Written by: Jonathan Romney (Screen Daily)
Nigerian political history is filtered through domestic melodrama in ’76, an ambitious hybrid narrative from director Izu Ojukwu. The background to the drama is the attempted coup of 1976 and the assassination of head of state Murtala Mohammed, but the film is determinedly focused on the lives of an officer and his wife who are reluctantly caught up in events.
The film somewhat loses momentum as it digs into the aftermath of events
The film’s fortunes should ride confidently on the Nollywood profile of stars Ramsey Nouah and Rita Dominic, and on the prestige of veteran director Ojukwu, whose work includes 2008 sports dramaWhite Waters and Sitanda (2007), a multiple African Movie Academy award-winner. While festival slots will be forthcoming – it has played in Toronto and London – the film’s often rough finish, plus a cluttered narrative not always accessible to non-initiates, won’t yield significant crossover exposure. But ‘76 should thrive in established African distribution channels.
Set six years after the Nigerian civil war, the film takes place mainly on an army barracks, where Joseph Dewa (a solid, gravitas-exuding Nouah) is serving as a captain. Dewa is from Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt, while his wife Suzy (Dominic) is from the south east, their ethnic difference causing a certain strain between them – largely because of the hostility of her father and brother. There are also tensions with a neighboring officer and his haughty wife (Memry Savanhu). Dewa finds himself tangling with the anti-Communist officers who are planning the assassination, with his old comrade-in-arms Comos (Chidi Mokeme) intent on getting him involved; instead, Dewa is set on whistleblowing, placing himself and the pregnant Suzy in jeopardy.
The film’s first hour moves between building up suspense as the coup plans take shape, showing the stresses in the couple’s home life, and sketching in the atmosphere of mid-70s Nigeria. It does the latter a little broadly at times, through use of contemporary soul and African music (the best-known artist used being Fela Kuti) and through often tongue-in-cheek costume design, notably the outrageous flared trousers sported by Suzy’s brother.
As for the thriller strand, its effectiveness is somewhat undercut by Ojukwu’s choice to use overlapping dialogue that’s often hard to follow, especially in long sequences of exposition (these, like most of the film’s dialogue, are in English, although Suzy and her relatives converse in Ibo).
After the assassination happens, and the coup itself fails, the film somewhat loses momentum as it digs into the aftermath of events, and the investigation by a sly, ruthless officer who grills the imprisoned Dewa, now very much implicated against his will. A wild card is the arrival of a mystery woman (Fiberisima) who initially seems to be Suzy’s rival but proves a welcome ally, while even troublesome neighbor Eunice shows a softer, and indeed, tragic side – some nice shading here from Savanhu, an effective scene-stealer throughout especially when in brassy comic mode. Daniel K. Daniel, as Dewa’s conflicted adjutant, also shows quietly compelling subtlety amid a cast that can sometimes be stiffly overdemonstrative.
Buoyed by archive footage in black and white and colour, ’76 economically evokes its period and key events, but international audiences looking for hard historical enlightenment may feel frustrated by the film’s fundamental commitment to the domestic sphere, with addition touches of thriller tension. DoP Yinka Edward lays on the atmospherics effectively, and gives the sometimes claustrophobic camp setting a vivid concreteness.