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To leave or not to live? That is the question — the only one allowed to be asked by Chukwu Martin’s Anuli. When Anuli is assessed through that famous Shakespearean dictum “To be or not to be”, an unsettling revelation is uncovered: that there is only one answer, that the abiku child truly has never really been alive.
Anuli is an Igbo movie with a multicultural flair — it skedaddles from the Igbo culture to Yoruba throughout the film. Simply put, it is Sleeping Beauty meets Albert Camus. There is a girl and a boy in love. The girl is fated to die aged sixteen and the day of reckoning has arrived. This leads us to the interesting note tha there are two ways to read Anuli; philosophically, through Camus’s thick Sisyphean lenses; and literarily, with Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” as companion.
Camus argues that the realisation of life’s monotony, the transcendence of the mundaneness life has to offer (go to work, eat, family, sleep, go to work, eat, family, sleep, go to work, eat, family, sleep) can only lead to the acceptance of a meaning outside this absurd suffering. And very few ever see beyond the sheen of life, the abiku is one of those enitites. Their persistent coming and going is not merely a mock of life but also of death itself and this is evident in the first scene where children, dressed in regular clothings are playing in life and the abiku entities who wear the finest clothings mirror this play in their realm. It is a quiet acknowledgement that there is something far beyond the pleasures of the living and beyond death. A secret place outside life, outside death, that only the Abiku knows about.
Or if that won’t suffice, we may take the long famished road of Azaro, Ben Okri’s protagonist who has seen that secret plane of existence so many times and has finally refused to return because of the searing love he has found for his mother.
Anuli at its basest, is a coming of age love story. What with the passing of notes, the preamble for dates, the sneakings beneath the mother’s nose, the gentle stoning of glass windows, the delayed final kiss, these are all idealistic western romance tropes and the movie through Anuli mocks itself (too seriously) and sterns itself (again, too seriously).
Pardon a deviation: we head to the home of the 21st century diviner who is learned in the ways of our ancestors and flawlessly quotes Camus like it is eerindinlogun. A man is a diviner. A man is powerful. A man is an erudite. A man has no name (of course). A man sees all — knows where Anuli is even more than the mother. A man is mysterious — here then, is another dictum; ‘to see but not to be seen’ because although the movie hints at the herbalist being more than he presents, we never get to know who he is for sure and that is one — and perhaps the only — flaw in its storytelling.
We return back to Anuli the Abiku, the hybridised archetypal Camus/Okri character. A girl is troubled. A girl is naked. A girl is as she came into the world; without clothes, in a serene steady flow of water. A girl is at an all time spiritual low (familiar images and sounds that accompany familiar spirits play in the b.g: close up shots of a quiet walking cat, a hissing cat, a serene river, a haunting monologue by an ambiguous entity — and that silent, quasi Catholic tune backgrounding it all then the tune segues into a sonorous Yoruba eulogy). A girl is ready to return home.
If the dead were never alive, can they be loved back to life?
And a man; a herbalist, erudite, encountered by the power of love greater than even the ancestors’ demands to know its source and from this moment, I daresay the brilliance nosedives.
I find the last two minutes of Anuli exceededingly complex and — I suspect — deliberately vague. A series of rhetorics and revealings that only the director and actors know of, which further complicates the herbalist’s character in an attempt to make him (and the boy) more mysterious and connected to the whole story? I may be wrong, but that is only due to the final ambiguities the story presents.
In spite of these final ambiguities however, the enduring strength of the river remains; a girl returns to it, to her companions and lastly, that beautiful shot of a lady with blackened eyes, blackened lips and yawning headgear, that too, remains hanging like Anuli herself, in a place beyond beautiful, beyond haunting.