an already married man. She describes how she first learned of the marriage when her husband told her that he had paid her bride price to her father. Now, the
pregnant Rebecca narrates how she has given birth eleven times. Only six of those children are still living. While her husband says it is Ijaw culture for his wife to keep having children, Rebecca herself wants to stop getting pregnant after her baby is born. She says she is not willing to let her daughters marry at fourteen or fifteen. Her dream for her children is for them to go to school and go to university.
The educated Naomi Alaere Ofoni, from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State (also a production assistant on the film), represents the dreams the other two women have for their children. Although Naomi’s father abandoned her mother when Naomi was a small child, her mother went back to school to become a
community health worker and worked to put Naomi through school. Ironically, although school is seen as the path out of poverty, Naomi faced another obstacle once she reached university. She was harassed by lecturers who demanded sex. She refused to sleep with the course advisor who had changed her B grades to two carryovers, and he finally gave her a third class degree only after she offered him money. 10 years after graduating with a disrespected third class degree in Industrial Mathematics, she was yet to find a job. But, like her mother, who took her future into her own hands, Naomi started her own business making soap.
There is a bitter irony here. In each woman’s story, men stand in the way of advancement by women and their children. “Modern day slavery” and “imprisonment” become motifs that run throughout the documentary, from the opening montage set to Asa’s song “Jailor,” to Hannah’s expression of frustration at her life in “bondage” as a widow. The film cleverly juxtaposes
shots of men sitting around drinking—one thirty-five year old man telling of his three wives and the 17 children he hopes to have—with shots of women chopping wood, fetching water, picking periwinkles from oily mud, pounding, grinding, and frying cassava. Patriarchal male culture is behind much of the suffering of women—fathers hand over their teenage daughters to husbands, husbands with multiple wives insist on each wife bearing many children despite not being able to support them, male relatives of a dead man confiscate his widow’s property, male lecturers prey on vulnerable girls in the university. Yet, as Asa notes, “What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer.” Larger neocolonial forces imprison both men and women.
Multi-national oil corporations have so polluted the air and water that even rainwater is dirty and unusable. The fish in the creeks and rivers have died, so that the Niger Delta people, whose lives once revolved around fishing, now eat and trade imported fish. The government neglects healthcare and infrastructure for clean water.
The hope for the future, as Ogundipe-Leslie has argued in other essays, is for men and women to join hands in rebuilding their society. While patriarchal male culture is critiqued here, the film also shows male role models. Naomi’s husband, William Omajuwa Emmanuel, an engineer whom she met in university works together with her on her soap business and helps with the children. The male community worker, Inatimi Odio encourages men in the community to involve women in decision making. The film traces positive developments in postscripts, revealing that Hannah has begun to mobilize other women to protest the marriage prohibition for widows, Rebecca has convinced her husband to try birth control, and Naomi has become a principal at a school.
The documentary is beautifully shot and edited. Despite the pollution, the Niger Delta is still exquisite, and the women’s stories are compelling. Indeed, I thought the best parts of the film were the moments where the women were allowed to speak for themselves. The most obvious flaw may have been the extensive use of Inatimi Odio, a man, as the one “expert” to explain the problems facing the community. While this was somewhat balanced by Bogofanyo Inengibo’s female voiceover and a few comments from the teacher Caroline Giadom, the focus on the male expert risks reinforcing the idea of women as uneducated informants and men as the authorities who explain them. Overall, however, I think the documentary is an important and thought-provoking piece that personalizes our understanding of the Niger Delta. In the same chapter in which she identified the mountains on the backs of African women, Ogundipe-Leslie suggests policies to enable women to benefit and control their own labour, the use of media to educate, and assistance for women artists so that they can express their own stories. This film made by women about women seems an appropriate response to her suggestions, giving subaltern women a platform by which to speak to the world.
Daughters of the Niger Delta was screened and received a special mention at the Pineapple Underground Festival in China on 16 July and the Rwanda Film Festival on 25 July. It will be screened in Nigeria at the Lagos-based Eko International Film festival in November, as well as other venues yet to be arranged.
For other documentary (and documentary-esque) reviews I’ve done see:
“There Is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle” on Tarok burial customs produced by Dul Johnson and Sylvie Bringas.
“Equestrian Elegance” about the durbar and parades during the eid sallahs in Kano, produced by Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata.
Duniya Juyi Juyi, a docu-drama about the life of almajirai, scripted and acted by almajirai themselves and produced by Hannah Hoechner.