BY ANDREW OKE
I have come to a sad place where I have zero expectations anytime I go to the cinemas to see a Nigerian film. 2016 has been a year of abysmal Nollywood cinema releases and my poor eyes have beheld enough iniquities that I fully expect to be visually impaired and slightly brain-damaged at some point in the future, no thanks to Nollywood wannabe cinema movies. Poorly written, indecently directed, poorly acted, scatter-shot, incoherent messes from Nollywood that filled the cinemas in the first half of 2016 have left me groaning in pain.
I came out after seeing Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Arbitration with songs of praise in my heart and a smile on my face. It is genuinely a good film.
The Arbitration tells the story of Dara (Adesua Etomi), a woman who drags her former boss and lover (who also happens to be a married man), Gbenga (OC Ukeje) to an arbitration panel after accusing him of rape (an accusation that he vehemently denies). Dara claims that she was coerced into having sex with Gbenga in return for him removing a “non-compete clause” in her employment contract, while Gbenga claims the sex was completely consensual. What ensues is a story mostly told through the conflicting testimonies of Gbenga, Dara and their respective witnesses as both the arbitrator and the audience try to make sense of it all and decide who is telling the truth. Assisting the two ex-lovers are their lawyers; Omawumi (Somkele Idhalama), a young, inexperienced corporate lawyer and the overconfident old hand Funlayo (Ireti Doyle), representing Dara and Gbenga respectively.
The film gets set into motion because of an alleged rape, but once it starts to get into its stride, it becomes clear that the film is primarily not about rape; it’s about a woman trying to get the rewards that she believes she deserves after working hard at a company and an ex-boss & lover denying trying to deny her exactly that. Yes, the rape is discussed in the film on numerous occasions, but it is very much on the back burner and plays second fiddle to the above issue, and I am completely OK with that. In the hands of a lesser writer or director, this could have easily turned into a pretentious and extremely heavy-handed film about whether or not coercing a woman into having sex is in fact rape even though it is something that every right thinking individual already knows to be so, thereby offering no real questions. The film’s director (Niyi Akinmolayan) and screenwriter (Chinaza Onuzo) however tell a story that treats the audience with respect and asks to actually think about what is going on in the movie and form a personal opinion of events, issues and outcomes in the film. The issue of whether or not coercing a woman into sex is brought up early on in this film and is dealt with promptly via a single line of dialogue.
This film gives you good reason to doubt the truthfulness of every statement that is made by every single character. For everyone supposed truth that is said by any giving character, two others are proffered that question the candour and trustworthiness of said character. It keeps the wheels in your head turning, transforming you into an arbitrator presiding over the case. The characters in this film are, at first glance, painted as your average stereotypes, but through their various depositions, the layers to these characters are carefully peeled back and we get to see just how complex and human they are.
I wouldn’t say the film is carried by its acting performances as none of them truly stand out or are exceptional. The most accurate word to describe the acting in this film is adequate. Every actor gave an adequate performance that helped move the story along. A perfect example of this is with the often hard to watch Beverly Naya who plays Gbenga’s wife, Chiamaka; she comes into the story, plays her part and quickly exits. Even though I would have preferred it if Beverly Naya was nowhere near this film, or any film with ambition for that matter, the filmmaker’s decision to cast her in the tiniest of roles goes to show that he has finally figured out a way to use her in a film and do so adequately.
The Arbitration isn’t without its faults. Exposition is largely through dialogue; there are issues with the film’s sound in parts; the film is a bit too long and at time scenes seem to drag on and on with insufficient payoff, something that may be said of the whole film too. However, all of these take very little away from the film. It is a breath of much needed fresh air in a year that has already found itself neck deep in crap. It takes an interesting, well thought out story and executes it almost seamlessly.
Niyi Akinmolayan’s last two directorial outputs, Falling and Out of Luck did not show him in very bright lights, even with Adesua Etomi getting the AMVCA nod for Best Actress for her performance in Falling. He more than redeems himself here and one’s fervent hope is that he continues growing in this light.
OC Ukeje – Gbenga Sanni
Adesua Etomi – Dara Olujobi
Somkele Idhalama – Omawumi Horsfall
Ireti Doyle – Funlayo Johnson
Sola Fosodo – Tomisin Bucknor (The Arbitrator)
Gregory Ojefua – Chijioke
Beverly Naya – Chiamaka