The Strength and Weakness of Kunle Afolayan’s Citation

The last time I wrote about Kunle Afolayan’s movies I lamented his decline from the heady days of The Figurine to the rather piss-poor Tribunal. (The website has taken down the piece, so look out for my book.)

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I am happy to report some good news: his new film Citation is an improvement on Tribunal and even Mokalik. The bad news is that Citation never comes close to Figurine.

In the new film, Moremi, a postgrad student, and Professor N’Dyare, her lecturer, offer differing accounts of a sexual incident at their school’s senate’s hearing. It’s the classic he says, she says. Well, except that Afolayan, working with Tunde Babalola’s script, and using flashbacks, tells how they arrive at the university’s senate hearing entirely from Moremi’s point of view.

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This, of course, takes out some suspense from the proceedings. The viewer is entirely reliant on the filmmaker’s supposedly objective point of view but that point of view is skewered from the start.

This could be a political choice as in today’s climate we are required to “believe women”. In Citation that requirement is presented as “dramatize a woman’s account only”. As with the real world, the danger here is the tendency to ignore a plausible ambiguity. That might not be a bad notion in real life but in the movies, it is fatal. Ambiguity enriches narratives.

It is the viewer’s luck that the character the dramatization tries to demonise is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis. He injects charm into the highly decorated academic N’Dyare and makes you believe there’s a chance that his nemesis might be wrong about what transpired between man and student. Clearly, the film is riding on the problem of sexual harassment as exhumed and placed in the mainstream by the famous BBC documentary on sexual abuse in Nigerian universities. The politics and the more dramatized female point of view are the same. With the BBC documentary, the audience knew the investigative reporter was playing a character. The same is true of newcomer Temi Otedola, who never lets us forget she’s acting and not very well, too.

To be fair to her, the choice of a newcomer in a role as central as Moremi’s is puzzling. If it was a show of faith, the performance doesn’t quite bear it out. In scene after scene, Otedola does not dispel the feeling that she shouldn’t be carrying such a weight this early in a career she might be considering. She does have a good scene walking with Jean-Louis at a beach and a decent one flirting with her boyfriend Koyejo (Gabriel Afolayan) in a narrow walkway but mostly one is aware she isn’t “there” yet.

Not that she is helped by the screenplay, which for some reason never really shows Koyejo and Moremi do anything other than hold hands. They never kiss, which is a surprise because Moremi appears to be a studious but worldly postgraduate student: she has been places, speaks French, and doesn’t appear to have a religious hang-up. She does have a sheen of innocence but as anyone who has been in a university knows, looks have no real bearing on the sexual behaviour of young people. As a result of this unlikely chasteness, one never really believes she has anything romantic truly going on with the supposed boyfriend. And as Moremi is in almost every scene, to watch Citation is to watch Otedola not quite succeed at being Moremi or being Koyejo’s girlfriend.

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At 2 hours, the film has other problems besides its lead actress. It is about an hour too long. This should hardly be a problem — Kemi Adetiba’s admirable epic King of Boys was quite long — but usually this means pacing is handled quite well. That isn’t the case here and I kept thinking that Citation is seeking some art-house reverence for a film with much less political and philosophic weight than the average art house film. In any case, such films hardly feature a scene like one in Citation in which there is a hollow attempt at creating riveting dialogue

In the scene, the chair of the senate hearing (popular businesswoman Ibukun Awosika as herself) is required to slam-dunk N’Dyare so the film can have one of those climactic moments destined to live forever on YouTube or social media. Awosika summons the authority someone used to giving orders in real life can but the words put in her mouth by Babalola’s script doesn’t quite work: Awosika orders the man to sit by, among other things, claiming to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize — but that is not possible because the Swedish Academy has a 50-year secrecy rule: any year’s list of nominees is only made public half a century after it is created. So if Awosika wasn’t nominated at the age of 7 (she’s 57, according to Wikipedia), how does she know of her nomination? And even if she doesn’t know of this rule, how can a Sorbonne-trained academic like N’Dyare not know? (I mean, I don’t have a PhD from a fancy European university, but I’ve known of this rule for years.)

The scene feels like the cinematic equivalent of coming back with an American accent when you’ve only travelled to Lome for three nights. At best, it’s unnecessary; at worst, it’s ignorant.

Fortunately, the cinematography by South Africa’s Jonathan Kovel is impressive and is the very best thing about Citation. Kovel is of course no slouch. He was the man behind the camera for the award-winning Of Good Report directed by his maverick countryman Jahmil X.T Qubeka. (Incidentally, that film also examined an improper teacher-student affair.)

In working with Afolayan, Kovel follows Yinka Edward, another talented cinematographer, so that whatever might be said about Afolayan, it has been clear for years that he possesses a knack for selecting cinematographers. It is one of the conundrums of modern Nollywood that that level of care hasn’t quite permeated all parts of Afolayan’s filmmaking in his more recent films. Since October 1, there have been these small things that undermine scenes, dialogue, script, and, eventually, the film.

But it is not all bad. Citation is watchable — it’s on Netflix, so you can take your time if its duration is too challenging. And in being a better film than Afolayan’s recent output, it gives one hope that it is entirely possible that Afolayan might be heading up, up, up to the heady days of Figurine.

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Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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