ABÉ NI – “…the picture of helplessness”

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Written by Francisca Eleyele and directed by ‘Chukwu Martin, Abe Ni is about one of the most dehumanizing cultural practices still rampant today: female genital mutilation. It refers to the cultural practice of removing whether in part or in whole, the external female genital organ for non-therapeutic reasons. It is a form of violence and infringement on the rights of women as it deprives them of sexual satisfaction and freedom. Over 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced genital mutilation, and as of 2021, an estimated 4.2 million girls were at risk of being cut.  In Sudan, 96.6% of girls are mutilated before the age of 6.

Official poster/Kaizen Posters

The first scene shows a group of young girls being led into a hut by some women. Not a word is uttered here, but the terror on the girls’ faces is unmistakable. In a few moments, they will exit the hut in a different state: traumatized and stripped of every iota of childhood innocence. The last shot of this opening sequence is a blade dripping with blood, presumably after the girls have been ‘cut’. Even though it plays like something out of a shlocky B-horror flick, this isn’t the doing of any poltergeist or killer on the rampage; the perpetrators of this violence are living, breathing people, enslaved to tradition.

We are soon introduced to our main character, Abeni (Uche Chika Elumelu), who appears to be a painter working on a commissioned portrait. Haunted by intrusive images of a brutal memory, she hits a roadblock, unable to proceed with her work. It turns out she is one of the girls we saw at the beginning, about to be violated in the name of culture. At first, Abeni stifles a scream, catching it in her throat as if she had changed her mind at the last second. A moment later, she lets out a guttural cry as she destroys the painting she has been working on. Her ex-husband, Kofi Ekua (Seun Akindele), returns to find her on the floor, paint smeared all over her face, the picture of helplessness. He has brought devastating news: Abeni’s mother is no more.

Where the film goes from here is pretty familiar territory. Abeni will return to her village to perform the burial rites for her mother. In the process, she has to come face-to-face with all the terrible experiences she went through. Her trauma has affected her mental health, her work, and her relationship with Kofi. She will have to confront her trauma. as popular saying goes, “You have to revisit the past to get past it”. Abe Ni (the film), produced by VHOSSCOM, in conjunction with The Diane E. Watson Center for Compassionate Intervention, has all the trappings of a public service announcement. Like many NGO-commissioned films of this nature, its primary aim is to inform individuals about the prevalence of, and possible solutions to, a particular societal ill. A noble endeavor in itself. However, its status as a narrative film, whether it soars, crashes, or merely coasts, depends on how well its topical message is expressed through the characters and their conflict, as well as the effectiveness of the directing and editing choices.

The visual language of the film employs a lot of sharp contrasts in lighting, especially in nighttime scenes; the film almost looks like a neon-noir sometimes. The director (‘Chukwu Martin) and cinematographer (Okwong Fadamana) also make use of the composition technique known as “a frame within a frame” (used to perfection in In the Mood for Love) to highlight just how trapped and “boxed in” Abeni is by her past. I counted about ten instances where this technique was used, showing an aptness on the filmmakers’ part for relaying the psychological state of the main character to the audience.

The film attempts to put the audience in Abeni’s headspace so soon and so effectively that it ends up overshooting its goal, landing somewhere in the region of excess. The first time we meet the main character, she is already at her lowest point. Her traumatic past has caused her to sabotage a lot of the good things in her life. She is screaming at the top of her lungs in agony. However, because the film begins at 100, at the end of the scale, there’s very little distance to go from here. How much more can Abeni’s anguish be depicted visually? Granted, the film is only about an hour long, and it doesn’t have the luxury of a feature-length film to cause the tension to build gradually. This still doesn’t change the fact that it feels like we enter the story too late, and are not provided sufficient context as time goes on. Abé Ni is a visually appealing film– one of my favorite shots is in a dialogue scene where the camera goes from initially framing silhouettes to panning gently to the side to reveal the characters– but the writing does not always work, sometimes doing too much, and sometimes, not nearly enough (such as in the relationship between Abeni and her brother, Debayo, played by Anyanya Ikechi Chris). The film only gives us hints of their relationship but expects us to be emotionally invested in their conflict as time goes on.

By the end, Abeni not only learns to open up about her trauma in a support group of women who have gone through a similar occurrence, but also manages to stop any young girls from being mutilated under her watch. Her relationship with Kofi is salvaged, and she begins to pay more attention to her mental health by being regular with her visits to the therapist. Getting over the past, however, cannot be accomplished in a weekend, and the film echoes this sentiment in a few lines from Abeni: “My name is Abeni, and I’m a survivor of female genital mutilation I know I shouldn’t be a victim of the things that have happened to me, but I’m working on it.”

This ending, apt as it is, does not offer much in the way of an emotional resonance in the audience. Still, it’s always a good day whenever anyone who’s gone through a traumatic experience decides to get help, take a stand, and heal, first for themselves, and then for the tons of people they can help after they do.

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