Niran Adedokun was indeed on to something when he wrote his seminal Nollywood book – Women Calling The Shots.
Our women are, indeed, calling the shots; from Tope Oshin to Genevieve Nnaji and Kemi Adetiba to Ema Edosio, women directors are changing the Nollywood narrative of patriarchy and rewriting the script in the process.
Three out of the five top grossing films of 2018 were helmed by women from King of Boys to Lionheart and Tope Oshin’s Up North, a laugh-out-loud and thrilling joy ride which manages to tackle very serious subjects despite the levity.
The premise is simple; a spoilt rich boy goes to Bauchi for his NYSC despite his protestations. The plan is to spend three weeks at the NYSC camp then return to the comfort of Lagos but after three weeks he decides to call his father’s bluff and stay put in Bauchi.
Staying put means taking part and taking part means becoming involved first with the students and then with an intriguing female colleague, Maryam, played by Rahama Sadau.
Bassey Utuekong played by a brilliant Banky Wellington is an MIT Engineering graduate who is reduced to the level of a fitness instructor but he discharges his duties with aplomb aided by Maryam and his sidekick, the understated but solid actor, Ibrahim Suleiman.
Mai Kudi or Rich man as Sadiq calls him is 32 but the film mines the coming-of-age trope to full effect. He leaves Lagos a spoilt and arrogant rich boy but returns a man who has earned his father’s grudging respect.
But what is a story without conflict? Up North has those aplenty and Bassey is smack dab in the middle of it all. If he is not taking selfies close to a mosque, he is posting viral videos or playing the pied-piper with his young female students chasing after him.
Tope Oshin’s film is woke; social media is up north and center. Pun intended! Our current obsession with social media updates and celebrity-for-celebrity-sake has both salutary and insidious consequences highlighting social media’s ability to help and hurt all at once.
Oshin’s film is awake to the patriarchy in the north and the lack of opportunities open to northern women; the place of religion and the Sharia law, the favouring of the male child over the female. There is even a passing nod to the insurgency in the north.
See whether you can spot it.
But Up North breaks new grounds for its thematic sagacity, its visual spectacle and the sheer breadth of its canvas but most especially for having a sitting governor play a cameo. This is a movie conceived on an epical scale and when I say epic, I mean it not in a Nollywood sense but in the true sense of the word – large, grand, sweeping and spectacular.
Don’t go for a bathroom break during the Durbar scene.
Tope Oshin also scores cool points for her movie’s fidelity to the cultural and religious space in which it is set. Catch all the men glued to their radios and you begin to get a picture or Bassey’s return scene to Kafin Madaki where he shares a ride with a very interesting co-passenger.
So, did Up North tick all the boxes? Lighting, check. Sound, check. Cinematography, check. (Look out for the aerial shots. The one of the NYSC parade ground is amazing with the white dots moving into formation.) Editing, check. The scenes don’t drag and continuity is fluid. When Bassey bangs his door against the brute, the door opens in another scene without missing a frame. Brilliant.
But there is a minor peeve, for a movie directed by one of Nollywood’s most influential directors and jury member of The Emmys, the women are a tad bit too quiet except for the school principal and Maryam who actually puts a move on Bassey.
Bassey’s mother played by Hilda Dokubo appears in only two scenes. Otunba’s wife is seen in one. Idara who is smart and fully involved in the business is happy to play a caretaker role until her brother is ready but the most peevish is Adesua Etomi who is redundant as Zainab, Sadiq’s love interest.
Her character is reduced, almost, to a non-speaking role which begs the question, why is she in the movie? Well it turns out there is actually a good reason as a source familiar with the production disclosed. Etomi was not meant to appear in Up North. The actress cast for the role disappointed. Adesua was on set with her husband. So, she agreed to stand in.
Tope Oshin’s Up North is topical and finely wrought. It tackles big issues but manages to mediate the impact with comedy. Bassey and Sadiq are a good tag team and their comic timing is impeccable but what really hits home is the very act of running as a hydra-headed metaphor.
While the girls are running towards progress and something bigger, Bassey is running not just to keep fit but to refuse responsibility. When he learns that his girlfriend is still seeing her ex, he runs. When his sister confronts Maryam, he runs. Which is why Idara’s question cuts to the heart of the movie – “Bassey, when will you stop running from your problems.”
Run to the cinema to see this brilliant film from Tope Oshin.