Playing tonight at 8:30 PM and tomorrow at 2:00 PM in the Walter Reade Theater as part of the annual Lincoln Center/MOMA New Directors/New Films festival, “Nakom” is like no other African film I have ever seen. With a fidelity to the reality of village life among the Kusaal-speaking residents of Nakom in northern Ghana, it reveals both the desperation of subsistence farmers as well as the pleasures they eke out of a life utterly unlike that described in a Thomas Friedman column.
The film begins with Iddrisu, a medical student in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, getting an urgent cellphone call from a relative in Nakom. As the first indication of the hardships the villagers have to endure, she tells him to call her back immediately on his own phone because she lacks the units to complete the call. The news is that his father has died in a motorcycle accident and the extended family needs him to come back to Nakom to take part in the burial ceremony and to sort out their perilous financial situation.
Once he arrives in Nakom, a tiny collection of huts sans electricity, running water and the other amenities enjoyed by help desk employees in Accra that Thomas Friedman eulogizes, he learns that they have to pay back the dead man’s brother for his bull that he sold on their behalf to cover their debts. While a decent man to his two wives (one is always referred to as “the junior wife”) and their children, he was not without his vices including a certain tendency to spend money recklessly and a weakness for pito, a home-grown liquor based on the millet that is the staple the villagers depend on for most of their nutritional needs. Despite being Muslims, they have little in common with the fanatics in northern Nigeria. Indeed, Islam seems to be a patina covering a way of life that differs little from that lived hundreds of years earlier in the Ghanian countryside.
Intent on continuing his studies while he takes a semester off to look after family affairs, Iddrisu studies by lantern at night while listening to a battery-powered radio. Water is hauled from a nearby river in plastic containers and food is cooked over wood-burning stoves. It is not hard to understand why Iddrisu is anxious to return to Kumasi, where he can live a normal life.
Unlike most feature films, “Nakom” does not rely on the customary plot involving a love affair, a quest for revenge or coming of age tale, etc. The drama is mostly about the protagonists—Iddrisu’s family—trying to stay one step ahead of an uncompromising Mother Nature and an even more uncompromising marketplace. In order to pay back the uncle, they need to have a bumper crop and that means being very careful to time the planting of seeds to coincide with the rainy season. Starting too early means that the crops will rot and starting too late means that they will not benefit fully from the rainfall. Iddrisu faces these tasks head-on and with little patience for his siblings who seem to have inherited his father’s character flaws. Given his extraordinary leadership qualities, it is easy to understand why the village chief implores him to stay. He tells him that he represents Nakom’s past as well as its future.
The entire cast is made up of non-actors, mostly the dwellers of Nakom who are great at being themselves. The film stars Jacob Ayanaba as Iddrisu, who is a bit more experienced than the other members in the cast, having acted in a couple of high school plays. It is ably directed by two women–Kelly Norris and TW Pittman—using a screenplay by Isaac Adakudugu, a filmmaker, scholar and Nakomite. Pittman brings some familiarity to the daily life of people in Nakom, having lived there two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. The two women co-directed another film titled “Sombras de Azul” that was filmed in Cuba and having the distinction of being the one of the first USA-Cuba coproductions since the embargo was declared in 1960. You can watch it for $2.99 at https://www.seedandspark.com/cinema/sombras-de-azul-shades-blue.
Undoubtedly native son Adakudugu and honorary Nakomite TW Pittman had an extraordinary gift for investing the film with the linguistic authenticity that turns the folkloric formulations into memorable dialog such as this exchange between Iddrisu and the village chief as they meet on the road riding a bicycle and motorcycle respectively:
Iddrisu: It hurts to look at motorcycles now.
Chief: I understand. (pause) Leave it with God. Sometimes he calls his children back early.
Iddrisu: He drank too much and hit a shea nut tree. God did not call but he answered.
(Full schedule information on the New Directors/New Films festival that begins today is here: http://www.newdirectors.org/. Being overbooked by other writing commitments, I was not able to see any press screening except “Nakom”. Based on this selection, my advice is to look at the schedule since this festival is a welcome alternative to Cineplex slop.)