This week, I finally made it to the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival now in its 8th year. The festival opened to a full house at Queen’s Hall and featured the Caribbean premiere of Half of a Yellow Sun, directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Biyi Bandele. It is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Andrea Calderwood, the producer of Half of a Yellow Sun, attended the opening night as a special guest. She has won the British Academy of Film and Television Aware (BAFTA) for her work on The Last King of Scotland, starring Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy. “[The Biafran War] is a story that changed the history of Nigeria,” she told the audience. “So this seemed like a great opportunity to make an accessible, exciting, moving film that would tell everyone what happened.”
Thandie Newton stars as Olanna and Anika Noni Rose as Kainene, educated and wealthy twin sisters of an influential Nigerian family. The film traces the path of their lives after they go their separate ways in a newly independent Nigeria during the 1960’s. The film had its world premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival and this Caribbean premiere marked the second time that it has ever been shown to audiences.
The director opens the film with the pomp and circumstance we in the Caribbean have come to identify as a symbol of our colonial legacy. The Nigerians have come out in full force to pay tribute to a young Queen Elizabeth II. We see the sisters discuss their future plans over a lavish meal with their wealthy parents and friends surrounded by a level of opulence which is a stark contrast to the many images we usually see of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
The nation welcomes independence and the two young women move in opposite directions. Olanna (Newton) heads North to teach and to be with her professor boyfriend played powerfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who throughout the film you vacillate between loving, hating and pitying. Kainene goes South to run her father’s business and is promptly pursued by Richard (Joseph Mawle), a British expat who is in Nigeria to study art.
Sex is a big part of this story and it was a bit surprising to see both women engage in premarital sex without inhibitions. The only sense we get that this behavior was not totally acceptable was the arrival of Odenigbo’s mother to live with them. She declares that Thandie’s character is a witch out to trap her son and promptly dismisses her. However, her dislike seems more to do with Olanna being educated and not because of their sex life. Even though Odenigbo wants to marry Olanna, he doesn’t hesitate to bed the young girl assisting his mother. When she gets pregnant he is quick to say the mother and the girl forced the matter and you can’t help but laugh at his pitiful efforts to explain away his predatory actions.
Olanna does another familiar thing to some black women, she takes in this child after she is rejected by the mother and raises her as her own. Watching Baby go from a baby to a growing girl of about seven or eight we see time passes as the sisters win and lose and end up living together at the refugee camp that Kainene is now running.
The director uses maps and lines to transition between scenes and the journeys, which crisscross the country in the same way that violence does as Nigeria struggles with being independent and taking on its own leadership.
The killing of Igbo people by members of another tribe the Hausa brought a stark reminder that we did not end up in the Caribbean simply by white men stealing us from Africa but because our own people colluded and sold their brothers and sisters from other tribes into slavery.
The violence comes when you least expect it although you know they are living in tumultuous times. Odenigbo and Olanna’s wedding day is marred by the multiple explosion of bombs in their front yard and dear friends are lost. Travelers at the airport are gunned down unexpectedly and you realize no one is safe. The wealthy, including the sisters’ parents, flee to neighboring countries with their diamonds while they choose to stay behind and try to keep their lives together despite the constant losses.
The film ends with a resolution to the Biafran war and the nation returning to Nigeria rule. However, we don’t have that same resolve for the women as Kainene has left to find food but has not returned.
Olanna and her husband head North to rebuild their lives while Richard who has married Kainene heads further South to try and find his wife. He is unsuccessful.
Half of a Yellow Sun is an intense story which brings us the beauty and trauma of life and reminder that we must continue to live even when we don’t have all the answers and not every challenge is resolved the way we would like.
The Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival runs until October 1, 2013. Check out the schedule and venues here…