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The good, the bad and the ugly at AFRIFF 2023

The profile of films that screened at AFRIFF 2023 is a testament to the festival's status as one of the biggest in Africa.

I Do Not Come To You By Chance was one of the star attractions at AFRIFF 2023 [IMDb]

The panel sessions and masterclasses are also useful peeks into the business of the industry and how everyone exists in the ecosystem.

Since my first time at AFRIFF in 2018, it's become my number one comfort event of the year, the one I marked on my calendar in January and anticipated for months as it happens towards the end of the year.

My social battery often can't take too much of meeting new people in public settings, but I charge it up just a little bit more for AFRIFF, to enjoy the buzz of film-loving people all in one place to share a mutual love for stories coming alive on the big screen.

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Unlike previous years when I could take a leave of absence from capitalism to sit at AFRIFF from morning till midnight, I couldn't manage that for the 12th edition this year. This meant I watched the least number of films compared to my previous years there, but it's also the best line-up I've experienced at the festival.

Orah, about a mother avenging the murder of her son, was an inspired choice to open the festival. The revenge thriller keeps its stakes simple and personal as Oyin Oladejo's titular character gets her pound of flesh on the people responsible for her grave loss. The film exists in a world that involves high-stakes corruption but never loses sight of what makes the core of the story gripping — the sweet climax of revenge, for the character and the audience.

Tosin Otudeko's entrancing drama, Over The Bridge, takes a stab at corporate corruption in Nigeria, as a private investor struggles to see his dream project to the end while maintaining his integrity. The core of the main character's crisis feels muddled and even sometimes melodramatic, but the story is coated in flair, the cinematography is spellbinding, and Ozzy Agu, in his lead role, delivers a competent performance that's dreamy and dramatically restrained.

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The Maritte Lee Go-directed Rise is one of the festival's delightful surprise revelations, about a princess who infiltrates a Boko Haram camp to save her sister who was kidnapped after the terrorists murdered the rest of her family. It's a film about Nigeria's struggle with terrorism over the past decade and its devastating effect on victims, especially women who are targeted by terrorists for nefarious means. In one sister's fight to liberate her only surviving family, the audience gets a more personal dramatic feel of what life looks like in a terrorist slave camp and cheers for the enslaved to gain freedom in a deliciously exciting end to a feel-good action drama.

A bigger surprise revelation at the festival was Taiwo Egunjobi's A Green Fever, deceptively named to mean one thing but clearly about something else which becomes more obvious as the plot progresses in military-era Nigeria. The film excels with its storytelling, set design and wonderful acting performances from the cast, especially the two leading men played by William Benson and Temi Fosudo. A Green Fever climaxes in a moment that leaves the audience with no closure, and that would be fine when well done, but, here, only made possible by a sudden irrational change in character behaviour. This isn't enough to ruin the experience as the film does well enough to engage the audience with the sharp twists and turns that complicate the fate of its characters.

Kenneth Gyang's This Is Lagos is a love letter to the spirit of what it means to live in Lagos, told in chapters that jump between the present and the past, a sequence that excites and almost flawlessly ties the plot together. Gabriel Afolayan's zestful performance as Stevo is balanced by Laura Pepple's dramatic charm playing a character trying to make her way in the world while learning valuable lessons along the way. This Is Lagos is snazzy, energetic, and surprisingly tender, especially in the moments when its characters are scheming. The story of the two main characters' intertwined lives climaxes in an ending typical of the Lagos experience — one dull moment is all it takes to be taken for a fool.

I Do Not Come To You By Chance is bolstered by the outstanding acting performances by Blossom Chukwujekwu and newcomer, Paul Nnadiekwe, who give life to the adaptation of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's award-winning novel of the same title. Personal tragedy and Nigeria's inadequate job market leave a smart young man helpless against the influence of his larger-than-life uncle who's the head of a crime ring. Kingsley's navigation of a life of crime, his uncle's evil shadow, and his mother's constant pull towards the light provide compelling family drama with personal stakes that also provoke sensibilities about Nigeria's history with fraud. Everything sings.

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My overall AFRIFF favourite I've left for last is Afamefuna, Kayode Kasum's take on the Igbo apprenticeship system and a service to economic and cultural intelligence. Afamefuna feels authentically and unapologetically Igbo while exploring universal themes of hardship, friendship, betrayal and love in its many flavours. The film's remarkable cast, led by Stan Nze, Alexx Ekubo, and Nnadiekwe, again, works magic to deliver an intimate experience full of warmth and filled with wonder.

It feels almost unfair to put Offshoot in this category, but while it's smart, emotional and occasionally fun, it also always feels like it's missing one crucial element to elevate it.

Mojisola, Gyang's second feature at AFRIFF, dives into the mystical realm, but in a manner that tends to feel more academic than dramatic, and the acting from some of the more visible characters leaves a lot to be desired.

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I couldn't get past the opening 15 minutes of A Song from the Dark because it overwhelms with discordance and struggles to immediately sell the story.

The experience of watching Black Harvest stands out for how joylessly it treats its characters and the audience. Determined to spotlight the evil of organ trafficking in Nigeria, the film opens with a strong set-up until it starts collapsing in on itself once it's time to kick into another gear. Black Harvest plods clumsily from plot thread to plot thread, trying unsuccessfully to weave a narrative that's coherent and entertaining; and while it may be entertaining in spurts, coherence did not stay in the room with the plot.

The experience was so tortuous that the film's scriptwriter, producer and director, James Amuta, repeatedly apologised to the audience for "enduring" the film and notably remarked that, "The film was writing itself" — it showed.

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AFRIFF is important to me as it is to hundreds of others who flock to it every year, and it's natural — and desirable — that the demand to attend the festival continues to grow, as the profile of films that screen there become bigger.

This puts the responsibility on organisers to create an efficient system that caters to the situation and keeps frustrations to a minimum. On numerous screening days, AFRIFF attendees were unable to gain access to screening halls for the high-profile night films, mostly due to a lack of communication about the screenings being strictly by invitation.

Almost every night, dozens of attendees were turned back at the door and couldn't watch films they were led to believe were open for public viewing. It's why I missed the screening of Bolanle Austen-Peters' Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti biopic and came really close to missing the screening of I Do Not Come To You By Chance, even though I had a media pass that was supposed to be all access.

AFRIFF is in its 12th year and enjoys the status of being one of the biggest film festivals in Africa, and logistical issues which sometimes bordered on safety hazards this year shouldn't become a feature of the festival.

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The AFRIFF team did respond in parts to some of the challenges and even moved the screening of Babatunde Apalowo's All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White to a different day to manage public demand and create more room. But by the time next year's AFRIFF rolls around, attendees will expect a clearer and more effective handle on some of this year's problems.

Until next year.

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