Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive (2021): Gutsy, Anarchic, a Nigerian Cinema of Blood.

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by Osamudiamen Joseph

The first film essay I ever wrote was titled, “The Wedding Party: Lessons in Authentic Storytelling from the Bruce Lee of Visuals. The reason I deemed it fit to extol the originality of that movie is that, in most films made for a wide cinema release in Nigeria, there appears to be a dearth of authentic storytelling. Nollywood seems haunted by an absence of stories that engage the audience without pulling their punches, challenging their worldview and ensuring that by the time the credits roll, they’re left with something tangible, something more than just a “good time.”

Film can be entertainment and art at the same time, it can appeal to a wide audience and still be full of passion and originality behind and in front of the camera. The movies that kicked off the era of the summer blockbuster such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) attest to this. On the bright side, change is coming to Nollywood, albeit at the pace of a tortoise pulling a lion’s hefty carcass with its teeth.

But it must be known that there is a type of cinema that exists at the edge of what is popular, a cinema that the term ‘indie’ doesn’t do justice because it’s less about ideas and more about reality; it is authentic, gutsy, militant and anarchic in both its content and its approach to filmmaking conventions. It doesn’t aim for a wide release but is content with making its way across festivals and conferences. It is satisfied being the topic of discussion among intellectuals and ordinary people. It aims to foster deep thought as well as interesting conversations everywhere from dinner tables, to churches, bus stops, newspaper stands, bathroom stalls, operating rooms, and Twitter.

Examples of films that fall under this category are The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo, Bush Mama (1976) by Haile Gerima, The Home and the World (1984) by Satyajit Ray, Measures of Distance (1988) by Mona Hatoum, Moolaadé (2004) by Ousmane Sembené, and recently, Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive (2021) by ‘Chukwu Martin. These films exist outside the mainstream and arthouse scenes; they are vibrant, raw, and not afraid to get their hands dirty.

Shot in Ibadan over three days and with an unfinished script fifteen pages long, Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive primarily follows the travails of Arinze, a hapless accountant, over a day. He trudges from place to place in search of a solution to his boss’ hard drive which has stopped working, courtesy of his nephew who decided to baptize the gadget by immersion. His odyssey is set against the backdrop of the ENDSARS protests that rocked the nation in October 2020. This is a good place to point out that none of the shots featuring young people carrying placards, raging against the government, are staged; they were filmed at the time of the protests and spliced into the movie in post-production. This documentary playing side-by-side with the narrative not only influences the tone and plot of the movie but also creates a certain atmosphere that informs the entire viewing experience of the audience. Throughout the runtime, it’s like an incessant buzzing in our minds, made more potent given how fresh the event is in our memory.

In Ulysses, James Joyce modernizes Homer’s Odyssey. Beyond setting it in Dublin, he makes use of various experimental literary techniques to reveal the deepest feelings and thoughts of the characters as they go about their lives moment to moment, journeying from a public bath to a funeral, library, maternity hospital, and brothel. Likewise, ‘Chukwu Martin in Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive, employs experimental film techniques pioneered by cinematic movements such as Italian Neorealism, The French New Wave, and Cinema Verité including jump cuts, fourth-wall breaks, and character asides, blurred diegesis, a lack of closure, elliptical editing and the use of non-actors in real locations. These elements are not mere affectations sprinkled in to impress, they deepen the viewer’s understanding of the world of the film and endear them more to the characters.

The camera frolics and staggers about the various locations with both the vitality of a five-year-old kicking a ball in a field and the grace of a drunk ballet dancer on the opening night at the opera. All of this is intentional, of course. The cinematography by Okwong Fadamana eschews any source of lighting apart from the sun as all but a couple of scenes are filmed outdoors. All this does is heighten the film’s sense of realism.

The movie also follows the two security guards at Arinze’s place of work who have been sent by Mr. Gbenga to track him down and bring him to the office. All the characters get to introduce themselves and talk about everything from their motivations to their desires and aspirations, in the style of mockumentary TV shows like Parks and Rec or The Office. ‘Chukwu Martin who had his start in theatre, is also likely inspired by the aside, a dramatic device in which a character speaks directly to the audience.

The world Arinze lives in is a hostile one; it’s his hell. It’s almost as if invisible forces are working round the clock to make his life difficult. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so true, if this wasn’t the reality of countless Nigerians, day in, day out. Throughout his journey, he encounters one disaster after another, mixed with disappointment and served with a side of existential crises. In the first scene, he meets a tech repairman and their bargaining soon comes to blows. In the voiceover following that scene, he tells the audience, “My name is Arinze and I am 31 years old. And I still live with my sister. This shouldn’t be the Nigerian dream.” And yet it’s his reality. He is approached by a prophetess who says that his glory is bright and later accosted by some neighborhood “comrades.” My favorite part of the film is in the middle where Arinze engages in a 15-minute conversation with his friend and one other guy about everything from relationship troubles, beer, meaning, and meaninglessness to nihilism and existentialism.

Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive functions as a critique of the powers that be, of the ‘big’ men and women in the country in whose best interests it is that the plight of the citizens continues without end. The titular hard drive takes up so much screen time that it becomes absurd at a point how invested Arinze is in getting it fixed. Similar to the MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction (1994), it is never revealed what’s in the hard drive. This isn’t an oversight. The movie actively avoids answering that question. In one scene, Arinze is lamenting his condition to his brother-in-law who then asks, “But wetin dey inside the hard drive?” This question has no doubt been lingering in the mind of the audience all the while. Arinze fires back immediately, “Na wetin dey inside the hard drive you suppose dey ask me?” The hard drive’s contents aren’t as important as the power it holds over the protagonist. This makes it even sadder when at the end, Mr. Gbenga tells the security guards to come back to the office. “I don’t need it anymore,” he says. Why then did he pit them against Arinze if the hard drive wasn’t so important? Why did he send Arinze on a journey that ultimately cost him his life? The answer of course is he did it because he could. This is the sad reality the audience is left with.

