The Sydney Film Festival opened last night with Nick Cave's 20,000 Days on Earth at the State Theatre. I decided to start my festival with a more traditional look at creativity and the life of times of a well known musician and took in the music documentary, Finding Fela, about Fela Kuti the Nigerian superstar and pioneer of the Afrobeat sound.
As I mentioned before this documentary is structured in a traditional way, highlighting elements of Fela's life in a chronological manner, intercut with interviews of friends and family and the behind the scenes process of the creation of Fela! the Broadway musical about his life. It is about 30 minutes too long and runs out of steam before you get to the latter part of Fela's life and the impact of his imprisonment (due to his political opposition to the Nigerian government), the death of his politically active mother and his belief in local tribal traditions and religion. The kernel of the movie is stated by one of the interviewees, who says that Fela had the voice and the message that came out of a combination of social and political circumstances. Without that context the music would not have been. This is explored like a bit of a history lesson through the hook of the behind the scenes elements of the Fela! musical. I understand why this was used as a hook as it is the way for something that is 'the other' can be explained and interpreted by 'the familiar', but it whitewashes the documentary for me as I am more interested in the contradictory and complex relationship between talent, music, politics and ideology that gives rise to someone like Fela Kuti. There is so much to explore about West African music, society, the impact of colonialism, the wars, the dictatorships, the poverty, the beauty, the people, the issues of a post colonial country in Africa, the rise of AIDS (which Fela Kuti died of in 1997), the patriarchy of Nigerian society. I feel as if it is a bit of an opportunity missed.
It is as if Bill T. Jones, the Director of Fela! the musical became the voice of the filmmakers when he kept referring to Fela Kuti as mad when he could not understand him. As if he accepted a certain amount of what Fela did and stood for and was, and the other aspects he could not accept was put in the madness box and put aside. Was that 'madness' too much 'the other'? Too far away from what a Western audience could understand? Too African? Do we always have to have western musicians like Questlove endorsing the music instead of hearing from other West African musicians about the impact of Afrobeat in their neighbouring countries or even in Nigeria itself?
Ultimately, the documentary does give you a starting point for the exploration of Fela Kuti's music, so I recommend just listening to his music. It is startling and rich, and it may just give you an insight into a time and place in Nigerian culture.