For the uninitiated, 76 is the perfect introduction to Nollywood cinema – the recognised sobriquet of the Nigerian film industry; known predominately within critical circles for making pictures that are hurriedly produced, and slapdash in appearance. By contrast, director Izu Ojukwu has suffered a lengthy gestation period in bringing his latest piece to the big screen, having shot back in 2012 and been stuck in post-production ever since.
In a marked departure from many of the other productions that Nigeria has produced of late, Ojukwu takes his inspiration from a dark chapter in his country’s recent history. Set six years after the climax of the Biafran War, it concerns the events surrounding the unsuccessful ‘Dimka’ coup of 76, which led to the assassination of the then popular military ruler General Murtala Mohammed.
From the facts, screenwriter Emmanuel Okomanyi spins a work of fiction, revolving the dramatic focus around Joseph Dewa (Ramsey Nouah) – a respected army captain, who is coerced into participating in the botched coup, and subsequently finds himself faced with a possible death sentence – and his expectant wife Suzy (Rita Dominic), whose world begins to fall apart when news of her husband’s possible involvement hits the headlines.Shot on 35mm, and intercut with BBC Archive footage, 76 holds a rich texture and visual authenticity that’s reminiscent of the approach Pablo Larraín took when he made No, which itself used ¾ inch Sony U-matic magnetic tapes to capture the unique effect of 80s TV newsreel. And like that film, here the effect is one of virtuosic cinematic verisimilitude.
Ojukwu directs throughout with a dignified determination to push past the constraining boundaries of the budget. The irresistibly funky appearance – big hair and trendy Afrocentric threads – and zesty soundtrack of African music and American soul classics injecting the atmosphere with a dynamic energy that gives the drama a delectable, spicy tang.
Nollywood’s innately negligent creative identity does still present some drawbacks. While Nouah and Dominic both give authoritative performances – Dominic, in particular, displaying a commanding unease as Suzy’s situation grows more anxious – many of the supporting actors play it bigger and louder than some of the costumes; testing our patience, as the pacing does similarly during the sluggish first hour.
Worse still is the horrendously chaotic sound mix, which regularly appears to be ever so slightly out of synch with what we’re seeing on screen. But though it may fall foul of such tangled technical eccentricities, Ojukwu’s execution still manages to hold a balance between being educational and entertaining that’s worthy of recognition.