For Maria Ebun Pataki (Review) (Film Africa 2020)

Review based on BFI Screening from Film Africa 2020 Festival

There is an urgency and clarity of purpose to Damilola Orimogunje’s film that makes it defy conventional criticism. This is, formally, a deeply flawed film: it has technical issues with sound; the acting is often substandard; it too often looks like filmed theatre and the dialogue is, more often than not, unconvincing. All of this makes it a difficult recommendation, but all of this falls away when considering what the film is actually doing, who it is speaking to and where it is speaking from.

This heartfelt Nigerian drama is a fantastic reminder that there are people all over the world making films about vital, and difficult, topics out of a need to create, and a need to communicate. This is a very frank film about postpartum depression and anxiety, and the wide reaching consequences of traumatic births. These things are so rarely talked about, and almost never shown as blatantly as in this film, that it is so hard not to celebrate the sheer existence of this film. Though it is a rough delivery, this all comes down to the ultra-low budget, and extremely independent, nature of this film. This is not conventional filmmaking but it feels like a direct artistic communication, a direct call to an audience that is received incredibly clearly.

There are real successes here, the film shows so many of the myriad consequences surrounding its key themes – and does so without shying away from anything. It shows how others react to, undermine and further damage sufferers of postpartum depression, giving a broad portrait of a traditional and rigid societal approach in need of changing. The conversations had by the characters, notably between the mother and her husband, and the mother and her mother-in-law do not ring true as actual conversations, but they do ring true in regard to bringing up real issues and attitudes. This film does not present its ideas well through cinema, in a conventional sense, but it is still crystal clear about what it is trying to do. Also, while the performances are never outstanding, the central performance from Meg Otanwa as Derin is incredibly committed. She is not always able to present everything that needs to be presented through her performance, but neither is the script and this feels more down to the realities of low budged, independent Nigerian filmmaking than anything else. There are powerful moments of silence from Otanwa, as she stares off screen that communicate profound loss, and there are passionate speeches that bring real force the the issues at hand. The first half of the film has Derin as almost completely silent, making her break form silence in the back half viscerally powerful even if it is overly theatrical.

To critique this film seems somewhat unfair. It is a film made with a singular purpose – to put a clear spotlight on a topic that is ignored and that needs to be presented – and it does this exactly. It is a fascinating part of a burgeoning New Wave of Nigerian cinema and proves, once again, that art does not have to obey convention or expectation to be powerful and to feel necessary.

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