Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun (2014): A movie not made for Americans

Half of a Yellow Sun (2014)
dir: Biyi Bandele

SIFF 2014: Film 1

For those of us who are under a certain age, the Nigerian civil war is almost culturally invisible. For me, personally, I only knew about one thing in my life that was even connected to the civil war, and I didn’t even know that significance: Jello Biafra. Biafra is a very short-lived state that was formed in Nigeria, which had been arbitrarily formed by the UK around a bunch of completely unrelated tribes.

You won’t learn much of that in this movie.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a soap opera romance about narcissistic people who push the sexual revolution, set against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. The novel, I am to understand, is told in a fractured non-linear timeline where there are many climaxes that happen at once, and secrets are revealed in various orders. The film is a completely linear film which linearly tells a shallow-ass story, while negating everything interesting or important.

The central characters of Half of a Yellow Sun are two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who have just returned to Nigeria from the UK where they received their education. They are rich as their parents seem to have ownerships of companies, or something. It’s kept kind of vague. Anyways, Kainene falls in love with Robert, a currently married white man, and pursues a career as a businesswoman. She all but falls out of the movie, actually.

The actual center of Half of a Yellow Sun is Olanna, who shacks up with a revolutionary professor, Odenigbo, who came from the tribal villages. Odenigbo’s mother doesn’t approve of Olanna, and gets him drunk to sleep with his betrothed. And, then Olanna finds out and sleeps around and it’s all one big soapy mess for the first half of the film, where we watch people travel around Nigeria to deal with their family and occasionally bullshit about politics that are foreign to Americans, but will become important in the second half of the movie.

The second half of the movie is marked by a bunch of military people coming into an airport and slaughtering anybody they deem is Igbo. Igbo, which isn’t explained in the film, are a tribal people who were persecuted by various militant groups, for some reason. That reason isn’t clear in the film, so when the military comes around, it’s a huge surprise. And the second half is the family running from the militant groups intent on killing everybody and taking over the country in an effort to reunite Biafra, which had been formed out of distress, with the rest of Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not made for Americans. The novel is Nigerian. The movie is Nigerian. It is made for Nigerians. As an American, this movie is extremely rough unless you’re intimately familiar with the politics of Nigeria, and the history of the Nigerian Civil War. Bandele doesn’t care if you don’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t hold your hand. For example, the families move around Nigeria and reference cities in Nigeria, but only give a map of Nigeria during the first travel. But, then they travel and are given generic mapless points for the cities and general north/south/east/west arrows, but are otherwise not put on the map. Nigeria isn’t a large country smaller than Alaska but larger than Texas. So, when they put cities, if you’re a Nigerian, you probably know where they are in the country, but if you’re American, you’re lost.

To dismiss a film that is made for Nigerians because I didn’t know what the fuck is going on feels extremely nationalistic. If you’re going in to Half of a Yellow Sun to learn about Nigeria and the Nigerian Civil War, you’re going to be disappointed at best. If you just like historical drama and are familiar with the political history of Nigeria, you may enjoy this. Maybe. Perhaps there are political allegories or metaphors that I am missing because I don’t know everything. Perhaps the extremely soapy drama is some sort of deeper story that directly relates to Nigeria. I don’t know.

But, the soap opera seemed shallow and trite, the characters seemed boring, and, other than Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and John Boyega, the acting seemed passable at best. I was lost in the politics of the Civil War and not sure why I should be caring about these annoying people, one of whom kept being called a revolutionary. It’s because of my America-centric knowledge that I might not be appreciative of the film, but it wasn’t made for me. I feel inadequate to judge it. But, I didn’t like it.

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