In February 1976, there was a military coup in Nigeria that resulted in the death of the Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed. It was a time in our history where there was a lot of instability and political unrest; the soldiers felt civilians were not sufficiently equipped to rule. So, they wielded the arm of terror and fear over the country.
Coup after coup, lives were lost. Families were torn apart and homes became fragmented. People mourned the loss of their loved ones. Closer to home, my father’s older brother was slain in the ’76 coup. I grew up with stories of the fine officer and gentleman that we lost as a family. We all knew the name ‘Dimka’ – the man behind the coup.
Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka and 38 of his comrades were executed by firing squad in Lagos. So, almost 40 military families, also lost their loved ones in the aftermath of the failed coup. Perhaps it is easy to discount their story and their pain, because they did actually plot a coup and killed their Commander in Chief, and other top officers like my uncle. However, Nollywood’s reclusive director, Izu Ojukwu decided to explore the other side of this very important part of Nigeria’s history, with his film – ’76.
’76 is one of the 8 films selected by the Toronto International Film Festival‘s City to City program. With this spotlight, it became imperative to dig into the man behind the film.
Izu Ojukwu has an expansive retinue of work that precedes him, and the more I researched him, the more intrigued I was by the scant information about him. Izu started his Nollywood journey in 1993 with a film called ‘Ichabod – The Glory Has Departed From Israel‘ With the premiere of ’76 at TIFF this year, there is very little hiding space for this gold fish that has tried to hide behind his work.
Izu Ojukwu was not yet 4 years old at the time of the coup. In my chat with him, he recalls that he lived in a house owned by Dimka’s family in Jos.
“I remember in the middle of the night, I was being escorted out by my aunt, to pee, in what we call a ‘face me, I face you, house. All of a sudden we saw a shadow through the windows and my aunty dragged me back. All I could hear was Dimka Dimka Dimka. But before 6 o’clock in the morning, our house was surrounded by soldiers.” – says Ojukwu. It would later occur to him that the hushed voices he heard at that time was because Dimka, in his attempt to escape justice, had sought refuge behind their house. A few days later, Dimka was reportedly caught in Abakaliki. The memory never left him, and Ojukwu had a palpable fear of soldiers.
“My impression of the army was a terrible one. I never liked them. I’m sure, like any other average Nigerian, the moment you talk about the army, the first thing that comes to your mind is brutality.” Izu Ojukwu said.
It wasn’t until 1999 when he had a close shave with death on his way to Yankari Game reserve for a shoot did his opinion change. Soldiers came to their rescue and they took him to the barracks to recuperate. It was during this period that he began to see the human faces behind the men in uniforms.
He saw their wives and their children.
He saw photos of their friends.
He saw their fears and heard their laughter.
He saw what it was to love someone and never know whether they will come back home that night.
In 2004, Ojukwu visited the Army barracks again and learned of the work being done by the Nigerian troops in Liberia, with ECOMOG. “I went to the 103 Battalion in Enugu and spent 3 months there.” Izu Ojukwu says that the things he saw and heard while he was there showed him the humanity behind the terror and fear the public perceived of the army. Thus, birthed the idea for the film,’76.
“Each time we hear in the news 10 soldiers died. These are actually fathers, brothers and husbands. But you don’t feel it except you’re in the barracks.“
And feel it, I did, when I watched the movie.
With Ramsey Nouah playing the role of Joseph Dewa, we saw an honourable, quiet soldier who loves his country and family.
Rita Dominic played the role of Suzie, Joseph’s partner; and with every scene I found myself being sucked into a deep realm of thought. Imagine what it is like to live knowing that the father of my unborn child was away at war.
Chidi Mokeme, and the hideous moustache they planted on him, seemed to be in his element.
The costumes worked for the time the film was set in, with a few exceptions – like the make up and the nails of Suzie and Joseph’s neighbour. I’m not quite sure what was going on there.
A very pleasant part of the film, for me, Joseph Dewa’s car and its faulty radiator – reminding me of what I’d read about how Brigadier General Ogbemudia escaped death at the hand of Dimka and his cronies.
With how much work is required to shoot a film 40 years after the original events, I had to ask Izu Ojukwu about the challenges he faced in the 5 years or so this film was in production for. Izu said, “I applied for the support of the army, and that took 2 years. This journey started in 2009 and my younger brother who was the producer passed away. Then, we had a discount facility from Kodak, but after the two-year delay, they shut down the studio. Going to a bigger studio wasn’t in our budget. If Kodak was there, every other thing would have fallen into place. It took us this long because we ran out of funds. At a point, Project Act Nollywood came to our rescue and we were able to get some grants to move things forward.”
Amidst all the challenges, the film is finally out, and getting international recognition. This very vital part of our history, and the families whose hearts bled, on a global stage.
To wrap it up, I asked the director what kept him going through the creation, development and production of this film, he responded with this: “My executive producers also shared my sentiments about the film, and every time I was down, they always encouraged me. The only thing I did was, no matter the circumstance, I stayed true to the story and pulled together the integrity of the story. If it had to come out, then it must be right.“
No payments in cash, or promise of favours, have been received in exchange for the ‘Atoke at TIFF16’ stories. The views expressed in the stories reflect the writer’s personal take from the events she attended at the festival – and not the opinion of a film critic.
Photo Credit: Getty Images