Nigerian Movie Appears to Hit Nerve Over War

Written by Adam Nossiter


half-of-a-yellow-sun-the sisters

DAKAR, Senegal — A Nigerian film dealing with one of the most searing episodes in the nation’s history, its civil war, and uniting some of Nigeria’s major cultural figures, has been effectively banned there, the film’s director said Friday evening.

“Half of a Yellow Sun,” based on an award-winning novel by one of the country’s leading writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was scheduled to open in Nigeria on Friday. But because the country’s film censorship board has refused to issue the movie a certificate, “it means essentially they have banned it,” the director, Biyi Bandele, said in an interview from London.

The film, which had its premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, is already showing in Britain and is scheduled to open in the United States next month. One of its stars is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Nigerian actor who also starred in the Academy Award-winning film “12 Years a Slave.” Last month, Ms. Adichie’s most recent novel, “Americanah,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes place partly during Nigeria’s civil war, also known as the Biafran War, from 1967 to 1970, when southern provinces tried to secede. Between one million and three million people died in the conflict, many from starvation after the federal authorities blockaded the breakaway territory that called itself the Republic of Biafra.

BombsBlow_HOAYSThe war, and what preceded it, highlighted and intensified the country’s sectional and ethnic divisions. Thousands of Igbos — southerners — were massacred in the north; and then the federal forces, composed of westerners and northerners, embarked on a brutal scorched-earth campaign to suppress the Igbo uprising. The wounds from the conflict, during the country’s formative years just after independence, remain substantially unresolved.

How much so appears to underlie the refusal so far of the country’s authorities to allow Mr. Bandele’s film to be shown in Nigeria. The censorship board could not be reached for comment about the film Friday evening, but Mr. Bandele said officials seemed to be “jittery about its content.” He continued: “That it deals with the Biafran War. That it might incite people to violence.”

Even today a remnant of the old Igbo independence movement persists in the country’s south, which is largely Christian. And in the north, where Muslims are in the majority, many people attribute the Nigerian Army’s frequent large-scale killings of civilians, in its campaign against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, to southerners’ lingering fury over their treatment during the long-ago war.

Biyi +Bandele

Biyi +Bandele

On Friday, Mr. Bandele denounced what he characterized as a blatant attempt to suppress discussion about a crucial if painful episode in Nigeria’s coming-of-age. “It is seriously shocking that someone would presume to be this arbiter of what Nigerians want and don’t want to see,” he said.
Mr. Bandele suggested that the war remains largely taboo in the country’s classrooms, making his film all the more important as a discussion point. “To say the way to heal is not to talk about it is disingenuous,” he said.
The civil war is the central episode in Ms. Adichie’s ambitious book, which is widely available in Nigeria. Yet the real subject is less the war itself than its formative stages — a sweeping portrayal of Nigeria’s nouveaux riches, pan-Africanist intellectuals, colonial remnants, and an increasingly belligerent officer caste. Mr. Bandele said his film was faithful to that orientation as well.Yet the large-screen portrayal of violence, at a time when real-life violence has dominated the country’s newspapers and airwaves, appears to have touched a nerve.

Nigeria is now traversing an especially unsettled and anxious period, with frequent killings of civilians by Boko Haram — a bombing in the capital, Abuja, last week killed at least 75 people — and the unsolved kidnappings of schoolgirls in the north.

“We went out of our way to reassure the government that we were not trying to stir up trouble,” Mr. Bandele said. “The ironies in this are just so many. It is just surreal.”

Adam Nossiter

This article first appeared in the New York Times