This year when I attended the Africa Movie Academy Awards, I rode in the bus from the Port Harcourt airport to Yenagoa seated beside Ghanaian-British filmmaker Julius Amedume. Amedume's short film "Precipice" had been nominated for the best Diaspora short and his feature film A Goat's Tail had won the best feature award at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival. He told me about his love of suspense films and how he hoped to remake "Precipice" into a full-length feature. The next night at the award ceremony, he was called up to receive the award for Best Diaspora Short. When after the festival he sent me a DVD of four short films made as part of his MA in Fiction Directing at the U.K.'s National Film and Television School, I realized why "Precipice" had won.
The DVD that he sent me included the short films "Mary and John," "Lorraine," "Mr Graham," and "Precipice" all of which are set in the U.K. but deal with human emotions and failures that resonate with almost any culture. After watching the first film "Mary and John," I sat back and breathed out. I realized I had been holding my breath for much of the film. Rather than proceeding on to the next one, I turned it back and played it again. I ended up re-watching all four of the films that way. Watching it once holding my breath in suspense and then watching it again to savour the details.
In the first film in the collection, "Mary and John" (2009, 6 mins) are an old British couple, apparently played by a married couple in real life (Marlene and Eddie Price). In the absence of any other obvious loved ones, the couple seems to be waiting to die. John sits motionless and expressionless, mouth half open watching TV (staring into the camera so his audience becomes the TV he watches), while Mary vacuums the carpet in front of him. The cord of the vacuum machine tugs around his leg, but it is as if he is made of wood. He doesn't seem to notice. Mary's life is taken over with taking care of her husband. She feeds him, bathes him, dresses him. Her life is marked by the clicking open of the pill box which is divided into dosages for each day of the week. Other than a powerful flashback with a texture and sound that makes it the emotional centre of the film, each day is the same. The faces of the old couple are mostly still and emotionless, making the heartbreak on Mary's face and the expression in John's eyes in the moments where he lifts his face to her and opens his mouth like a child so that she can feed him, all the more devastating. Yet what initially seems to be a short quiet film about old age, has room in it for an unexpected twist. There are powerful understated performances here as well as a thoughtful use of sound.
In the second film, "Lorraine," (2009, 14 mins) the protagonist after whom the film is named is a new girl at school who desperately wants to be accepted. But the story quickly gets much darker than the typical high school movie about teenage angst. There are moments that feel like William Goldings' Lord of the Flies here, school girls in uniforms capable of stunning cruelties. This is the film that perhaps stuck with me the most. The actress who plays Lorraine(Lisa Diveney) acts with depth and passion, emotions playing over her face as she contemplates the violence she is complicit in. The other girls, too, reveal more about themselves in their expressions and glances than they do in their words.
"Mr Graham" (2010, 14 mins) is the slowest and most brooding of the films but contains perhaps the most hair-raising twist of any of them. Mr Graham (Alexis Rodney) remembers the legacy left by his father who "died when I was too old to forget." As he travels home at night watching a train slither over the tracks and into the darkness, his father's spirit blossoms and grows in him. The next day as he goes about his daily duties, he struggles with a secret obsession that threatens the life he had hoped to build.
The award winning "Precipice" (2010, 25 mins) is the most ambitious of the films in scope, telling the story of a corrupt London banker Jasper (Martin Turner), who has embezzled money and is on the verge of being discovered. Roman (Jimmy Jean-Louis, who also played in another AMAA award winning film Sinking Sands) is hired by Jasper's partners to spirit him away. But, although this was supposed to be a simple job for Roman, it becomes complicated when Jasper asks him to make one stop on their way out of town. The two criminals, the embezzler and the hired gun, discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. This short film certainly has enough emotional punch and complexity to carry the full-length film, Amedume wants to make of it.
Although these four short films have great emotional power, they are anything but sentimental. Almost all of them have suspense and unexpected twists that lead to chilling discoveries. Amedume directs his actors extraordinarily well, in powerful understated performances. The dialogue here is on the surface, the real drama happens in the moments of silence, where the horrors lurking within even the most innocent looking characters slither into the open. Many of the short films I've seen are clever but without well-developed characters. Here, however, the expressions of the actors, the pacing, the framing, give you insights into character that make you feel like you have watched a feature-length film by the end.
Despite the maturity and polish of the films, there were occasional flaws. The sets sometimes seemed a bit too pristine, not lived in enough. In "Lorraine," an abandoned house suddenly yields forth bounties of food from the fridge. In "Precipice" there are moments in the dark car scene where the cinematographer seems to have trouble pulling focus on Jasper's face and, as in some Nigerian films that attempt to project great wealth without having access to it, Jasper's office seems a little modest for a bank executive. But for me, what is best in a film is in its script and the power of performance, the kind of story that forces you to sit down and be pensive afterwards. Amedume's films do that.
Read together these four films explore the depths of the human psyche in a way that reminds me of the W.B. Yeat's poem "The Second Coming" from which Chinua Achebe took the title "Things fall apart." The films that frame the collection, "Mary and John" and "Precipice" are bitter-sweet. These characters on the precipice of death think back on the moments and people in their lives most precious to them. The two films enclosed within this frame, "Lorraine" and "Mr. Graham" explore young characters, their lives stretching out before them, who struggle with passions, in some ways, more horrible than death. Lorraine's simple search for friendship turns into betrayal, as "the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned." In 'Mr. Graham,' there is an ugliness welling within him that makes one wonder "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
If you are intrigued enough to want to check out these films, you are in luck. You don't have to wait for a film festival or travel to the UK to hunt them down. Amedume told me he plans to upload the four films to his website by 1 November 2011. If you plan to watch them online, though, I beg of you to download them in full before you start watching. They are too good to be ruined by the jumpy start and stop of a slow internet connection. Enjoy.