22 December 2012

Nigeria: Zaria - How Film Built a Birni


There are only few examples of old Hausa architecture in Northern Nigeria today. On account of the absence of these architectural forms, a village depicting 19th century building styles and motifs is being built near Zaria, for the purpose of shooting a film on the life of late Shehu Usman Dan Fodio.

At a time when Hausa architectural forms, and the fine art behind it, are vanishing fast due to the effects of modernisation and a poor sense of history, the film village at Dambo outside Zaria which is a replica of the 19th century Gobir and communities within the Sokoto area, is a ray of architectural sunshine, and is capable of sparking a pure revival in Hausa architectural styles before it gets too late. If you are a lover of Hausa culture, you will marvel and wonder at what obtains at the film village. Everyone would thrill at what has resurrected at the village, all this within a period of eleven years. This is a piece of archaeology occurring as part of a process of film making. In this case both cast, crew and producers all function like archaeologists, and are playing dynamic roles in resurrecting the building styles and motifs of 19th century Hausaland. It means then that the slow extinction of Hausa architectural forms can be arrested. A lot of research was made before the building effort started, and there is no archaeologist here in the normal sense of the word. Here are palaces, city walls, halls, lofty breath taking designs, amazing murals, one wooden war instrument, unique doors and windows, large pillars, lovely costumes which vividly depict the era, a lion's head painted on a wall, the very insignia of Gobir. Then there is a black cloth on a stick with a cow's head attached to its summit -the flag of the powerful Sarkin Gobir himself. Ten years ago the Islamic Movement in Nigeria led by Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, made to work on a film highlighting the life of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. Then trips were made around the North to Kano, Jos and parts of Zaria, to find buildings which truly reflect the 19th century architectural forms, which could be used as background for the film. None were found, and even those that fairly represented that period had been 'modernised to a considerable degree'.

Maryam Sani,an Assistant Producer with the film project, says "We went to Gidan Dan Hausa in Kano, Gidan Makama also in Kano, and even Jos, looking for places that would fit the film, but we couldn't find such places." It was then decided to build a film village at Dambo, which would be used as background to shoot the film on the life of the revered Shehu. 70 % of the film has been shot so far, and by early January the organizers hope to conclude the remaining 30%. There are hopes to release the film in 2013. Maryam Sani speaks of some of the challenges which the group has faced over the years. "One of these is the financial challenge. The first palace, for instance, we have built it over and over again, about three times in all. Whenever we built it, it will fall down, and we wanted to build it with natural clay."

Maryam Abdullahi, sound director and camera woman at the project, speaks of her experience while working on the film. According to her, "When people come and see me using the camera, they used to exhibit their happiness, because the camera women in Nigeria are very few. Even those doing Hausa movies are saying they have never seen a camera woman before." She says that she has found it necessary to climb a hill as well as a tree in order to get good shots. "I climbed a tree, and people were so surprised. I also climbed a hill on another occasion and the Directors were equally surprised." She too speaks of the many challenges which the whole project has faced.

According to her "The government sometimes says it is going to come and pack all our things, saying that we have weapons at the village. This is not true, we don't keep weapons here, and they used to repeat this from time to time."

Jummai Ahamad Karofi is a writer and a Director at the film project. She too says "There is the challenge of the government that is out rightly against the building of the site, and also against the whole movement itself. If you follow the story of the rise of the struggle, you can see the challenges from the government. They always see us as a threat, but we have been trained to be calm and to accept all challenges." She adds that there was a challenge of locating buildings which reflect the 19th century Hausa architecture, and this led to the construction of the film village. "We couldn't find a suitable place for the film. There are some places that had the structures, but some part of these had been modernised, so drastically modernised, in such a way that they couldn't be used, and that's why we sought the advice of our leader, that we should build our own."

She salutes the whole effort and lauds it by saying "When you get into the film village, you forget you are in the modern time. When we start shooting, I forget entirely that we are in this age. The whole story comes back as if it is actually happening." There are plans to do a film on the life of Mohammed Bello, Usman Dan Fodio's son, which would highlight the experiences he had with the followers of his father, soon after the passing of the latter. Much later there is likely to be a film on the coming of the British.

Zanna Ibrahim is the Executive Producer IM Productions, the outfit behind the film project. She speaks on the background to the whole effort. "We involved some professors at the Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto. They formed a team, and gave us so many ideas. We visited some places to get facts about the life of the Shehu. But when we came to shoot the film we discovered that if we were to use a building we came across, it would be a drama and not a film. I went to Jos, the museum in Jos and it was still not okay. We went into Zaria city to check some traditional buildings there, and we found that most of them had been destroyed. Nothing is preserved." She explained that it was against this background that the group now thought of building a film village in Zaria. "We used local builders, and almost all of them are members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. We do not have the resources and that's why it has taken so long to complete the film. People make contributions, and they do this for Allah's sake without us paying them. They give their labour and all we have to do is provide the materials and they do the work. When they are doing the work, we provide food and drinks for them."

According to her in Zaria today the oldest building which people can easily identify, would be the Juma'a mosque opposite the Emir's palace, and she laments the poor sense of history which means that the ancient buildings are not preserved and have been sentenced to a form of slow extinction. She says that many of the actors and builders were trained on the job, and quite a number have acquired new skills and are very happy on this account. Dambo, the small Zaria community, is witnessing the resurrection of 19th century Hausa city before its very eyes.

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