Over the weekend, 93 Days began showing in cinemas across Nigeria after a unique edge-of-the-seat level of anticipation ever since it took the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) by storm early this month. Audiences in Nigeria and the rest of the world remain in awe of the interpretive efforts of the film’s director Steve Gukas, co-producers Bolanle Austen-Peters, Pemon Rami, and Dotun Olakunrin, and members of the cast which include Bimbo Akintola, Danny Glover, Keppy Ekpenyong, Somkele Idalama, Tim Reid, Alastair McKenzie, amongst many others as they retold the story about the time Ebola nearly incapacitated Nigeria.
For those acquainted with the movie and entertainment industry, 93 Days attests to the fact that Nollywood is on its way to rightfully claim second place in the global film market through the improvement of the quality of its output. Also, if you’re one of those for whom the opinions of critics are ‘yea and amen’, the movie’s 8.3/10 rating on IMDb tells you all you need to know about the reception it has received thus far.
At the press conference held just before the premiere of the movie at The Rock Cathedral in Lagos on September 13, Steve Gukas recounted that by the time the movie finished screening in Toronto, “there was no dry eye.” A member of the audience even walked up to him with the hopes that the film snatches up an Oscar.
Despite this, as far as everyone should be concerned the advancement of quality entertainment in Nollywood is 93 Days’ secondary achievement. The essential feat of the film is what should undoubtedly become common practice in the Nigerian entertainment industry – the sociocultural documentation and preservation of life altering moments and events in the country for the sakes of posterity and a heightened sense of social awareness and development.
In the words of another cast member, Yemi Sodimu, 93 Days is “probably one of the best things that can happen to a forgetful nation.” The actor’s words may seem a bit hyperbolic because it can be argued that no one has really gotten over what is now simply known as the ‘Ebola threat’ or ‘scare’. However, on closer examination, too many of us would agree that’s the only way we chronicle the 2014 event both in our minds and in discourse – A disaster that could have been, but didn’t happen. Some of us might even add a “thank God” to that acknowledgment.
Thus, the message that the producers of 93 Days painstakingly strove to share is that that sort of comfortable acknowledgment and borderline cavalier dismissal of events as soon as they happen in Nigeria is not enough. We need to never, ever forget. At some point in 2014, the nerve-racking reality was that a deadly virus was fighting tooth and nail to escape containment and claim the lives of millions in the city of Lagos and beyond. But, Ebola did not just go away. It took the lives of eight people and the tireless, collaborative efforts of the Nigerian government, medical care providers, and citizens who considered a debilitating aftermath to prevent it from spreading.
How else to best etch such an incidence that threatened the lives and health of a country in their consciousness than through a riveting screen adaptation accompanied by stunning performances?
When it screened at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington DC (the first Nigerian movie to do so, according to Austen-Peters), 93 Days was rated better than Contagion, a 2011 medical thriller by Steven Soderbergh, recalls Gukas. Producer Bolanle Austen-Peters also noted at the press conference that although the quality of the movie delighted the representatives of the U.S. Health Department who saw it, they were particularly impressed by the fact that public health achieved mainstream discourse by connecting with people in the form of a movie.
Nollywood is several steps behind its counterpart in the West when it comes to using the power of entertainment – movies in this case – to engrave events such as epidemics, natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, in the minds of people and make them iconic. Black Hawk Down, Hotel Rwanda, Remember Me, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty, Eye in the Sky, American Sniper all barely scratch the surface of an inexhaustible list of movies dedicated to depicting certain events, the multifaceted ways in which they affected people, and the contributions of ordinary people who later became heroes in those circumstances.
Hollywood is equally well known for a tradition that highlights the roles of outstanding individuals at such pivotal times. Because heroes have a rightful place in history, and the heroes that set the tone for 93 Days, led by the late Dr. Stella Adadevoh, should not be denied theirs. Their courageous efforts in the face of a potential epidemic, combined with a disciplined approach and attitude on the part of Nigerians, show what a country can achieve when committed, and that is worth documentation and celebration.
“We recognise that the movie industry has a powerful opportunity to shape culture around the world and to shape national values. We wanted to embrace that sector and engage them with support. The lessons that come from the saga and the movie is the power of collaboration”, says Pastor Paul Adefarasin, the founder of the House on the Rock Church which provided the venue for the movie’s premiere in Lagos. The church played a notable role in 2014 during the struggle to contain the Ebola virus by taking relief materials to the hospitals involved.
Pastor Adefarasin, however, makes it a point of duty to note how great Nollywood has become in addition to the narrative of the movie. 93 Days might still have some areas of opportunity, as with pretty much every movie, but it definitely blazes a trail for historical documentation and preservation in Nigerian movies which would further translate into better film quality, profitability, and prestige for the Nigerian film industry.
“It’s not every day a filmmaker gets the opportunity to film in the actual location that the events took place”, enthused Gukas. “We filmed at First Consultants where Patrick Sawyer died. In Yaba, we filmed in the actual isolation wards.” Filming in these locations came with its advantages, including lending the movie its authenticity and having some of the real life actors present on set.
93 Days will be screening at the Chicago Film Festival in October. And according to Ms. Austen-Peters, “All things being equal, things are looking better.”