“… a neverland, it could not stand.”
Writer: Justin Butcher. Director: Amaka Okafor. Performer: Ben Okafor. Run time: 15.39 mins.
The scene is intensely peaceful. A man in a pink shirt, summer hat and sunglasses is smoking and sipping from a whisky glass while looking over his large, lush garden. Past his garden fence are hills and fields, green and fresh, trees and the brightest blue sky. It couldn’t be a more perfect day for relaxing in the garden. This is built upon as the man wanders through to his music studio bursting with instruments and the potential for creation and then a kitchen, warm and busy. Accompanied by his grandchild at times the man moves with a leisurely pace and seems at peace with the world.
As the camera moves a voiceover tells is the man’s story. His, is of home, family, memories and the ravages that war wreaks upon them. It couldn’t contrast more with the place in which he now finds himself. His is the story of “three dreadful years of Biafra – famine and war”. When he was a boy the Nigerian civil war began and it didn’t take long until the conflict encroached on his village. Shells, machetes flashing, bloodshed, a community torn apart and neighbours turning to deadly enemies. It sounds terrifying, immediate and personal. At appropriate moments in the narrative the camera pauses on a series of photographs: his father, young handsome man with soft eyes and then a photo of his mother on her wedding day, full of hope and beauty. There is also a family scene. With the browns and greys of old photographs it highlights the importance of family and how this story is not just his, but that of his whole family.
The family fled the ethnic cleansing that had arrived at their door, not knowing if they would ever be able to return. During their first night sheltering at a cousin’s house the father had a dream that caused his body to shake and scream. His house was covered by tarpaulin, standing amid a wasteland of slaughter and ruin. Three figures were waiting for him, one of whom had eyes that burnt like fire. This figure will come back to him and play a pivotal role not just in the father’s life but also in the life of the house. This touch of magic and symbolism moves the narrative to create something different and unexpected. It is a long three years before the family can begin to return. Our speaker first. Now seventeen he a young man who has seen too much and is now “haunted, robbed, hardened”. Over time he removes the vines and creepers that cover the house in a bid to prepare the house for his father, who is the last to return home. Upon seeing the house, the father falls to his knees and prays. The next day a visitor arrives and resurrects the fathers dream and blurs the line between the spiritual and the corporeal.
A Lost Tale of Biafra turns the horrendous into poetry, making the painful events described more alive and urgent. This house obviously has a strong hold on the imagination of our speaker and it shows how family bonds and memories can be captured by places of emotional importance. As the story comes to an end there is another image. This time a painting of the man, before moving back to the family photo, reflecting the closing of this chapter of family history. This is one of the few monologues that does not mention the pandemic. It is the right note to end the Fight Back series on. Despite the heavy nature of the story it shows how with time, and a little faith, we can return to our lives and nature will continue to grow and nurture.
Typing Ben Okafor’s name into youtube brings up many music videos but also a short video interview where he tells the story of the Biafran war breaking out when he was twelve. This also shows that the photos used in the A Lost Tale of Biafra are his own family. The horror and darkness of the story is drawn from his memory. It can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc2jnWWs9O8
A Lost Tale of Biafra is an intense, touching story of family, faith, war, home and nature told in beautifully poetic spoken and visual language.