For a movie called Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive, Mr. Gbenga’s face is never revealed. I took this to mean that it doesn’t matter how the person who has any form of power over our looks, it could be a lecturer, a uniformed officer, or a boss at work, the thing worth examining, is how we dance to their tune. They could be old, young, dark, fair, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how much we are at their mercy; what is worthy of note is how unfair it all is.

There is a scene in Parasite (2019) that shows the two poor families fighting for the phone that holds the evidence of the Kims being related.  At that moment, while they’re at each other’s throats, you can almost see the invisible strings pulling on them. Their motivation is crystal clear. Even with all their effort, they haven’t been able to change their fortunes. If their secret gets out, they’re toast. Ki-jung fetches some peaches from the fridge and dumps them on the housekeeper’s face, knowing fully well that she is allergic to them even in small amounts. It’s a nefarious move indeed, yet the movie doesn’t judge them. In Italian Neorealist style, it isn’t quick to make judgments. The world of Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive is filled with questionable characters too but the movie doesn’t judge them either. It merely holds up a mirror to their jungle of society, our society.

Arinze’s girlfriend, Adaeze, accidentally kills a child and in a moment of panic, shoves him into the boot of a cab. The cab driver later gets stopped by a police officer who demands to see the contents of the boot. This is also the cab Arinze boards to follow the man Adaeze is cheating on him with. The child’s body is discovered at which point the driver takes to his heels. Arinze is about to run too when he is beaten to death by the officer. The final shot of the movie shows Adaeze failing to be consoled by her lover as Arinze’s ghost stands behind them, quietly shaking his head.

A film like this no doubt has several influences, not just aesthetically but also in its thesis. Watching it, I couldn’t help but notice some of them. The first one that came to mind was The New American Cinema Group. In 1962, a group of filmmakers led by Jonas Mekas including John Cassavetes, Alfred Leslie, and Edward Bland released a statement under their newly formed group. “The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath,” they said, before going on to also describe it as “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, and temperamentally boring.” They decried popular cinema, what they called the “Product film.” The last few lines of their manifesto though are the most interesting parts.

“We are for art,” it read, “but not at the expense of life. We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive; we don’t want rosy films— we want them the color of blood.”

This is the attitude at the heart of the production of Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive. It is no accident that Martin calls his films “rough plays.” This is because they are unconventional and daring in their content as well as their execution. The movie also bears some semblance to Italian Neorealist films in its emphasis on telling the stories of ordinary people, its compassionate point of view, and a refusal to make easy moral judgments. Its use of realism borders on documentary and its employment of natural settings and prevalence of social and political themes is also something pioneered by Italian Neorealism.

Third Cinema also called Third World Cinema is an aesthetic and political cinematic movement in Third World countries especially Latin America and Africa. It exists as an alternative to Hollywood (which is First Cinema) and European arthouse films (which is Second Cinema). Second Cinema abandons Hollywood conventions but is still based on the individual expression of the director who is usually an auteur. Third Cinema originated in the late 1960s as a protest against colonialism and Hollywood through the medium of film. According to ‘Towards a Third Cinema,’ an essay published in 1969, which serves as the manifesto of the movement, for a movie to be considered Third Cinema, it should steer clear of commercialism and be distributed clandestinely. Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive falls into this category neatly. After the movie, I had the opportunity to meet with the director and we talked at length. When I asked him whether the film would get a wide release in theatres, he laughed. “This one is for our intellectual masturbation,” he said. It’s for the festival circuit. It’s going to have a great time traveling the world, that’s for sure.

Icon of African cinema, Ousmane Sembené, once described cinema as a tool for activism and as an ongoing political rally with the audience. “In the movie theatre,” he says, “you have Catholics, Muslims, Gaullists, Communists. If the film is good, each sees what they want.” The world and characters of Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive are correspondingly rich and detailed. I keep talking about the audience because, in movies like this, the audience plays an active role in the narrative. This isn’t turn-off-your-brain cinema, it’s the put-on-your-thinking-cap kind, which isn’t to say it’s not a fun time. Just that a movie like this offers you much more than that.

Catch-22, the anti-war novel by Joseph Heller has such a mad kinetic energy about it that when it was released.  The New Yorker famously said, “[it] doesn’t seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper.” I couldn’t help but reflect on that statement when I saw Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive. The fact that the actors improvised most of the scenes makes the movie rough and unpolished but alive; there’s a certain fervency to its atmosphere as if it is inviting the audience to touch a live wire.

I caught the movie at a private screening in Victoria Island, on what was one of my most exciting nights of 2021. The entire time I was transfixed, unable to tear my gaze away from the screen. According to Lars Von Trier, a film should be like a rock in the shoe. I left that night with sharp bits of Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive lodged in my sneakers. Here was a film, I thought, that had managed to be truly unique and separate from unoriginal blockbusters and pretentious arthouse films, a film that is the epitome of Third Cinema, a film that didn’t seem to have been filmed but dreamed onto celluloid. Here was a film the color of blood.

Again, I bid Mr. Gbenga’s Hard Drive Godspeed as it makes its way through the festival circuit,

Jonas Mekas and the entire New American Cinema Group would be proud.

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