A Critique of Akwaeke Emezi’s Works

Opinion

Entire movie industries have been built around the narrative structure applicable to all forms of creative expression. It usually entails the setting of a premise which the audience must accept in order to proceed. A central character or more is introduced, motivations are given some tension and some form of resolution for clarity for comfort…

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Entire movie industries have been built around the narrative structure applicable to all forms of creative expression. It usually entails the setting of a premise which the audience must accept in order to proceed. A central character or more is introduced, motivations are given some tension and some form of resolution for clarity for comfort occurs. This is where the happy ending notion is derived from. A romantic comedy genre of whose formula has been crafted to the point in which we find ourselves questioning the end of one of those films if some kind of acceptance is not reached be it through joy or characters confirming their love for one another. With Nollywood, an apt example of a resolution lies in the speculative nature of many of its films where a central character who has been tested through the narrative finds relief or has their enemies punished.

However within narrative structure other forms emerge. The general term being nonlinear. A famous example is Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Nonlinear structures disregard the narrative rules of chronology. Often the goal of nonlinear structure are to mirror a story’s motivations, to provide clarity or to lend some sense into things often regarded as nonsensical. If applied well, nonlinear structures can have a powerful effect on the order in which we process ideas/images. A recent example is the movie Arrival.

Based on the understanding on this premise, I will be critiquing the works of Akwaeke Emezi. She has described herself as a writer and filmmaker residing in liminal spaces. Liminal spaces, from a psychological point loosely means the in between, the transitional period between ditching the old and familiar and finding your way to an undiscovered new. This I am assuming comes from her history of migration having lived in more than a few places in her time.

I have selected the following films for critique: Blesi, Ududeagu, Hey Celestial and Break Fruit.

Akawaeke is concerned with solitude. Even in her films, the spaces are never utilized to capacity, you never find more than two people in conversation, and they always keep their distance. There is a silent respect for personal space.  She also mostly uses bodies in proxy instead of representing herself

Noticing this, it could possibly be to her advantage that her film themes and the characters that embody them  are filled with so much internal inconsistencies. In Hey Celestial, her anthem to self-sustenance in the face of a society that discourages otherness, her wanton goddess character, the rebel woman is electric with her freedom in isolation. Her hair swings, her hips move. All of this should technically work given the film’s supporting texts which sometimes read like articulate streams of consciousness. However this is where the gaps begin to reveal themselves.

It is said that every work of art made requires context. With experimental film it is harder because context must be given but not run the risk of overwhelming the actual film and depriving the audience of any instinctive reactions to fuel the context provided by the filmmaker.

For example in her shortest to date Blesi, also the simplest thematically. The story told through a camera panning a young Black Desi girl dressed in a Sari and drawing Henna on herself, presents itself with no pretensions. The voiceover gives all of the clarity. On my first viewing I skipped over the accompanying text. On my second I read the text after. On my third I read it before. None which did anything to remove from the films message or quality nor did additional reading give me any deeper insights. Save for reinforcing ideas I had already developed in my first viewing. This is how work should be done.

Sadly, the rest of her films do not match the simple magic of Blesi. While they carry some merits, the devolve into unclear explorations of Igbo ethnicity and ideas explored at beginner level understanding with bloated texts that harm more than help the videos. This visibly talented writer falls largely flat when exploring these transcendent themes visa video. In Ududeagu, possibly her most popular and award winning short, taking on the folk Igbo tale of the spider, the simplicity of her monochromatic choices do very little to lend the presentation any weight. As a non-Igbo, what am I taking out of the spiders tale? What are its teachings?  As an Igbo familiar with the tale, what do the images buttress? Even at its more instinctive basic level, Ududeagu is at its best a series of “deep” looking images with heavy voiceover.

It is important for any works of art to come with context even those created with the most-simple motivations to self-express. Accompanying texts provide that basis, but when they come as structure guides they eliminate the critical space for one’s mind to digest and wander past what is so plainly in front of you. It decreases the imaginative capacity of a viewer which is one of the more enduring and refreshing qualities of creative work. In painting, this was one of the founding motives of the abstract art movement. Till today, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who is a master of Rothko or Pollock quite like Rothko and Pollock himself, yet the conversations around the pieces never end. In Akwaeke’s cases the instructionals blur rather than provide clarity and ultimately they do not deepen. In a hypothetical situation if many of these films, Hey Celestial particularly was presented as simply self portrait of wanton women, the effect would be threefold and more profound.

In her most recent release Breakfruit, also the least obtuse following Blesi, a girl and man who live in a Brookyln with air so bad people have to wear gas masks, congregate in kitchen and engage in chitchat the idea of which is to give exposition before the big twist at the end. Break Fruit fulfils narrative structure but does nothing else of significance. Even the shock twist at the end is simply there for the sake it of it. We are not told of the effects of what it will lead to, nor do the characters even hint at it through body language or through the over seven minutes of expository dialogue that have been building up to.

But what are her films ultimately saying. There is merit to some misunderstanding granted that she has given us isolation and dislocation as triggers but to what effect? When a movie’s logic is only an affect as to philosophizing and the product amounts to nothing less than grave montage over montage the power of imagery is lessened to nothing beyond temporary affectation.

However it is important to realise that each form of expression is tailored with its limitations and opportunities for flexibility. In this vein I chose Akwaeke as an introduction because she identifies as a writer and filmmaker, two distinctive creative expressions requiring different skills. This critique is of her films, but ultimately as so much of her writing personal slips into her films, I will end with a writing reference. In writing a cardinal rule is to show and not tell. With Akwaeke Emziei’s films she has fallen prey to her own tools, doing a better job of writing her visual stories than actually presenting them as films.

Responses

  1. Twisted
    Sadly, I have no idea who emezi is so I can’t give any meaningful contribution, But I have to commend the way you wrote your critique.
    It flows perfectly, making me understand something I obviously know nothing about. If anything, I want to see blesi just because you say so. That’s how good this write up is.
    Well done.

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