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'Festival of Fire' wants you to question barbaric culture, not preserve it

The central preoccupation of Festival of Fire is the blind obedience of outdated made-up rules.

The driving force of Festival of Fire is to hold a mirror up

It's one of the most popular bite-sized lazy retelling of history lacking sufficient nuance that Nigerians are quite used to.

Did Slessor single-handedly stop the killing of twins during a pre-amalgamation era Nigeria at her Wonder Woman best? No. But did the Christian missionary reportedly save more than a few abandoned twin children from near-certain death? Yes.

If you're left wondering from whom Mary Slessor saved these twin children and why they needed saving at all, 2002's Festival of Fire, directed by Chico Ejiro, takes a stab at some answers.

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The year is 1885 in Amanni village — a group of men harass a woman clutching her newborn baby, and accuse her of hiding the fact she had just given birth to twin children. Two children born at the same time is an abomination in this village and the men snatch the baby from her to dump in the evil forest — which, by Nollywood standards, is usually just some bush clearing with no humans for miles.

It's immediately clear that Amanni is a community held hostage by customs defined long before any of the violent men who uphold them were born. No one can explain why twin children are evil except to repeat the point over and over again but the conviction is great enough for neighbours to snitch on neighbours, and even a father reports his newborn kids and accuses his wife of being possessed for bringing them to the world. As long as Amadioha has commanded that it's taboo for twin children to exist in this village, so shall it be.

The central preoccupation of Festival of Fire is the blind obedience of antiquated made-up rules that evolve to become a community's customs and traditions, guarded jealously by future generations with a misplaced sense of what's most important. Should customs be protected and kept in practice even when the cruelty they fuel becomes clearer in evolved versions of society, or should they be upheld without rationality or context?

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Twin children, abandoned or killed in cold blood, are not the only victims of Amanni's cruel culture — able-bodied men are killed to serve a dead king in the afterlife and women are casually accused of being witches (however that is determined is anyone's guess) and stoned to death.

It is during a particular stoning event that some missionary women from Onitsha arrive the village. Their spirited leader, a white woman, naturally attempts some white saviour stunt in the name of Jesus Christ and is instantly mobbed to death on the orders of Prince Amaechi, played by Kanayo O Kanayo at his cold-blooded best.

The missionary's death means the leadership of the group falls on Regina Askia's Sister Mary — you suspect the character's name is not an accident — who starts protecting the endangered twin children in Amanni.

This sets her on an ideological warpath against the community's Ezenmuo (Saint Obi), the custodian of Amanni's traditions who's hellbent on protecting Amadioha's supremacy over the foreign deity Sister Mary is selling to his people.

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Far removed from the overtly didactic nature typical of Nollywood films of its era, Festival of Fire isn't much interested in being sanctimonious. Sure, it positions the Christian missionaries as bringing light into a community where darkness has reigned for generations but Ejiro isn't too invested in the victory of good over evil. The film ends with barbaric culture still in the ascendancy and twin children remain as endangered as ever in Amanni.

What Ejiro invests in instead is Ezenmuo's journey from being a mindless custodian of customs to a human being forced by circumstances to look deeper and, for the first time, ask the important questions of why they exist in the ways they do. The irony — and plot twist — of Ezenmuo being Amanni's official killer of twins is that he's one half of a twin set himself, with none other than Sister Mary the twin sister from whom he was separated at birth by parents who couldn't watch their children be killed.

Ezenmuo's turning point doesn't arrive as a result of any independent soul-searching, but of how the situation personally affects him. Regardless of how he arrives at his Damascus moment, he, on behalf of the audience, is forced to question the rationality of upholding a tradition that is cruel for no clear reason. Why preserve a culture just for the sake of it, and not for how good it is for an evolving community?

The driving force of Festival of Fire is to hold a mirror up to help Ezenmuo reach the point of asking the question, "Why?" But its application stretches to just about everything considered customs and traditions for its audience in the real world.

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Festival of Fire serves as a note of warning to its Nigerian audience to pay attention to how outdated and barbaric culture can trample on human rights in the modern world — people evolve, and cultures should, too. Decades after its release, it's impossible to say the message was received.

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