*A scene from the play
By Japhet Alakam
It was a particularly momentous occasion for Nigerian art, especially the booming film industry as the highly anticipated epic and striking adaptation of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize-winning novel, Half Of A Yellow Sun, was staged at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which is going on at the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Canada.
The event is the first ever red-carpet screening of a Nigerian film at a leading international film festival, and is a befitting debut for the , one-of-a-kind, iconic production as the audience were treated to an engaging and often gripping tale that follows two women during the dramas of Nigeria’s independence and then ensuing Nigerian-Biafran War, which ran 19567 to 1970.
Driven by powerful and moving performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Thandie Newton (The Pursuit of Happyness) and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), the film is directed and adapted in matter-of-fact style by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, and while it lapses into melodrama at times, the sheer scope of its story is absorbing and fans of the book enjoyed its vision of a tense and changing country rent asunder by tribal feuds.
The sheer scale and depth of the book makes – by its very nature – it hard to translate into a feature film, but Half Of A Yellow Sun is at its best when it comes to design, costumes and make-up to reflect the changing nature post-colonial Nigeria, and while it does feel a little bit soap opera at times, nothing can be taken away from the intensity of the drama or the strength of lead performances.
The film follows the twin storylines of sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), daughters of a well-to-do businessman but who follow very different paths. Olanna falls in love with falls in love with Odenigbo (Ejiofor), a revolutionary who fathers a child by another woman, while Kainene enters into a romance with a white British writer (Joseph Mawle), who has come to Nigeria to teach.
As civil war spreads through the country, the sisters flee to Nigeria’s southeastern region where the short-lived Republic of Biafra is formed. Each sister leads different lives – academic Olanna accepts Odenigbo’s illegitimate daughter as her own and as they flee they have to live in increasing poverty, while Kainene moves from running a major company for her father to overseeing a refugee camp – but it is their strength and fortitude in the face of adversity that the story celebrates.
Adichie’s sprawling and complex story is shrewdly adapted by Biyi Bandele, and while as a director some of the set-ups are rather straightforward the era is wonderfully captured, with special attention paid to how the apartments are designed and what clothes the two sisters wear.
Thandie Newton to a degree has the showier role as the passionate and elegant Olanna, and her vibrancy adds much to the part of a woman who accepts everything to sustain her love, while Anika Noni Rose is wonderfully sarcastic and stylish as Kainene, a driven woman who has to deal with her own bout of heartache. Add to the pot the ever-impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor; Onyeka Onwenu as his strident mother and John Boyega (who starred in British fantasy romp Attack The Block) as the servant boy who works for Olanna and Odenigbo, and you have a well acted film that sustains interest.
Directed by prolific UK-based Nigerian playwright, Biyi Bandele, and produced by Andrea Calderwood (HBO’s Generation Kill, The Last King of Scotland: winner of three BAFTAs and an Oscar), the movie received a standing ovation at the end of this it’s first-ever screening, in a spontaneous display of appreciation for the creative and cinematographic genius that it represents. In addition to the rapturous applause for the movie, Nollywood veteran and entertainer, Onyeka Onwenu, received a personalized ovation from the audience for her portrayal of Odenigbo’s mother, a key character in the movie.
Basking in the glory of a story well told and a movie that has enjoyed rave review internationally, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author of the novel of the same title, joined the cast at the movie premiere, adding to the panache and splendor of the evening.
The cast was out in full strength too – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Genevieve Nnaji, Onyeka Onwenu, John Boyega, and Wale Ojo.
They were all acknowledged and celebrated for their respective parts in telling this very strong story with such depth, reach and emotion.
The 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs from September 5 to September 15, 2013.