“NIGERIA is worth dying for”. This is the message of the women featured in Joanna Lipper’s recent award-winning documentary “The Supreme Price”. Through them she traces the history of the pro-democracy movement and remembers those who have already paid dearly for the struggle. Ms Lipper, a film maker, photographer, writer and Harvard lecturer, centres the film on Hasfat Abiola (pictured), an activist who knows about sacrifice. Not only has she lost both her mother and father to the political struggle, but she also chooses to leave her husband, children and life in Belgium to continue her parents' work.
Ms Abiola's father was Nigeria's only democratically elected president, Moshood Abiola, who was in power for a month in 1993 before being imprisoned during the military coup that put General Abacha at the country's helm. Her mother, the second wife of Moshood's four, took up the mantle when her husband was incarcerated. In an attempt to reduce the army’s revenue she campaigned for embargoes against her homeland and organised workers' demonstrations against oil companies. In 1996 she was assassinated. When it came time for Moshood to be released, he died in jail under suspicious circumstances.
The tragedy is made more poignant by watching historical events unfold in the grainy reality of old film. Ms Lipper has used previously unseen archive footage to great effect with the story moving effortlessly between past and present, talking heads and footage from the campaign trail, personal moments and public opinions. There are moments of terrible sadness, such as a scene in which Ms Abiola recalls a conversation with her mother shortly before her death. But Ms Lipper just as deftly includes moments of surreal comic horror: there is footage of a military general denying the 1993 coup on Newsnight while grinning at Jeremy Paxman with the eerie smile of a ventriloquist's dummy. Later, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, shares, deadpan, some of the wilder rumours surrounding General Abacha's death—”the story that is told on the street is that he died from an overdose of viagra while cavorting with three Indian prostitutes.”
The themes are heavy: murder and injustice, in a country ravaged by oil money and military rule. It hardly sounds like a recipe for an uplifting film, but Ms Lipper has been careful to ensure that the story is more about going forward than dwelling on the tragedy of the past and Ms Abiola makes a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. As her sister says in the film, “My way of dealing with things is to cry, Hasfat's is to make sure that my mother’s death wasn’t in vain.”
Hasfat goes on to start Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) to help further women in the democratization process. She believes it was the courage of Nigeria’s women that instigated social change in the first place, for it was they who “would shut the markets and would fight in the streets; they would strip themselves naked to protest the military's continued dictatorship”, and she believes it is Nigeria’s women who will pave the way to a better future.
Ms Lipper could not have known that the kidnappings of hundreds of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram, a group whose name means “no Western education”, would place the country and many of the film’s issues in the global spotlight a month before its premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival earlier this year. She had just felt it was, “a vibrant and exciting time to make a film about Nigerian women in the public sphere”. It is a shame that Lipper’s film could not address the kidnappings directly—the fact of them casts a shadow over the broadly positive message of progression and hope that the film contains. However, it is surely a good thing that a film like this now exists, touching on the issues the kidnappings brought to life and showing how important women are to a country like Nigeria and why it is in everyone’s interest to listen to them.
“The Supreme Price” had its European Premiere at Raindance Film Festival and will be shown at Film Africa on November 6th. www.thesupremeprice.com